Uttar Pradesh's forest farmers await official recognition, govt benefits even after 72 years of Independence

Uttar Pradesh's forest farmers await official recognition, govt benefits even after 72 years of Independence

Uttar Pradesh's forest farmers await official recognition, govt benefits even after 72 years of Independence

Azeem Mirza

Bahraich: Katarniaghat in Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich district, which straddles the Indo-Nepalese border, attracts thousands of tourists and nature lovers from all over the country as well as world. In this wildlife reserve, one can get to hear the roar of tigers and lions, trumpeting of elephants, grunting of rhinoceros, and chirping of a variety of birds. Katarniaghat is also home to Ganges Dolphins and the highly endangered species of vultures.

Precisely for this reason, Katarniaghat was given the slogan “Durlabh, Sulabh Hai!” (Rare, But Accessible!). However, a 7,000-strong population living in its vicinity, called Vantangiyas or vangramvasis, shows a stark contrast, surviving in pitiable and pathetic conditions.


The exploitation that broke a community’s back

Bahraich is included in Planning Commission’s list of 100 most backward districts. It has 14 development blocks of which Mihirpurva is at the bottom. Predominantly, Mihirpuva is covered with dense forests in which five villages — Bhawanipur, Bichiya, Tediya, Dhakiya, and Gokulpur aka Kailashnagar — are referred to as vangrams.

During British Raj in the 18th century, a permanent solution law was enacted to streamline and increase revenue collection. The result was that zamindars acquired most of the lands, leaving a large number of farmers landless. To sustain themselves, these farmers then became farm labourers. In 1865, the British decided to develop forestland and introduced a forest management system because the government needed a huge quantity of wood to lay railway tracks. It also needed cheap as well as begaar (unpaid) labour. Hence, the government announced a resettlement plan under which many farmers were given uninhabited lands, where they built homes and began farming. The government charged them 37 paise per bigha as revenue. The British officers exploited the resettled farmers by compelling them to work without pay for various services, like facilitating hunting expeditions, providing livestock free of cost, and paving roads.

Compared to other communities residing in jungles across the country, the resettled farmers were not given social and lawful recognition. They were not even considered citizens of India.

The five villages these Vantangiyas inhabited were not considered part of any village panchayat or district panchayat in Uttar Pradesh Panchayati Raj Act, 1995. Their names were not included in the Families Register Part 2, which was very essential for establishing their official identity.

All this deprived them of the benefits of several welfare schemes. In the absence of proof of residence, income or caste, they could not even open bank accounts, let alone seek bank loans for self-employment opportunities. They could not apply for passports or seek government jobs. No below poverty line survey or census was conducted in vangrams, and though they were allotted lands, no Vantangiya was considered landowner. They were exploited by unscrupulous forest officials.


Slaving for survival even after Independence

Even after Independence, there was no improvement in the Vantangiyas’ plight, as they continued to slog for 10-12 hours without remuneration from the forest department.

Moved by their plight, NGO Dehat launched an outreach programme in 2003, as part of which it created awareness among Vantangiyas about their social and legal rights. The result was that after a three-year sustained struggle, they attained freedom from unpaid labour. However, rights enjoyed by other citizens of the country still remain a distant dream for them.

On April 14, 2010, though the then district magistrate of Bahraich Rigzin Samphel gave them permission to do farming on forestland, there was no marked improvement in their lives as their villages were not included in revenue records. Hence, the benefits did not reach them.

According to Gita Prasad from Dhakia village, which is among the five Vantangiya villages or vangrams, “The forest department gave land to our ancestors and charged them revenue. But later, the revenue policy was declared illegal and we were evicted from these lands. Meanwhile, in 2006, another Act was enforced; it stipulated that those aged above 75 would be given land rights. Though many filled claim forms, only 14 were accepted. Against these 14 accepted claims, 15 land deeds were executed in Dhakia, eight in Tediya, and 19 in Bhavanipur.”

Highlighting the persisting problems, Gita Prasad adds: “There are no roads, not even kharanja (brick) tracks. Benefits of government schemes still don’t reach us. During elections, politicians come to seek our votes, but afterwards, they turn their backs on us.

“We were hoping that Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath would come to Bhavanipur and grant us revenue status. But he visited only Bahraich on December 29, 2018. We had to arrange our own transport all the way there only to be told that revenue status had been bestowed on Gokulpur village alone, despite the other four vangrams — Tedhi, Dhakia, Bhavanipur, and Bichiya — belonging to Katarniaghat forest range. When we shared the disappointing news with our fellow villagers, they went into a rage. Resentment is growing day by day.”

Bhanmati, who won the President’s Award for Beti Padhao, Beto Bachao, is herself Tediya vangramvasi. “When politicians come seeking our votes, they address the women as “Maaee”, “Behni”, “Dadi”, and “Bua”. But when it comes to government welfare schemes, we are considered vangramvasi,” she fumes.

"Now we know our rights. We will snatch it from the government if it is not given to us and we will not resist in becoming terrorists if our rights are denied to us,"Bhanmati said. 

भानमती ने साफ-साफ कहा अब हमें अधिकार का पता चल गया है, मांगने से नहीं देंगें तो छीन लेंगें, फिर भी नहीं मिला तो "आतंकवादी" बन जायेंगे यह भी नही जोड़ा गया।

“We are not going to keep quiet any longer. We are aware of our rights now; if the government doesn’t ensure them, we will take extreme steps. If Modi-Yogi do not protect our interests, we might even have to resort to violent agitation. After all, we have to fight for our children’s future.”


Of dark nights and absent facilities

Airing more grievances, Bhavanipur vangramvasi Sohan Lal Yadav says, “When someone falls critically ill in our village, we carry the patient on a charpoy and walk several kilometres to reach the nearest health centre, because there is no electricity here. The kerosene lamps that we use can’t stand against the breeze. At night, we have to keep our children huddled together to protect them from snakes and scorpions.”

"If we are not the residents of India then the government should get us all killed," Yadav said

सोहन यादव के बयान- हम लोग हिंदुस्तान के नागरिक नहीं तो सरकार हमलोंगों को गोली मरवा दे।

In 2011, 20 per cent of vangramvasi population was given land deeds. Was there any change in their lives because of it? “None whatsoever, scoffs Yadav. One can’t get bank loans against patta, nor can anybody access health services in the absence of khatauni. It’s us who protect the forests. If we move out of here, forests and wildlife will vanish in no time. The government keeps claiming that no section of the society will remain deprived of benefits, but that’s far from reality.”

For land allotment in any vangram, the only condition is that the person should be aged above 75. However, a 78-year-old Dhakiya vangramvasi complains, “I have not been given any land, nor pension. In my village, there are 250 families, but only eight have been given land. Where is ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’? We have been pushed into a do-or-die situation!”

Somewhat more shocking is a pointer from Bhavanipur vangramvasi Putti Lal. “There are 2,500 families in my village but not a single toilet. Moreover, there are nearly 350 children and no school; they are forced to study in makeshift tents.”


All talk and no action?

When this reporter approaches Bansidhar Baudh, former social welfare minister in UP’s previous Samajwadi Party government, to find out why vangrams were not brought within the revenue department’s ambit, he claims: “When I was minister, I took the vangramvasi issues to CM Akhilesh Yadav, following which a proposal was sent to the social welfare department. It said all those aged above 18 would be given Rs 10 lakh to move out of the forests. The scheme worked for a while, but after the SP was voted out of power, the matter hit a roadblock.”

According to Dr Jitendra Chaturvedi, who has been fighting for the rights of vangramvasis for more than 15 years, “The vangramvasis have been living deprived lives for almost 154 years. Thirteen years have passed since the passing of law to protect the forests, and yet, those living there haven’t got even a fraction of the benefits. Because they haven’t been given their rights, they can’t even build pucca homes or toilets; neither is there any drainage system nor brick roads.

“Since vangramvasis haven’t been assimilated into the Indian mainstream, they are forced to live a life without dignity. The only way to bring them into the mainstream is to include their villages in revenue department records.”

Gokulpur is the lucky one to get included in revenue records, but the other four don’t know why they have been left out in the cold and when the authorities will consider their situation.

District magistrate Shambhu Nath assured this reporter that the process to include the other vangrams in revenue records was on. However, considering the bouquet of empty promises in the past, when that will actually happen, only time will tell.


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