In an unfortunate incident at Melghat Tiger Reserve where many Government department staff were grievously wounded and prime tiger habitat set fire to by an angry mob, it was the timely support from the police department and district administration that helped prevent further damage.
On the 15th of January 2019, around 300-500 villagers who had voluntarily resettled outside Melghat during 2011-12 and 2014-15 entered the core area of the tiger reserve at Kelpani illegally, demanding additional compensation and facilities that were not part of the original Rs 10 lakh compensation package that they had agreed to and accepted.
In previous conversations they had had with the forest department, it was clearly communicated that this was an issue that could only be resolved at the highest levels of the state government. A petition from the villagers was pending with the state government at the time of this incident.
The Forest Department, Police and the District Administration collaborated very closely to try and resolve the situation peacefully, engaging in talks with the villagers between the 14th and the 22nd of January. Because of the very real threat to life, the forest department had reached out to the Police and District Administration for support. The police responded with two companies of the State Reserve Police Force (SRPF) and the District Collector also came to speak with the villagers.
On the 22nd of January, when the villagers understood that their demands would not be met and the Forest Department started seizing their weapons, they began attacking the officials with chilli powder, stones, slingshots and axes. In the ensuing attack, several officials were seriously injured with axe cuts to their backs, elbows and heads. The police lobbed tear gas to disperse the crowd in an operation where no villagers were hurt.
Several government vehicles were attacked including the vehicle of the DCF Akot, Mrs. T Beula. The villagers also set fire to meadows in the core area that had only just started recovering and are prime tiger habitat.
Most of the villagers escaped, but a handful were apprehended and are currently in custody. The Bombay Police Act 1951 Sec 37 1 (3) has now been imposed. The situation on ground is peaceful and an investigation is underway.
According to DCF Akot, Mrs. T Beula, this was a gross violation of the sanctity of the tiger reserve with major damage done to the core area and prime tiger habitat. Especially when it was repeatedly communicated that the decisions required to meet the villagers’ demand could only be taken at the highest levels of the state government, for which there was a due process.
The DCF noted that even though the incident was unfortunate, it was handled well and showcased very good collaboration between government agencies on the ground. She said that special credit goes to Mr. Somay Munde, SDPO Dharni (in charge) and his team, for their handling of the situation in the field. This was a scenario where the Police Department and District Administration responded quickly and effectively to support the Forest Department in dealing with a very difficult situation.