The forest-builders of India’s Shivaliks

Treated like encroachers, a community in India fights for rights to the forest they built.

Bidawadi, a Tongia woman, and her nephew Jaswant. Bidawadi has spent half her life working in the forest and has many tales to narrate of animal-human conflict that she has witnessed in her village, Sodhinagar [Devyani Nighoskar/Al Jazeera]

Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, India On a cool October evening in 1970, Bidawadi, then 21, was heading home after a day of planting trees in the forest when she received some bad news: a leopard had killed her buffalo. For her family, this would mean the loss of a secondary but crucial source of income — selling buffalo milk. Bidawadi was distressed by the news, but not altogether surprised. Incidents like these were common. They came with a life of uncertainty for the community living in the forests of northern India’s Shivalik hills.

Fifty years later, those hardships seem minor compared with what the forest dwellers of Sodhinagar village in Uttar Pradesh state face today. On an afternoon in late October 2020, Bidawadi sits cross-legged on a charpoy, a rope cot, outside her hay-thatched hut dressed in a loose, white salwar-kameez. “The world has developed, but everything is the same for us,” she says, “except that we no longer have the work that gave us our identity.”

The identity that Bidawadi refers to is that of a Tongia. The Tongias, a community of forest dwellers, numbering about 25,000 in the Shivalik hills in the states of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, practised a system of forest plantation and cultivation introduced to India by its British colonisers.

The Tongias worked for decades to regenerate forests destroyed by the British until a forest conservation law in 1980 prohibited them from living and working in the forest. Ever since, they’ve resisted by waging an arduous legal and administrative battle against the states’ Forest Department which is responsible for implementing India’s environmental and forestry policies as well as the welfare of forest villages.

Warding off harassment over eviction and resettlement, the Tongias’ struggle is about claiming their rights as forest-workers and to protect their cultural and environmental legacy.

The outer edges of a forest in Shivalik hills, near Sodhinagar village. The River Song has dried up and the villagers and animals face water scarcity [Devyani Nighoskar/Al Jazeera]

Regenerating the forests

With the British invasion, India faced enormous deforestation for timber used in projects such as building railways.

After realising the destruction they caused, the British appointed Dietrich Brandis, a German botanist and forestry academic, as Inspector General of Forests in India in 1864. Brandis believed that forests needed to be communally owned and managed.

The Tongia system and community take their name from a Burmese word that roughly refers to hill (taung) and cultivation (ya). Brandis first championed the system in Burma, then part of British India, in 1856. Landless labourers from nearby villages were recruited to plant trees on designated land and assigned an acre (0.4 hectares) of land to stay.

Tongia is a modified form of shifting cultivation in which trees with a high economic value such as sal and teak are integrated with different agricultural crops. Forest plantations in former colonial countries in Asia and Africa today are widely based on this system.

The Tongia community living in the Shivalik hills region, or the outer Himalayas, consists of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs and usually speak a dialect of Hindi. The 15 odd Tongia villages in this area, that is, in and around the lush green forests of Uttarakhand’s Garhwal region and western Uttar Pradesh, hardly ever figure on maps.

Since the 1930s, Uttar Pradesh has followed the “village tongia system” where a family was settled in a village inside the forestland and given between 0.8 to 1.7 hectares (8,000 to 17,000 square metres) of land to cultivate crops.

Tongia labourers were not given any daily wages but were allowed to sell the crops they grew, which became their main source of income. They had access to fuelwood and their cattle could graze in the forests.

“We prepared the land, planted trees and grew crops like maize, paddy, chickpea parallel to it for about three years until the shade became dense, and then repeated the cycle in a different area,” recalls Bidawadi’s neighbour, Surinder, who spent much of his childhood assisting his parents in forest work.

From forest custodians to encroachers

Between 1930 and 1980, Tongias planted 10,000 hectares of forest in the Shivalik region.

But with the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 came the proposal of a wildlife park and restriction of reforestation activity and communal habitation within the forests. Since the Tongias were viewed as a “temporary workforce” by the Forest Department, they were denied any permanent settlement rights as well as claims of ownership to the forest, leaving the community with no official home, address or livelihood. Villages within the boundaries of the park started to be served eviction notices and threats of demolition from the Forest Department.

The Tongias lost their source of income and access to the forest they spent years building.

“Look at the irony. The forest builders became forest encroachers,” says Hari Singh, a Tongia activist from Haripur, a village in the state of Uttarakhand. Sitting under a large bottle gourd tree, Singh, who is in his 70s, reminisces about forest life before the law was passed.

“It was a simpler life then. As people were brought in [by the British] from several villages, we didn’t have a common religious or cultural identity, but lived harmoniously amidst the nature united by our work. We dedicated our whole life to planting these lush forests, creating a rich source of oxygen for the country. Now we’re the ones being thrown out and haven’t been given any permanent rights to our land,” he says, the Tongia village of Haripur stretching behind him.

Hari Singh, right, a Tongia man from Haripur Tongia village, has spent the last few years documenting and collecting records of villagers to get them their land rights. His daughter Rakhi, centre, a law student, frequently educates the villagers about their rights under the FRA law, and has been instrumental in the building of a school in Haripur. Her mother Attarsali Devi sits on the left [Devyani Nighoskar/Al Jazeera]

Muddy roads stamped with potholes meander through a network of small colourful cement pucca houses of about 600 Tongia families.

“We were denied the right to build permanent houses, but this is our act of rebellion,” says Rakhi, Singh’s 25-year-old daughter, referring to the cement structures.

The law student, by mobilising the community, drafting letters to the relevant authorities and explaining forest rights to the women of the villages, has been following in the footsteps of her father who has led the community struggle of Haripur since the 1980s. They have had the support of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUWFP), the first national union representing the traditional workforce in India. Since 2006, with the introduction of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, or FRA, the struggle has had a constitutional basis (PDF).

This legislation grants forest-dwellers the right to live on the land, use forest produce and graze their animals, as well as develop, rehabilitate and manage forests. However, Tongias and activists working for the efficient implementation of FRA feel that the Forest Department has not adequately enacted the law.

“It’s an act made to correct the historical injustices that the forest dwellers have witnessed for so many years — but unfortunately, they continue to do so,” says Ashok Chaudhary, the general secretary of AIUFWP.

“A right is a right and there can be no concessions or conditions. The Forest Department is obliged to protect the rights of the Tongias so they need to stop behaving like landlords of the forest, like our colonial masters.”

A drawn-out battle

The last few decades have been mentally and emotionally draining for the Tongias, especially for Singh. His frail body struggles to hold up the three plastic bags containing the records of Haripur’s villagers – receipts of taxes paid to the Forest Department, legal materials informing them of their rights and the documents that serve as proof for their claims.

“Ideally, it’s the job of the Forest Department to collect the records of forest-working communities. Since they can’t be bothered, the Tongias have taken this Herculean task upon themselves,” he says.

Hari Singh holds documents of land claims and records he has collected from the villagers to present to the Forest Department [Devyani Nighoskar/Al Jazeera]

About 20km (12 miles) away, in a Tongia village called Bhagwatpur in Uttar Pradesh, Ved Prakash, 60, another community activist, sorts through a significant collection of records he has collected over the years.

Without land rights, the Tongias are like guests in their own homes. “But guests are treated better,” says Ved Prakash.

He has resisted eviction over the years. “Two years ago, some officers from the Forest Department served us an eviction notice and stated that they would demolish my house,” he says. He and other villagers told them that they wouldn’t go. “As we put up a fight, our neighbours joined us in support, reiterating our rights to this land.”

Unlike most Tongias, who after the 1980s, were forced to start working as daily wage labourers, Ved Prakash managed to get a job in the Forest Department, given the experiential knowledge that he as a Tongia had of agroforestry, where trees and crops are grown together on pastureland.

He is committed to fighting for his land rights. He spent his life savings on building his modest family house, painted in soft hues of pink and green.

“Land rights will not only just give us security but also make it easy for us to take bank loans, access welfare schemes and avail all opportunities available to us as rightful citizens of India,” says Ved Prakash, sitting in the courtyard of his home.

Ved Prakash from Bhagwatpur Tongia village holds some of the documentation of land right claims filed by 132 families of the village [Devyani Nighoskar/Al Jazeera]

He says 132 Tongia families from his village have filed personal claims to their properties. In 2018, the village was granted a collective claim to become a “revenue village”, which means it would come under a regular district administration rather than the Forest Department.

Crucially, the revenue status, a right under FRA legislation, initiates the process of conferring land rights to the villagers, although they must be able to prove that they have resided on that land since before December 2005 and have been primarily dependent on that forest land for the livelihood for their family.

Accessing basic rights with a revenue status

Apart from land rights, the designation and the implementation of a revenue village status enables van-grams, or forest villages, to get defined borders and access development schemes for basic facilities. This means they would get schools, health clinics, a village council (a panchayat) and other facilities that haven’t been available to Tongia villages without this status.

Although Tongias exist on electoral rolls, they don’t have their names in the revenue department, which means access to family and employment welfare schemes to benefit women and children, Below Poverty Line (BPL) and ration cards, is restricted. Further, by not having proper addresses or recognition, Tongias can’t have access to bails in any legal case.

“We have wanted a village school in Haripur, but a non-revenue status has prevented us from doing so. After a lot of negotiations and hardships, we were finally able to come to an agreement with the panchayat of the nearby non-Tongia village to open a primary school on their land,” recounts Singh. Under the 2009 Right to Education Act every child in India up to the age of 14 is entitled to free education. Sadly, the Tongias haven’t been able to exercise this right.

“The Forest Department did have some schools built for us, but they were destroyed in the 1980s when our services were no longer needed,” says Munnilal, another Tongia activist from Haripur village.

Even from his house in the city of Dehradun, Munnilal dedicates his after-work hours to attending meetings and writing letters to advocate for his community, among which he is well-known for having clear knowledge of the FRA law and statistics [Devyani Nighoskar/Al Jazeera]

One reason given to the Tongias by the Forest Department for the non-implementation of village development schemes is the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, which restricts human activity in the core wildlife zones. Munnilal argues against this explanation.

“The presence of forest dwellers ensures a source of water for the animals. If they’re gone, the animals will start venturing out. In the last few years, a changing climate has dried the water sources inside, causing increasing human-animal conflict in the region,” he says. “No one understands the need for conserving the forests better than us.”

An important aspect of the FRA is the involvement of forest communities in forest management. Dr Parag Dhakate of the Uttarakhand Forest Department says the agency draws on Tongias’ forest management and conservation knowledge when possible. “The Forest Department has respected the generational knowledge that Tongias have of flora and fauna [and they] are usually consulted for plantation [projects] and van-vikas [forest development]”.

In the Shivalik region, the Tongias’ struggle for land rights has started to bear some fruit.

In 2018, Ved Prakash’s village of Bhagwatpur and two others in Uttar Pradesh’s Shivaliks region were declared revenue villages. More recently, in August 2020 all Tongia villages of Uttarakhand were declared revenue villages. “Implementation, delayed due to the COVID lockdown, is well under way,” says Dr Dhakate, referring to the newly proposed revenue villages in Uttarakhand.

Still denied land rights

But for the Tongia villages that have obtained revenue status, not much seems to have changed when it comes to facilities and land rights.

“Water’s scarce. There is no development,” says Surinder from Sodhinagar village, the small hamlet situated deep in the forest.

Its huts are dotted with government-installed solar panels that, according to Surinder, are a “recent addition”.

Yet Surinder considers his family one of the lucky ones.

As Sodhinagar became a revenue village, most families including his were given land rights documents that showed settlement rights. Some, however, were denied.

The FRA requires families to be settled in forests for three generations, interpreted by the states’ Forest Department as 75 years, before 2005 for them to rightfully claim land. However, some of Sodhinagar’s families lost their proof documents in a forest fire in 1986.

Some of those families lodged claims 12 years ago, which include requests for proof documents that may exist in the Forest Department’s records.

“Tongias have followed the due procedure laid out in the FRA and submitted their forest claims as early as 2008,” says Zuha Fathima Junaidi, an environmental lawyer working with forest communities in the Shivalik region for proper implementation of FRA.

Surinder, right, was one of the men given land rights documents in Sodhinagar village. His neighbour Mahipal, left, however, had his claim rejected on the basis that his forefathers were not dependent on the forest for their income. Mahipal says that this is wrong, as he is also a Tongia and lost his documents in a forest fire [Devyani Nighoskar/Al Jazeera]

Despite following up constantly with officials, villagers only received the first hearing in 12 years in October 2020, says Junaidi. The reasons for rejecting their claims are not provided in the law, she says, indicating officials aren’t able to implement the FRA correctly.

Manoj Chandran, chief conservator at the Uttarakhand Forest Department denies this. He says claims have only been rejected in the cases when the forest workers have been unable to prove their forefathers’ complete dependency on the forests. “We understand the challenges being faced by the Tongia, but the Forest Department has to be very careful and meticulous while evaluating claims,” he says, citing the seizure of government land by local gangs for illegal logging as a growing problem. “Further, the Tongias have a full right to challenge these decisions, through due legal processes.”

‘Stalled with excuses’

Raghubir Singh, 75, who leads the struggle for six of 15 Tongia villages in the Shivalik region, complains of the Forest Department’s lack of consideration.

Now a farmer, Singh is fighting for land he says Tongias not only rightfully deserve, but can bring his children a better future. He says that the Forest Department has been holding meetings and taking decisions concerning them without their presence.

“I don’t think they want to help us,” he says. “If at all a Forest officer comes along who genuinely is invested, he is transferred by the time he understands our case. The implementation of the revenue villages have also been stalled with excuses.”

Chandran of the Uttarakhand Forest Department disagrees. He says that the Forest Department has been as cooperative as possible. He insists that a concentrated effort of the Forest Department, Tongias and NGOs is required towards document collection to help claims.

“We help them with whatever they may require. But the record archives are huge and spread across the state. They’re also very old; some have been damaged due to termites. Tongias are part and parcel of the forests and we are doing the best for them.”

Raghubir Singh, centre, poses with his grandchildren and a long list of all villagers claiming land rights [Devyani Nighoskar/Al Jazeera]

The FRA has been particularly discriminatory against non-tribal forest dwellers such as the Tongias who are generally classified as “scheduled caste” and not the “scheduled tribe” status that affords more protection of  a community’s cultural legacy. Most Tongias were given forest land in the early 1930s and therefore are unable to prove 75 years or three generations in the forest before December 2005 to claim their rights.

“Even if that’s the case, the Tongias cannot be treated as encroachers,” says Arjun Kasana, secretary of Think Rise Act Foundation, a sustainable development organisation which works to help forest-dwelling communities.

The Tongias are still entitled to the right to livelihood and shelter under Article 21 of the constitution but these constitutional laws are not being efficiently applied, says Kasana. He also believes that the state has a constitutional obligation to protect people’s social and economic interests.

The Tongias remain caught between legalities and the inefficiency of administrators as they continue their struggle for land and other basic rights.

Ved Prakash retreats to his room every evening with a thick notepad and a pen to record another day in the Tongias’ relentless fight. His book – his people’s story – is incomplete. “[It] will only be completed on the day when forest builders are no longer seen as forest encroachers in this country.”

Source: Al Jazeera