by Nachiket Kelkar
“Sir, would you like some paan (betel leaf) or tambakhu (tobacco)?” The kind range forest officer was at the window of our white jeep, politely bending forward and completing the task of courtesy. As we thanked him and refused the offer, he tried again and then walked off to his own jeep. This was customary north Indian hospitality but this time with added reason. While starting from the guesthouse he had told our driver, a forest guard, “These ‘scientists’ have come all the way from Bangalore. Take good care and obey their orders well.” This was their way of taking the best care of us — making sure we got everything possible, from tea to paan and tambakhu .
This rather neglected Tiger Reserve of the Terai had been in a difficult situation for a long time, with many problems. This is a region along the Indo-Nepal border, with rampant poaching, tribal settlements inside the park, conflict because of man-eating by tigers, deliberate fires started by people, illegal cutting of firewood, lots of cattle-grazing and so forth. The wonderful grasslands of the Terai showed clear sings of buffalo grazing everywhere, with weeds proliferating between grass tussocks here and there, taking over these rich feeding grounds.
The situations were complex — for one, it was a huge task to move villagers from inside the park boundary to settle them outside, so that there is as little friction between people and wildlife as possible. The hospitality we were receiving from the officials was, obviously, to conceal this conflict-ridden landscape from us in the best possible way. We were really not used to the attention or to so many ‘attendants’, so everyone was awkwardly walking through the grassland savanna. Even the Nilgai feeding in the scrub gazed oddly at our procession, something they may have never witnessed before in the forest there.
And then there was some sound in the tall grass, a rustling as if an animal had just bolted away. But the forest trackers knew better; it was a woodcutter from the nearby village who had ventured into the forest illegally on that very day. The range officer, happy to seize the opportunity, ordered them to bring the man and give him a thrashing, which they did. The man begged the forest guards to stop beating him, and kept asking for forgiveness. We intervened and asked the forest guards to stop beating him up; they could always file charges or fine him later.
We were shocked by the incident. It was not the act of arresting the man, but of beating him just to create an impression on us. We could sense the tension even in the forest guards themselves. At least some of them were from villages inside the park, like this man. Their faces collectively told the story: nobody was really to blame, there was just poverty and desperation clashing with each other along a forest fence, in a sad moment.
By the time our jeeps reached a tiny village along the main road, it was past noon and the sun was burning hard. We were all hungry. And under a banyan tree that marked the village center, a hand-cart vendor stood, making some delicious, mouth-watering, scarlet, hot Jalebi s.
Hunger taking over, I just couldn’t resist the temptation and bought two dozen pieces of the wonderful sweetmeat for all of us. The woodcutter, who was still sitting with his face down, now looked up to see why the jeeps had stopped. His eyes lit up. I handed two jalebi s to him. The tension that had built up all this while vanished in a minute.
The guard asked the man where his village was and sent him off with a warning, after confiscating the firewood. Just two little Jalebi s worth one rupee had returned to a man his lost dignity, even if only for the time being.
Picture: Villagers need firewood to cook their meals because they cannot afford or access cooking gas. Often they depend on nearby forests to get it, but cutting wood in our forests is illegal. Credit: Nachiket Kelkar