Gram Sabha: Local Community Governance Preserves the Forests of Jharkhand
By Nayantara Lakshman with Caitlin Blood and PHIA Foundation
Known as ‘the land of the forests’, the state of Jharkhand in eastern India is a deeply storied place despite its recent statehood in 2000.
Geographically, it is the Chotanagpur plateau, characterised by its ancient, indigenous landscape. It is a succession of plateaus, hills and valleys drained by several large rivers, which support a large population of tigers, Asian elephants and its people, the Adivasi. Comprising two-thirds of the population, the 32 Adivasi communities of Jharkhand number over seven million people. Among them range a multitude of livelihoods, including hunter-gatherers, shifting agriculturalists, settled agriculturalists, and local artisans. Adivasi have lived throughout the jungles of Jharkhand since time immemorial, their livelihoods intertwined with its rich biodiversity. Their medicinal and cultural practices utilise materials that the fauna of the forest provides, and their spirituality centres upon the life within it. Their land is their life: the central source of their subsistence and livelihoods. Alongside its natural abundance above ground, Jharkhand is also known as home to some of the richest deposits of iron, coal and varied metals in the world. In contradiction to the Adivasi’s symbiotic relationship with Jharkhand’s natural resources, they have witnessed a surge in unregulated mining activities and a spree of infrastructural development on their lands. In fact, the Indian government plans to double coal mining to one billion tonnes a year. The impact of this extraction has adversely affected Adivasi livelihoods, so deeply intertwined with the forest environment. At great personal risk, Adivasi communities are politically organising to exercise their sovereign rights and protect their land from extractive policy and industry.
This environmental disruption has encroached on wildlife corridors, specifically of elephants, hampering their seasonal movement. Their largeness has created an impact that cannot be ignored. To avoid the large pits created by mining, elephants are moving into local villages, causing an increase in human-elephant conflict. Homes, fields, and livelihoods are being destroyed by the distressed creatures. In the last 11 years, over 800 people and 60 elephants have died in these conflicts. Illegal mining has not only impacted Adivasi sovereignty, but the animals that they have coexisted with for centuries.
Elephants once roamed across most of Asia. More than half of them are found in India. Today, they are restricted to 15% of their original range, their numbers halving in the last three of their generations. 3,128 elephants now roam over the states of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, southwestern Bengal, and Jharkhand. They are important to the regeneration of landscapes, and require extensive grazing areas in order to meet their daily food and water requirements throughout the seasons. A herds’ home range can vary from an average of 250 sq km to over 350 sq km. Their nomadic behaviour plays an important role in shaping the environment, making them keystone species (living beings that help define an entire ecosystem). As they move through various landscapes, they clear the path for other animals and prevent overgrowth. They disperse seeds of many fruits through their dung along their way and provide nutrition and nourishment to flora and fauna. To cope with drought, they dig up water holes that accumulate water for them and other animals. Thus, when habitat is preserved for elephants, habitat is sustained for many other vital species. However, an increase in forest fragmentation and habitat degradation in Jharkhand has forced these large animals to change their migratory patterns and travel longer distances in search of food and water. Their populations have been observed moving through new areas, passing through agricultural land, fragmented forests and human settlements. This increases their chances of straying into Adivasi villages, once intentionally built outside of elephant migration routes.
Locals of the villages in Jharkhand describe positive relationships between elephants and villagers as recently as 15 years ago. In the past, elephants did not cause the frequent damage the villages see today. In Jharkhand alone, there have been over three hundred human deaths reported from elephant conflict. Now, the herds frequently upset villages at the very time of crop harvests, increasing the loss of livelihoods and instilling fear.
In Jharkhand, coal and iron mining profits do not go to local economies, but to mining companies, contractors, and the state government. Mining in rural areas has increasingly forced local farmers off of their homelands and out of their traditional occupations like agriculture, medicine and pottery. No longer able to sustain a livelihood from their lands, they are driven to cities in search of employment. The impact of this activity not only displaces people and destroys local economies, but damages the local ecology. Villagers from Chiriya describe the impacts of mining on their local water sources; “Due to mining, the water flowing in the river is dirty. The villagers were falling sick by drinking this water. Mining allows contaminated water to flow into the river, and in the rainy season the river turns red. The water cannot be used for washing, bathing or any other purpose.”
The products of this mining activity go to the increasing infrastructural and energy needs in urban areas, fed by the displacement of local rural communities. The urbanisation of societies comes with huge social and ecological costs. As we forfeit the biodiversity of Jharkhand and the communities that sustain it, we will witness the collapse of economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and culture. In the midst of extreme climatic conditions, increasing unemployment and reverse migration (rural communities returning to their native villages due to loss of livelihood or lack of opportunities in urban areas), these costs can no longer be ignored.
The Gram Sabha
When the people of Jharkhand experience the immediate effects of elephant displacement, it causes great hardship. In these instances, they approach the Gram Sabha. Since the initiation of the Panchayati Raj system in 1992, all registered voters living in the area participate directly in local government through the Gram Sabha. The forum of the Gram Sabha is used by the local people to discuss development, local governance, and planning based on the needs of the village. The local participation in the Gram Sabha facilitates the community to access their rights, represent themselves, learn about the laws, and contribute to decision making processes in their villages. The leader of Gram Sabha in Manoharpur, Vijay Singh Lagori, describes some of the history and benefits of community-lead governance in his village. Before Gram Sabha, he remembers,
“Since [The start of the Gram Sabha], we have had much more awareness. We all gather at one place. People understand the advantages of participating and being a strong Gram Sabha, and what they stand to gain as a community.
There is more awareness about the rights we are entitled to. And now, I would say that more than 90% – almost 99% of the villagers attend the Gram Sabha.”
The empowerment of local communities in the Gram Sabha is vital to the continuation of their livelihoods. The community polity is informed by the interests of its members, and their concerns more likely to be addressed. Again, Vijay Singh Lagori:
“Our family were farmers from generations, but in my father’s generation, we were slowly stopping this. But now there is support from the Gram Sabha, and the facilities for continuing farming are available, the support is there – so I have returned to farming.
There is a nine-member committee that ensures that the work of the Gram Sabha runs smoothly. The work is divided between the members. There is a team that works towards the progress in the village, a team that works for the security of the village, a team that focuses on protecting the forest, a team that focuses on justice, another for education and so on.”
Although the Gram Sabha provides some hope of compensation for the damage caused by elephant displacement, the root of the issue remains. Historically, community managed commons (resources managed and accessed by communities and governed by customary institutions) ensured elephants and accompanying wildlife access to resources and right of passage. However, the last two decades have witnessed drastic shifts in land use change. Today, common lands are claimed by the government and sold to private players for development and infrastructural projects, reducing space and resources for wildlife. The very same communities that once lived in harmony with wildlife are now facing the results of uninhibited development, and are excluded in decisions that directly affect them. The risks that villages are exposed to by this development, specifically the dangers of elephant activity and toxic water sources, threatens to displace them completely, forcing them to migrate away from their home. “Our ancestors have lived here for centuries.” Says Govind Hamram, a local herbalist from Tulka village in Fatehpur and Adivasi of the Santhal Tribe. “ My ancestors were herbalists. My grandfather, my father . . . Now if the government doesn’t allow us to go to the jungle, how can we survive? We used to gather these herbs for ages. How can we detach from this? The government will have to work with us to make a decision on what is to be done. The jungle is ours.”
Despite the challenges, these communities are organising to exercise their lifestyle and knowledge over their lands. Vijay Singh Lagori describes how the community’s value and understanding of their local environment impacts their policies to protect it: “For example, this forest that we have here, Saranda Forest – there were a lot of trees being cut. Anyone who wanted wood, or wanted to fell trees to sell wood…would cut the trees. Now, after the Gram Sabha started getting strong, we took the decision that any tree felling could be done only with the permission of the Gram Sabha. Everyone needs firewood – so we decided that only the dry twigs and branches that were on the forest floor would be taken for this purpose.
When we need wood for making our houses, then we have to ask the Gram Sabha, and after getting permission, we will go and take wood from the forest. This is one thing that has changed. And now the forest is not being indiscriminately destroyed.
Also, earlier people used to come and take the fruits, flowers, and other medicinal herbs from the forest and we wouldn’t say a word. But since the Gram Sabha became active, the villagers are making use of these – and permissions also need to be given. This is a big change.”
Anupa and Francisca
If it is anyone who has the knowledge to address human elephant conflict, it is these communities. They have historical information about elephant routes, a deep understanding of the animals’ behaviour, and know where illegal mining occurs in the forest. To better understand the complex dynamics now shaping the lives of the villages of Jharkhand, we listen to their voices.
Anupa Minj is in her mid-thirties. She wears her hair tied back in a low bun. She is distraught, but a strong woman raising her three children, ages 5, 8 and 10. In Chainpur, she and her family live in a hamlet – one house in an open field – which sustained extensive damage from an elephant. The asbestos sheet that was once the roof is now tattered and the mud wall reduced to rubble, leaving her family exposed to the elements. In her retelling, they were sitting around after eating breakfast, when they heard that the elephant had come close to the river.
“In my house, we have a 5 year old, an 8 year old and a 10 year old, and my brother in law. I was preparing breakfast that morning, and my 8 year old said he didn’t want it, and we were sitting around after breakfast time. The elephant was near the river and then came towards our area, by early evening. The children were hungry and we were preparing to have our evening meal. We could hear it in the distance…it sounded angry. Then it came closer to us, and began breaking up the beds that were outside. First we went inside the house and closed the door, but then we started to run – the children and some others went that way – and I ran towards the houses on the other side.” Subsequently, she put forth her case in the next Gram Sabha meeting. That is when she heard about a similar incident that happened in another village, in the same district. In Bendora, a forested village near Kirito Dam and east of Sankh River, only 62 kilometres away from Anupa’s family in Chainpur – a herd of elephants damaged houses and agricultural fields. One belonged to Francisca Minj. Also in her mid-thirties, Francisca is Adivasi. A rosary suspended from the twine that holds up a drying rack near her home’s ceiling tells of her recent conversion to Christianity. The house’s mud walls have been knocked out, but the asbestos sheet roof was untouched.
“The elephants came in the evening at around 7 PM. We were at home when they came. People were shouting and running. There were loud noises all around from people and elephants destroying things. The elephants were very furious, they were destroying everything on their way, they damaged the roof and the clay walls, the door came out with the wall. We saw the animals attacking, and somehow three of us at home escaped. We ran in different directions. The elephants attacked the stock of Paddy, ‘Urad’ (Black pulse), vessels, hen, cattle, vegetables in the kitchen garden, one quintal of rice, everything was destroyed. They just played with the plants in my kitchen garden. Maize, corn, ground nuts and some other vegetables such as potatoes, tomato, cabbage, cauliflower, etc. were completely destroyed. It was a huge loss.” It was in this same Gram Sabha meeting that both Anupa and Francisca explained their cases. Indeed, there were representatives from the forest department, Panchayat, the Gram Sabha, the Ward, the villagers and the police present. The reports prepared from the observations and photos of the initial visit to their villages were put forth in front of the Gram Sabha. Documents were submitted and discussions regarding compensation began. “Everyone participated,” Anupa said, “the Head of the Gram Sabha, the Ward, the villagers, the representatives of the Gram Sabha – everyone was there. The application was passed, now all that is left to do is to build.” Anupa was compensated for her loss by the Gram Sabha. Francisca was promised her compensation. She is hopeful that she will receive the amount within six months – as soon as the funds are approved. Until then, the community managed to make Francisca’s house liveable. They plan to rebuild it once the money comes. However, there is still the fear of anothervisit of the herd.
Empowering Local Governance of Adivasi Communities
Rebuilding homes damaged by the displacement of elephants is a temporary solution to the impact that mining has had on Adivasi communities. If mining is allowed in these fragile areas, the displacement of elephants will continue, and inevitably, the erosion of ecosystems and the displacement of humans. Decentralising state management of land and resources to local communities is pivotal to systemically empower the Adivasi of Jharkhand to maintain their way of life. In doing so, they sustain the biodiversity that is the foundation of life on our earth.
While the consumerism of distant urbanised societies continues to impact the daily lives of local communities throughout Jharkhand, it is those closest to the forests that can best manage it and its biodiverse landscape. In their hands, and under their local governance, the developing conflict between elephants and humans might be abated. Their way of life, after all, protects the very forests that the elephants rely on. They understand that their well-being is intertwined.
The value of the jungle runs deep through every aspect of the local communities. Therefore, the Adivasi community firmly positions themselves as protectors of the forest. “The forest is useful for us,” says Goma Champia of Chiriya. “It fulfils our needs, it provides livelihood, it provides forest produce like fruits, vegetables leaves, and we praise it, we worship it. We believe that God is within nature.”
Nanku Munda, an Adivasi priest in Lal Ganj, describes the acts of worship, called puja, that connect his community to their environment, an entity that he calls Sarna Maa. “Mother Earth is Sarna Maa. It is because of her that my home and my village prosper. Once a year we do a big puja. She makes sure we have rain, and that farming goes well – and gives us all these. And her blessings have made sure that everything is fine with my village and home.”
“When we do a puja in the name of Mother Sarna – it is the Sal tree that is the one to which offerings are given.” Says Rajendar of Chiriya. “All of the people in the village gather. We pray that we get her blessings, that we get her flowers as a gift and that we will always have water in our lands. And that in our country, the world, village and every home is blessed with prosperity and abundance.”
Their intimate connection with the forest is specifically what qualifies them as leaders in local policy and development. When it comes to who should be responsible for the protection of the forest, Isaac Jojo puts it well, “The Tribals of course. Because we are the ones who are the caretakers of the jungle. We save the trees, we protect them from fire. We are the ones taking care of it.”