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Leopards Drove These Villagers Out of Homes. The Polls Were a Homecoming

Residents of the quaint Bhutiya Basti and Gangutia Basti in the Buxa Hills lived quiet lives. Until a directive from the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
The Bhutiya Basti village in the Buxa Hills and a wildlife warning. Photo: Joydeep Sarkar

Jayanti (Bengal): In the first phase of the Lok Sabha elections on April 21, villagers of the Bhutia Basti and Gangutia Basti in north Bengal returned home to vote. The residents who had lived there for generations had had to move because leopards had been seen in the area. Faced with escalating danger, this March, the National Tiger Conservation Authority took the decision to relocate several families.

Some took the compensation and have left the area for good. But for 73 families, their new home would be Bijoypur – 25 kilometres from Gangutia.

Here, even though they have received 5 decimals of land – a decimal is one-hundredth of an acre – the new residents have not been able to build new houses in this short time. Nor have they qualified as voters from local booths, because they have not stayed there for longer than six months. The ride on a bus – sponsored by the government – on election day signified their homecoming to Bhutia Basti and Gangutia Basti.

The Bhutia Basti and Gangutia Basti region beside the Jayanti river. Photo: Joydeep Sarkar

The villages are bordered by the forested Himalayas on one side and by a clear mountain river, the Jayanti, on the other. As villagers entered their old homes and haunts, anger and sorrow reflected the perennial tussle between humans and the wild.

Dombre Sonar is a senior citizen. “Because a tiger will live, we, poor people, cannot. This is the law of the land. Tell me, would the government have removed a rich person living here?” he asks.

The community are Nepali Bhutia and are recognised as tribal.

Structures being dismantled at Bhutia Basti. Photo: Joydeep Sarkar

According to the NTCA’s Status of Leopards in India 2022 report, the number of leopards is increasing in the country, with the most increase in north Bengal. In 2018, 83 leopards were counted in the area. In 2022, the count was 233. Forest officials have long since held that leopards have been venturing out of reserve forests. In the Buxa forests, especially, many leopards are seen outside the forest limits.

Local animal conservation activist Victor Basu says that between November and March, leopards venture into the canals of tea gardens so as to be able to give birth in peace.

The Buxa forest area has been dense for centuries. It is common lore that the British would leave political prisoners at the Buxa Fort, with the implicit knowledge that wild animals would kill them.

In 1983, the area beside the Jayanti river was developed for tourism. In 1982, 750 square kilometres of the Buxa region was demarcated as protected forest area. Dolomite mining, which had been rampant in the area, slowly petered out.

In 1993, the Jayanti flooded and a British-era railway bridge was washed away. Villagers moved out in large numbers but some stayed on. The villagers who have now had to leave had eked out a living by growing vegetables in their backyards.

Now, the Bhutia Basti and Ganutia Bastis are abandoned.

The Jayanti river. Photo: Joydeep Sarkar

Ajoy Roy, who owned a homestay at the Bhutia Basti, tells The Wire that tourism had been steady here. “Since around 2002, footfall had been steady. My homestay had been active for four years. Now I have closed it down due to the government directive,” he says.

Roy feels that attention needs to be paid to the Jayanti river too. It is drying, he says.

On the other side of the Jayanti river, towards the mainland, is Ayan Naidu and his family. He says that the government bungalows, schools and homestays in the area cannot be removed overnight. “Our connection with the river is that of the soul’s. But a lot of issues are afoot. The river is drying, the fear of CAA is looming and we have repeatedly raised the issue that the ecological balance here needs attention – it’s not just about the leopards,” he says.

Translated from the Bengali original by Soumashree Sarkar.

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