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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 36, New Delhi, August 21, 2021

Disorganized ‘Forest’ Management Institutions and Raji’s Life Chances | Bhawesh Pant

Friday 20 August 2021

by Bhawesh Pant*

United Nations’ (UN) 49/214 resolution of 1994 decided to observe 9th August as International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. With intent to respect, promote and protect indigenous (tribal) cosmologies. This year’s theme “Leaving no one behind Indigenous peoples and the call for a new social contract”, aims to comprehend the unique relationship with their lands and varied concepts of development based on their worldviews and priorities. Let us take the opportunity of World Indigenous Day, to bring forth the exclusionary lifeworld of the Raji community of Uttarakhand.

Raji tribes due to their prolonged exclusion were listed under the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups in 1975. This tribe is majorly dwelling in the eastern part of Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand. The smallest tribal group in Uttarakhand was erstwhile the hunter-gatherers; now they busy themselves with subsistence agricultural activities, labor-intensive jobs, carpentry, etc. Anthropologically they belong to the Tibeto-Burman family which originally had a nomadic lifestyle but now they have settled around the Kali River, running between India and Nepal.

The fading of the ‘traditional’ continuum of indigenous people with forest as a “cultural landscape” is well documented. Raji’s originally the forest dwellers are also known as ‘Banraut’ or ‘Van Rawat’ meaning owners of forests in vernacular parlance, because of their archaic intimate relationship with the forest. Forest was their bastion but with the introduction of ‘governmentality’ in forest affairs, it massively changed their social. The relationships were maneuvered by several acts such as Indian Forest Act, 1927, Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, Indian Forest (Uttaranchal Amendment) Act, 2001, etc. These acts and regulations made forests a ‘discreet space’ and they were turned into a State’s subject. Raji’s always remained reliant on forest produce, thus guarding of forest area with fences, setting of forest vigilante houses, high surveillance and punitive actions on trespassing the ‘regulated’ boundaries; hampered their devoted affair with the forest. One of the aged men from Kutachaurani village exclaimed “we procured everything from the forests, and we have conserved it. Now we can’t enter it”.

The majority of Raji’s hamlets are situated at the intersection of what vernacularly called ‘jungalaat’ (Forest Department) and Van-Panchayat’s jurisdiction. This distinction of their ‘cultural landscapes’ is still bothering them, as the functioning of both the authorities passively excludes Raji’s. Being at an intersection Raji’s movement into forest remained feeble, entering into forest regulated by ‘jungalaat’ resulted in punitive actions and hefty fines. On the other side; procuring forest produce from the forest regulated by van panchayat requires a pass on payable basis. This is Raji’s fate to ‘trespass’ their indigenous ‘cultural landscapes’ which calls frequent administrative contestations.

Forest Rights Act and its Opaqueness 

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, popularly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA), came with huge promises to reverse the ‘historical injustices’ suffered by tribals. In Uttarakhand, despite having 64% of forest cover, the government feebly distributed the said claims to the beneficiaries under FRA. In an official document it was revealed that in Uttarakhand against the 3574 (individual) and 3091 (community) claims only 144 (individual) and only 1 (community) title was distributed. This distribution of titles counts only 2.8% compared with claims received. The considerable uncertainty regarding implementation of FRA is clearly visible at Raji’s social also.

While documenting the narrations from Raji’s it was revealed that there exists deep unawareness not only among the beneficiaries but also at the concerned officials who are handling the implementation process. Raji’s lack of basic understanding on FRA and addendum to this the indifferent approach of forest department further distanced them from their sanctioned benefit.

FRA’s judicious implementation still remains a distant reality in Raji’s social as of now. The insufficient deposition of documents has often been cited as reason for the poor implementation of the act, similarly Raji’s also have serious documentation concerns. Many have their tribal certificates, but either it is not updated or in a very bad state. More to this Raji’s had a perennial habit of shifting their habitation (not majorly but within the village only) thus lacking a document for their ‘historical’ habitation.
It’s more than a decade since the FRA came into existence, and Raji’s like other indigenous communities still await their natural ‘authority’ over their native ‘cultural landscapes.’ It was expected that their alienation would be abridged by FRA, but the structural lacunas and unempathetic discourses heavily daunted the ‘cohesive existence’ of tribal. Raji’s with their latched marginalities [spatial and temporal] remains someone for whom policies/ development approach reaches with delay for which they are compelled to wait.

(Author: Bhawesh Pant is a research scholar at TISS, Mumbai.)

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