Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.
Mihirpurva: Katarniaghat in Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich district, which straddles the India-Nepal border, attracts thousands of tourists and nature lovers from all over the country as well as across the world. This wildlife reserve is famous for its tigers, lions, elephants, rhinoceros, and a variety of birds. Katarniaghat is also home to Ganges Dolphins and the highly endangered Indian vultures. Precisely for this reason, Katarniaghat was given the slogan “Durlabh, Sulabh Hai!” (Rare, but accessible!). However, the 7,000-strong population living in its vicinity, called vantangiyas or vangramvasis, shows a stark contrast, surviving in pitiable and pathetic conditions.
Exploitation broke the community’s back
Bahraich is included in Niti Aayog’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 the 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 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 the poverty line survey or Census was conducted in the vangrams either, and though they were allotted lands, no vantangiya were considered landowner. They were exploited by unscrupulous forest officials who paid them below minimum wages and worked them overtime to keep up the pace of reforestation.
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 planting trees without remuneration from the forest department. Moved by their plight, the 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, the rights enjoyed by other citizens of the country still remain a distant dream for them.
“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 Dhakiya, eight in Tediya, and 19 in Bhawanipur,” says Gita Prasad, a resident of Dhakiya village, which is among the five vantangiya villages or vangrams of Mihirpurva block.
Highlighting the persisting problems, Gita adds, “There are no roads, not even kharanja (brick) tracks. The 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 Bhawanipur and grant us revenue status. But he visited only Bahraich on 29 December, 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 — Tedhiya, Dhakiya, Bhawanipur, and Bichiya — belonging to Katarniaghat forest range," she says.
When villagers got the disappointing news, they went into a rage. "Resentment is growing day by day,” she adds.
One of the recipients of President’s Award for Beti Padhao Beti Bachao scheme is Tediya vangramvasi Bhanmati. "When politicians come seeking our votes, they address the women as maaee (mother), behni (sister), dadi (grandmother), and bua (aunt). But when it comes to government welfare schemes, we are considered vangramvasi,” she says.
"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," she adds.
Dark nights, missing facilities
Airing more grievances, Bhawanipur 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 residents of India then the government should get us all killed," said Yadav.
On 14 April, 2010, though Rigzin Samphel, the then district magistrate of Bahraich, gave the vangramvasis permission to farm 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.
In 2011, 20 per cent of the 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 (title deed), nor can anybody access health services in the absence of khatauni (record of rights). 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,” he adds.
For land allotment in any vangram, the only condition is that the person should be above 75 years of age. However, a 78-year-old Dhakiya vangramvasi claims that he has neither been given any land nor any pension by the government. "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!” he says.
The somewhat more shocking revelation came from Bhawanipur 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,” says Lal.
All talk, no action?
When this reporter approached Bansidhar Baudh, social welfare minister in the former Samajwadi Party government in Uttar Pradesh, to find out why vangrams were not brought within the revenue department’s ambit, he claims, “When I was a minister, I took the vangramvasi issue to then chief minister 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 Samajwadi Party 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. He says, "Thirteen years have passed since the passing of laws 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.”
Dr Chaturvedi says that 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,” he adds.
Gokulpur is the only vangram to have been included in the revenue records, while people of the other four vangrams have been left out in the cold. And they don't when the authorities will consider their situation.
District magistrate Shambhu Nath assures that the process to include the other vangrams in revenue records is on. However, considering the bouquet of empty promises in the past, only time will tell if this will actually happen.
The author is a Bahraich-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters