Societal Inequality of the Tribal Community – A Cause for Deforestation

Gautam Kumar Das

Tribal people in majority living in and around the forest stands of Jungle Mahal earn their bread by plucking of leaves from the Sal trees (Shorea robusta). They pluck fresh green Sal-leaf economically because of their awareness for health of the trees as well as for the forest stands. During plucking generally by a group of girls they maintain teamwork and occasionally share leaves and move to the market for sale of those Sal leaves to the tea and snacks stalls. But those Sal leaves were not very much abundantly occurred only a few decades back. Then forest stands of Jungle Mahal, stood in the south-west part of West Bengal, was in a depleting status, but now its health is partially recovered. Forest area of Bankura, Purulia, Paschim Medinipur and Jhargram districts comprising Jungle Mahal is reportedly increased in comparison to the earlier record according to the India State of Forest Report of 2019. Trees in the forest stands look luxuriant probably due to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because of the climate change. In this changing scenario of the forest stands in the Jungle Mahal, members of the tribal community are still economic in plucking of the Sal leaves that help to earn their bread and this scenario is reflected  in the Mayur Jharna Elephant Reserve of Jhargram district where a group of girls of the tribal community used to pluck fresh green Sal leaves and supply them to the local market places of Kakrajhor, Shilda or Belpahari. Generally, tea and snack stalls (selling food items like hot samosa, ghugni or telebhaja) purchase fresh green Sal leaves for distribution of such food items to their customers. Food sellers never store green leaves because those leaves start rotting from the day after plucking. Naturally, girls of the tribal community living in and around the Sal forests of Mayur Jharna Elephant Reserve collect limited number of Sal leaves daily and their collection varies seasonally based on demand and supply accordingly. The leaf-plucked girls usually collect around 50 leaves on an average, and if any member collect a more leaves against her necessity, she shares excess leaves to the other members of their group. Tribal girls having such inherited social behaviour with shared mentality even not have a cycle to reach the local markets to hand over the plucked Sal leaves to the owner of the tea or snacks stalls.

The forest dwelling tribal girls are mostly illiterate or drop out of the school due to irregular attendance as they have to carry on plucking of Sal leaves on the first half in the morning shift and to complete cooking and other domestic household works on the remaining part of the day. Their mothers are migratory agricultural labours working for sowing and harvesting of crops during the rainy and winter season by rotation in almost all the districts of the state of West Bengal and they join their daughters for collection of fodders and fuel wood during the gap of their normal duties as labours. Therefore, the tribal women account for a substantial proportion of the agricultural labour force, the women farmer, who feed the districts of West Bengal. And occasionally, the tribal women are engaged by the forest department for plantation programme during the autumn in between the sowing and harvesting season.  And thus, the rural tribal women play an essential role in using and managing natural resources in forest and tree-based landscapes across the state of West Bengal. Though they are deprived even staying at home round the clock, they or their daughters guard the forest areas for generations from which forest department and other sectors like tourism department get all the benefits of the forest stands. The tribal community living in the vicinity of the forests faces such societal inequality for the hundreds of years and even in this modern time when the term of civilization is redefined by the United Nations.

Forest-living tribal community is only exempted from the collection of fruits, seeds, flowers and leaves of the adjacent forest areas as per government order issued by the land revenue department of the Government of West Bengal in July 1980. For such collection of forest produce, free permits per two persons per tribal household are issued by the forest department and these permits are duly renewed every year by the concerned department. Tribes are allowed one pole annually to be used as plough and three poles per three years for the purposes of house-constructions per tribal household, though all the tribal people are permitted to assign a tree as daharthan (place of their deity) for worship and offering prayers inside the forests. But allotment of patta (official land records by legal status) to the tribal community up to an acre areas of land in or adjacent to the forest stands causes worse to the forest health as the members of the tribal community always make an effort to increase land area up to the mark scheduled for them through encroachment by deforestation. The author witnessed their such likely efforts inside the forest areas of Mayur Jharna Elephant Reserve. Government should take an alternate measure to assign and allot lands for the tribal people outside the periphery of the forest areas and both the tribal welfare department and the forest sector would be benefitted from that government’s decision only if it is implemented.

 Tribal practices of hunting ceremony as a part of their social culture is harmful to the forest faunal community that causes ruthless destruction of wildlife. The government should offer them an animal they admire most, reared in the government animal farm per five households on the day of their hunting ceremony as they fond of fresh animal meat and that step taken from the government’s side should gradually stop the tribal practices of killing wildlife in the forest on the day of celebration of their hunting festival, the author believes. But even on the day of their celebration of the hunting ceremony like social culture, the tribal people in majority cannot manage food for the members of their family members. For mitigation of such crisis of food, the basic needs for human being, community kitchen should be introduced by the government to combat their starving days after days. If the community kitchen for the distribution of midday meal is justified for the school-goers of urban municipal areas or even in the Kolkata metropolis, why the tribal people in the rural rustic forest lands are still deprived of that government’s policy particularly when the community kitchen and midday meal programme is financially supported by the direct taxpayers, though belated, it should be introduced with immediate effects.

Sale of Sal leaves, mahua (indigenous wine prepared by the tribes from mahua flowers) and fuel wood are basic mode of day by day earnings of the tribal community. Other than those sources, the tribes particularly the tribal women perform tribal dance in a group before the tourists in the tourist spots of the forest areas duly organized and managed by the hotel or cottage owners. Diversity of such tribal dances is seen in the North Bengal forest areas as categorically different tribal communities live there and they used to perform dances of their own traditional culture. But in Jungle Mahal forest areas, only the Santali group perform tribal dance as the other tribal groups have no such practices like dance performances in their traditional culture. Anyway, earning from such dance performances is limited and restricted in the tourism season only and they usually cut the trees, sell as fuel wood, and earn their bread.

For the maintenance of the forest health, living standard of the tribal people of the forest areas should be considered first and their societal inequality still existing must be diminished through the proper steps to be taken by the both state and central government. If the tribal people of the forest stand live, then the green canopy of the tree lines of the forests breathes, and nobody could dare hampering their existence. People running the government are experienced such social inequality of the tribes living by the forests for years. Extinction of such experience and an emotional disconnect from the tribal community living in the vicinity of the forests are not inevitable on behalf of the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Oct 17, 2020

 Gautam Kumar Das

Your Comment if any