Forest Policy and Tribal Development


In 1974-1975, about 22 percent of India's total geographical area was covered by forests. This forest region, interspersed all over the country, consists of evergreen forests, deciduous forests, dry forests, alpine forests, riparian forests and tidal forests. Some of these forests are conspicuous for their dense growth. Besides the commercially valuable sal, teak, ironwood, sandalwood and shisam, these forests are rich in the growth of climbers (epiphyte) and various kinds of minor forest produce. While the forest-based industries have relief on the commercially valuable wood, the forest dwellers, a majority of whom are Scheduled Tribes, have depended on the minor forest produce for their subsistence.

According to the 1971 Census Report, a majority of the tribals lived in the countryside and relied mainly on agriculture. From an economic point of view, the tribes could be classified as semi-nomadic, the jhum cultivators and the settled cultivators, living completely on forest produce. Forests are the main source of subsistence for them. They collect their food from them; use the timber or bamboo to construct their houses; collect firewood for cooking and in winter to keep warm; use grass for fodder, brooms and mats; collect leaves for leaf plates; and use harre behra for dyeing and tanning. The forest regions are also inhabited by non-tribals, who depend on forests for fuel, fodder and so on.

This article will try to assess the nature and extent of forest dwellers' dependence on forests. To what extent does the forest policy implemented by different states and Union territories ensure that the basic needs of forest dwellers are met? How does the forest policy seek to improve the socioeconomic conditions of the forest dwellers?

Forest Policy

Before 1865, forest dwellers were completely free to exploit the forest wealth. Then, on 3 August 1865, the British rulers, on the basis of the report of the then-superintendent of forests in Burma, issued a memorandum providing guidelines restricting the rights of forest dwellers to conserve the forests. This was further modified in 1894. It stated that

The sole object with which State forests are administered is the public benefit. In some cases the public to be benefited is the whole body of tax payers; in others the people on the track within which the forest is situated; but in almost all cases the constitution and preservation of a forest involve, in greater or lesser degree, the regulation of rights and restriction of privileges of users in the forest areas which may have previously been enjoyed by the inhabitants of its immediate neighborhood. This regulation and restrictions are justified only when the advantage to be gained by the public is great and the cardinal principle to be observed is that the rights and privileges of individuals must be limited otherwise than for their own benefit, only in such degree as is absolutely necessary to secure that advantage.

In actual practice, however, all these pious declarations were set aside whenever they came in the way of British interests. For example, forests in Nagaland and the Terai were unscrupulously cut to meet the increasing demand of wood during both world wars. The National Forest Policy of the Government of India (1952) is an extension of this policy. This policy prescribed that the claims of communities near forests should not override the national interests, that in no event can the forest dwellers use the forest wealth at the cost of wider national interests, and that relinquishment of forest land for agriculture should be permitted only in very exceptional and essential cases. The old policy of relinquishing even valuable forests for permanent cultivation was discontinued and steps to use forest land for agricultural purposes were to be taken only after very serious consideration. To ensure the balanced use of land, a detailed land capability survey was suggested. Conservation of wildlife was to be regularized. The tribals were to be weaned away from shifting cultivation.

The concept of "national interest" has been applied in a narrow sense. A welfare state cannot have a basic contradiction between local and national interests. As the analysis that follows will show, in the implementation of the forest policy, "national interests" remained confined to augmenting revenue earnings from the forests. Whenever the interests of the local people or ecological considerations hampered possible revenue from forests, the forest department pushed them aside on the pretext of broader national interest.

Forest dwellers have been dissociated from the management and exploitation of forest wealth. The British contractual system that still exists in many states has resulted in unscrupulous exploitation of the local people and of the natural vegetation and wildlife that the forest policy was intended to conserve. Development programs - construction of roads and availability of educational, medical and housing facilities - have allowed economically viable outsiders to enter forest regions. In order to make quick profits, they have exploited the forest dwellers, displacing them from their land and making them bonded laborers.

Except for the states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tripura, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Goa, Daman and Diu, the government has been earning huge net forest revenues. Over the years, this revenue has been increasing. On the other hand, except in a few places, the condition of the forest dwellers has been deteriorating. The government's various development programs and the tribal welfare schemes have by and large failed to make any dent in the deteriorating condition of the forests and forest dwellers. The crux of the problem lies in misdirected policy and its half-hearted implementation.

Restrictions on Forest Dwellers

The backbone of forest dwellers' economy is the vegetation found in the nearby forests. But the forest dwellers' rights to collect fuel, fodder and minor forest produce are very restricted. (In Arunachal Pradesh, the tribals have special rights to collect all forest produce and hunt and fish freely in all forests, whether reserved or unclassified. This concession is not found anywhere else). In almost all states, forest dwellers can collect forest produce, either free or at concessional rates, only from protected and unclassified forests. Even these are not legal rights, but are subject to various government restrictions and regulations. These facilities can even be terminated if the capacity of forests does not permit the exercise of the right. The right holders are also obligated to help the forest department prevent and fight forest fires and to help the staff in connection with forest offenses.

In West Bengal, since Independence, forests have been the bone of contention between the forest department and the forest dwellers, most of whom are tribals. In forest dwellers contend that they, by virtue of being native people, have the right to use forest trees for their livelihood. One of their complaints is the cattle trenches dug around the forest areas prevent the free flow of water into their arable land. They were charged high rates for permits to collect minor forest produce, especially tussar cocoons. Grazing has been prohibited and their agricultural land has been recorded as forest land in the recorder of rights; later the tribals were asked to vacate the land. The forest department, on the other hand, blames the tribals for wanton and indiscriminate destruction of wilds vegetation and wildlife, sand urges the restriction of their rights over the forests. The tribal welfare department, while conceding the need to preserve the forest, says that the tribals do have special claims over the forests and forest produce.

A government study team found the attitude of the forest department in many states to be one of callousness, indifference and neglect toward tribals. For example, the forest department in Karnataka (then Mysore), in its enthusiasm to set up a game sanctuary in the state, drove out the local inhabitants without making alternate arrangements for their resettlement. The intervention of the social welfare department was of no avail. The roads constructed in reserved forests by the social welfare department of the state for the benefit of the tribals, on the express understanding that they would be maintained by the forest department, have been badly neglected. The forest department must be persuaded with great difficulty to release water from tanks lying in reserved forests for irrigating the tribal areas lower down.

In Andhra Pradesh, too, extensive areas under cultivation were being converted into reserved forests. The forest department has extended its boundaries almost to the doorstep of many tribal villages, instead of leaving open a strip, at least one kilometer in width, between the villages and the forest boundary. Areas were also included in the forests which had no tree growth at all and heavy fines were being imposed on tribal encroachers.

In Tamil Nadu (then Madras), the study team found discrimination against tribals but not non-tribals in Wenlock Down. The latter were given land on pattas (land titles) either permanently or for long periods, but the Todas - local inhabitants - received only annual cultivation permits. The study team also noted that extensive areas now classified as forests were under unauthorized cultivation. Without rights of ownership, the tribals could not undertake soil conservation measures. Moreover, the forest department's practice of serving eviction notices to tribal encroachers and fining them operated as a great hardship to the tribals. Finally, the study team observed that tree pattas, which entitle the holder to the use of the fruits of trees, were issued in Coimbatore district to non-tribals living far away from the tribal settlements, in respect to mango and tamarind trees in the tribal villages.

O.P. Arya, in his interview with the officials of the forest department, voluntary agencies and forest dwellers, has tried to show the "bitter relationship between the forest administration and the local populace." The divisional forest officer he interviewed was "critical about the attitude of tribals toward the forest." His view was confirmed by the collector and the charge officer. On the other hand, the people - about 80 percent - complained during the field survey about harassment by the forest officials. The privileged ones, however, had good rapports with the forest department. The Irish missionary stationed in the area who, according to the author, gave "a very impartial view of the whole problem," said that "the forester used to take a lot of benefits from the tribals of the village. Some of them used to be employed in the forest and were paid much less than government rates. He used to take gifts in kind, too." Since the villagers depend solely on forests for their livelihood, the forester behaves like a ring-master and makes them do what he desires.

Exploitation of Forest Dwellers

The various kinds of restrictions imposed on the forest dwellers virtually put them at the mercy of the forest department, especially lower-level functionaries. Illiteracy and poor economic conditions make them even more vulnerable. In some areas in Andhra Pradesh, the forest guards have their cut of minor forest produce earnings, and in some areas the tribals are often made to work without pay. In spire of the rest houses spread all over the block, the forest rangers or high level functionaries could not find it convenient to inspect the area. This is not an isolated instance. The IAS probationers, during their survey of socioeconomic conditions of tribals in different states, noted different modes of exploitation by the forest guards and other lower-level functionaries who were invariably in league with the patwari and the local police constable.

Forest dwellers have also become victims of the commercial exploitation of the forest. Since British rule, contractors have employed the forest dwellers to do unskilled jobs for low wages and in appalling conditions. In the late 1940s, Symington recommended the association of local inhabitants in the exploitation of forest produce. In 1946-1947, the Forest Labour Societies were initiated by B.G. Kher in the then Bombay state. The purpose of the Forest Labour Societies was "not only to give the Adivasi labourers full wages along with a share in the profit, but also to train them gradually to take up the responsibility of conducting forest and other business by their cooperative efforts."

The Bombay state experiment was complemented in the First Five Year Plan. The Second Five Year Plan recommended the establishment of Forest Labour Societies in an increasing number in all states. It recognized that "the manner in which the forest resources are exploited has a great deal of bearing on their welfare. In many ways the penetration of forest contractor into tribal economy has been harmful" (Govt. of India 1956). The Third Five Year Plan stated that "development of forestry and forest industries is also essential for raising the income of the tribal people who live in the forest areas" (Govt. of India 1961).

The Working Group of Welfare of Backward Classes for the Fourth Plan stated that the manner in which the existing forest policy is understood and implemented had placed the tribals completely at a disadvantage (Govt. of India 1967). The Resolution of the Central Board of Forestry reiterated replacing the contractors with Forest Labour Cooperatives. Gradually, the Forest Labour Cooperatives were set up in most of the states. But the contractual system of exploitation has not yet been rooted out. The Union Minister for Agriculture, Rao Birendra Singh, promised in the Parliament to end the contractual system of exploitation of forest wealth within three years. In fact, the forest dwellers' share as wage earners in cutting, logging and loading was significantly less than the ruling market price. The forest dwellers can gain from the forest wealth only when they are involved in its processing through cooperatives.

The forest department also employs laborers for a variety of tasks such as road repair, road making and silviculture operations. Workers are also employed for departmental construction - building bridges, culverts and causeways. This gives much needed additional income to the tribals.

With the expansion and development of forest-based industries, the demand for the exploitation of minor forest produce has increased. Unlike the major forest produce, minor forest produce in several states is collected by the government agencies and in others by businesspeople. Both the forest department and businesspeople are exploiters. In Madhya Pradesh, trade in tendu, patta, timber, gum, harra, bamboo, sal seeds and khair is nationalized. The payment of wages in the collection of tendu leaves is on the basis of number of bundles collected. The rate per bundle is different in the bordering states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. For example, when in Uttar Pradesh the rate was higher by 20 paise (US 20) per bundle, a person could not collect more than two bundles a day. Just to earn 40 paise (US 4c) more, the tendu leaf collectors in Madhya Pradesh used to walk 12-20 miles during the night and sell the bundles in Uttar Pradesh anon.

In Orissa, the forest department has taken over the collection of tendu leaves. The forest region is classified into subdivisions and ranges. Each range has about 10 collection centers from which pluckers receive 10 paise (US 1c) for leaves. In this way the government earned annually Rs 44 million (US $3.4 million) or royalty, and the Forest Corporation a profit of Rs. 20 million (US $1.5 million). But this profit had been made at the cost of the tribals.

Where the minor forest produce is not nationalized, businesspeople exploit the forest dwellers. In the Uttarakhand region in Uttar Pradesh, contractors employed local people at nominal wages, but made huge profits themselves. In Chamoli district the Dashauli Gram Swarajya Sangh intimidated the local people about the prevailing market prices of the different herbs and mushrooms they had collected, and advised them to sell their herbs rather than collect them at nominal wage for the contractor.

Some tribal regions have no regular market. At the weekly mandis (marketplaces), private wholesale dealers buy the minor forest produce at very low rates and sell them at huge profits in the cities. Many times they pay the tribals in advance and later buy their goods at nominal costs. Since most of the tribals do not know how to count, the price that is promised often does not correspond to the amount they actually receive. Generally, the trader is a moneylender, too, who buys the produce from the tribals as repayment of a debt, but at incredibly low prices. The Tribal Development Corporations, Forest Corporations and some other cooperative agencies have taken up the sale of some produce, but the moneylender-cum-trader has yet to be eliminated by them.

Development Programs and Forest Dwellers

In the successive development programs for the forest regions, top priority is accorded to the development of transport and communication facilities so that education, health, land colonization, housing, development of horticulture, animal husbandry and cooperative schemes could be initiated in the region, bringing the forest dwellers into the mainstream of nation development. In actual practice, these priorities have brought non-tribal traders and settlers into the forest regions. These outsiders cheat the forest dwellers in the sale of forest produce, give them loans at exorbitant rates and then grab their land and turn them into bonded laborers.

A pertinent comparison could be drawn between Manipur ant Tripura. In Manipur, as the study team noted, "there have hardly been any cases of transfer of land from tribals to non-tribals in the tribal areas." However, the team feared that "with the construction of roads and provision of adequate means of communication and the acceleration of development activities in the tribal areas, there is likely to be some pressure of non-tribals on the tribals who will have to depend on the non-tribals for their daily needs of consumer goods and the like". In Tripura, on the contrary, the team noticed large-scale transfers of tribal land to non-tribals, with the result that the tribals were becoming landless and their economic condition was quickly deteriorating.

The fruits of the development plans initiated by the central as well as the different state governments could not reach the local people, because these plans were not based on the perceived needs of the people. The study team, during its tour of various states, observed that development schemes failed because the planners did not take into account the stage of development of the tribes for whom the schemes were intended or the conditions in the areas where they were to be implemented.

Another weak point in the development plans is the division between the general plans and special tribal development plans. Experience has shown that development plans in states such as Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal, where they were meant for the tribals only, have had considerable le impact on the tribal economy. On the other hand, in provinces where the general programs were combined with tribal development programs, there is no conscious attempt to ensure that the tribals derive a reasonable share of benefit from the general development programs. Only the development programs meant for the Scheduled Tribes, which are in fact meant to supplement the benefits derived from development schemes under the General Sector, are treated as programs meant exclusively for the tribals.

Huge amounts have been spent on land colonization schemes in different states. But because of bureaucratic red tape, inadequate facilities for land reclamation, soil conservation, the lack of irrigation facilities and job opportunities in the colonies, and the exploitation of tribals by go-betweens, these schemes have by and large failed. These colonies should be in line with the customs, habits, religious practices and beliefs of the forest dwellers. Otherwise as the experiment of the imposed development of the Veddas - a tribe of Sri Lanka - has shown, these various schemes would only worsen the condition of forest dwellers.

In some states, where hydroelectric projects or mining operations have been set up, tribals are displaced on a large scale. Gujarat is the only state where the study team expressed satisfaction over the resettlement of the displaced people. On the other hand, in Bihar, in Singhblum and Ranchi districts, a large number of tribals were displaced to make way for heavy industries. In Rajasthan, the agricultural land of the forest dwellers was acquired by the government in the Udaipur and Durgapur regions to construct some irrigation and mining projects. As in Bihar, tribals were paid in cash for land, and they used it for nonproductive purposes. The study team suggested that the government take advance action to ascertain the extent of displacement of tribals, and draw up a comprehensive program for rehabilitating displaced families.

In Orissa, Assam and Madhya Pradesh, tribals have been displace due to the reclamation of land in the tribal belt to resettle refugees from Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). The governments of these states, in settling refugees, gave them certain facilities that were denied to the local people. For example, in resettling refugees under the Dandakaranya Project, refugees were given twice the compensation as that of tribals. The tribals were not given medical facilities, nor were cooperative arrangements made for the supply of improved seed. The procedure for releasing money to tribals was so cumbersome that by the time they got the money, the reclaimed land was overgrown. The plight of tribals in Assam is similar. In many cases tribals were forcibly evicted to settle the immigrants from East Pakistan. In the absence of any means of livelihood, the tribals have begun migrating to other states. Those who remain in their native places are exploited by the displaced persons.

Ecological Problems

India's national forest policy has not been successful in protecting the ecosystem. According to a UN estimate, 50 percent of the total land area in India is seriously affected by water and wind erosion. The displacement of fertile soil is estimated to be around 6 billion tons a year, thus depriving the country of a vast amount of total plant nutrients. About 4 million hectares of land are in ravines and eroding along mountain roads, causing frequent landslides. According to the UN estimate, the siltation rate of different rivers and water reservoirs varies from 150 to 500 acre feet per 100 square miles. Of the total catchment area of about 77.5 million hectares of 30 major river valley projects, nearly 11.6 million hectares require conservation treatment on a priority basis. At the same time, the area of sand cover in Rajasthan is reported to have increased by 18 percent since the early 1960s. Besides population increase, modern agricultural techniques also seem to have contributed to this process of desertification.

It is because of such gigantic devastation that there is widespread demand for imposing a ban on tree felling There are reported to be about 500 central and state acts of legislation relating to environmental issues. Some fundamental changes have been proposed in the national forest policy. Thus the focus seems to be on the conservation of nature, which in turn implies increasing restrictions on the local people.

The past experience shows that the forest policy seeks to protect forest wealth from forest dwellers, not from the unscrupulous contractors. In estimating the loss caused by the disturbance of the ecosystem, the dangers posed to the lives and economy of forest dwellers by floods and landslides are ignored. The afforestation program gives top priority to quick-growing species that can be used as raw material for forest-based industries. Even ecological considerations are often overlooked.

On the other hand, the movements by the forest dwellers - Chipko, Bhoomi Sena, Silent Valley Movement, Jharkhand Movement - are insisting on a planned strategy incorporating the needs of the local ecology, local economy and the national interests. Only a people-oriented forest policy and development strategy will be able to bring the forest dwellers in the mainstream of national life without adversely affecting the ecosystem.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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