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Flood Disasters and Forest Villagers in Sub-Himalayan Bengal

Conservation policies to protect wildlife and biodiversity ignore the basic survival needs and imperatives of local people. This article aims to show how conservation policies trigger floods in protected areas, especially those located in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain ranges, leading to huge damage to plantations and habitats as well as settlements of the local people. It also explores what forest villagers do when the whole village is destroyed by a natural disaster and the socio-economic consequences in the post-displacement period.


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NOTESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW january 24, 200973activity of the forest villagers of BTR. Incomes from sale of milk, areca nut, bamboo and non-timber forest products (NTFPs) are treated as a supplementary source for sustainingthe daily needs of families of villages especially in forest villages (Das 2005b). Livestock assets act as an emergency source of income espe-cially during rituals and festivals, treat-ment, education or disasters. Employment opportunities for both forest villagers and fringe dwellers reduced substantially due to the ban in clear felling coupes and arti-ficial regeneration (CFC) operation and bouldercollection with the creation of thetigerreserve in 1983. Prior to 1983, villagers of both forest and fringe areas used to be employed in timber harvesting and plantation work for nearly 100-120 days a year. It is observed that the employ-ment generation of 5.9 lakh persondays during 1984 has dwindled to 2.775 lakh persondays in 1991 (S C Das, Management Plan forBTR 1999-2009).4 ForestVillagers: A Historical AccountAgainst the backdrop of a changing strategy of forest management, i e, from commer-cial forestry to conservation forestry of theforest area, the status and role of the inhabitants has also changed. A historical account of the forest villagers is necessary for better understanding of the situation. In a broader sense, a forest village refers to a village situated in the forest. Forest authorities use this term for administra-tive purposes and it refers to villages situ-ated inside the reserved forest under the control of forest administration. These villages are not legally recognised by the existing laws.The establishment of forest villages to secure a permanent labour force was initi-ated under the reign of fire protection, and with thetaungya system the forest villages became absolutely essential (Karlsson 2000). Around 1894 forest authorities first allowed tribal and local fringe people to settle in the Buxa forest in connection with the scheme of taungya cultivation. Around 1904, the establishment of forest villages became a regular policy and very large numbers of forest villagers were al-lowed to settle in the forest. In 1912 rules were made limiting the cultivation and homestead land to 2.5 acres in the plains (wet area) and 1.5 acres in hills (dry area) per family (Anon 1970). So, the forest villagers were given allot-ment of land and residential hut without ownership right to land. Every member of such a village had to sign an agreement form every year issued by the forest de-partment for ensuring labour from the former. Such agreement contained rules and regulations laid by the forest depart-ment and the workers were liable to con-tribute their labour for the forest depart-ment. Under no circumstance could the villager violate the contract, and the agree-ment continued till 1969. In the 1970s, the protest movement started when the villagers demanded that they be paid normal wages for looking after the plantations. They also wanted more of land for cultivation for the in-creased number of families. The agitation turned violent and in response the gov-ernment agreed to abolish the free serv-ice but did not agree to their demand for more agriculture land. The authorised workers were liable to provide their labour during plantation and for other forest works. The forest authorities usually provide three to four months’ work to the ap-proved workers and rest of the time they engage themselves primarily in cultiva-tion. They are, in the real sense, the self-cultivators though they are deprived of ownership right to land. 5 Triggering Factors of FloodsThis reserve is facing primarily two kinds of problems that trigger flood disasters de-stroying habitats and livelihoods of the inhabitants. Firstly, as this reserve is located in the foothills of eastern sub-Himalayan West Bengal bordering Bhutan in the northern side, several rivers and streams originate and flow southwards, intercepting the reserve. They rise and fall frequently and constantly change their course causing huge damage to the reserve. The reserve has a long history of devastating floods causing massive damage to the forest and agricultural lands of villagers. The habitats have been destroyed due to recurrent floods in the plains of rivers like Sonkosh, Rydak, Jayanti, Pana, Gaburbasra,etc.It has been observed that during July and August, the monsoon is at its peakinthis region. The hilly streams (jhoras) and rivers are in spate. Boulders, debris, trees, etc, are carried down and get fixed at plac-es and form barriers. As a result, the origi-nal river courses get elevated leading to diversion of rivers and streams courses. It leads to huge destruction of plantations and human settlements in the reserve (Management Plan forBTR 1999-2009). Persistent erosion of banks and intermittent landslides add to the misery of rivers and streams by the addition of boulders, bed materials and trees. The riverbeds become silted and are on level with the adjoining settlements or roads or even rise above the settlement level or roads, causing severe floods and loss of cultivable lands of vil-lagers, wildlife habitats and plantations. An estimate suggests that in a few places silting occurs at an alarmingly high rate of two to four feet per year (Khalid and Patel 1999). The same study also reveals that about 1,596 hectares of forest area were damaged due to the changing course of streams (jhoras) and rivers of the reserve.Secondly, a series of national govern-ment and Supreme Court orders imposed several restrictions on wildlife conserva-tion within the protected areas. As there is an increasing trend of soil erosion and landslides in hilly regions with increased deforestation and infrastructural activities in Bhutan, this has led to excessive boul-ders and debris being carried and getting accumulated in the lower part of the river courses, forming barriers. Removal of any-thing like dead, diseased wood, boulders, debris has been banned with the Supreme Court ruling of 2000. Consequently, the MoEF released theHandbook ofFCA, 1980; FC Rules 2004 and Guidelines and Clarifica-tions, in which it declared: The Supreme Court has passed an order on 14-2-2000 restraining removal of dead, dis-eased, dying or wind-fallen trees, drift wood and grasses, etc, from any national park or Game Sanctuary...In view of this, rights and concessions cannot be enjoyed in the Pro-tected Areas (PAs).The Supreme Court had passed such an order in the context of a proposal by the Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh govern-mentsto allow the removal of timber from protected areas, under the guise of it being dead, dying or diseased (Kothari 2005). The Court definitely had no other intention
NOTESjanuary 24, 2009 EPW Economic & Political Weekly74other than to stop destructive activities for commercial profit in the protected forests. But the MoEF interpreted this as the banning of all activities, including forest resource use for survival and livelihood of forest communities. The situation got further aggravated when the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court had written a letter to all forestof-ficials which stated that: A number of instances have come to the no-tice of the Central Empowered Committee where felling of trees/bamboo, digging of canals, mining, underground mining, col-lection of sand/boulders...cutting grass, collection of minor forest produce, grazing, construction, widening of roads, etc, have been allowed to be undertaken in protected areas without obtaining permission from the Hon’ble Supreme Court on the plea that these activities are part of management plans. You are requested to ensure strict compliance of the Hon’ble Supreme Courts order so that none of the above prohibited activities are allowed to be undertaken in protected areas (cited in Kothari 2005).Thus the reserve is severely impacted due to locational disadvantages as well as enforcement of legal measures for con-servingbiodiversity in protected areas. It actually threatens the lives and liveli-hoods of the forest villagers as well as the ecosystem and plantationareasespecially in BTR where frequent and devastating flood occur with the continuous changing courses of rivers and streams.6 Bangdoba Forest Village Bangdoba, a forest village of BTR, is basi-cally a multi-ethnic village, inhabited by Nepali, Santal and Rava communities. Study Area and PeopleThere were 25-agreement holders in this village before 1969. Now, a total of 47 fam-ilies are present in this village, making 22 families non-agreement holders as per forest rules. Out of 47 families, 22 families belong to Nepali, 16 families to Santal and nine families to the Rava community. A total population of 238 is present in this village. Before displacement, they possessed 147 acres of land and 74 bullocks, 62 milch cows and 78 goats. Now, they have only 21 bullocks, 26 milch cows and 16 goats.The Nepalese are the most dominant community in this village. The Santal tribal group is the second most numerically dominant group. It is interesting to note that there is wide disparity of income among the population of this village. Nearly half of the total population had a family in-come of less than Rs 2,000 per month and the rest of the population had family in-comes of more than Rs 6,000 per month. Community-wise, the Nepalese earn more money and hence are better-off. The Santal and Rava family incomes areless in com-parison to the Nepali community. Historical Account of the Village Bangdoba is a forest village established before independence. They were allowed to settle in the forest in accordance with the taungyasystem. Under taungya, the forest department provided five acres of cultivable land and one pair of plough bullocks and two milch cows to each household. In June 1998, the Gholani river, a principal tributary of the Sankosh river which originates from Tibet and passes through Bhutan, shifted its course westwards badly damaging all agricultural and homestead land. It de-positedhugesand and silt on the agricul-tural land of Bangdoba forest village; as a result, villagers were forced to move to other areas. Forest villagers of Bangdoba, encroached and settled at the plantations areas of Ghoramara beat, Volka range under the east division of BTR, after displacement. They are residing on encroached land of about 20-22 acres. By this, they have al-ready damaged the whole plantation of 1998, partially also damaging the 1997 and 1989 plantations. From a chronological standpoint, the then British government encouraged set-tling in Buxa forest division for exploiting forest resources with establishment of forestbastees. Bangdoba village is one of the 37 forest villages at theBTR. In 1968 huge damage occurred to agricultural and homestead lands due to the deposition of sand caused by floods. In June 1998, the whole village was washed away and sand and silt were deposited on cultivable land due to the changing course of the Gholani river. From June 1998 to August 1999 the displaced persons stayed in a temporary camp at the premises of a primary school. During this period peoplerepeatedly demonstrated and appealed to the forest and civil administration for resettlement but without any results. The affected people forcefully encroached plantation areas within the protected area. Effect of Forced Displacement Any type of forced displacement will not only lead to economic uprooting but also to social cultural impoverishment reflecting the fact that displaced people lose natural, manmade, human, and social capital (Cernea 1995, 1997). Forced displacement of the Bangdoba villagers due to natural disasters has had serious consequences for the socio-economic status of the villagers. By analys-ing development-induced displacement, Michael Cernea has conceived how far impoverishment risk can be traceable to flood disasters in specific environments like protected areas. The study reveals some major consequences which are as follows: (a) Landlessness: In the pre-displacement period, villagers had about 147acresof cultivable land with homestead gardens. Dueto damage of land and deposition of sand and silt, the land becameunproduc-tive. As a result, in the earlier settlement villagers became virtually landless. Thus, affected families became severely impov-erished because the villagers’ primary occupation (in the pre-displacement period) was agriculture and care of home gardens. During distribution of land in encroached area in the post-displacement period,itis observed that Nepalis, the numerically dominant and economically better-off got most of the land (about 80%) with better communication in comparison to others. But the Santals and Ravas who are eco-nomically poor got less and worse quality land in relatively remote areas for only house construction. Most of the house-holds of the dominant communities sowed mustards in areas adjacent to the house. But tribal people did not do so as they had no land and money for cultivation. So it is interesting to note that even in encroached areas, power dynamics play a major role.(b) Homelessness: In earlier settlements, most of the households had wooden houses with corrugated tin sheets on the roof. In the post-displacement period, they got encroached land of about 20 to 22 acres. Almost all the Nepalies got 80ft× 80ft space for house construction. They have already erected wooden house. On the other
NOTESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW january 24, 200975hand, the tribals got only a little area for house construction. They just made tem-porary shed for shelter. They could not erect a house due to poor economic conditions.(c) Joblessness: Almost all the families became jobless and lost their lands where they could cultivate yields. Very few fami-lies without cultivable land engaged them-selves in agricultural work on others’ land on engaged in daily labour in panchayat works. Income from the sale of areca nuts in homestead gardens played an important role for forest villagers in the pre-displace-mentsite.Because homestead land was washed away, villagers also lost another source of cash income. Due to unemployment in these regions, a large part of the male population migrated to northern and western parts of India for workingincompanies and factories as daily labourers or other similar jobs. (d) Other Effects: Due to sudden landless-ness, villagers became more marginalised in the post-displacement period. Vulnerable groups like tribals were the worst affected. It is revealed that people are not able to earn money due to the lack of opportunity for work in nearby regions. As a result, people do not even get their daily food. They have to survive on the sale of firewood besides collecting edible roots, fruits, tubers, vegetables, and leaves from the forest. Furthermore, people did not send their children to schools in post-disaster period. Survival Strategy in Post-Displacement Period Due to landlessness, people’s main produc-tive systems, economic activities and liveli-hoods became severely affected and led to impoverishment of the village people. It is observed that villagers’ income for subsist-ence and survival heavily depended on the sale of cattle, goats, pigs, daily labour, sale of firewood, savings and other assets created before displacement. More than 65% of total bullocks were sold by villagers; the villagers also sold more than 70% of the goats and 55% of milch cows for their daily food needs. 7 DiscussionThe reserve and its inhabitants are facing two kinds of threats, (a) threat caused by the frequent changing course of rivers in hilly areas and the consequent damage and destruction of habitat and plantation areas as well as of settlements; and (b) threat caused by the creation of protected areas with stricter legislation for protection and maintenance of biological diversity and wildlife that trigger flood disasters. As mentioned, this reserve situated in the foothills of eastern sub-Himalayan West Bengal bordering Bhutan in the northern side, has numerous rivers and streams that originate and flow south-wards, intercepting the reserve. Environ-mental degradation and consequent soil erosion and landslides in eastern Himalayas is seriously impacting this reserve forest area through increased flooding due to the so-called development initiatives by the Bhutan government. This has resulted in heavy loss of cultivable land of the vil-lagers, wildlife habitats and plantations (Management Plan forBTR 1999-2009). Various legislations enforced in pro-tected areaslikeBTR for conserving bio-diversity further aggravate the floodsitua-tion.Asmentioned earlier, legislation in protected areas restricts the removal of dead, diseased, dying or wind-fallen trees, drift wood and grasses (MOEF 1999). As a result, forest authorities are not interested in taking measures for the management of original river courses. They claim that they have no permission to remove boulders, debris and trees from river courses caused by continuous erosion of river banks and intermittent landslides despite these de-stroying plantation areas and habitats as well as settlement areas of villagers. In addition, rights and concessions of forest communities have been curtailed. As was observed, these rules and regulations actually threaten the lives and livelihoods of the forest villagers in a situation where frequent and devastating floods occur.In effect, forest villagers are facing continuous threats of destruction and forced displace-ment from their original settlement as we observed in the case study. The serious impact of these orders on livelihoodissues of forest villagers has been evident in several national parks and sanctuaries like the Satkosia Gorge Sanctuary and Sunbeda Sanctuary in Orissa, Kumbalgarh Sanctuary and Bharatpur National Park in Rajasthan (Kothari 2005) and the BRT wildlife sanc-tuary in Karnataka. The impact is also evident in terms of the ecological aspect in some protected areas like destruction of plantation areas as observed in this study, to severe fire in the Kumbalgarh Sanctuary in Rajasthan (ibid). The impact of the flood disaster on the villagers varies according to vulnerability patterns generated by the socio-economic system they live in (Canon 1990). The cop-ing strategy of the vulnerable groups like women, poor and disadvantaged groups varies.Thecase study reveals that among the displaced people, tribal and other mar-ginalised groups are more impoverished after displacement. These powerless people are exploited even more by the powerful group of the same village. During land distribution among themselves in a new site, the dominant group within the village tries to occupy lands of improved category and with better communication facilities. So power dynamics among the displaced has a role when resettling in other places as reported in studies (Zaman 1989). In the post-displacement period, the affected people sustain their daily livelihood by use of assets created in the pre-displace-ment period, as there are no alternative stable economic activities. Moreover, for-est villagers have no legal right over own-ership of land (Anon 1970) but residing in an ancestral place as per agreement stated earlier, they become more vulnerable in the new area after the flood disasters. They are vulnerable in the newly settled area because they lose lands and shelter which earlier they possessed as per agree-ment with forest department that ceased to exist in 1969. This may lead to forceful eviction of forest villagers from the re-serve by the forest authority.The study also reveals that repeated ap-peals and demonstrations by affected vil-lagers to forest authorities and civil ad-ministration for rehabilitation has little impact on them. The forest authorities claim that they have no legal power to re-settle the villagers in another area accord-ing to the Wildlife Conservation Act of 1972 and other government orders. On the other hand, the civil administration passed off the responsibility to the forest authorities by saying that the forest department should provide land for resettlement. So the prob-lem continues without any solution. The actual perception and attitudes of local
NOTESjanuary 24, 2009 EPW Economic & Political Weekly76forest managers reveal that they do not give much attention to this problem as they believe that villagers would have no option but to shift to other places outside the forest area with the recurrent river bank erosion. But in reality as we ob-served in this case study, there were vil-lagers who encroached and destroyed large areas of plantation within the re-serve and resettled there.But interestingly the record suggests that there are degraded areas in the re-served forest area as well as in protected areas, where villagers who are forced to leave ancestral places, can be resettled (Management Plans ofBTR 1999-2009). This strategy may help in two ways. First, re-establishment of villages in these de-graded peripheral regions may create open grasslands.Second, this will instil confi-dence in the displaced villagers on forest management, as active participation and involvement of local villagers is extremely important for maintenance of protected areas which is the main objective of the National Forest Policy (1988) as well as in line with international agreement under the convention of biological diversity. Actually blanket bans or restrictions in every national park and sanctuary does not necessarily have a positive impact on biodiversity and local people. It is mistak-enly assumed that all geographical areas and their ecosystems are alike. In India, conservationists, ignoring local truths, always look for universal international models for conservation (Lewis 2003), and these, although effective in one area, fail to achieve the desired result in other areas.8 ConcludingRemarksFrom the above discussion, it is clear that rules and regulations in protected areas like theBTR affect the forest ecosystem in two ways. First, huge tracts of plantation areas are getting destroyed every year re-ducing the forest biomass within protected areas due to the constant change of rivers and stream courses as well as erosion of river banks and landslides. Second, with continuous change of courses of rivers, dev-astating floods occur causing huge damage to homestead as well as cultivable lands of the forest villagers who are forced to relocate in new encroached areasthereby destroying plantation areas of the forest.To reduce the threat faced by villagers especially in a protected area like the BTR, there should be some area-specific policy involving legal changes to deal with the land scarce area circumscribed by nation-al parks and sanctuaries as well as rivers that originate from hills causing severe damage and erosion of forest lands. Suita-ble strategies amending rules should be adopted so that relocation of affected for-est villagers can be possible in degraded peripheral areas of the reserve. Attention should also be given to marginalised trib-als who are the worst sufferers during re-location. Moreover, active coordination between the revenue and forest depart-ments in dealing with this kind of situa-tion is extremely important.Notes 1 An area of land or sea especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversi-ty, and of natural and associated cultural resourc-es, and managed through legal or other effective means (IVth World Park Congress 1992). 2 Under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), national parks are given higher level of protection, with no grazing and no private landholding or rights per-mitted within them, while sanctuaries are given a lesser level of protection, and certain activities may be permitted within them for better protec-tion of wildlife or for any other good and sufficient reason, as judged by the chief wildlife warden.ReferencesAnon (1970): “Sixth Working Plan of Buxa Tiger Reserve (Northern Circle) 1965-66 to 1974-75”, Vol I, Depart-ment of Forests, Government of West Bengal,India.Blaikie, P (2002): “Vulnerability and Disasters” in Vandana Desai and Robert B Potter (ed.), The Com-panion to Development Studies (London: Arnold).Blaikie, P, T Cannon, I Davies and B Wisner (1994): At Risk: Natural Hazards, Peoples’ Vulnerability and Disasters (London: Routledge). 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