The community that has been turning barren land into dense forests is struggling for education, subsidised food and healthcare
They have been settled in pockets of eastern Uttar Pradesh for a century, but didn’t have voting rights till the 1990s. They have no access to education, subsidised food and healthcare. And despite living in dense forests and turning barren land into forests, they have no right over forest produce.
This community is called Vantangiyas, who should ideally get the credit of greening up eastern Uttar Pradesh, but still lead impoverished lives.
Their story began when the first train in India ran on April 16, 1853 and the British realised that railways could bring closer the sprawling Indian sub-continent.
They then started laying a massive network of railways throughout the sub-continent and realised they need timber for sleepers in railway lines. The eastern Uttar Pradesh Terai, south of Nepal, was dense with trees, but since it was over-exploited for logs it soon became barren.
The British wanted afforestation in the region and so they decided to adopt a system they had implemented in Burma. Able-bodied people were settled over a barren piece of land and engaged in cultivation of forests. Once the place was wooded, the group was relocated to another piece of dry land. This system in Burma was called tangiya system.
The same tangiya system was adopted in eastern Uttar Pradesh as well a century ago.
British officers went from village to village propagating the project. Landless peasants, who were keen on getting out of the clutches of their landlords, readily accepted the offer.
They came to be known as Vantangiyas because van in Hindi means forest and the people were to follow the tangiya system.
Vantangiyas were not paid any money. They were given small plots of land they could grow crops on. Soon enough, they helped cover barren patches of eastern Uttar Pradesh with forests.
“Vantangiyas are Indians but did not have rights like other Indians till a few decades ago. Even today they have to struggle for basic things like a school and hospital,” said Manoj Kr Singh, a forest rights activist and a journalist.
“Vantangiyas were never paid in cash. For survival, they depended on what they could grow. The British exploited them before independence and Indian forest officials did the same after independence,” added Singh.
The population of Vantangiyas in Gorakhpur and Maharajgunj districts is about 60,000.
In 1985, when the police tried to evict them from UP forests, the Vantangiyas decided to fight for their rights. Two of them were killed when cops opened fire on the protesting community, said Singh.
Rupa Kumari, from Beet village in Maharajgunj, and her husband Trilochan Singh called for an ambulance when she went into labour. But since the village is in a forest, the forest guards did not let the ambulance in. It was only when Rupa’s husband along with other villagers approached senior forest officials that the it was allowed in.
“We wasted more than two hours and Rupa reached the hospital at the nick of time,” said Trilochan.
The Vantangiyas have to get permits from forest officials to just be able to leave their villages. “My brother-in-law’s marriage was fixed in another village. But we could only leave for the wedding when we paid Rs 500 as fee. Are people in other parts of the country charged when they leave their homes to visit another place?” said Gulaichi, also a native of Beed.
Their children too are suffering as their schools are too far and inaccessible. Rivers inundate their villages and they are unable to reach school.
The community is not even allowed to use bricks and cement to construct their leaking and unsafe houses. “We can’t have a concrete roof even if our thatched roofs leak during monsoons. We are fined by the forest department if we use cement or bricks,” said Tara Devi of the same village.
Together they stand
Manoj said Vantangiyas are very organised and united and hence have been able to pressurise successive governments.
“Vantangiyas stage sit-in protests but they are always peaceful. They gather in large numbers but never resort to violence,” said the activist. “They always keep the public representatives aware of their protests. This is why Vantangiyas have been more successful than other forest dwellers in demanding their rights.”
While Vantangiyas’ villages are officially categorised as forest villages, they demand them to be declared as revenue villages. The state government has to provide facilities like schools, hospitals, power, and water in revenue villages.
“Since Vantangiyas are quite large in numbers, the state government has, over the years, started to pay heed to their problems,” added Manoj.
As Chief Minister declared many of them revenue villages. The current CM Adityanath too has initiated many welfare schemes in Vantangiyas villages.
“Slowly, the lives of the Vantangiyas improved a bit over the years,” said Manoj. But their biggest grouse is that they still are not considered forest dwellers.
“But the forest officials are not aware about the Act and take action against Vantangiyas if they collect firewood or fish. Their condition can improve a bit more if they are allowed to collect forest produce,” said Manoj.
The Centre's Forest Rights Act, 2006 gives forest dwellers right over minor forest produce like tendu leaves, honey, firewood and fish.
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