India has a little above 8% of its population, who are designated as Scheduled Tribes. They are dispersed primarily among the States of Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Their economic condition is primarily dependant on primitive agriculture and collection of minor forest produce. In Odisha for example, around 25% of the population are tribals belonging to 62 groups of tribes. On one hand of the spectrum, they are the most primitive Bonda Highlanders and on the other the Santals. All the 62 tribal groups are primarily dependant on primitive agriculture which they practice on the hill-slopes. The agricultural practiced by them is designated as ‘slash and burn’ culture. They clear particular areas of the hill-slopes by cutting down the trees and then setting them on fire. The ash mixes with the soil and by a process of digging up the soil is enriched by getting the feed of the burnt out trees now converted to ashes. The particular areas which they deforest this way are put under cultivation for a maximum of three to four years and then they abandon it for forest to reclaim it. In turn, they take yet another area and do similar practice for slash and burn to grow crops.
On the slopes by such cultivation, they undertake various kinds of minor millets which have differential periods of maturing as a crop. These minor millets provide the maximum of their agricultural produce for sustenance.
The forest is the primary wealth on which they depend. It is not merely for their house-building requirements of timber. It is primarily the collection of several groups of minor forest produce primary among which the sal seeds. They are as much devoted to keep up their forest wealth around the village as the minimal destruction on the hill-slopes for their practice of primitive agriculture.
Unfortunately over the years, large scale cutting away of forests by the Forest Department and auctioning it to forest contractors has led to very large scale depletion of the forest reserve. The wily contractors cut away more than what has been allotted to them in auction and as a result the forest wealth gets fast depleted. The tribals are deprived of the collection of minor forest produce, which they sell to Government. In fact, Government have organised a system of Purchase-Sell and Fair Price Shops for purchasing such minor forest produce through cooperatives to prevent the traders from cheating the poor tribals. Government have intervened to organise a host of cooperatives so that they can purchase at a reasonable rate all the minor forest produce the tribals gather. The simple tribals are cheated by the businessman not merely in terms of the prices of the commodities, but also they cheat in terms of weight and measures. Several studies spread over the major tribal areas of the Scheduled Tribal districts have brought out the unfortunate fact of such exploitation of the poor tribals by the moneylenders. The poor tribals are often in need of money for organising marriages and certain ritual festivals. They have no reserve resources to fall back on. On such occasions they borrow from the moneylender and in the process they put themselves into a trap of the moneylender, who not merely takes advantage of their ignorance in keeping accounts, but also purchasing their products at a very low price. Government’s efforts to open Purchase-Sell Fair-price Shops have rescued the tribals from severe exploitation to a large extent.
Over the years deforestation in the major tribal areas has led to a depletion of the financial resources of the tribals from the collection of minor produce. On the other hand, the slash and burn cultivation which they practice as primitive agriculturists yield less and less from the soil that progressively gets impoverished. The depletion of forest reserve leads to large scale rain waters run-off during the rainy season. While depletion of forest is in the more level grounds and small slopes of hills, when there is a heavy rain, they form gullies by the run off of the rains and this leads to the erosion of hill-slopes which the tribals cultivate and nurture with great efforts. As mentioned earlier, the tribals also keep a kind of a roster of slash and burn cultivation. They choose a particular area for such practice and after three to four years give it up for the forest to reclaim it itself and new plantations to grow up.
The tribal areas which have the dense forest also have small rivers running out from them. The tribals depend upon such rivers for a variety of purposes. Not merely seasonal agriculture adjacent to the water front by cultivating these areas, but also collecting drinking water from the river bed. Normally the river bed has a sandy surface and a little digging leads to the discovery of potable drinking water which the tribals use. This is because many of the tribal habitations in the forest belt lack regular water supply arrangements by Government. This would involve not merely putting of small dams, create small water reserves, make it portable and then lay pipelines to supply them to the scattered villages along the hill slopes. This a gigantic task and the Government has started on these lines, but this is as yet very inadequate. Drinking water supply is, thus, a major problem particularly during the summer season and the tribals depend on the river. They also depend for some marginal cultivation along side the water front so that they are able to irrigate these lands during the summer months by drawing water both for drinking purposes and some surplus for such irrigation along the margin of the river bed. Deforestation in the hinterland area destroys both these useful benefits which accrues to them.
Government are aware and over the years they have taken up several steps to:
Rejuvenate and re-grow the depleted forest areas;
Take up new plantations in the so-called village forest area which lacks adequate tree-cover for the tribals take away for house building purposes most of their timber requirement from this area.
Organise market mechanism so that the tribals get a fair price for the minor forest produce they gather by selling it to Government agencies and in return are enable to purchase their minimum requirements like salt, dried fish, earthen pots etc. from these Fair-price Shops.
In areas where there is substantial minor forest produce such as sal seeds, Government have also taken steps to establish oil extraction plants from the sal seeds. Because such oil have multiple use in preparation of cosmetic products in the advanced markets.
They have taken steps to organise cooperatives called “Our Forest” which emphasise the symbiotic relation between them and the forest wealth. They are aware, as much as the Government, that private operators and the contractors stealthily cut and take away large volume of timber. Their association for preservation of forest is very much to their benefit and slowly they have got accustomed to this.
From all these points of view, it can easily be seen that the dependence of the tribals on the forest is enormous and depletion of forest reserves can create havoc to their very fragile economy. Governments have undertaken surveys of what they call ‘Forest Villages’ which is technically not permissible, but there has been a mechanism by which not only the forest dwellers remain in these forest villages, but also provide a defence from theft of timber and forest produce by the contractors. The symbiotic relationship of the tribals and the forest is centuries old and by modern methods it is possible to improve the various parameters of this relationship so that, on one hand, the forest wealth is protected and on the other, the tribals get a fair return to live their lives comfortably. To prevent stealing of timber and minor forest produce by outsiders, Government have thought of arming the forest officials so that they can protect the forest wealth.
Mention has been made only of sal seed as a minor forest produce. As a matter fact, there are at least a dozen other forest produce which have not only agricultural but also commercial use in the market. Each of these forest produce has a value attached to it and by collecting it the tribals get adequate return for their dependence on forest. Some of these minor forest produce are known by their local names: Myrabolam (Harida), Bahada, Amla and several other medicinal and herbal products. In fact, Government have taken steps to develop herbal gardens and put the local tribal population to look after them under the supervision of the Forest Officer. In fact, a healthy relationship between Government servants of the Forest Department and the poor tribals, who live in the forest, goes a long way in ensuring a better life for the tribals and also yield a better income for the Government. Organising such herbal gardens has paid rich dividends to the Government. The tribals have a local knowledge of such herbs and roots because for centuries they have been preparing their requirement of medicines from the roots and herbs and leaves and branches of select forest trees. Government officials have taken their assistance in locating such plants so they are not depleted by the destruction of forest when some areas are sold away to contractors. A team of botanists, chemists, medical officers and tribal leaders look after creating such herbal gardens and their proper maintenance and upkeep. The help of the tribals in the manufacture of this medicinal product has also been taken usefully.
From the above, it is obvious that the marginalised tribals, who have very little of their own economic resources, depend almost exclusively on the forest wealth around them. It is not merely timber for their household and cattle sheds for keeping the domestic animals and birds such as pigs and chicken; it is also the resource they derive from their level of primitive agriculture and the collection of forest produce. Taking all this into account, the marginalised tribals have to be given the benefit of living peaceably within the forest areas and systematic efforts are made by the Government to strengthen their traditional relationship with the forest which many of them worship by different forms of ritual during the year.
About the Authour:Sitakant Mahapatra (born 17 September 1937) is an eminent Indian poetand literary critic in Odia as well as English. He was in the Indian Administrative Service(IAS) since 1961 until retiring in 1995, and has held ex officio posts such as the Chairman of National Book Trust, New Delhi since then.
He has published over 15 poetry collection, 5 essay collections, a travelogue, over 30 contemplative works, apart from numerous translations. His poetry collection has been published in several Indian languages. His notable works are, Sabdar Akash (1971) (The Sky of Words), Samudra (1977) and Anek Sharat (1981)
He was awarded the 1974 Sahitya Akademi Award in Odia for his poetry collection, Sabdar Akash (The Sky of Words). He was awarded the Jnanpith Award in 1993 “for outstanding contribution to Indian literature” and in its citation the Bharatiya Jnanpith noted, “Deeply steeped in western literature his pen has the rare rapturous fragrance of native soil”; he was also awarded the Padma Bhushan in2002 and Padma Vibhushan in 2011for literature apart from winning the Soviet Land Nehru Award, Kabeer Samman and several other prestigious awards.