De-forested: Inside Deosiri’s Dwindling Reserve Forest

How ecological degradation of forest villages in Bodoland, Assam, takes root at the intersection of a decade-spanning militancy and ethnic strife.

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Clockwise from top left: Shanti Aunty’s Chai Shop; Golden Langurs are a common sight here. One does not realise that they are an endangered species with an approximate adult population of a mere 6,000; An elephant herd the author saw while driving to work. Photos by: Ateen Das (shop); Deepak Sharma (elephants)

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It is 2.23 am  on the morning of June 20, 2022. I lie awake in my bed, contemplating whether I should just have that cup of coffee and power through the night, when my thoughts are interrupted by the bursting of a loud firecracker.

Startled by the ensuing screams, I walk out of the room to see my landlady flashing a powerful torch on the road just adjacent to our house. Haathi aaye hain (the elephants have come),” she explains calmly.

Such encounters have been common for the past 10 months that I have spent living and working in a ‘forest village’ called Deosiri in Assam’s Chirang district, as a rural development fellow. Nestled between two rivers, Nijla and Aie, tributaries of the Brahmaputra, Deosiri is geographically isolated, with the closest train station being in Basugaon, some 45 kilometres away. Despite being situated right by National Highway 147C, leading to the Indo-Bhutan border gate, the roads aren’t the best, making it a rather bumpy two-hour bus ride from Bongaigaon, the closest city.

Throughout my fellowship, I have been greeted by the grunts of golden langurs feasting off mango trees by day and fireflies melting into the stars by night. Often, I’ve sat by the rivers for hours listening to the gentle gushing of the waters flowing straight from the Bhutanese Himalayas. The only thing I was warned of before settling here was to stay inside come sundown lest I run into the wild Asian elephants that dominate the landscape here every monsoon. Majestically tall at 21 feet and weighing almost 4,000 kg, they destroy crops, wreck houses, maim locals, and even take lives. The thinning forest cover over the past two decades has seen elephants wander into villages all that more often.

Being far away from home and not knowing the local language makes it difficult for me to fit in. However, it is the kindness of the people here that has unfailingly cheered me up. I remember the first time I was invited to a wedding. It had been an especially bad day, but when I was asked to get up and dance—my fingers intertwined with those of others, our hands firmly grasped together in unison and community—I felt so awfully wonderful.

Deosiri is beautiful, yes—but it is by no means a forest village. I say so because there is no real forest to speak of. I have always thought my home, Delhi, to have a rather schizophrenic cityscape. Ruins that are centuries-old co-exist with modern-day structures of glass and steel. While driving through the forests here, I often feel the same about Deosiri—one will see clumps of tall trees surrounded by acres of cultivated land.

There is a dissonance in the landscape, something that doesn’t quite make sense; the topography  is warped, inconsistent. So my question then becomes—what happened to the forest? Where did it go?

After many conversations had in a curious cocktail of broken Axomiya and Hindi over innumerable cups of lal cha, I realised that the answer was infinitely more complicated than I initially imagined. It sprouted at the intersection of militancy, a timber mafia, and the helplessness of the locals most affected by the conflict here. After a few weeks of living in Bodoland, one will soon hear stories of the gondogol (conflict). The region was marred by militancy until 2020, a period during which ethnic strife was rife. Over 6 lakh people were displaced as a result of frequent instances of violence between two major local communities—the Bodos and Santhals—especially in 1996, 1998, and 2014. A cycle of attacks and reprisals displaced many from both communities, forcing them to leave their land and livestock behind in fear of their lives.

 

Also Read | Chaanfi: Stream of Consciousness and Conservation

 

Those internally displaced were relocated to relief camps inside the reserve forests. The conditions they lived through in these camps were sub-human. Squalid sanitation facilities, lack of adequate rations, and the threat of armed attacks from Bodo militants brought death closer. If preventable diseases did not get to you, the constant atmosphere of fear brought you down. Official records of conditions at these camps fail to reflect the tragic stories ex-inmates told me.

The first time I heard of one such account was at Shanti Aunty’s tea shop. He had coincidentally just returned from a meeting of several representatives from the Santhali community. They had gathered to understand why the Adivasis continued to settle deeper in the forest despite the end of militancy in 2020.

He described how Bodo militants from the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) faction, a now-disbanded armed separatist outfit, would open fire at his camp; how once a bullet whizzed past his ear while he hid in his tent. He told me of the filth, the diseases that struck them at these camps, the inadequate medical attention that followed. He told me how they had little or no earning opportunities, forcing them to starve.

This was the reason, he added, people fled from these camps and went further into the reserve forests. To this day, there is a mistrust that festers within the community.

 

De Forested: Inside Deosiri’s Dwindling Reserve Forest

Bridge over Nijla leading to Deosiri (top); Aie eats away at the deforested land, re-shaping it almost to its whim and fancy (bottom). Photos by: Ateen Das

 

Perhaps the most frequently heard phrase in every conversation I’ve had with Santhali friends here is, “Majboori hai, kya karein?” Deep in Bodoland’s reserve forests—without infrastructure for health, water, education, and livelihoods—the most disenfranchised can only generate income through manual labour, by migration or otherwise, and timber harvesting. Whom do we point our finger at when those blamed for deforestation are acting purely out of majboori, or helplessness?

Deemed ‘illegal encroachers’, Santhals are targeted and evicted by local authorities on the pretext that they are depleting the forest cover by cutting down trees. However, the truth is that the illegal timber trade economy, facilitated by Bodo elites, is considerably more harmful to these forests and the biodiversity they harbour. 

In a study by Anwesha Dutta, a scholar who has studied the region, we see how it is primarily Santhalis and lower-class Bodos who are employed as primary woodcutters within a larger machinery of profit, of which the most marginalised get the tiniest cut. 

While reading through her work, I was constantly reminded of the majboori refrain. How else can one survive in such a situation? What other option does one have?

I heard in passing once about a public interest litigation (PIL) filed in the Guwahati High Court by the Adivasi Relief Committee in 2011 demanding relief and rehabilitation for those affected by the conflict. Curious to know more, I found myself one evening at the house of S. Mardy, who had filed the PIL.

As with most conversations about the gondogol, I was left overwhelmed. He narrated the succession of events that led up to the Bodo-Adivasi conflict of 1996, how rumours sparked the uninhibited loss of life, including that of his brother, and prompted mass displacement. He insisted the Adivasis had not cut the forest in and around Deosiri. They had settled in the region before 1919 and after the conflict 77 years later, had to flee from their land to the relative safety of relief camps, where they lived for more than a decade. The conditions there, however, turned unbearable, and so those who could, went back to their land. Except, by that time, the forest had reclaimed its space.

“We did not cut any new forest here,” he told me.

In several states such as Jharkhand and West Bengal, Santhals are considered as Scheduled Tribes (STs) and benefit from the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, which recognises the rights of such tribes over forest resources and the land they have been dwelling on since before the 13th of December 2005. 

In Assam, however, this is not the case. Santhals are instead categorised as an Other Backward Caste (OBC), making their stay on forest land illegal. Deemed encroachers, despite having lived sustainably in the forest for decades, they are regularly evicted, their houses burned and destroyed by forest officials. With no land left to return to, the internally displaced persons (IDPs) face not only the wrath of the forest department but also the brunt of human-elephant aggression and extreme weather conditions. 

I once asked Shanti Aunty about the two rivers that flow near Deosiri. What she had to tell me was extremely worrying. Rather exasperated, she gushed on about how they ate away land every monsoon. I learnt that deforestation, in addition to habitat loss, has also hastened soil erosion, causing the unrestrained waters of Brahmaputra’s tributaries that sandwich Deosiri to devour land every monsoon, even washing away villages.  

I have rarely seen any government linkages percolate down to the forest block villages and the ‘encroachers’ who live there. However, locals tell me, this changes whenever an election comes around the corner—PMGAY houses spring up, and names are enrolled on voter lists. “Everything revolves around politics,” stressed Mardy Dada when I asked him about the evictions, the latest of which,  he shared, had been carried out early last year, right after the Bodoland Territorial Region elections.

Interested in hearing what the other side had to say, I went over to the Forest Department’s main office some 40 km away. The District Forest Officer in Chirang had a very different take on evictions: “What good are these evictions for?” He said, “What is needed is that we develop economic centres and provide land for those worst affected there—work on watershed development, make afforestation profitable, and give skills training.”

He had a point. Perhaps, one may take inspiration from an effort made by locals in Udalguri, a neighbouring district that is also part of Bodoland. Through their efforts and the institutionalisation of a Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC), a government initiative, some 750 hectares of forestland have been restored with a concurrent generation of livelihood for villagers. 

What do we imagine when we think of environmental conservation? Does it not exist within a complex web of intricate relations? Here, in Deosiri, it is simply interpreted as eviction. Maybe it is time we went beyond that and uncovered the layers of complexity that exist after decades of militancy and inter-community conflict.

And yet, ecological degradation here is not an isolated incident. There are countless Deosiris. A month ago, Assam was subjected to some of the worst floods it has ever seen. With the climate crisis looming over our heads, it is time to recognise what “conservation” really entails—dealing with complicated ecological relationships and with communities that have been pushed to the absolute fringes. It means providing meaningful relief and rehabilitation to vulnerable groups and generating employment for them. It means urgently taking action before our fragile pale blue dot dissipates into the void right before our eyes.

 

Also Read | Amitav Ghosh on Travelling in the Time of Climate Change

 

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  • Ateen Das lives in Deosiri F.V., Chirang, Assam, where he works on watershed development and resource governance. A few of his primary interests include gender and sexuality, environmental conservation, the commons, and natural resource governance.

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