The Politics of Cultural Change

Sunrise in Aamli
Sunrise in Aamli

The day begins with a cup (or sometimes two) of chai, followed by the 2 kilometer walk to the school. During the morning assembly, the students are encouraged to announce news from the village. “We’re plastering our roof,” one child stands up and announces. “Our neighbor got new slippers for fifty rupees,” another tells us.

I’ve shifted to Aamli, a village right near Girirajpura, where one of Gramin Shiksha Kendra’s five schools is located. I’m here for a month to collect narratives on the area and prepare workshops with the children of the Girirajpura school.

There’s been an evolution to my project. After meeting with my mentors in Delhi two weeks ago, it was decided that my deliverable will be an exhibit on the area. The exhibit will be driven by the children—we’ll do workshops to train them to document and think about how they can portray local history and culture. The exhibit is going to focus on people’s relationships with the forest—within the context of the past, present, and future. The materials will reflect the children’s understanding of these relationships.

I’ve seen several exhibits and festivals since arriving in India. One exhibit, an exhibit on pastoralism in Delhi, deftly navigated discussions of rural livelihoods with both rural and urban attendees, and ensured that pastoralists themselves defined the discussions at the exhibit. I was disconcerted, though, by a festival in Sawai Madhopur that claimed to present local culture but instead primarily focused on the importance of the national park and dismissed local community members as destructive to the area. More destructive, some hoteliers and conservationists claimed at the festival, than the tourist industry itself.

For my project, I am focusing on the communities connected to two of the schools: Girirajpura and Jaganpura. These two areas have been impacted by the same park—the Ranthambore National Park—in very different ways. The villages around Jaganpura (and I’ll expand on this further in my following blog post) have witnessed the tourist industry expand first hand. Hotels have mushroomed around the park—often directly in the villages. While these hotels sometimes hire locals, they are primarily run by outsiders. They also often take up valuable grazing land that could be used by those living in the villages.

In contrast, Girirajpura is 40 kilometers away from the Jaganpura school, far removed from the tourist industry. Yet they have very much been impacted by the expansion of the Ranthambore National Park. Girirajpura is a relocated village. It is composed of two villages—Mordungri and Pathra—that used to exist within the perimeters of what is now the tiger park. In an attempt to free the tiger habitat of all human activities, forest officials have been relocating villages located in the forest. Mordungri and Pathra are two of those villages.

The official line is that these relocations are voluntary. Between 2007-2011, the forest department offered families in Mordungri a cash settlement package of Rs. 10 lakh per family. 95 out of the 125 households in Mordungri accepted this package. The remaining 28, however, refused—instead, asking for land for agriculture and homestead in lieu of a cash package. During this time, the forest department placed pressure on those very families to accept the package—imposing heavy fines for grazing, impounding their cattle, and barricading entry routes to the villages. Eventually, however, the forest department relented and selected a site for relocation. In 2012, those 28 families relocated to the site—now Girirajpura.

Pathra was initially relocated in 2002—to an area in Khandar block. However, the agricultural land provided to the families there was not fertile and in 2011, 19 families from Pathra shifted to Girirajpura.

The change that has occurred for the lifestyles of the relocated families is titanic. The families from Mordungri and Pathra are Gujjars—pastoralists who once kept as many as 50-100 buffaloes per household. In Girirajpura, they are agriculturalists—although this is not their expertise—and families can only keep 2-3 cattle because of lack of grazing ground.

And then there is the question of land ownership. The agricultural land the families were given has not been transferred to their names. As a result, they are unable to utilize government agricultural schemes such as Kisaan credit card services, land leveling and fencing schemes, and subsidized seeds and fertilizer. Community members have approached forest officials—both at the central and district level—to try to resolve the issue, but they have been sent back and forth, with no result.

I tell you all this because I want to highlight that cultural change can be political. When I started this fellowship, I knew that I would be documenting culture in the Sawai Madhopur area, attempting to preserve what is being lost. I was vaguely aware that there was a tiger park in the area. What I didn’t realize was how much this park—how much external forces—were playing a role in rapid change of people’s lifestyles. Of course, culture isn’t static (and we shouldn’t expect it to be or romanticize it as such). But here, there are a series of injustices occurring that are disrupting people’s lives, resulting in rapid shift of cultural practices.

Which brings me to the other questions I’ve been thinking about. Obviously conservation is important—but how does one navigate the need for conservation of an animal like say, the tiger, with the rights of those living in the habitats of those animals? I’ve been reading a lot on human-wildlife conflict and I’m not even sure that relocation is necessary—to what extent do communities living in the forest actually exert pressure on the forest? What about the (thriving) tourist industry and the pollution it produces in the area? What should their responsibility be? One of the authors I’ve most enjoyed reading makes the point that perhaps those least responsible for degradation of the forest—those living there (less responsible because they do not use gas, electricity etc.) are the ones paying the steepest price. And they are being made to pay the price by people who perhaps are more responsible for degradation of the forest—people who extensively consume electricity, gas, water etc. and leave a greater carbon footprint.

If you’d like to learn more about this, I’d recommend you check out “Relocation Farce-Only Promises: Some Villagers Want Out, Others Fight It Out.[1] It was published in Down to Earth in 2005 as part of a feature on Whose Park is it Anyways? Which I would also recommend checking out (although I believe it is not readily available online). For further—more general—information on human wildlife conflict, I’d suggest you look up Mahesh Rangarajan. He has some fantastic pieces on human-wildlife conflict and environmental history in India.  [2]

Special thanks to co-worker Anjali Aggarwal for providing me with a history of the Girirajpura area.

[1] Down to Earth. “Relocation Farce – Only Promises: Some Villagers Want Out, Others Fight It Out.” Whose Park Is It Anyways? 15 Dec 2005. Retrieved from:

[2] For example: Saberwal, Vasant and Mahesh Rangarajan. Battles over Nature: Science and the Politics of Conservation. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2009.  Or: Rangarajan, Mahesh and K Sivaramakrishnan. Shifting Ground: People, Animals, and Mobility in India’s Environmental History. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Avital loved staying in India before and finds it an incredible and fascinating country. She is excited to be challenged and to learn from India, while gaining experience on the ground, learning from the people at her host organization and the other fellows to translate skills she has gained into development in India. She is excited to be challenged to think differently and to grow. Through this fellowship, Avital wants to get a better understanding of development in India and learn what skills that she can best contribute to development, build new ones and broaden her understanding of development and India. Her study of Hindi, past experience of living in India and her experience of having to move rapidly between multiple roles and requirements while working at a startup are few experiences that Avital feels would help her in this fellowship.

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