A WHOLE NEW ECONOMY
Sheopur district, and in particular Karahal block where Kuno National Park is located, is one of the most economically and socially backward areas—not just of Madhya Pradesh, but also of the country. Around a quarter of its population belongs to the Sahariya community, which is classified as a ‘particularly vulnerable tribal group’. Agriculture is the mainstay of the district’s economy; manufacturing and tertiary sectors have a negligible contribution.
“There are no industries in the region and land holdings are extremely fragmented. Those who migrate for work get only menial jobs as they don’t possess any skills,” says Hazrat Yadav, 50, of Sesaipura, the village nearest to the national park. The arrival of cheetahs could change that, at least as far as the hospitality sector is concerned, he believes.
And a change is visible: there is a sudden rush for land. Tribals own most of the tracts in the area, and law restricts the transfer of ownership to non-tribals. Thus, prices being quoted for a few tracts that are free from such encumbrances have gone up by three to four times. Among those interested are hoteliers in Rajasthan’s Ranthambore, located merely 120 kilometres from Kuno, who feel the two reserves could develop into a booming tourism circuit in future. “Not a day passes when someone from Rajasthan doesn’t come to Sesaipura looking for land. People are quoting Rs 15 lakh per bigha for their tracts, up from Rs 4 lakh,” says Dharmendra Vishwakarma, a small farmer in the village.
To make up for the lack of private non-tribal land, the government has identified two parcels of 14 hectares each and one of 6 hectares for allotment on long lease around Sesaipura. The MP
Tourism Board is already organising visits for the interested groups. “A new big cat specie arouses a lot of interest. If the introduction of cheetahs proves successful, it will be a matter of just a few years before Kuno becomes a major tourist destination,” says Manav Khanduja of Pugdundee Safaris that has also shown interest in setting up a property near the national park.
Jinesh Jain, 52, who has set up a 16-room resort, says: “While challenges remain in running the property, the buzz around the cheetah will add to the business.” His property employs 28 people, most of whom are from the Sahariya community, engaged in housekeeping.
To ensure the locals get ample job opportunities, CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan, in his recent visit to Palpur, announced the setting up of a skill development centre in Sheopur for “training the youth for tourism”.