The Great Forest Heist

The story of the disappearance of vast forests in central India comprises greed, destruction of tribal cultures, and the same old story of corrupt forest mafia 
Aritra Bhattacharya Meghnagar, Jhabua (MP)

The women burst out laughing at their own words, and their laughter seem to exist outside the throes of reality - a few surreal moments in an otherwise serious, disparate conversation. Each Bhil family has 8-9 kids, we are repeatedly told. And yet, one could hardly spot more than a couple of kids in the entire village of Rasodi in the arid, barren, deforested interiors of Madhya Pradesh's Jhabua district. 

Where have the children gone? One woman replied, "They are wandering in the forests." Then followed the spoofy, collective, surreal laughter. The dark irony is that there is no forest around any longer, while they laugh, letting their memories linger in the vast green canopy of the dense landscape that once existed all around. They too, like most adivasis, were children of nature. Born in the womb of the shadows of green, almost like pitch darkness.

Scores of Bhil folk songs - of birth, death, ritual, marriage - are an index to the centrality forests once had in their lives. It was their life's essence and spirit, content and form. Forests were where they had their gatlas, or ancestral stones; where they gathered firewood, berries and mahua for their liquor. Thick forests used to abound in this landscape till about 50 years ago, as people from five villages and various sites in Meghnagar town and its vicinity remember so distinctly. Memories are still young, fast fading.

They started 'vanishing' when they transformed from a resource deeply tied to the socio-cultural and 'spiritual' life of the Bhils and Bhilalas (the tribes that comprise 86 per cent of the population of the district) into objects with crass commercial value and nothing else. Depending on the register you choose, this transformation was the moment of post-independence, the beginning of India's journey as a nation-state towards 'development and progress', the brushing aside of 'other' nationalisms as 'little' or 'illegitimate', while monetising and ravaging the tribal economy, allegedly bringing tribals into the 'mainstream', with coercion or 'consumption', or as caricatures of their original identities.

Yet, the answer to how exactly the heist proceeded is complex. The official view is often predictable, basically 'anti-tribal'. The district forest officer (DFO) of Jhabua, Shailesh Dube, draws attention to the systematic abuse of forest resources by "these uneducated and ignorant tribals". "They have no idea about the importance of forests and its linkage to climate change and global warming," he says. "These tribals cut down forests regularly - either for timber to build their houses and for firewood, or for cultivation." He insists that the degradation has been caused due to the tribals' practice of shifting cultivation and their nomadic pattern of life.

The scale of this degradation is massive in statistical terms as well. Only 2 per cent of the 630 sq km forest land in the 1,000-sq km district has well-stocked forests (comprising distinct top storey, middle storey and ground flora), while 71 per cent is "empty blank area", according to the forest department's latest figures. What is categorised as forest land once had "some form" of forest, says Dube.

Yet, his claim that the Bhils and Bhilalas are nomadic and practise shifting cultivation flies in the face of anthropological evidence. Activists like Lashman Singh of Lak Jagriti Manch and Shraddha Kashyap of the Malwa unit of Ekta Parishad point to the role of the forest mafia in the stark and consistent disappearance of forests. DFO Dube seems to allude to this when he says that the pressure on forests in MP has been immense owing to their near-absence in Gujarat - after all, as per the forest department, Jhabua had "southern tropical dry deciduous teak forests" and shares its border with Gujarat.  In the same breath, he mentions that the mafia never existed here; it is the tribals who would pack trains going to Dahod in Gujarat with timber obtained by cutting down forests.

The 'tribals' themselves accept the charge - albeit partially. Chena Sakkaria Ninamma, perhaps 80, of Rasodi village, says that he did cut down forests, every year, for 2-3 months, for close to 30 years. He started with 6 annas per day initially (women were paid 4 annas and children 3); by the time the last trees were cut, he received Rs 3 per day. Others around him disagree with the details, but agree with the larger fact - that there was a katan (cutting forests) programme instituted by the forest department about 50 years ago, and it went on till around 20 years ago. 

Villagers in Phuledi and Timberwani, and locals in Meghnagar town attest to the existence of the programme, but differ about its name and dates. Memory, at this point, seems to offer an inchoate picture of what exactly went wrong; the same thing has different names in different registers and the rendering of the story is different as well - like it was in legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, where truth or untruth has several versions.

ML Ojha, who retired as deputy forest ranger in 1990 and is around 80, says the programme was called 'koop cutting' and was in force when he joined the forest department in the 1950s. The idea was to identify weak trees in a demarcated area of the forest every year, and auction them off to a contractor who would then employ locals to cut down these trees and sell off the expensive timber. 

"The area was lush with Sagwan (durable timber) trees," recollects Badiya Khimo Damor of Timberwani village. He too worked as a labourer. "The rangewallahs - forest guards (identifiable because of their regular skirmishes with the people over collecting firewood and forest produce) - in their uniforms would accompany contractors, select a patch of the forest, and ask us to cut down all the trees," he says.

Given the aesthetic and intrinsic importance of forests in their socio-cultural life, in their anthropological and folk/oral traditions, did the Bhils not object to the forests being cut down? Nahar Singh, 30, of Timberwani, says his father did mention some efforts but they were always brushed aside by the rangewallahs. As in most forest areas in India in colonial or post-colonial times, forest officials turned out to be inevitably corrupt, brutish and completely anti-people.

Were there no movements to stop this organised exploitation? Do the people know of movements like the Chipko? Not apparently - their memory does not provide such recollections. Perhaps the only work available to these people locally was wage labour in the katan programme. The forests had immense commercial potential and some used that for their private gain and unbridled greed.

Those who did not, like Narji Amalyar, 18, and his family, have remained in what is largely 'barren land' now. They grow one crop a year during the monsoons, and then migrate to cities like Surat and Ahmedabad, to work as construction labourers at abysmally low wages, surviving in alien, sub-human conditions - building the indices of tomorrow's prosperity while sleeping on the city's pavements at nights. 

On the ground, it seems, the villain is clearly the 'other'. For the forest department and the migrants in Meghnagar and Jhabua towns, it is clearly the "illiterate, ignorant" tribals. For the tribals, it is the rangewallahs - and sundry contractors backed by politicians and the local administration. 

What form does this complexity take in the minds and lives of those children who are wandering in the barren hills, where once nilgai and other wild creatures roamed? 

How will they dream of the forests they have never seen? Will they, too, like their parents, try to wrest control over the last remaining portions of the ravaged forest from the State, using the Forest Rights Act? Will they, too, be as dogged in their resistance to the forest department's denial of their rights?  

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2011