Call for a special developmental agenda for the forest fringe villages of Assam

By Jayanta Kr. Sarma


Photo Jayanta Kr. Sarma


Prelude


Covid-19 pandemic creates a different narrative, where health, food & nutrition and livelihood security are considered as primary issues to be focussed upon for ensuring wellbeing of the people in Assam. However, these issues are linked with the state of environment and environmental security, because ecological services are the primary determinant to build up foundation for health, food and livelihood security. Forestry contributes to a great extent to the economic and ecological stability of a region. Therefore since the period of 14th Finance commission, forest is considered as critical component of center state financial relation; even it is also considered as factor in 15th Finance Commission. 15th Finance commission considered forest and ecological aspects as factors of consideration to provide grant in aid for the period of 2020-21. It implies that forest cover of the state is a critical factor to get center’s grant in aid to pursue wellbeing measures for the people.


In this circumstance, we must remember, whatever forest cover is available in different parts of the state, it is the sacrifice of forest fringe villagers. If they would not lead an ecosystem approach of living, we may not get the forest as such; it may get converted to land of degradation. Actually, in so doing people living in such villages’ sacrifice many of the requirements which demands intensive land uses, rampant uses of forest resources etc. Therefore, such area deserves special developmental interventions.


Many a times it is interpreted as part and parcel of the duty of the Forest department to take care of forest fringe villages; however, forest department’s mandate is not same with the mandate of line department like Health, Education, Rural Development, Agriculture, Veterinary, Industry, Power, Transport, Handloom Textile, Sericulture etc. For holistic development of such forest fringe villages require an integrated approach of all the departments. The ongoing programmes of forest department like - Eco-development programme for the fringe villages of the protected area, Joint Forest Management programme for the fringe villages of the Reserve Forest area though has its own mandate for mobilizing and organizing community for forest and wildlife conservation and sustainable use of resources for livelihood generation. However, the forest department is not liable to address many of the basic needs for the people living in such area.


Therefore, it is high time to look into the context of the forest fringe villages and the people to cater their basic needs as well as support for development. It should be an important issue for consideration in the planning of post covid19 pandemic developmental.


State scenario


Assam having an average forest cover of 36.11% of its geographical area, with 3.56% Very Dense Forest, 13.10 % Moderately Dense Forest, 19.45% open forest (1). However, there is a variation of forest cover at district level. In Dima Hasao district forest cover is highest in relation to its geographical area with 86.07 %. It is followed by Karbi-Anglong with 75.61% (table-1). Similarly district like Cacahr, Hailakandi, Karimganj, Kamrup (Metro), Tinsukia having more than 40% of their district area under forest; Chirang, Kokrajhar and Kamrup having more than 30% of its district area under forest (table-1).


Table-1 . District wise forest cover in Assam


The state having 312 Reserve Forest, 145 proposed reserve forest, along with protected area includes 5 national park, 18 wildlife sanctuary, 2 Tiger Reserve, 2 Biosphere reserve, 5 elephant reserve, 2 world natural heritage site. Out of the more than 26000 villages in the state more than 5000 village (around 22%, considering village located on the boundary of forest and 2km Buffer from the boundary of the forest) are located in the fringe of forest either in the fringe of Reserve Forest or in the fringe of the protected area. Moreover, there are around more than 200 villages having forest area within the village boundary managed by the community as village/community forest or sacred as area.


Contemporary context


Forest fringe villages located nearby the forest area with forest and other associated natural assets provide ecological services to the specific area as well as it is sprawling to a larger area. Because of the location of these villages near the natural bounty, the villagers usually lead a traditional knowledge base culturally intoned way of life.

In contrast, such villages, mostly isolated from the developed road network (like National Highway, State High way, blacktopped road etc), deprived of higher education facilities and specialized health facilities nearby (table-2). As a result of which people of such villages are deprived from contemporary developmental interventions, have to face the threat of wildlife, depend on forest for their basic necessities, viz. food, fodder, fuel, fiber, medicine , building material etc.


Table 2. Contextual situation in forest fringe villages


Example from the field


As there is no comprehensive state level study on the aspects, following examples are sighted in brief to highlight the livelihood scenario, traditional and cultural wisdom of the fringe villagers towards forest and ecology. These are the synoptic note of some field studies.

Forest fringe villages of Manas Landscape where people striving with nature

There are 70 census villages located on the boundary and 1km buffer of the boundary of the Manas National Park having 14,215 households with a total population of 71338 ( Census, 2011, map-1).


Map-1. Distribution of fringe villages in Manas National Park.


Among the villages, there are only 65% HH having their own land resources, 27% HH are agricultural land less and 8% land less. 89% of the HH use pit toilet and 59% of the HH having own source for drinking water. The average distances from the villages to high school is 7km; where maximum distance for 15 villages is 11km; similarly average distance for public health center is 13 km and highest distance from 11 villages is 26km . Average distance from public transportation facilities is 6km, where highest is 12km from 11 villages.

Only 23% of the HH can managed their house hold requirement of rice from own production for 10 to 12 months. It is noteworthy that 82% of the HH depends on National Park and collect Non-timber forest product (NTFP) from the park, among different NTFP product around 58% HH collect firewood for self consumption as well as for sales in nearby market . Apart from these, common NTFP collected by people was Silk Cotton, Grass, Thatch, Edible Herbs, Edible wild vegetables, Fish (2).


It is noteworthy that 46% of the total population are in the age group of 18 to 32 years, out of which 78% are unemployed and rest are engaged as agricultural labour, wage earner in different services, casual worker etc.


Moreover, there are around 63 hectares of land within these villages under village common land, most significant one is village forest managed by villagers of No 2 and No 4 Chourang village of Panbari range of Manas National Park. Here community develop a forest area on a land , which was developed because of changing the Mansa river course ; now even Elephant and Wild boar coming to this forest patches to deliver their new baby.

If we consider the Manas Landscape which covers forest network of BTAD districts includes national park, wildlife sanctuary and reserve forest. Entire landscape having numbers of example of community based water management practices through traditional ‘Dong’ practices where forest also plays important role. Best examples are there in Subankhata area of Baksa district, Chourung area of Chirang district , Nunai Khuti – Bhutiya chang area of Udalguri, where practices are collaborative effort of several villages under organized institution of ‘Dong management committee’ working for more than 30 to 40 years in respective area. Many of these management committees have their written constitutions for operation and management; by mandate forest and water resources are managed by the community for water inputs to agriculture and household uses. These are the ways how forest fringe villagers take care of natural resources including forest.


Kohora River Basin Area where People live in the midst of forest

Map-2. Kohora River Basin



Kohora River Basin sprawling over, latitude of N26°33' to N26°36' and longitude of E93°20' to E93°26', covers an area of 31.50 sq.km under administration of Karbi-Anglong Autonomous District Council (map-1) . The area is habitation of Karbi community from historic past where there is a Karbi name for the Kohora River – “Kindu Langso” means river with Rhino. According to local people in earlier days there were swampy areas and grass land along the river where Rhino used to roam around. Presently there are four Karbi villages in the basin area with 137 Household and 706 populations. Out of the total area of the basin, significantly 70% of the area covered by forest with mixed moist deciduous forest (36%) and semi evergreen forest covers (34%), along with 11% of Bamboo coverage followed by settlement area, abundant jhum, current jhum, degraded forest, tea garden and river area (fig.1). Here, people live almost in midst of forest.


All the 137 HH living in the area practices livelihood in combination, which is one of the unique approach of livelihood strategy of indigenous Karbi community (also very common to tribal communities living in the fringes of forest- fig.2).



It is noteworthy that every combination of livelihood contributes differently towards annual income of the practicing families (fig.3). It is noteworthy that, majority of the HH having practices of NTFP collection and sales (NTFPCS) and Homestead agro-forestry ( HASF) in their ‘Hem biri’ ( in Karbi) followed by Livestock rearing ( LSR), Jhum (JH) and Wet Paddy cultivation (WP) along with handloom (HL). There are some HH who have engagement in Cash Cropping (CC), which includes plantation of tea in homestead area; bamboo and a section also go for broom plantation (3).


However, people are deprived from actual price of their product from NTFP, Plantation crop because of middle man. In case of NTFP, aromatic plant like Homalomena aromatic ( trade name Sugandh mantri) which is collected in large scale, people get only Rs.20.00 per kg however market price goes to Rs.200.00 per kg; similarly in case of Broom grass people get Rs. 8 to 15 per kg where its prices goes up to Rs.40.00 to 55.00 per kg. In case of homestead base Tea leaf middle man take up the area on lease for 5 to 10 years, where owner get only Rs. 2000.00 to Rs.5000.00 only. Most of the villagers in crisis situation take cash money as loan and they come into trapped of middle man.


Forest as cultural heritage for the people


Traditional Forest Classification system of Dimasa


Dimasa community having a specific traditional concept of land categorization and land use practices, which are reflection of their traditional ecological knowledge, develop through observation and experimental learning through different generation and it is evolved with traditional classification of land and along with land uses.


Traditionally land use of villages is classified into different categories and accordingly village level land uses are designed. The system was observed in Sampari Disha and Longma village of Dima Hasao district. Usually concept reflects certain circular pattern which is linked to watershed principle (fig.4).


Figure 4. Traditional Land use perception of Dimasa


The unique consideration of forest classification in this traditional practices reflect the people’s traditional observation of the vegetaion compostion and its scio-economic functions and its becoing their parts of cultural heritage.


Traditionally forest in the villages classified as Hadamsa ( Small forest), Hagra ( Mixed forest), Hagrama ( Deep forest- elderly forest ); where Small forest is the sources of day to day wild edibles and Bamboo mainly; Mixed forest is source of Building material, fodder, medicinal plant etc. On the other hand Deep forest is basically ecological and social buffer.


This traditional perception inherited into their cultural system, in many villages it is reflected in contemporary practices too. Usually, there is order of land use in relation to terrain condition, which is reflected in Longma village of Dima Hasao ( fig. 5).


This pattern reflects the idea of watershed regime, where high altitudinal areas are maintained under mixed forest and lower part is used for wet paddy. It is also the reflection of their traditional land use concept in the practice.


Figure 5. Land use situation in Longma village; (a) Landuse map of Longma; (b) Pattern of landuse Longma; (c) Transect profile of Longma.


Watershed regime is not confined to only to one village; it is connected to neighboring villages too. In reality water relationships prevails among the villages and manage ecological services collectively for wellbeing (4).

Figure 6. Reflection of water connectivity of Longma with neighboring villages


Forest for cultural identity among the Tangsa Naga


Kharang Kong village is located on the inter section of 95◦48΄20" E to 95◦49΄20" E longitude and 27◦21΄20"N to 27◦22΄20"N latitude belongs to Margherita Development Block of Tinsukia district. It is inhabited by Tangsa Naga community with 34 HH and 155 population.