The wild denizens would have continued their migration all across the Terai floodplain that stretches all along the foothills of the Himalayas in India, Nepal and Bhutan. The danger of encountering wild animals along with the inhospitable terrain with numerous unpredictable and fast-flowing Himalayan rivers, as well as a hot and humid climate and fatal malaria, would have prevented local people to venture in, except for a few nomadic tribals who would have had varying degrees of dependency on forest resources.
There were, however, the royal princes and subsequently the British rulers, who with their grand interests in shikaar (hunting), would have decimated local population of carnivores, thus paving the way for colonization by humans.
There were also deliberate attempts to settle people, as in the case of tea-planters and forest plantation workers who were brought in to maximise the revenue from land, which had become state property as early as in 1889. Artificial boundaries of forests areas were created under the Imperial forestry system and ‘order’ was brought in by means of demarcating protected and consumptive forests.
Decades later, when India became independent, the ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy as applicable to the North East was fraught with deficiencies. This resulted in large-scale civil strife and armed conflicts that are still etched in public memory (1). One forgets that these communal clashes have also been preceded by incidents of ‘State (forest) versus People’ conflicts, evident from the land-grabbing and illegal tree-felling issues, poaching of wild animals for commercial purposes, extortion/kidnapping, and large-scale encroachment of new areas (2).
(1): Lower Assam in home to over 6 tribes (Bodos, Santhal, Adivasi, Rabha, Koch-Rajbongshi, Nepali) along with substantial population of Assamese, Bengali Muslim and Hindu communities. Political movements to evict ‘outsiders’ and the fight for sovereignty resulted in unabated violence during 1983, 1993, 1996, 1998, 2003 and now in 2012.
(2): Ultapani forest village in Chirang Reserved Forest has been a bone of contention as it lies in the core of the Ripu-Chirang Elephant Reserve. Illegal removal of trees and subsequent encroachment of land has been observed in the vicinity of this forest village since 1989. Heightened militant activities, extortion and kidnapping had resulted in closure of Manas National Park from 1990-1993; four researchers on a tiger census were kidnapped for ransom in Feb 2011.The 80 odd rhino population of Manas National Park had been wiped out by end of 1995 whereas two out of the 23 rhinos reintroduced in Manas National Park have been poached in Oct 2011 and May 2012.
The draconian forest laws and rules that govern such areas have become out-dated and unmanageable for some time and it has been well accepted in government documents. Officially the Bodoland Territorial Areas District has more than 40% of its total area notified under forests and therefore under state control. Out of this, at least 25% land is encroached or devoid of tree cover, and therefore considered fallow land available for seasonal grazing, firewood collection and temporary settlement by local people. By Sonali Ghosh