Trouble in Tripura

Restrictions on jhum cultivation, large-scale immigration and timber smuggling have made Tripura an environmentally poor state

Published: Sunday 07 June 2015

Trouble in Tripura

Timber smuggling on the Indo-B (Credit: PHOTOGRAPHS: RAMAKANTA DEY)Brata Kumar Reang, a farmer from Gachhimpara village of Dashda block in the extremist-dominated Dhalai district of north Tripura has had to barter his son in exchange for just 10 kg of rice. Unable to feed his family, Reang first sold his cattle and when the situation got worse, he sold his four-year-old son to his neighbour, who was a little better off than him.

The hill tracts of Tripura suffer from a severe food crisis during the dry spell between November and March almost every year. Starvation deaths are very common in this area. "But though incidents like the Gachhimpara case are rare, they are not unheard of," says Partho Deb of Dainik Sambad, Tripura's leading newspaper.

Incidentally, the state has not received its share of pre-monsoon showers which start as early as February. "In fact, the total rainfall in the state has been going down for the past ten years," says Deb. "This has resulted in low intensity drought that hits the state year after year," says Anu Mukherji, president, Tripura Adibashi Mahila Samity, an Agartala-based non-governmental organisation (ngo). "But lack of rains is not the only reason for the food crisis in Tripura. It is the restriction on jhum cultivation," she adds.
Jhum cultivation Tribals in Tripura traditionally depended on shifting cultivation -- locally known as jhum. Under this system, a small patch of land was cleared in the forest and used for cultivation. The following year, another patch was burnt and prepared for agriculture. And this process continued. The land used earlier was not utilised, permitting regeneration of the forest. But with more people becoming dependent on agriculture, jhum began to affect the forests. This was because the pressure on land did not permit regeneration as cultivation was carried out on the same land every season. Earlier, jhum was allowed only in the protected forests of Tripura. "In 1982, the government declared that all open protected forests would be treated as unclassed government forests," says P N Ray, principal chief conservator of forests, Tripura. However, the open forests were not suitable for jhum cultivation. So the tribals were forced to shift to the reserve forests. But it was illegal to practice shifting cultivation in reserve forests.

Tripura largely being a hilly state, the total cultivable area is limited. Since there were restrictions on Jhum, the people had no option but to depend on the public distribution system (pds) for food. This destroyed the self-sustained economy of the tribal villages in the hill-tracts," says Dipak Dutta Ray, chief conservator of forests, Tripura.

The rise of insurgency in the state has brought additional problems. Coupled with the difficult terrain, the existing fear psychosis has made the hilly areas even more inaccessible. Agartala, the state capital, is connected to the hill districts of of north Tripura by a convoy that leaves in the morning under heavy security cover and returns before sunset. This convoy is north Tripura's only transport connection with the outside world. Food, medicines and other necessary items are brought to the districts in the north by this convoy. When extremists burn bridges or dynamite roads, the hills are completely cut-off.

At such times tribal families in Tripura's hill tracts do not even get their food supply. Forced to give up their traditional, self-sustained economic system due to poor land management by successive governments and left at the mercy of insurgents, they often need to make difficult choices.
What ails the hill state For the person on the street in Tripura, development has a dual meaning -- depending on which side of the fence you are on. For the relatively better-off Bengalis and all migrants, it means an improvement in the law and order situation. The indigenous people, however, see it in terms of the basic necessities of life -- food, clothing and shelter. However, environment is usually seen as a mode of making fast money and interestingly, without any qualms too. That comes as all over the world, it is the indigenous people who have been the biggest friends of the environment with of course, help from committed activists, ngos or even from the governments.

In a state where 60 per cent of the geographical area is under forest land on paper and 52.7 per cent supposedly under forest cover, there is precious little the government has done to protect the forests," says Sreelekha Roy of Voluntary Health Association of Tripura. "The forests of Tripura are up for grabs".

In fact, there is something terribly wrong with the way forests are perceived by the government in Tripura. Successive governments and the forest department officials have often locked horns over the fate of unclassed government forests. "With an eye on the vote-bank, the government has been busy devising means of rehabilitating the refugees on these forest lands. Besides the ecology, this has affected the demographic composition of the state and is one of the reasons the indigenous people of Tripura have turned to insurgency," says Anu Mukherji.

During Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar's 13-month tenure, no forest conservation programme has been taken up. "I have been too busy tackling the law and order situation," he says. Attempts to go towards the tribal-dominated north Tripura are discouraged by the state administration. "Traffic can commute to the north districts only twice a day and that too under the surveillance of patrol cars. The situation is on the whole totally abnormal," says H Raychoudhury, the state president of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The situation is truly difficult but what is striking is the total indifference towards forests. "Forests are certainly important but right now they are not the most important issue. Law and order is. The state of forests in Tripura is comparably better than most Indian states," says Sarkar.

Ironically, reserve forests in the state are rapidly being degraded, while there is no comprehensive plan to tackle the scourge of cross-border timber poaching. The Sonamura reserve forest in the chief minister's own constituency is an expanse of sal coppices and small shrubs. "Timber is felled at night and flown down the rivers to Bangladesh everyday," admits the chief minister.

West Tripura, which had up to five major reserve forests even in the early seventies, is totally degraded now. "Except for the Sipahijala reserve forest. We have been able to save that because it houses a forest guards' school and has more security cover than most others," says P N Ray, principal conservator of forests, Tripura. Timber is smuggled openly to Bangladesh. Sometimes the insurgents are involved while at other times the forest guards. But mostly it is poachers, aided by people on both sides of a totally porous border.

Smuggling is not considered illegal in border areas. It is just another source of livelihood. It is such a socially acceptable practice that all our efforts to address it as a law and order problem have failed," says Jiten Chaudhury, minister of environment, Tripura. In sharp contrast to the chief minister, Chaudhury feels that proper conservation of forests through people's participation can solve "a lot of political and socio-economic problems in the state". The best example is perhaps the Melaghar Joint Forest Management experiment which has resulted in the regeneration of 1,500 hectares of forest land in the very area where smuggling had stripped off the green cover in all nearby forests (See box: A lesson in regeneration).

The government of Tripura has asked the Union government to fence off the international border. But experts feel that any real solution cannot be found without addressing the larger issue of dire poverty on both sides of the border and involving people in the sustainable use and management of forests.

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