Return our forests

S C Tripura, a Congress party member of  the Tripura legislative assembly, talks to  Nitin Sethi about the consequences of  reserving forests in Tripura

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

The meaning of reserved forests in Tripura has changed with time...
Yes, we have always had reserved forests but not the sort stipulated by the current laws. The reserve forests of the princely state of Tuiperra (it acceded to India in 1949) did not exclude people; on the contrary, certain tracts were set-aside for use by tribals.

Tribal reserves?
The king of Tuiperra had declared certain area of the hilly forests as reserves for exclusive use by five tribes of the region. In 1931, memo 49 of the kingdom reserved 2,850 square kilometres (sq km) for cultivation by tribals. Then again in 1943, another 2,200 sq km was set aside as a tribal reserve. The tracts were used for jhum cultivation.

What happened once Tuiperra merged with India?
Things became bizarre. The Indian Forest Act (ifa) 1927 became the overarching legislation that governed forests. The Indian government reneged on its stand during the merger negotiations. It had then stated quite unequivocally that unless the Indian Parliament amends the legislation of the princely state, ifa would not apply to Tripura.

But then the reserves were created under IFA?
Yes. In 1960, the Union government created exclusionist reserved forests without repealing the princely state's act. A petition was filed in the Supreme Court against this declaration. The apex court rejected the new imposition. In reaction, the forest act of the princely state was repealed by an ordinance -- such an anti-people measure could have never passed through the Parliament.

What were the consequences of this move?
We were robbed of our main source of sustenance, the forests. 60 per cent of our forests are reserved. My people roam the few unreserved tracts to practice jhum. Reserving forests under the ifa has made our existence completely illegal.

The impact on tribal society?
When our youth find they have no right over land in either the hills -- because they have been made into reserved forests -- or plains -- because of the huge influx of migrants -- they take up guns. Militancy is the last option, but quite pathetically, it's the only option for most. Today, we are asked to produce documents in support of our land rights. They created the paper work regime and then alienated us from our lands.

Is this alienation a historical process or a much recent phenomenon?
I am not talking history, please. The state divests tribals of their lands by legislation as well as by direct action. It created the Dumbor power project, which displaced more than 10,000 families. The project inundated the only large plain cultivable area available to the tribals: more than 97,000 contiguous hectares (ha). And what did the displaced tribal families get? None of them got any compensation when the dam came up, because the state had declared their land as khars (revenue) land. A huge hue and cry by the affected people did make that the state loosen its purse strings. Around Rs 84 lakh -- in all -- was given as compensation and around 670 ha was doled out for resettlement. But all that couldn't give the 10,000 families back their normal lives. Why can't we decommission the dam and resettle people back there. After all, the Dumbor power project, that was meant to generate 18 megawatts (mw) of electricity, annually, produces merely 5 mw. Every year, the state spends Rs 4-5 crore on its maintenance.

Let's take another case. In 1974, the state tried to create northeast India's biggest cattle breeding farm over 1,200 ha in Tripura. Hundreds were shunted out of their land. But what happened then? Not one cow survives there. Security agencies and the Union government-owned North Eastern Electric Power Corporation have taken over the land.

There are numerous instances of the state robbing my people of their lands. It is not history; it's a present continuous for us.

What options have been given to the displaced and jhum cultivators?
Horticulture-based rehabilitation has been tried out. But no thought was given to create links with markets. Today, you can find pineapples strewn all over the roads in the state. There are no buyers. Those who live close to the highway 44 (the main arterial road across Tripura, that teems with security forces) find their best option is to sell one or two pieces of vegetable each day to the slow moving traffic. Can anything be more pathetic? Cordoned off from their own lands, stuck up in hills, coming down in morning to sell vegetables or firewood for a desperate rupee, and then going back to the village before sunset or they might be another casualty of the extremism this situation causes.

The way out?
Return our forests.

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