Friday, May 24, 2013
Last Updated: 24 May 07:29 AM IST
27 July 2011
Whatever little reporting has been done on the tribals of Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia has suggested, as have a number of NGOs, that most of the Primitive Tribal Groups (PTGs) of Junglemahal had moved out of the area. This is but a figment of imagination.
The PTG population of Lodha and Sabar ~ the traditional dwellers of the deep forests of Nayagram, Keshiary, Narayangarh, Jhargram, Salboni, Binpur-I and Binpur-II ~ has not depleted. It is the community of Mahato ~ a class of affluent landowners ~ other than Santhals (tribals who have long graduated to agriculture and professional job from their traditional dependence on forest produce) who have fled the region. The PTGs ~ at the bottom of the pyramid ~ had simply nowhere to go and stayed back. Since the tribals have to venture deep into the forests to collect minor forest produce (MFP), they are subjected to frequent harassment by Maoists who use the deep forests to take cover. If that wasn’t enough, they are also beaten up by police bent on extracting information about Maoist hideouts. A major chunk of the population of Santhals and Mahatos have definitely shifted to the forest periphery and now regularly go to Burdwan and Bankura ~ towns reeling under a labour crisis ~ in search of work. But then, unlike the PTGs, they had seldom been entirely dependent on the forest and its produce for their sustenance.
Patta (title deed) distribution in Khajra, near Narayangarh, has created an unbridgeable divide between the Lodhas and the Santhals. The usually submissive Lodhas are angry over the fact that most of the Santhal (whom they consider representatives of a higher class) residents of the villages of Kharika, Ambisole, Rangiyam, Panchkahaniya, Chhota Khagri, Lokhiyasole, Mohul Danga and Palasia had been given pattas while their land rights have been ignored.
Lodhas have been in the focus of anthropologists and social activists. During the early days of colonial rule, the British government in India oppressed the tribals of Junglemahal, who were traditionally dependent on the forests for a living. Having been deprived of their livelihood and left without any alternative, they took to criminal activities and were subsequently branded a “criminal tribe”. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1952 repealed the notification but despite such denotification, communities of Lodhas and Birhors continue to be ostracised.
Panchu Bhokta, a member of the Trinamul Congress, had been particularly agitated when interviewed a month before the April-May 2011 Assembly election in West Bengal. He said: “The government has given pattas to Santhals who already possess large tracts of land. We have seen our ancestors toiling on the fields owned by Santhals for a handful of rice. Now, when the time has come for us to gain equality, the Santhals have yet again conspired to keep the powers to themselves.” He said both CPI-M and Trinamul candidates for the Assembly constituency had promised land rights to Lodhas, albeit to bag votes. “But we now know it was a lie. We had submitted claim forms but they were rejected. We do not know on what grounds,” he said. In Lokhiyasole village served by the Khajra gram panchayat, there are 75 families. Twenty-five families had submitted claim forms but only one claim was settled. The family that got the patta was close to the local CPI-M leader. The National Committee on Forest Rights Act, headed by Dr NC Saxena, reported cases wherein claims made by Lodhas in West Bengal were found to be mostly pending or rejected.
What has hurt the traditional forest dwellers most is the rampant destruction of forest cover, thanks to camps set up nearby by armed CPI-M goons when the Left Front was in power. Sunil Nayek and Benu Bhokta of Lokhiyasole, Khajra Gram Panchayat, said that no forest cover worth mentioning was left in the Khajra beat anymore. “Outsiders destroy our forests in connivance with the beat officer who is on the payroll of a sawmill located near the Keleghai river. The beat officer is also a CPI-M man. Even though a forest protection committee has been formed, it has never met. There have been incidents of violence when we tried to stop illegal felling and transportation of timber,” Sunil said. Benu said the patch of forest adjoining the Khajra beat office had been destroyed by the beat officer himself who facilitated the transportation of timber to his favourite sawmill. The head of the Bholabera gram panchayat in Belpahari and a CPI-M member, Nityanand Sabar, said: “We do not get any share of the trees felled in the forest. Every day, we see forest department officials ferry out saal timber by the truckful. We don’t know where the wood goes. We are not permitted to ask questions.”
Tribals living near the Jhilimili forest in Bankura, served by the Kathalia gram panchayat, said that forest department officials had promised all right to give them their share of 25 per cent of all trees felled in the forest but that was two years ago. “No one has visited us since. Once we petitioned the panchayat for a tubewell and the members called us Maoists,” said Kabu Munda, a resident of the village that survives on forest produce.
Long before the Peoples War Group (PWG) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) had merged to form CPI (Maoist), Maoist extremists tried to gain control of the tribal belt by demanding a raise in the minimum support price of minor forest produce such as saal leaves, kendu leaves, sabui or babui grass, mohua, to name a few, on which the economy of the region depends. Babui grass was sold at Re 1 a kg till 2004 when Maoists set afire a godown full of babui to create a crisis and ramp up the selling price. It sells for Rs 4 a kg now ~ still a pittance. The selling price of kendu leaves ~ used to wrap bidi ~ is a similar pittance of Rs 7 per bundle.
There are 21 large-size multipurpose co-operative societies in Midnapore West that deal with collection and marketing of non-timber forest produces (NTFPs), formerly known as minor forest produces (MFPs). Even though the co-operative system has largely weeded out middlemen and brokers, the fixed price of the produce remains low. Most of the times, the forest produce is procured from tribals at a very low price fixed randomly by contractors. When Mr Jairam Ramesh was the Union environment minister, he said that fixing a minimum support price (MSP) for minor forest produce such as bamboo and tendu or kendu leaves would wean away tribals from Maoists as it would give them more economic independence. He said an MSP would put an end to the widespread exploitation of tribals. Mr Ramesh said that since the educational and economic interests of the tribals fell in the purview of Schedule V of the Constitution, the Centre had the power to step in and introduce MSP for minor forest produce. The minister had even promised to take up the matter with Union finance minister Mr Pranab Mukherjee. But before one could hear more on that, Mr Ramesh was replaced by Mrs Jayanthi Natarajan.
Experts have pointed out that one of the “confidence building” measures adopted by Maoists was to negotiate with private contractors for “higher” selling price on behalf of tribals. Except, the “higher” price was nowhere near the respective minimum wages fixed by states. But, even then, the slight improvement in earnings ensured that the tribals felt “indebted” to Maoists. Some experts feel that Maoists used the opportunity to work out a deal with the contractors, thereby securing a revenue stream for themselves. While an MSP for minor forest produce could make a dent on this steady revenue stream, it has to be keenly administered.
The picture is different in the hilly terrains of Banspahari and Belpahari. Bablu Sabar, a resident of Pataghor, Belpahari, said that Maoists no longer “allowed” villagers to enter the forests to collect, like they have done for centuries, sabui grass, mohua and kendu leaves. He said, three years ago, when the villagers were on their way to the forest one morning, they saw posters written in red with the legend: “Do not dare to enter the forests”. Maoists have shut the villagers out as they use the forests to hide. But, if that is the case, why is indiscriminate mining allowed in the depths of Belpahari forests? In Khodra, Shorshabasha, Simulpal, Machkhadna, Godari, Bamundiha and Bamundiha, marble is extensively mined, mostly illegally. Owing to such widespread illegal extraction, subsidence and injury are reported frequently. Interestingly, in villages which enjoy a good rapport with Maoists, residents have free access to forest timber and MFP. In Moniati, Midnapore West, a known Maoist stronghold, most of the houses were stacked with timber. No claim forms had been submitted from these villages and the tribals seemed least bothered.
In West Bengal, survey of land and demarcation of boundaries is currently done by district-level committees and not the local gram sabha/forest rights committee as mandated by the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. This practice, which has no basis in law, lends itself to massive manipulation and denial of rights to the PTGs and traditional forest dwellers of India.
The writer is on the staff of The Statesman and has written the article under the aegis of a CSE Media Fellowship