People and Forests


In the introduction, the material and cultural significance of forest and forest resources to rural communities was briefly considered. It was explained how forests provide a diverse range of goods and services. Not only are they stores of critical resources, such as fuelwood, and fodder, materials for construction and agricultural implements, medicines, to name but a few, the forests are also an integral part of the social fabric of rural India; they shape customs, provide folklore, are a social focal point. Forests also lend rural communities resilience in times of material hardship; when harvests are poor, people go to the jungle in search of wild food to supplement their supplies.

Of course, the material importance of forests is not uniform across communities. Within the same village, there may, in all likelihood be varying degrees of dependence on the forests, and this is usually a reflection of socio-economic status, often linked to, and represented by caste, or tribe. For low-caste and tribe, or adivasi, there tends to be a greater reliance on forest resources, either as a complement to shifting, (jhum or podu) cultivation, to make up the short fall in agricultural gains from small-holdings, or as a supplement to wage labour. Forest resources, as part of an adivasi economy cannot be underestimated. Samal (1997), conducted a micro-analysis study in an adivasi village in south-west Orissa, and discovered that the forest contributed to 49% of total income, by the gathering of food, and minor forest produce such as firewood and bamboo, and was found to be more profitable, and less labour intensive, than podu cultivation.

Policies that impinge and restrict access to forest and forest resources, therefore are more severely borne by the most marginalised of rural India; shifting cultivators, adivasis, landless and small-holders. By implications of their socio-economic marginality, they are least able to comply with changing demands, particularly if access to vital income-generating resources is curtailed. It would be worth, then to briefly consider the impact of enclosure of forest and common lands that was initiated under colonial rule, with regard to the following groups: hunter-gatherers, adivasi, and agricultural sector (small-holders, but also the more prosperous classes, for a broader understanding).

Hunter-gatherers, by way of their complete dependence on the forest, as provider of their dwellings, and almost all their material (and probably cultural and spiritual) needs also, have, not surprisingly, been the most adversely affected group and the one least able to resist the changes imposed by the state appropriation of forest, given their small and scattered communities. However, describing hunter-gatherers as a ‘group’, and implying homogeneity belies the enormous diversity, and widespread distribution, which encompassed almost the length of India. Forced settlement, and increased vulnerability to outsiders, characteristically led to hunter-gatherers losing all autonomy and descending into agricultural labour for wealthy landowners. In this way, innumerable communities were decimated, and incorporated into villages, though some resorted to banditry (Gadgil and Guha, 1992).

Shifting cultivators are (still) perhaps the most demonised of all groups. This cyclical method of clearance and cultivation is variously described as pernicious (Thakur, 1997), and producing ‘evil effects’ (Buchi, 1997); strikingly similar to the way it was viewed by the colonial rulers. The colonial foresters sought to prevent shifting cultivation, on the grounds that it was a social evil, and its eradication was seen as a civilising measure, though of course, the competition with colonial forestry was also a major concern (Pouchepadass, 1995). In Canara, south India, the reservation of forests increasingly curtailed the local form of shifting cultivation, called Kumri. The local people, the Kudubis, were, according to the District Gazatteer in 1938, forced ‘to live by cultivation or coolie work like other people’, often incurring debt to wealthy landowners, with whom they became permanently attached (Pouchepadass, 1995). Forced uptake of settled agriculture of such groups was all the crueller, given their dominant cultural beliefs. Verrier Elwin, the sympathetic anthropologist spent many years researching and living with the Baiga of Madhya Pradesh in Central India, of which he wrote a monograph. Elwin tells us the Baiga were reluctant to take to the plough, as it was akin to ‘tear[ing] the breasts of your Mother, the Earth.’ Further, the Baiga were told in legend that ‘you will make your living from the earth. You will dig roots and eat them. You will cut wood and carry it on your shoulders. Your wife will pick leaves and sell them’ (Elwin, 1939). In an attempt to control, if not outright aim to restrict the Baiga’s form of shifting cultivation, known as bewar, a tract of land in the Mandla Hills was set aside as a reserve in 1890, that came to be known as the Baiga Chak. Bewar was to be limited to this area of 24,000 acres, and each axe, the principal tool of the Baiga, was to be taxed by the Forest Department, as a measure of disapproval. Concessions for settled agriculture, along with labouring jobs from the Forest Department were meant to induce the Baiga from bewar, but as Elwin (1939) notes: ‘The Chak was not ...a sort of National Park where the Baiga would be allowed to carry on their ancient tribal life, but a Reformatory where the Baiga, under strict supervision and increasing official pressure, would be slowly ‘weaned’ from their primitive habits.’ Over the next ten years, the Baiga population of the Chak halved, from 1551 in 1890, to 700 in 1901 (Elwin, 1939). Today, the Baigas are still in the employ of the Forest Department, and are the main labourers used to build and repair roads in Madhya Pradesh, as any visitor to Kanha National Park may see.

The curtailment of forest access affected agricultural communities slightly differently, largely determined by their socio-economic status. While more affluent farmers were less dependent on forest produce for their own consumption, as a result of greater buying power, and a surplus agricultural production, they were more likely to be affected by loss of grazing grounds for their cattle. Murali (1995) notes that in Guntur district, Madras, this was a particular source of friction between villagers, and the Forest Department, notably as the FD had appropriated community common lands, or dharmakhandams, as reserved areas. Moreover, bribes would have to be paid to forest officers to cross ‘reserved’ areas in order to reach the cultivated patta lands, (similar to titled land).

Marginal farmers on smallholdings were more adversely affected. Not only would their cattle, if any, potentially lose common grazing grounds, they were often compelled to buy fodder from the Forest Department (Murali, 1995). Loss of resources such as fuel, and timber for agricultural implements are significant to marginal farmers, who are subsistence-based, and are unlikely either to generate an income from their small-holding, or produce sufficient food for their families all year round. The forest for such people then, is a critical resource in times of leanness, the loss of which is a considerable shortfall to the household economy. A further, very important point about loss of access to forest resources for marginal farmers is that there is a strong possibility that income-generating possibilities are consequently diminished. Many marginal farmers are also commonly artisans, in activities such as weaving, basket making, clay and ironworking etc. and their materials are, of course most usually to be found in their immediate environment, such as forest or common lands. Thus, when access to materials such as bamboo, wood, or other minor forest produce is restricted, perhaps the only income-generating activity available to them is likewise curtailed. In such situations, it is easily appreciated how marginalised people become more marginalised.


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