I am a forest officer from India. I want to narrate a story. No, my story is not about elephants or tigers or snakes. Those stories about India are commonplace. I wish to narrate a simple story about people, the least-known part of the marathon Indian fable.
Humans are said to have arrived in India very early in world civilisation. Some were raised here from the seed of their ancestors; others migrated here from all over the world. Over the centuries these people occupied every inch of soil that could support life. The population of India today is 1.2 billion. Each year, India’s population increases by a number nearly equal to the complete population of Australia. Such a prolific growth of numbers is easy to explain; the fertile soil, ample water and tropical warmth of India support the growth of all life forms.
Not all numbers are great, however, and big numbers sometimes exact the price from the wrong persons.
This is my story.
I went to work in the state of Meghalaya in north-eastern India. Pestilence, floods and dense vegetation have made north-eastern India a most inhospitable place. Population is scanty by Indian standards. Life does not extend much beyond the basic chores of finding food and hearth. In the hills, far away from the bustle of modern civilisation, primitive tribal families practice agriculture in its most basic form. Fertilisers are unknown to them, so they cultivate a parcel of land until it loses its fertility, ultimately abandoning it to find other arable land. When the original parcel has finally recovered its fertility after a few years, they move back. It is a ceaseless cycle of migrating back and forth – the so-called practice known as ‘shifting cultivation’. Ginger, peas, pumpkin, brinjal and sweet potato can be seen growing on numerous slopes in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya beside the huts of the farmers built on stilts, with chickens roosting below.
When I reached Meghalaya and looked about at the kind of world I had never seen before, I admit that I found the tribal folk a little strange. They lived in a way that would have appeared bizarre to a modern community. The people did not seem to know how many centuries had passed them by. For me as a forest officer, what looked worst was that that these people appeared to have no comprehension of the value of forests for the planet. They built their huts with wood. They cooked on firewood. Most of their implements were made of wood. A whole tree would be cut and thrown across the banks to make a bridge over a stream. Above all, their crazy practice of shifting cultivation would ultimately remove all the remaining forest.
I decided my main job in this place was to save the forest from its own people, and we enforced Indian laws to preserve the forests.
On one occasion my staff saw a young local man running with an illegally obtained log of wood and started to chase him, waving their guns in the air to scare him. He ran barefoot amid dense bushes a long distance before we managed to apprehend him. I had bruises on my arms and a leech hanging from my armpit drinking my blood by the time the race was over. I admit that in my anger at the time, I wanted to impale the man to the earth at the spot where he had cut down the tree. It was not the leeches and the bruises that angered me. The tree he was carrying was (until quite recently) in perfect condition.
But Meghalaya isn’t populated solely by subsistence-farming villagers – there are also a few successful traders originally from big cities who have settled in this economically depressed region. They dress smartly and speak impeccable English. At the time, I remembered wondering how these more sophisticated types could be maintaining their relatively lavish lifestyles among the poor villagers who walked barefoot in the dense forests. On a couple of occasions I dropped in at the home of a prominent trader. He hosted me graciously in his beautiful home. I admit that I enjoyed these visits because they were my only link to the civilisation I had become used to prior to moving to Meghalaya. But I never visited the home of any tribal villager, for what could I talk to them about anyway?
Part of my role as forest officer was to organise the collection of logs found cut in the forest – apparently by tribal youths. These my staff and I gathered and stacked neatly into lots for auction. My staff were particularly proud that cars would line up outside our office every time we held an auction – it was something of a local event.
At my first auction I carefully checked the rules. One rule in particular stipulated that a local tribal bidder was allowed a concession of 7.5 %. This means that if he made a bid within 7.5 % less than the highest ‘non-tribal’ bid, then the tribal bidder would be awarded the timber lot. Still sore from my chase, I thought this rule was crazy. Tribal people were cutting all the trees and then they were getting the lots at a discount! Wouldn’t this rule only encourage them to cut down more trees?
I was ready to conduct my first auction.
Nearly every lot was bought by one particular tribal bidder. I looked at him closely – he seemed an unlikely businessman. He was dressed in crumpled shorts and a button-less shirt closed in the front with a safety pin. I calculated the money he was required to deposit for all the lots he had purchased, and it was a fancy sum. When the last lot was settled, he rose from his seat and left the room. I waited with a mixture of amusement and curiosity.
The man returned in a few minutes with a gunny bag in his hands. He swung the bag menacingly over my table in the way Dennis Lillee would have bowled to Desmond Haynes. Holding it up, he opened the bag and several thick wads of banknotes dropped onto the table. While the accountant nonchalantly counted the money, I stared speechlessly at the man in front of me. How could a person unable to purchase a decent shirt have enough money to buy a load of confiscated timber lots at auction? What sort of a place was this?
“He has done it again, sir.” said the accountant after counting the money. “Every lot is his. Sometimes he does not even bother to change the proxy”.
“What do you mean by that?” I exclaimed.
The accountant was referring to the wealthy non-tribal trader whose hospitality I had enjoyed. Without appearing at the scene of auction, using the poor tribal bidder as a front man, he had purchased nearly every lot. The government’s ‘7.5 % concession’ rule designed to help local tribal communities had been hijacked in full view of the government’s officers.
The accountant explained why the trader had to do this. “They sell the woods in big markets like Delhi and Mumbai. If they cut down a tree and run with it, the police will catch them on the way. So they leave the logs for us to seize and buy them in auctions. Now they have the legal right (and documentation) to carry the logs to any place in the country.”
I had presided over a charade.
It was the suave traders, not the gauche tribesmen, who were gaining from the destruction of forests in the north-east. The phony bidder who had stood in the auction would only get a few pennies – not enough even to buy him a new shirt.
The problem with forest conservation in India is that those with a symbiotic relationship with forests matter the least. A tribal family only has modest needs for a home and hoe. The drivers of destruction are far away from the forests. They create such incentives that any ploy to steal from the forests can be funded to succeed. I came to realise that it is not ‘shifting cultivation’ that is destroying the forests in India’s north-east, but the economic development in other places fuelling an inexhaustible demand for wood. The government, for all its claims to the contrary, is an institution of the elite. It will allow traders to buy wood in stage-managed auctions – and blame the loss of forests on poor, uneducated farmers.Ranjit Singh Gill Joint Director, Forest Survey of India Kaulagarh Road, Dehradun – 248195 Uttarakhand, India