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Environmental Degradation and Recovery of the Baiga Tribal Group

The global north and the global south have a comprehensive line that clearly differentiates the two in several aspects yet, there is a bridge that closely connects them; a bridge that allows the north to stretch into the south. From the era of colonialism to the present, the North’s appropriation of the South’s resources in order to fuel its economic expansion has generated harmful economic and environmental consequences, trapping southern nations in vicious cycles of poverty and environmental degradation, producing global environmental problems that will constrain the development options of the generations to come.

Keeping this mechanism in mind, when we explore the Indian forestry during the colonial times we notice that these natural resources were used as a tool for subjugation of the forest dwellers through commercial exploitation. In this article, I will focus on the continuous environmental injustice and oppression faced by the Baiga tribal group in central India and how the Forest Rights Act works, in their case, as an environmental justice framework. 

The Baigas resided in the Maikal range of the eastern Satpura hills. This range being heavily forested and sparsely populated gave rise to multiple streams that flowed in all directions. They believed themselves to be the guardians of the forest and the soil. This formed the basis of all their practices where they did not use a plough on the slopes of the hills while cultivating. This allowed the forest to re-grow and prevented denudation and erosion of the soil. The highland forest environment of central India provided the Baigas with a separate identity. It reinforced their reliance on the forest through the cultivation of bewar, food gathering and hunting. They could survive if they maintained, conserved, revived the forest and honoured the fertile soil.

This piqued the interest of the British administration in this tribal group and their activities. They wished the tribal group would convert from forest cultivators to settled farmers that would allow them to preserve valuable forest and cultivate important land under the British management. The Baigas never contributed to the market economy or government revenue. They paid less for the land usage as the shifting agriculture procedure allowed soil and forest regeneration over a period of twelve to fifteen years. They also prevented the British from extracting timber from these forests — a resource that was in high demand owing to the upcoming large scale projects of construction of ships and railways. Forsyth in his book The Highlands of Central India writes — “the inborn destructiveness of these jungle people to trees is certainly very extraordinary: even where it is clearly against their own interest, they cannot apparently refrain from doing wanton injury”. Classification and reservation of these forests was justified on the grounds that the tribal groups were exploiting the lands through their cultivation methods and deforestation of these covers was justified on the basis of expanded cultivation.

Several laws and policies were implemented in the 1860s that deprived forest tribes of their legal rights to occupy and cultivate in the lands that the government had classified as their wastelands. The British targeted the Baigas through policies of taxation on forest and agriculture produce and forest conservation.

In order to transform the Baigas into settled plough farmers the British administration declared that “according to all positive law, according to the land revenue settlement code, and according to the custom of the country, a Baiga had no title to proprietary (landlord) right or to occupancy (tenant) right in the tract over which they roamed.”  In the late 1870s, the British prohibited the practice of shifting agriculture while some financial aid was provided to those who were willing to settle and this aid was reduced and limited to a few villages by the early 1880s. 

Another example of displacement was seen in the Mandla region in the 1890s, where M. Mattanah, the Divisional forest officer of Mandla expressed the importance of labour that the Baiga tribe provided. “Indeed it appears to me we can scarcely get on with our work, should we lose this valuable source of labour supply. Collection of harra and minor products, and line cuttings would be impossible without them.” In order to re-establish an area for Baigas there, they were provided with two options — a) to settle down as plough farmers or b) to work for the forest department. The rest would all be shifted to a marked area of 23,920 acres in southeast Ramgarh tehsil known as Baiga Chak. This land was unsatisfactory for cultivation. The Baigas started to resist and were left with no means to survive. Verrier Elwin in his book, ‘The Baiga’, records the pleads of some of the families — “we daily starve, having no food grain in our possession…. we have no clothes to cover our body…. we cannot go elsewhere as the British Government is everywhere… but the government does not give us our right.”

With the interference of the British in Central India’s affairs, the Baiga community suffered to practice their one and only skill — cultivation. The British forced them to change their occupations and displaced them from their fertile lands without their involvement in any of the above negotiations. This led to alienation and dispossession of the Baigas due to procedural and social reasons. The British used various strategies to demarcate areas with the best timber as ‘reserved lands’. The colonialists then excavated tribes from their forest homes in these reserved areas and granted themselves sole rights to the forest and their produce. 

As a consequence of being compelled to leave the jungle and their occupation, the Baiga community lacks means, resources, skills, attitude, knowledge and support to practice agriculture and produce food.  The Forest Rights Act (FRA) which was passed in 2006 provides a just framework to these forest tribes who have been dwelling in the forests for generations but have never been recognized for their rights and occupation. The Baiga was one of the 75 tribal groups to be categorized as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) who is eligible to habitat rights under the Forest Rights Act 2006. These habitat rights protect not just land rights and livelihoods of the people living in the forests, but encompass their whole culture and way of life. 

The FRA is a classical case of an environmental justice framework which has helped restore many such tribes that were pushed to the bare minimum by the British Government. Yet not everything stands solved. Even though the tribal group has been reassured that no land would be transferred for non-community purposes without their consent, the upcoming wildlife tourism plan of the Madhya Pradesh Government would uproot about seven villages where Baigas reside. There is also a difference in the understanding of the clauses of FRA in different languages. While the English interpretation uses the expansive meaning of the word ‘habitat’ under section 3 (e) of the Act, the Hindi interpretation restricts the meaning to gruh (home) and awaas (dwelling). Another threatening situation faced by such tribes occurred on the 13th of February when the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of lakhs belonging to the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers categories over 16 states, whose claim as forest dwellers has been rejected under the Forest Rights Act. It directed the eviction to be completed by 24 July 2019. Amidst all of this, the tribes being poor and illiterate have no knowledge of filing claims and are not even aware of the rejection order.

As a developing country, India is taking one step at a time towards environmental justice. After the commercial, social and environmental devastation caused by the British, India has a long way to recover with constant barriers on the way. As long as we continue to question — “who gets what, why and how much”— we will be aware of our shortcomings in order to improvise on them.

Vanshika Mittal is a student of Economics and Environmental Science and is currently enrolled in Ashoka University as an undergraduate student.


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