Ground Report Tripura: Who Owns the Tribal Lands?
Tripura joined the Indian Union in 1949, the traditional livelihood and ownership pattern continued, until 1971
Across the undulating hills and forests in beautiful Tripura, the heavens have opened up at Shikaribari (House of the Hunter) village near Khowai town. We catch an auto (there is no other transport available) to climb up the hill from a little village square where locals are selling 25 bananas for Rs 10, a huge bunch of Pui Saag for Rs 5, and 6 big, fragrant lemons for Rs 5, among other vegetables.
Across the region, pineapples are sold on the road, Rs 15 for two juicy ones straight from the flourishing orchards around. The nearby forests are full of fruits: bananas, pineapples, watermelons, lemons, mangoes, and all kinds of local, leafy vegetables, flowers and herbs.
Just about 1,500 people live in this lonely and stranded village up in the hills in the Tulashikhar subdivision, 85 km away from Agartala. The villagers have a vehicle which they collectively share to go to the market on the day there is a weekly haat, the primary health centre or the nearby hospital. If the vehicle is not available, they walk long distances.
In a small bare hut, belonging to a young tribal couple, the 'chulha' has a fire going with rice being steamed. The woman holds her little child close to her, near the fire as the rain pours in torrents. The young man says that his father owns a bit of land but most of them have no clue of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), and there is no Gram Sabha in Shikaribari.
He says, "I cultivate the land belonging to my father, go to the distant weekly haat on foot if the vehicle is not there, visit the nearest town in case my wife needs a doctor, and life goes on. This is how we have lived for decades."
A few locals said that in some parts of the distant hilly terrain in the state, if a person has to be hospitalised, and if there is no vehicle or ambulance available, they make a stretcher of bamboo and carry the patient on the shoulder.
The rocky village, amidst dense forest, faces scarcity of drinking water. A tanker comes routinely to give water. Many homes have big drums outside their homes where the tankers supply water. "It is ironic that despite such heavy rain round the year, and such fertile forests, there is no drinking water here. Why can't they put up water pipes? This village is like what it used to be in the pre-British era," said Binoy Reang, a young tribal lawyer based in Agartala, and General Secretary of the Tripura Tribal People Rights Movement.
Locals narrate that the land title issue may lead to conflict in this area. Some have got it, some have been missed out; but they all agree that whatever land was distributed or officially recorded in documents, it happened during the CPM-led government in the past. However, the lack of implementation is deeply felt across the village, especially in the forest area around Shikaribari.
"When one plot of land is allotted to more than one person, what will happen? When my land is given in the name of someone else, what will happen?" asked an angry local.
Village Kathaalbari (House of the Jackfruits) near Ambassa (House of the Mangoes), is around two hours from Agartala. A small railway station, Jawaharnagar, with no ticket counter, intersects the two points in the middle of an endless, lush green forest.
Two school girls, good friends, say goodbye to each other at the station, and walk their separate ways, trekking a long, lonely way next to the railway tracks to their village homes in the forest. The station is starkly solitary and looks like a picture postcard surrounded by dense jungle, as if located in a fairy tale. There are distant homes in the forest, surrounded by paddy fields, jackfruit and other trees, and fast trains passing by without stopping.
In the evening, with dusk coming by early, a passenger train arrives, fetching a few passengers. This is when women from the nearby villages land up at the station with their bamboo rucksacks full of vegetables. And thus the railway station becomes a temporary vegetable market with exotic-looking vegetables, edible flowers, roots, leafy vegetables, fruits on display, which they sell at very low prices. Passengers from Agartala stuff their bags with these 'organic' fruits and vegetables, which, they claim, are a million times more delicious and nutritious then what is sold in the capital.
Villagers in Kathaalbari have a different sort of complaint. Almost all of them have got land documents, but the catch is that often the details entered by the officials are wrong: the wife's name is incorrect, or, the location of the land is wrong, etc. They too are not aware of the Forest Rights Act, nor do they have Gram Sabhas.
"My ancestral land is out there, next to the jackfruit trees. Now you check my land document. It says that my land is located beyond that mountain. In fact, I think that land belongs to someone else. I have complained many times. Once they came and did a survey. Nothing happened. So, what should I do?" asked a villager. "My wife's name has been wrongly written in my land document. I have requested them to change it. But it has been of no avail," added Mirat Reang, another local.
At Dumdum ADC village near Unakoti, the famous tourist spot with its huge rock sculptures, around 180 km from Agartala, majority of the people have got land documents. However, the same story repeats here too. Besides, the tragic dimension is that some of the poor tribals have reportedly mortgaged their documents for loans given by local banks, allegedly through touts, said the villagers.
"The money is usually blown away leaving them in poverty. I agree that this is a big mistake made by some tribals," said Amar Bebbukar, a local. Hence, they have neither land records nor cash to sustain their daily lives – thereby choosing to work on other people's land, do a daily-wager's job, or seek help from the community.
Amar Bebbukar is not poor, owns a small car, and does rubber plantation on his land. Rubber plantation has entered in a big way in many parts of Tripura, and forest rights activists fear that this could pave the way for the entry of big business and 'outsiders' to use forest land for commercial purposes.
"I took a loan from the bank. I mortgaged my land deed. However, I have returned the loan so my document is with me," said Bebbukar, who is making profits from the rubber plantation. Not everyone is as lucky.
In this area, according to locals, literacy levels are extremely low. Kids walk 2 to 5 miles to and fro to school through the forest, their parents complain. Cases of child marriage have been pointed out, with 15-year-old girls married off.
Only the family of the village head, Robidhan Reang, seems to have got educated. And that too happened because he chose to adopt Christianity, and thereby was able to send his daughters to school and college without paying a penny.
Have You Heard Of Miking?
It's a sharp intense rain, relentless and theatrical, falling like diagonal arrows, with the green landscape drenched and happy. The water bodies are overflowing and the mountain-rivers are swelling with the tidal rainfall. River Gomati, next to the old town of Udaipur, the former capital of the tribal kingdom of Tripura and its succession of kings, is turbulent and muddy; and, yet, pristine and pure.
Across the density of the endless rain forests, with huge, ancient trees standing like monuments, it's like a dark nocturnal expanse in stark daylight, often camouflaged by the heavy downpour, interspersed with lush green paddy fields, which would suddenly emerge from behind the rain-curtain, bringing with them the signs of life and habitat, ancient civilisations and indigenous communities.
This is the deep south of Tripura, high in the hills, far away from the current capital, Agartala. Amidst this ecological hot spot, across scattered villages near the long-winding, barbed wire border of the Chittagong Hill Tract in Bangladesh, there are several scattered villages with neat homes stitched and carved out with bamboo and local material, often standing on bamboo stilts.
In these distant villages live the Reang tribal community, soft-spoken, good-looking, gentle and hardworking, and in complete synthesis with nature, the seasons, and their indigenous anthropology.
However, these days, they have a worry stalking their sublime landscape, and everyday life. It's a worry that the tribal communities of around 47,000 people in these distant border villages share across the village courtyards and inner-households.
"'Miking' has suddenly arrived and disturbed us," said Ajendra, who runs a local school at village Simbhuva, close to the border and a BSF check-post. "It is disconcerting. What is the meaning of it all? Why?"
Locals say 'Miking' is a new phenomenon in the hills, through the zigzag of sharp turns in the forest. It's the latest metaphor stalking the tribal landscape. According to Ajendra and locals in village Simbhua, 'Miking' means that the forest department officials arrived in a vehicle with a mike making announcements. The villagers say they did not talk to village elders, or explain the announcements.
These kinds of announcements, according to Narayan Patari, senior journalist based in Agartala and leader of the Tripura Tribal Rights Movement, have never happened in the history of Tripura. It did not happen during the reign of the kings, nor during the British times when there was a British agent posted to oversee matters in the far-away Northeast zone stretching across East Bengal (now Bangladesh). Neither did it happen during the prolonged rule of the CPM-led government. Enquiries by the villagers at Karbook, the sub divisional headquarters, have revealed nothing.
The announcements, according to Ajendra and Narayan Patari, "forbid" the tribal communities to cultivate or use the forest land in any manner. "This is beyond comprehension. If tribals will not use their forest and land in which they have lived and survived for centuries, who will use it then," said Patari.
Said Ajendra: "the officials should hold meetings with the villagers, consult us, and take us into confidence. I mean, this is our ancient land. This is our community land. How can we stop cultivating and living in our own, shared, ancestral land?" Said a local teacher, "this is a bolt-from-the-blue. No political party or government has made such announcements before."
While a certain sense of restlessness lurks in the air, there has been no official notification as in these border villages in the south of Tripura, nor is there any move to implement the announcements as of now.
The Tribal Kings' Laws
Trupura's tribal kings, in their wisdom, and in anticipation of the predator-like nature of the British empire, had made a law for the entire tribal people of Tripura – that their forest and agricultural land will always be community-owned, and that they will wholly own their indigenous land, forests, water bodies and natural resources. Tripura joined the Indian Union in 1949. All was well and the traditional livelihood and ownership pattern continued, until 1971.
In 1971, the central government in Delhi took over all forest land in the country. This effectively meant that the collective land and forest ownership of the tribal communities was now controlled by the government, local authorities and the forest department. This was bad news for the tribal people of Tripura.
However, the CPM-led government in Tripura respected the traditional arrangement and refused to interfere in the life and livelihood issues of the tribal communities. They were left to live their lives in peace and harmony, though the development and social sector indices have been weak.
The Reang community in the entire hilly tract in the south of Tripura have been doing 'jhoom cultivation' for centuries. They grow crops and fruits, among other products, from the community land shared by the collective based on mutual trust, consensus and harmony, usually decided by the village elders in consultation with the community. New families which join old clusters are given a piece of land to cultivate from the larger community and forest land.
In 'jhoom' cultivation, once the annual crop has been harvested, the land is torched at a certain time and then allowed to resurrect and regenerate for a number of years, untouched by human intervention. According to tradition and local knowledge systems, the land is allowed to rediscover its organic bio-diversity, while it enriches the rich ecological heritage of the neighbourhood, with time.
In many tribal communities across India, including in other parts of Tripura, 'jhoom cultivation' is not the norm anymore. Thereby, it remains a unique agricultural phenomenon here, based on the deep knowledge system which the local communities have inherited about the earth, the seasons, agriculture, biodiversity, and the forest.
Ironically, the progressive and path-breaking Forest Rights Act (FRA), brought in by the Congress-led UPA1 government backed by the Left, after a prolonged campaign by social and forest rights activists, including the All India Forest Workers Union, has not been implemented in many parts of Tripura, including in the Karbook subdivision here, according to forest rights activists and local villagers.
Nor are Gram Sabhas existing in large parts of the state. The Gram Sabhas are stipulated as the highest bodies in terms of collective decision-making at the grassroots level across India, guaranteed under the Forest Rights Act. Even the Supreme Court has ratified the power of the Gram Sabhas after the ancient tribal community of Dongriyas in the beautiful Niyamgiri hills in western Orissa opposed a multinational mining company to operate there in search of bauxite and other minerals.
Indeed, Niyamgiri, an ecological hot-spot with magical biodiversity, herbs, rivers and water bodies, vast flora and fauna and protected wildlife, and the protracted, peaceful struggle by its indigenous people, found international fame, and became a test case for ecological protection and forest rights.
After the Forest Rights Act was enacted in 2006, the tribal communities demanded its implementation in Tripura. Thereby, a huge and peaceful demonstration with around 40,000 people was held in Agartala on September 29, 2007. Consequent to this, the CPM-led government announced that it would distribute land deeds (patta) to 1 lakh, 15 thousand families.
This was perceived as a historic proclamation, especially since land titles have never been distributed to the tribal communities, including in the deep forest interiors. In any case, most forest and agricultural land was owned collectively by the community and shared accordingly.
In Simbhuva, for instance, only Ajendra's family and a handful of others have got land papers. Most of the 150 households have no land documents to own individual land, a pattern across the population of 47,000 people in the Reang community in the border forests.
Most land is still allotted by the community elders for 'jhoom cultivation'. Ajendra's father was the village 'choudhury' earlier and is more prosperous than the other families, owning a pond and a car, and a reasonably large area. Now, other elders preside over the decision- making, while there is no Gram Sabha in this village of Simbhuva or other villages in the neighbourhood, said Ajendra.
St Thomas School
Ajendra and Madhabi run a school and hostel in their village: St Thomas School. The surprising thing is that most of the students are little ones – toddlers of three years or above, girls and boys. There are 300 students in the school, and 200 of them live in the village 'hostel' which are big, modest dormitories with basic amenities.
There are several reasons behind the success of this unique experiment. One, the villagers certainly trust the young and smiling couple, Madhabi and Ajendra, who run a humane, efficient, and functional school and hostel with 13 teachers. In a context whereby most village schools are so far away that children have to trek miles to reach them, or, they do not have even one teacher, or, are in shambles, the St Thomas School is different and successful.
Said Ajendra, "parents are so keen to have their children educated that they are ready to send even a three-year old infant here from their distant villages. You see, education is a priority for parents now, even in remote areas."