“We got a lease on agricultural land and housing and people rejoiced that they finally got freedom, but our community got divided. The election of village head has become a curse for Vantangiyas. In every village, 12 to 13 political parties have mushroomed. The land is still registered in the name of the forest department, so what have we actually won?
Our fight isn’t over. For us, the main demand is the consolidation of land and registration under khasras and khatauni. We will continue to fight until our demands are fulfilled. Once this is done, everything else will fall into place,” said Bharat, the head of Barhwa forest village, addressing a meeting of the Vantangiya community village heads.
Bharat’s remark sums up the condition of the Vantangiyas residing across 23 villages across forested areas of eastern Uttar Pradesh. Representatives of these villages present in the meeting seem to agree.
The Vantangiyas have inhabited forest villages across Gorakhpur and Maharajganj districts in Uttar Pradesh for more than a century. But community members often complain that despite living in an independent country, they are not free and have been deprived of rights as citizens.
One and a half decades after the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, the Vantangiyas finally managed to take possession of the land with a unified struggle, brought their villages under a revenue system and successfully connected them to the panchayat system.
The Vantangiya villages have witnessed a transformation during the last decade. They now have schools, Anganwadis, pucca roads and electric lights. To an outsider, it may appear that the problems of forest villages and Vantangiyas, in particular, have been solved, but among the community, which remained isolated for about 100 years (27 years under the British rule and 73 years of independent India), there is disquiet over being connected to the mainstream.
This unease is more about the community’s fear of losing their identity and history than getting access to facilities like housing and ration. The community is also apprehensive about procuring rights as intended under the Forest Rights Act. The struggle is far from over.
A century of oppression and achievement
More than 5,000 Vantangiya families live in 23 forest villages in Gorakhpur and Maharajganj districts. About 100 years ago, during British rule, natural forests were cleared on a large scale to make way for railway tracks. The British decided to develop a forested region in its place based on the Tangiya method – a farming system practised in the mountains of Myanmar.
For this purpose, a large number of labourers from the villages of Gorakhpur district were brought to the forest. They came to be called the ‘Vantangiyas’ – van means forest while tangiya is derived from the word tongya, where tong means mountain and ya means agricultural field. Tangiya system was introduced in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand between 1920 and 1923.
Apart from India, the British also started Tangiya cultivation in places like Java, Uganda, Nigeria, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Kenya.
The introduction of the Tangiya system in Uttar Pradesh in India has an interesting history.
Kanjiv Lochan gives a detailed account in his book Hari Chhaanh Ka Aatank (The Terror of the Green Shade). He writes, “Railway tracks began to be laid in the country beginning in the year 1853. The demand for sleepers for railway tracks had increased significantly. By 1878, more than 20 lakh fasteners had been used for laying the railway line. In addition, wood was used as fuel in railway locomotives.”
“A map prepared by the East India Company for the year 1835 shows that the present day Maharajganj district was an uninterrupted belt of lush green forest until the Nepal border. At that time, a strip of forests of varied width extended from Brijmanganj to Gorakhpur along the northern bank of Rapti and on both ends of Rahin and further extended to Deoria as a continuous chain.”
“According to the Imperial Gazetteer, the city of Gorakhpur was a small settlement with a population of more than 20,000 until 1908. In eastern Uttar Pradesh, 85% of villages were such that they had a population of less than 2,000 and they were quite scattered.”
The British East India Company entered the Gorakhpur region in 1801. In 1764, the Nawab of Awadh, who owned most of the area in UP, was defeated by the British in the Battle of Buxar. The forest extended up to the Nepal border. Between 1801 and 1830, there was a free run for forest land as lease was granted mostly to Europeans.
“The condition of the lease was that the leaseholders should clear the forest and cultivate it, but instead of clearing the forest, they cut down sal (Sakhu) trees. Between 1801 and 1830, more than 70,000 trees were felled,” states the book.
Between 1830 and 1860, John Bridgeman owned 70,000 acres of forested land, Finch had 90,000 acres, and Lady Malkin had 23,000 acres of forest. One Mr Pepe was given the lease of the forest in 1857, but these Britishers failed to clear the forest.
The British government then confiscated some of the leased portions of the forested region. Soon, the concept of forest conservation was introduced as it was feared that if the exploitation of sal and teak continued as such, there would soon be a timber crisis. Following this, till 1860, a good amount of forests was declared ‘protected’ and there was a ban on tree felling. People were directed to cut only hollow and misshapen trees, but the policy was not followed. Meanwhile, due to increasing demand for railway track construction, large scale felling of trees began.
It was mentioned in the annual report of 1882-83 that the department had awarded the contract for the supply of wood for the Patna-Bahraich railway line at the rate of two rupees four annas to two rupees six annas per sleeper.
Between 1860 and 1890, another policy was introduced under which it was claimed that instead of clearing forests, it was better to develop forested regions which would ensure continuous availability of timber. In its wake, the concept of tree plantation evolved for which the Tangiya method was adopted.
The British needed a large number of labourers to cultivate sal and teak forests and invited labourers to work on plantations. Economically backward, landless and Dalit labourers fed up with the feudal and caste oppression took to the opportunity eagerly. They found migration from villages to the forest as a way to escape persecution, but the British rulers soon turned them into bonded labourers.
Ramjatan’s grandfather Jhakri, who had been the head of Barhwa forest village, was also one of those thousands of poor labourers.
Parasnath Sahni of Khurrampur village says that his father had arrived there to work on a sal plantation. He was born in the forest and was put to work at the age of five. He toiled as a sal cultivator until 1983 during which period, he suffered a lot too.
Most of the forest cover spread over about 55,000 hectares in both the districts is owing to the labour of the Tangiya farmers. According to North Gorakhpur Forest Division and South Gorakhpur Forest Division Action Plan 1984-1993, Vantangiyas helped grow 89.59 lakh sal, 7.04 lakh teak and 1,842 shisham trees in both the divisions.
Working as bonded labourers
Tangiya farmers were given a beat area of 30 hectares each. The area was cleared for planting sal and teak saplings. Next, smaller portions of 0.2 hectares (half an acre) were given to each Tangiya farmer where they removed the stubble of semi or completely chopped trees. Then a 5 metre (16 ft) path was constructed at the boundary of the coupe. In the middle of the coupe, a 3 ft wide footpath was also made for commuting. A barbed-wire fence was put up around the coupe. Three-foot wide and 2 ft deep drains were dug around the tract of land and bushes were planted in it.
Upon completion of this work, Tangiya farmers were given a year to cultivate the land till the saplings were ready for planting. Tangiya farmers were free to cultivate paddy and maize in Kharif season, and wheat, barley and gram in Rabi season, but were not allowed to cultivate too densely. After harvesting the Rabi crop, Tangiya farmers would plant sal saplings on 0.2 hectares. They would prepare flower beds that were nearly 48-inch wide and 36-inch deep. There was a distance of nine feet between rows, each row being a straight line.
In monsoon, Tangiya farmers climbed sal trees to pluck fresh flowers and obtained seeds which were then planted in the beds. The British had ordered them not to use fallen seeds as they were stale and had less potential to develop into trees. As sal trees are very tall and do not have branches, the process of climbing those trees and plucking flowers was quite hazardous and often resulted in Tangiya farmers falling to death or becoming crippled.
After the sal seeds were planted, they were nurtured from June to September, and weeds were cleaned thrice.
In this way, a Tangiya farmer used to plant sal saplings in four plots of half an acre in four years. In the fifth year, he would be sent to another coupe.
Teak trees, which grow rapidly and do not need much care, were planted on vacant spots within the Tangiya settlements.
During these four years, Tangiya farmers would continue to take care of the saplings. Meanwhile, the process of ‘thinning’ was also adopted in which feeble plants were uprooted.
Tangiya farmers were required to take care of the plants for seven years. In their settlements, they had to dig wells for drinking water and build huts. In the forest, Tangiya farmers would often fall prey to malaria. Diarrhoea was common as the water was salty and unclean. To cope with such illnesses, the British encouraged the Tangiya farmers to prepare and consume alcohol.
Tangiya farmers were not paid any wages for planting saplings. In exchange for their labour, they were allowed to grow food on the plantation and feed themselves and their families. They were also allowed to take from the forest material needed to build huts. Later, a school was also opened in the area where forest department officials taught children from the Tangiya settlements.
From 1920 to 1930, a large forested area was developed in Gorakhpur district owing to sal planting using the Tangiya method.
While enumerating the advantages of forest development by the Tangiya method in the Provincial Tangiya Conference of 1933, it was claimed that the benefits of the method are two-fold.
“First, it has led to the development of forests at a very fast pace. Second, the state expenditure on it has been almost zero. Tangiya labourers are not paid even a single penny in cash. They are allowed to cultivate among the beds of plants in exchange for wages. For this, rent is also collected from them at Re 1 per acre.”
Even after the country gained independence in 1947 until 1980, Tangiya workers continued to work for the government the same way as they did under the British. The afforestation work using this method lasted till 1984, and in some places till 1991. Vantangiyas were made to do forced labour even in independent India. For refusing work, they would be beaten up, false cases were registered against them, they were fined or even arrested. Isolated in forests and deprived of basic amenities and government schemes, Vantangiyas struggled with malnutrition, disease and illiteracy and had no one to raise voice for them.
There were neither government schools nor Anganwadis in the forest villages. There were no ration shops or even health sub-centres. Vantangiyas were left out of all schemes announced by the government. No registration of birth or death was made in the villages, nor any ration cards, residence or caste certificates were issued.
As a result, many Vantangiya youth were deprived of higher education. The roads leading to the forest villages were unpaved. During the rainy season, the forest villages were completely cut off from the outside world. If a person fell ill and needed medical assistance, he would be carried on a cot to be taken to a hospital.
Between 1982 and 1984, the Forest Department started forcing the community members to sign agreements on the pretext of permanently settling the Vantangiyas. The agreement stated that once the work of forest cultivation was over, their rights over the forest land would automatically cease and they would be called to work again if required.
When the Tangiya farmers objected to the draft contract and refused to sign it, they were declared encroachers and attempts were made to evict them from the forest. Several incidents of confrontation between the villagers and forest officials were also reported.
On July 6, 1985, forest personnel opened fire on villagers in Tilkonia forest village of Gorakhpur in which two Vantangiyas, Panchu and Pardeshi, were killed while several others were injured. In the matter, nine forest workers were sentenced to life imprisonment by the Gorakhpur court on December 3, 1991.
For refusing to sign the agreement, one village Compart 24 was completely uprooted. On December 25, 1985, in Bhariwaisi forest village of Gorakhpur district, the police and administration mowed down the crops with tractors and arrested more than four dozen Vantangiyas.
Many Vantangiyas went to court against the evictions and the court ordered a stay in the matter.
Vantangiyas soon began a unified movement against oppression and forced eviction from the forest. In 1992, the community formed an organisation called Vantangiya Development Committee and started a struggle to claim their rights. Krishna Mohan (commonly referred to as Swamiji and Babaji among the community) became the source of inspiration for the movement.
VDC not only opposed the persecution of the community by the forest department but also set up schools across forest villages. The organisation also launched an awareness campaign against illegal deforestation and liquor production.
With the help of this organisation, Vantangiyas approached the high court and were granted a stay in 1997 against eviction from the forest.
Vantangiyas, who were pivotal in cultivating an invaluable forest cover by investing their blood and sweat, were deprived of rights as citizens of the country for a long time. Since their settlements were not listed as revenue villages, no government scheme would reach them. Moreover, such stringent restrictions were imposed on them by the forest department that their life became hell.
They were not allowed to build a pucca house, or install hand pumps for drinking water. They were fined for plucking berries and plums. They were granted the right to vote in the nineties and were issued ration cards only a decade ago. There were no facilities for health or education in the villages. As a result, an entire generation of the community was deprived of education.
Bhariwaisi resident Hariram says that his grandfather had migrated to work as a labourer in the forest. After him, his father continued working at the plantation and he too joined him.
“When Baba Ji (Late Krishna Mohan) formed the organisation and started the struggle for the rights of Vantangiyas, I had gone to Mumbai to work as a labourer,” recalls Hariram. “Baba Ji asked me to return and join the struggle. I left my job at a steel factory and returned. At that time, agreement papers were being signed and we refused to sign them. The administration mowed down our crop with a tractor.
When we confronted them, a constable of the forest department pointed a gun at us. We grabbed his gun. A case was registered against 42 people of the village and they were arrested, but were later released on bail. Then, with the help of Baba ji, we filed a writ petition in the high court and got a stay order.”
Hariram passionately recalls the struggle of the Vantangiyas, and credits the success of the struggle to Krishna Mohan, whose picture adorns the main door of his house.
Vantangiyas gather every year on September 12 to commemorate the death anniversary of Krishna Mohan aka Baba Ji and pledge to stay united in their struggle.
This story of Vantangiyas is recorded in Kanjiv Lochan’s book Hari Chhah Ka Aatank and Ashish Kumar Singh and Dheeraj Sarthak’s documentary film Between the Trees.
Forest Rights Act and its aftermath
In 2006, the UPA-I government passed a law to recognise the rights of Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers. This law is widely known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006. This law came into force on December 31, 2007 across the country.
Under this, tribals and other traditional forest dwellers, who have lived primarily in forests or on forest land for three generations before December 31, 2005 and depended on the forest for their real needs of livelihood, were given the right to occupancy of forest land for agriculture and housing. Basic amenities like schools, Anganwadis, electricity, water, and roads were to be made available to these forest villages. This law also gives rights to forest dwellers on minor forest produce.
After the implementation of the law, Vantangiya Vikas Samiti started efforts to get leases on agricultural and residential land along with other rights under it. Initially, the forest department categorically refused to consider Vantangiyas as traditional forest dwellers as defined under the law. Till the enactment of the law, more than three generations of the Vantangiyas had lived in the forest, yet the forest department continued to oppose it.
Vantangiya Vikas Samiti first held meetings in each village and spread awareness about the Forest Rights Act among the community. Next, Forest Village Committees were formed in every village which collected individual and community claims of all Vantangiyas and forwarded them to the block level and then to the district committee.
The committees had the tough task in the entire process as they had to gather and present irrefutable photographic evidence of three generations of Vantangiyas inhabiting the forest, documents of the forest department’s action plan, and other proofs. The Vantangiya Vikas Samiti did the herculean job of getting three-tier committees constituted, organising meetings with them. Once the claims were approved, forwarded them for further action. At times, the committee also had to resort to protests and organise a movement.
The administration was ultimately forced to accept that Vantangiyas had been living in the forest for three generations and, as per the Forest Rights Act, were one of the traditional forest-dwelling communities entitled to get all the rights under the law.
Under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, 4,300 Vantangiyas living in 23 forest villages of Gorakhpur and Maharajganj districts were given ownership rights over their residential and agricultural land in 2011, before the UP assembly elections. At that time, the Bahujan Samaj Party was in power in the state.
When agricultural and housing lease documents were distributed among Vantangiyas at a function held in the Maharajganj district, the community members rejoiced and celebrated. It was claimed that they had finally earned freedom.
According to the reply given by the government in the Lok Sabha on July 22, 2019, 4,237,853 claims were received under the Forest Rights Act till March 31, 2019 out of which 1,753,504 were rejected. In UP, 93,644 claims were received under this law, out of which 74,945 were rejected.
Details of authority letters issued to the Vantangiya community of Maharajganj and Gorakhpur districts
|District||Families||Authority letters issued||Land for housing (hectares)||Land for agricultural (hectares)||Total Land
After being granted agricultural and residential land leases in 2011, the Vantangiyas launched another struggle to mark their villages as revenue villages, connect them with the panchayat system, to build schools, Anganwadis, and hospitals and to claim the right to minor forest produce.
In the 2012 assembly elections and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Vantangiyas announced that they would boycott elections alleging the government’s failure to meet their demands. On both occasions, officials assured the community that their demands would be met, and managed to convince them to reconsider their decision to boycott elections, but no action was taken.
Until then, there was no school in any Vantangia village. Vantangiya Vikas Samiti was working towards the education of children with the help of a few educated community members. In 2012, the Basic Education Department started an open school in Tilkonia, Gorakhpur and appointed two teachers. The forest department objected to the opening of the school and harassed both the teachers. But, due to the opposition of the Vantangiyas, the school continued to run out in the open.
Elections in forest villages
During September 19-20, 2016, 4,000 Vantangiyas camped at the Gorakhpur commissioner’s office for the fulfilment of their 14-point demands and launched an indefinite camp/siege. The movement also got the support of many political parties. Chief minister Yogi Adityanath, the then MP of Gorakhpur, also arrived at the protest site and lent support to the movement.
Under pressure from all fronts, the commissioner of Gorakhpur finally reached the agitation site and announced that all Vantangiya villages will be brought under the purview of the Panchayat system. He also assured that efforts would be made to fulfil the remaining demands soon. In 2016, Panchayat elections were conducted by merging all 23 forest settlements with respective nearby villages.
For the first time in 68 years since independence, 23,000 Vantangiyas living in 23 forest villages of Gorakhpur and Maharajganj participated in the Panchayat elections. A Dalit community member Ramjatan was elected head of Barhawa Chandan Chakhi forest village. Barhawa village with 317 Tangiya families was merged with another nearby village Chandan Chakhi to form a single panchayat unit. A regional panchayat member of the village, Anita, a Dalit, was elected from here.
Despite being brought under the Panchayat system, not much changed for the Vantangia villages as they were still not granted revenue status. The forest department continued to prevent any permanent, cement-and-brick construction in the forest villages. Nothing more than a platform for hand pumps could be built here.
Despite all the efforts, the elected Vantangiya Panchayat representatives could not even get a school built in their villages, nor get the road repaired. As the population of forest villages was not connected to the panchayat, the budget was also not allocated for the development of the forest villages.
Granting of revenue status
In the 2017 assembly elections also, Vantangiyas again raised their demand to grant revenue status to their forest villages. As the government changed in the state and Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath, who was well aware of the plight of the Vantangiyas, was elected chief minister, in November 2017, all 23 forest villages of Gorakhpur and Maharajganj were declared revenue villages.
Soon, the construction of schools, Anganwadi, roads, installation of electricity, drinking water supply, pension, housing and other schemes were approved for the villages.
In the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly on August 18, 2021, the then forest, environment and climate change minister Dara Singh Chouhan, in response to the question of MLA Sushma Patel, said that out of 13 districts of the state – Lakhimpur, Balrampur, Bahraich, Gorakhpur, Mirzapur, Sonbhadra, Lalitpur, Maharajganj, Chitrakoot, Chandauli, Gonda, Saharanpur and Bijnor – 38 Tangia/Forest villages in seven districts had been declared as revenue villages. Of these, 18 had been made revenue villages in Maharajganj, five each in Gonda, Gorakhpur and Balrampur, three in Saharanpur and one each in Lakhimpur Kheri and Bahraich districts.
Once the forest villages were granted revenue status, changes began to appear albeit at a slow pace. While schools and Anganwadis have been built or are being built in the villages, pucca roads have also been laid in many places. The areas also have access to electricity now.
In the Maharajganj district, roads are still under construction in all villages except Belaspur and Bhariwaisi. Surpar, Kandhpur Pass and Belauha Pass still await a school and Anganwadi centre. It is claimed that the construction of the school has been delayed due to the non-availability of land in Kandhpur Pass and Belauha Pass. The school currently runs under a tree in Kandhpur Pass and a teacher has been appointed here. However, at many places where schools have been built, teachers have either not been appointed or there are very few of them.
Dharam Kumar Nishad, a young resident of Khurrampur, said that the school and the Anganwadi centre have been constructed, but the appointment of teachers and Anganwadi workers has not been made. They demand that Vantangiyas should be given preference in these jobs which will help assimilate the community into the mainstream.
Ambag’s Vishwambhar Maurya said that a school has been built in the village, but the road leading to it is still in poor condition. Around 160 children are enrolled in the school but there are only two teachers. Vantangiyas are still not being issued Ayushman Bharat cards.
Ramashankar, secretary of Tilkonia Forest Rights Committee, said that ration cards have been issued and the village has also been electrified but the road is yet to be built. Form V for consolidation has also been filled, but the process is still pending.
An Anganwadi centre, a school as well as a community toilet have been built in Rajhi Camp.
In the last five years, the work of housing, electricity, school, and Anganwadi has been carried out at a fast pace, but the work of connecting the forest villages with the main road is still pending. As a result, people face a lot of issues in commuting especially during the rainy season.
Due to the poor condition of the roads to the forest villages, transporting a sick person to the hospital in time is a major challenge. Kandhpur Pass resident Murari recounts that when his brother, 40-year-old Koil, fell ill, the ambulance did not arrive despite several calls. The ambulance driver said that reaching the village was not possible. Therefore, the family was forced to carry Koil on a cot until Tedhi Ghat from where he was driven to Campierganj CHC on a private vehicle by paying Rs 2,100.
Perpetual land issues
After five years of being declared a revenue village, the consolidation process has been completed in only one village, Chilbilwa of Gorakhpur. As the remaining 22 villages are yet to be consolidated, not only the Vantangiya residents of these villages are not getting the benefits of the government’s agricultural schemes, but there are also severe discrepancies between the acreage of the leased land and land actually acquired. In the absence of consolidation, land has not been registered under Khasra–Khatauni. As such the problems faced by the Vantangiya community are different from what the rest of the world can comprehend.
In 2011, while getting the lease of agricultural and housing land, the land area of hundreds of Vantangiyas was not recorded properly due to the negligence of revenue officials. There is a difference between the area of the land stated in the lease and the area of the land actually occupied. While the land area of many people is more on record than the actual land, for others it is less. Vantangiyas are worried that if this discrepancy is not removed once the consolidation process starts, land disputes will increase in the forest villages and the traditional harmony between them may not survive.
When the process of consolidation began last summer in Gorakhpur’s Tilkonia forest village, the villagers protested and obstructed it as there was a difference in the area of their claim papers and the land they owned. The Vantangiyas demand that the process of consolidation should be carried out only after the area of land has been ascertained in their claim letters.
Ramanyan, the head of Rajhi Camp village, said, “Lands of our people are not properly marked. Someone who owns 50 dismils (a unit of area) of land only has 25 dismils on the lease document. There are others who have less land but more area is recorded on lease.
The road in the village has also been marked inside our lands. It has caused damage to Vantangiya cultivators. Due to the paucity of land, the long-standing brotherhood within the community has been affected. Therefore, we want the correct details of the area to be recorded in the lease and registration of land accordingly in Khasra-Khatauni. We do not want to get into a legal dispute in the future. We are all small tenants and want to work with honesty.”
Out of 47 leaseholders of Rajhi Khale, the land of 42 has been miscalculated. Tilkonia’s Mithai possesses 68 dismils of land but only 28 dismils have been recorded on the lease. Another resident, Nanhu Paswan, has been granted 20 dismils less land on lease. Rajkumar owns only 34 dismils of land, while on paper he has been assigned 54 dismils.
Rajaram Sahni, president of Khurrampur Village Forest Rights Committee, said, “Consolidation and settlement are crucial so that the agricultural lands of our people can all be in one place making farming easier. We will also be able to reduce damage caused by stray and wild animals. Currently, we have small fields scattered at varying distances.”
Compart No. 28 resident, Noor Mohammad, says that consolidation and demarcation would have allowed them to build a ditch around the fields to protect crops from wild animals and stray cattle. Even the banks are not issuing Kisan Credit Cards due to the non-availability of a map and Khasra–Khatauni of forest villages.
Disjointed development plans
After they were declared revenue villages, government schemes are now being implemented in forest villages, which had so far remained outside the purview of development, but the work of implementation is being carried out on the basis of the lease given in 2011, due to which many complications have emerged.
By the time lease was granted, the population of Vantangiyas had increased. Six years after being declared a revenue village, housing and other schemes were implemented in the name of the lessee, while during this period the family of one leaseholder had grown into more than three families. As a result, the demand for participation in housing, toilets, cooking gas, electricity connection and other amenities has increased.
According to a release issued by the State Information Department on December 28, 2021, under the Mukhyamantri Awas Yojana-Rural, launched in February 2018, 4,822 people of the Vantangiya community were allotted houses in three years and Rs 1.20 lakh was given to them for the construction of houses.
“The benefits of government schemes have been received only in the name of the lessee, whereas now our family has grown,” said Jhinki of Khurrampur forest village. “My husband has three brothers. My son has also grown up and lives with his wife. How will we manage with a single house? The government should allot other houses.”
Chairman of the Vantangia Development Committee, Jayaram said that he has written a letter urging the government to provide housing to 2,800 Vantangis in addition to the leaseholders.
Stray cattle menace
Vantangis have always faced the challenge of protecting their crops from wild animals, but in recent years, the problem has aggravated with the increasing menace of stray cattle.
The stray cattle menace and the havoc it wreaks on agriculture has increased the rate of migration from forest villages and a large number of youngsters are moving to places like Delhi, Mumbai, and Gujarat to find work. The forest is flooded with stray bovine animals who are caught from the cities and released in these areas. Herds of strays destroy the hard-earned crops of the local farmers. Among wild animals, boar, deer, porcupine, nilgai and others also cause great damage to the crops. In order to protect the crop, the Vantangiyas have to keep a watch round the clock. Though the ‘stun machine’ has offered a solution, not all Vantangiyas can afford it.
The machine offers some respite as the villagers get to sleep at night but because farmland is not consolidated and fields are scattered, it is not a viable solution. In view of the damage caused by stray cattle, many Vantangiyas are leaving their land uncultivated.
“The government is neither managing stray animals nor is it concerned about the damage they cause to the crop,” said Khurrampur resident, Rajaram. “We are dealing with the problem on our own.”
The Vantangiyas possess fertile land in these forest villages where they grow wheat, paddy and many vegetables. They also rear a large number of cattle.
Rise in migration
The Vantangiyas toiled hard for nearly a century and planted the invaluable sal and teak trees on thousands of hectares of land to develop a thick green cover in the Gorakhpur and Maharajganj districts of UP. Now, their children are desperately searching for a future as labourers working with tiles, paint, and polish in metropolitan cities like Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad and Delhi.
Migration from forest villages has increased in recent years. The gravity of the migrant crisis in the region was highlighted when more than 1,000 labourers returned to 18 forest villages of Maharajganj in the lockdown imposed during the pandemic.
Sarvahitkari Seva Sansthan, an organisation run by social worker Vinod Tiwari, who has been working among the Vantangiyas for nearly three decades, had prepared a list of 208 labourers of forest villages who had returned during the lockdown. All of them had gone to work in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi. After the lockdown restrictions were lifted, the labourers returned to the cities for work.
All Vantangiyas in Gorakhpur and Maharajganj districts own agricultural land ranging from 1 to 3.5 acres. When asked why people are forced to migrate from the forest villages despite possessing land, Noor Mohammad replied:
“For three generations, we had small families and agriculture was enough to sustain us. Now, the size of families has increased but the agricultural land is the same. We can manage food grains, vegetables and a daily meal from it, but for other needs, the income is not adequate. The damage caused by stray cattle has further curtailed the profit from farming. As a result, Vantangiyas are leaving their fields uncultivated.”
The Forest Rights Act grants tribals and other traditional forest dwellers the right to forest produce, but the Vantangiyas have been deprived of this right as well. Had they been allowed to use forest produce, the income of Vantangiyas would have increased and migration would have been far less.
Problems arising out of river erosion
Situated on the banks of river Rohin, Kandhpur Pass forest village is facing the brunt of river erosion for the last three years. More than two dozen Vantangiya houses and more than 25 acres of land have been submerged in the river.
Nandlal, a local resident, warned that the river is slowly changing its course toward the village. “For three years, we have been demanding the administration to take measures to stop the erosion of the river but no attention has been paid,” he said. “If the situation remains the same, the housing provided by the government will also be destroyed in river erosion and we will become homeless.”
In the last three years, the houses, agricultural fields and fruit trees of local residents – Prem, Nebulal, Dhunmun, Somai, Asharfi, Srinivas, Rajendra, Shobhi, Ramkeval, Murari, Chandan, Bhikhari, Nandu, Ghurhu, Santbali, Arjun, Ramharakh, and Heera – have been destroyed in river erosion. In 2021, one acre of Murari’s field, in which he had planted banana and parvar crops, was inundated.
“The house and land all were swept in the flood,” said Heera. “Belauha Pass village faced a similar condition. If the erosion does not stop, everything will be destroyed.”
The people of Kandhapur Pass want the government and administration to control river erosion by building a dyke, but no action has been taken so far. Besides, no compensation has been granted to victims for damage caused by floods and river erosion.
“Today, the mainstream of the river flows where I once had my farmland and house,” said Sharda Devi. “Now, there is only one Nebua tree left. That too will be swept away by the river.”
Another resident, Premshila, lost her house in the flood. She has now set up a makeshift plastic tent by the roadside. Her husband works as a labourer and there are six people in the family. “Neither did we get help from the panchayat nor from the government,” she says sadly.
Jayaram Prasad, chairman of the Vantangiya Development Committee, said, “Due to our collective struggle, we managed to get access to facilities like housing, electricity, and cooking gas, but a lot of work still needs to be done. Forest villages have witnessed some changes, but a complete transformation is still awaited.”
He said that a total of 4,300 lease papers have been received. Around 400 people could not make a claim. The claims of 202 people in Bhari Vaisi, 18 in Khurrampur, 48 in Daulatpur, eight in Sarupar, 17 in Baluahia, 43 in Belaspur, six in Achalgarh, four in Chetra and 13 in Hathiyawa are under consideration at the subdivision level. The people want the verification of these claims to be done expeditiously and the process of granting lease to be hastened.
In five forest villages of Gorakhpur district, the claims of 57 people have been rejected among whom are several rightful claimants. In these villages, 16 people have not been able to get a lease. Claims are also pending at the subdivision level, out of which five are from Chilbilwa, seven from Tilkonia and two from Ambag.
Forest department’s hold over land
Bhari Vaisi village is situated on the Gorakhpur-Sonauli road which is proposed to be upgraded into a six-lane highway. The land of dozens of Vantangiyas is going to be acquired for the widening of the road. In the absence of consolidation and demarcation, the land distributed among the Vantangiyas is still registered in the name of the forest department.
If the government acquires the land, then Vantangiyas will not be able to claim compensation. Ranging from 0.080 hectare to one hectare, land owned by Shanti, Markandeya Sushila, Manoj, Hariram, Panchnam, Gunjana, Girijashankar, Poornamasi, Darshan, Jayaram, Pancham, Bhagtu, and Shankar has come under the ambit of road widening.
The landowners have given a memorandum in this regard to the land acquisition officer of Gorakhpur. The Vantangiya residents of the village want their land to be registered in their name before the widening of the road is undertaken.
Loss of history and identity
The 23 forest villages of Gorakhpur and Maharajganj districts are divided into two parliamentary constituencies and five assembly constituencies.
While Vantangiyas are happy to become part of the mainstream and get access to development, there is also a concern about losing their identity and unity. They fear that the transformation of the villages would cost them their history, identity and fraternity.
It is not a baseless fear. Forest villages are different from common Indian villages as they have no caste discrimination. If we look at the caste status of Vantangiyan farmers, their population mainly consists of 60% Nishad, 15% Scheduled Castes, 10% Muslim and 10% Other Backward Castes. There are no upper caste people in forest villages.
Being cut off from the outside world in the forest, unity developed in these forest villages similar to what exists in tribal communities and rising above caste distinctions, they developed their identity as the Vantangiya community. Fighting for their rights, they formed a tremendous unity.
In their villages, all decisions are taken in community meetings. Earlier, they chose a village head from amongst themselves who would address issues through village assembly. After the Forest Rights Act was implemented, forest village committees were formed and members were elected in open meetings of the village.
However, ever since the villages were merged with other villages for the Panchayat elections things started changing. Several elderly Vantangiyas have warned that if forest villages are not made independent village panchayat units, the complexity will further increase in the coming time. Among them are people like Bhandari of Bhari Vaisi and Noor Mohammed of Compart No. 28.
They claim that the village panchayats with which these forest villages are being merged are outside the forest. Those villages do not have the natural and spontaneous relationship with natural resources as they have. In such a situation, if forest villages are merged with those village panchayats, the protection of natural wealth and wildlife will become a complex task.
Another major issue is that the forest villages have sustained on their own without government protection and assistance for nine decades, while other village panchayats have become more developed with adequate government support. Therefore, the development issues faced by forest villages are different from those faced by other panchayats. In such a situation, it is more appropriate to form independent village panchayats in forest villages, they suggested.
But their demands have not been fulfilled. Vantangiyas were divided in their enthusiasm to participate in the Panchayat elections. In the last two elections, very few of the community’s representatives won the elections. In the forest villages, people are increasingly getting divided into different political camps which have dampened the spirit of their movement to claim their rights.
The Vantangiya Development Committee has once again become active regarding these issues. Before the assembly elections, there were continuous meetings in the forest villages. By holding talks with the administration, they have succeeded in getting the consolidation process completed in Chilbilwa. It has been agreed that consolidation will be undertaken only after removing the anomaly in land areas in Tilkonia.
Vantangias are uniting once again for consolidation, settlement, demarcation of forest villages, rights over minor forest produce, construction of roads, and removing land discrepancies. They are also insisting that their villages should be made independent panchayats.
Meanwhile, they have also started talking about their struggle, history, culture, songs, preservation, development and documentation of their skills. The Vantangiyas have set up an office in Daulatpur forest village with their collective support and they have proposed to build a museum where the history of their struggle will be showcased.
These efforts of the community have filled Bhandari with zest and pride, as he says, “For us, our unity is the biggest God and the hardest battle for us the fight to get full rights to our land.”
Note: This report is a result of the media fellowship offered to independent journalists by the National Foundation of India.