SOS from Mangar villages
The villagers are angry as they have no means of sustenance and no income from agriculture
Irecently had the opportunity to visit the Mangar village and meet the local populace. The area is breathtakingly beautiful. From the top of the little hill, you will see a majestic mountain and below this lies the larger expanse of the flat area, comprising of just farmhouses, with the rural populace confined to a cluster of row housing at the margin. The villagers are angry and their anger is not misplaced.
They have no means of sustenance, with no income being derived from agriculture, they have taken to alternate means of livelihood like rearing cattle and becoming drivers. Those who are lucky have jobs with public sector undertakings. Because mining is banned, no part of the proceeds are available for payment to the villagers, nor is there any employment available for them. I want to clarify that this article by no means is a call to begin mining in the area. I bring up mining only to drive home the point that sustenance is a major issue for the villagers of Mangar. Without mining, the only other means of sustenance for them was agriculture, but because of the restriction on cultivating cultivable land, that option too was closed. On non-cultivable land there are restrictions on breaking rock, due to which development in the area has also not taken place.
With no other option, they have been selling their land for a song. They aspire for an education for their children... but they have no help.
The Indian forests’ tryst with history began with the Charter of Indian Forestry in 1855. The colonial policy of the British regarding Indian forests was simply to control the timber trade. The first legislation came in the form of the Indian Forest Act, 1865. With the passing of this Act, the British acquired forests ostensibly for building a railway network. It became the precursor to taking complete control of the forests and this Act was quickly replaced by the Forest Act of 1878. The Act of 1878 was harsh and it eliminated rights of the local communities over the forests in its entirety. The legislation of 1878 was promulgated by the British, despite the warnings of the Madras government on the alienation of the rural rights, as they viewed the forests as ‘the right of conquest’. The total control of the forest and its timber was complete with the promulgation of the 1878 Act.
In contrast though, was the First Forest Policy which was enunciated shortly after in 1894 and was based on a 1893 report on the improvement of Indian agriculture. The forest policy spoke of the need to put permanent cultivation before forestry and unequivocally stated that no restriction would be placed on local demands merely to increase state revenue. However imperialist considerations overrode the environmental/tribal concerns of the then Indian col- ony. It is therefore no surprise that the Indian Forests Act, 1927, appoints the forest administration as the sole protector of the forests while everyone else is considered a trespasser. This law is still in force. It remains the major reason of strife between the administration and local people.
Timber trade and forests
Post independence, the 1894 policy was replaced by the 1952 policy, which was primarily dictated by India’s need to industrialise. Timber and its production were, therefore, the primary focus of this policy. National interest was pegged above the local user. However, the policy did still require 33% land of the country to be used for forests; the need for wildlife conservation and creation of village forests. This policy dictated control of all forests, including those in private ownership.
Alienation of the rural poor from the surrounding forests was a direct fallout of this policy and the National Commission on Agriculture Research, 1976 was rightly scathing of it and its implementation. The 1970s saw the emergence of Sunderlal Bahuguna and his ecological path- breaking activism, the Chipko movement. Many may recall March 26, 1974, when a group of women in Chamoli district of the now Uttarakhand, stood up to contractors hugging trees and not allowing them to be cut. The standoff lasted a week, with the contractors finally caving in. This action became the precursor of a country-wide movement in the 1980s.
These movements brought the focus on to the rights of the indigenous rural people, their dependence on the forest and the their role, particularly the role of the women in the protection of forest. It dawned on the powers to be that the inclusion of the rural poor within the forest was a co-dependent essentiality for the survival of both the rural poor as well as the forest. The enemy was within, the large-scale felling of timber by controlled administration. This forced the change of the policy regime to be participatory rather than policing. The Forest Conservation Act, 1980, was enacted against this backdrop, with a view to check further deforestation.
The forest department was relieved from the control of the ministry of agriculture in 1985 and came under the control of the ministry of environment and forests. The pendulum of objectives now swung from revenue to conservation of forests.
Thankfully, the 1988 policy spoke of inter-dependency. Its objectives included the maintenance of environment stability, ecological restoration through preservation, enhancement of forest cover in the demand and degraded land, to meet requirements of the tribal people, increase forest productivity to meet various needs. The policy spoke of joint management of forest involving village and rural population together with farm-forestry and agro-forestry schemes on private land; the need for the protection of rural sustenance as part of traditional rights and concessions. The participatory recognition was stamped in 1990 when the ministry of environment and forests provided guidelines for involving the village communities in the regeneration of degraded forests.
Conservation vs rural poor
It is evident that the legislature and judiciary have over the years done much to juxtapose the discrepant needs of conservation of the ecology, industrialisation and the sustenance needs of the rural poor. I recognise this is an arduous task, but all the same the plight of the villagers of Mangar is a reality too. It is important to remember that this land is privately owned. In terms of the judgement of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the matter of TN Godavarman Thirumulkpad Vs. Union Of India & Or, in 1996, even private owned land came within the ambit of the definition of forest and no non-forest activity is permitted thereon, and can only be undertaken with the prior written approval of the Central government. While it makes conversationalists happy that the land is declared a forest, that’s all it does for conservation. A large section of land in the Mangar area is arid. On this land no rock is permitted to be broken. Cultivable land is not permitted to be cultivated. The area, albeit beautiful, is by no means a forest, all it has is shrubs. Further, despite the declaration the government has not acquired the land, and therefore no compensation has been paid to the villagers. With no means of sustenance, no compensation, no employment, were the villagers left with any choice but to sell their land?