SOS from Man­gar vil­lages

The vil­lagers are an­gry as they have no means of sus­te­nance and no in­come from agri­cul­ture

HT Estates - - HTESTATES - Payal Chawla

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.

Ar­chaic laws

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?

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