Forest Dwellers Have Lost Their Forests

Janajati–Heading Towards Extinction?

Sukanta Sarkar

JANAJATI. They are described variously as adivasis or indigenous people. The Bharatiya Janata Party would like call them Vanabasi though they are no longer in ‘Van’ [forest]. Many sociologists think the term adivasi is not accurate. They opine that the word Janjati is more appropriate carrying the correct meaning. However, Adivasis or Janajatis whatever they are called are mainly forest dwellers. The forest is their world. The forest is their life. The forest is their god. This Jungle-dependent people have been living in the forest for thousands of years. Although they satiated their hunger by hunting animals and the fruits from the forest, they did not harm the forest; rather, they have been protecting the forest for thousands of years. It is not wrong to say that they are the natural appendages of the forest like the plants, animals and birds of the forest. Like plants, animals and birds, these people are also good at living in forests. They are part of the nature.

It is their innate nature to cut forest trees and build houses with tree wood and leaf canopy as well as nurture the seedlings born in the forest. It is not possible to say exactly when the people came out of the cave and settled in the forest, but it is easy to say when the people of this Janajati started to be chased out of the forest. Ever since the so-called 'civilised' people began to understand the financial importance of forests, the plan or conspiracy to uproot the people of Janajati from the forest started. At first these outsiders entered the forest to hunt and cut trees. The Janajatis or the forest dwellers did not take kindly to it. Initially they tried to resist these outsiders. But, the arrows of the Janajati succumbed to the sharp weapons of civilised men and later to the guns. So far, however, there has not been much uprooting of people from the forest. After that, the civilised people went on the path of forest clearing to increase the cultivated land, and little by little, the people of the Janajati started to be uprooted from their traditional habitat. After a few hundreds of years, people discovered that the soil where forest resources are standing, in many places, there is a huge quantity of various kinds of mineral deposits beneath the soil. So, the destruction of forest started in earnest to exploit the earth. Thousands of Janajati people started to be uprooted from the forest. In this way the state took possession of the forest. Soon the state took away the forest completely from the Janajati. The owner of the forest is now the state and by law, the original people of the land of the forest for thousands of years have been banned from entering the forest.

Where will the people of Janajati go? They lost their normal livelihood. In the eyes of the state, they started living illegally in the forest and on the land adjacent to the forest. People of Janajati cannot think of separating their lives from the forest. What will they eat when they come out of the forest? Their food is not in the list of so-called civilised people's food items. Their ancestors never farmed. Farming tradition is not in their blood and culture. On top of that, they have no land for living and farming! Yet, the state said, 'The land is mine. The forest is mine. You cannot enter the forest for hunting or for taking fruits, honey’. But who will teach these forest dwellers farming and where will they cultivate? The state did not make any clear arrangements for it. A small part of these people started working as agricultural labourers on other people's land due to the urge of stomach. Later, a small part of them did some farming work on their own. But the vast majority of these people have not been able to achieve it even today. Even today these people eke out a living by clandestinely sneaking into the jungle. However, that life is not the life they are used to or want, it is lifeless, rhythmless, just living for the sake of living.

This is the condition of most of the Janajati people of this country. Before independence, the British rulers identified many of these ethnic groups as 'crime-prone' and dubbed them criminal tribes. Later, after the independence of the country, the notorious Act was withdrawn and some tribes were denotified. But in many cases, there was no significant change in the views of the administrative officers of the independent India. Although several cheeky assurances have been mentioned in the government policy document, in reality it has not been reflected in the lives of the majority of the Janajati people of the country. There was no government initiative to implement it. The government schemes of imparting technical training to these people in various livelihoods including farming remains on paper. The Forest Rights Act, 2006 vests the 'Bon Sangsad' with the final decision on forest matters. Bon Sangsad is supposed to be run by forest dwellers, but in actual practice, it is not seen anywhere. Recently, the central government amended that law and took away this right of the forest dwellers.

In this situation, some voluntary and social organisations have been able to involve the people of various Janajati communities in agriculture in some places, from providing training in farming to local irrigation with seeds. Yes, the number is definitely not worth mentioning that way. However, Janajati people who have received training are producing well. But, where are they growing? They don't even have a single parcel of land to call their own. Some people of the tribe are cultivating in the degraded land left by the forest department. Yes, ‘illegally’. They have no ownership in these lands. The forest department also does not see the matter well. The forest department has also evicted these first generation Janjati cultivators from the land in many areas. As a result, the Janajati people who are evicted from the forest are not getting the opportunity to cultivate.

This correspondent went to Purulia and saw this situation on the ground. There, several Shabar families have forcefully cultivated the forest department land. The crop has grown. So, the other Shabar Tola’s Shabars are also encouraged. But, none of them could help farming. Because they don’t have their own land. Courting the Panchayat to Block Office at the local level did not yield much result. In other places of Purulia or Bankura, Paschim Medinipur or Jhargram, the condition of the people is similar. Therefore, after losing their land i.e., jungle to the state, many teenagers and young men of the jungle are moving to other states as migrant workers to be engaged in informal sector.

The people who once used to hunt in the forest are now skilled in growing crops but are deprived of cultivation due to lack of land. The state took the land from the people and could not give them land back for cultivation. There is no initiative to return forest land to forest dwellers. If so, how will these citizens of this country survive? What will their children eat? Then it's about education! There are heaps of statistics of development programmes for these people, which various scholars of the state proudly present to the public when asked. But, in reality it will not be wrong to compare the actual distance with the distance of the moon from the earth.

 The people of the Janajati who have been living in those mountains and forests for thousands of years are being uprooted. Protests are negligible. On the contrary, today, it is heard that not only by land, but also by air, attacks are being made to uproot the Janajati people, so that the mineral resources can be extracted from the forest floor.

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Vol 56, No. 14, Oct 1 - 7, 2023