Respect tribal goverments; conserve forests

Tribal governments can manage village natural resources better than elected Panchayats. Jarjum Ete, President of the All India Union of Forest Working People, explains why.
Arunachal's tribes have a tradition of managing their natural resources (Source:Wikimedia Commons) Arunachal's tribes have a tradition of managing their natural resources (Source:Wikimedia Commons)

The Galo tribe has lived in the Eastern Himalayan forests for centuries. Like their neighbours, this tribe had a well-defined territory, the boundaries of which were marked by various topographical features such as rock formations or mountain ridges. Kalidasa's Meghdoot, which describes the journey of a cloud, might have believed that it was floating over a vast unbroken forest but these were well-managed areas inhabited by villages. There were protocols for the use of natural resources and the sharing of these across tribes. All this changed when the area came to be known as Arunachal Pradesh, first a Union Territory and since 2000, a state of India.

From then on, there have been conflicts over the ownership and use of the land and its forests. Jarjum Ete is the Chief Advisor of the Galo Welfare Society. The society is a union of all members of the Galo Tribe. She is also President of the All India Union of Forest Working People. She talks to India Water Portal about the changes in the tribes of Arunachal and how this has impacted the governance of their resources.

How do the administrative borders relate to traditional tribal boundaries?
The district and block borders do not follow the old territory boundaries but there is a new trend where people of several clusters of villages get together to demand a district of their own. There are also some initiatives to create these boundaries on linguistic terms.

What policies are detrimental to the people in the North East?
Modern Education! Young leaders need proper training and orientation. Recently, there is a disconnect between the old traditional governance and new Panchayats. This needs to be resolved in the next generation.

Development initiatives need to be in tune with people's needs.

Development interventions are removed from the needs of the people. Synergy between what the people want, and what the programs aim to provide is missing. For example, the Hariyali programme was implemented in  Arunachal, where is the point in that? Also, government development interventions come in a package of demands and benefits. While resources are taken, the promised benefits do not reach the poor.

I was recently present at three public meetings on forest ownership. People feel that from the beginning when the state came into being, the forest department was not transparent. People's land is acquired for public purposes and then misused, either by changing the purpose or by allowing it to lie vacant and be encroached upon. Forest communities are also not allowed to build schools or clinics. Now, a new economically and politically powerful class is developing in the state. Family and forest lands are also now going to these elites.  All this is detrimental to life in Arunachal.

What suggestions do you have for policies in the state?
We need local state led policies and institutions which can provide an interface between traditional knowledge and modern science. Modern education is pushing away traditional knowledge. It is taking the younger generation away from its roots.

There has been a lot of  discussion about the need for all government interventions to be according to a convergent village development plan organised by the village itself. What should be the elements of such a plan?
Traditional institutions are headed by villagers who might not be literate, or at the most have low levels of literacy. They are not now able to command the respect of the younger generation. Market driven dreams have fascinated the younger generation who are willing to do anyhing to achieve that. So this new generation must be taught young and groomed in values, cultural wisdom and ancestral knowledge. A refinement of the traditions in terms of violence, rights etc., should be done but roots must be respected.

Youth need to be trained to become leaders.

As far as infrastructure development is concerned, government inputs in terms of budgetary allocation is satisfactory. We cannot deny that the money is enough. The problem is with the implementation at the ground level. For all types of infrastructure including roads, people need to be taken into confidence. Sensitising government officials is a must. For most, the work they do is not a duty, but a job. They are not committed to the development of the village. This is not true of all the officials but certainly true of a number of them.

For health too, the condition is the same. The budget, especially through the National Rural Health Mission, is adequate but the infrastructure is not streamlined. The buildings may be there but not the doctors. This leads to resources not being used properly. For water, people  use several sources such as surface water, springs and streams.  However, people tend to prefer uing their own private sources on their land. So public water supply efforts need to take that into account.

How do we accommodate traditional laws within the government legal framework?
Panchayati Raj Institutions are present in Arunachal but they are not entirely functional; traditional systems are. Most community land transfers happened with the first wave of Panchayats. So this generation has  reticence over including PRIs in their decisions. Gram Sabha meetings also do not happen regularly. However, traditional village meetings happen every year. In these, everything is discussed in the presence of all the villagers, nearly all of whom attend the meetings. In these, a calendar for the work of the year including that of farming is set out; new plans are made; reports about work carried out earlier are given.

These meetings, called Dolu Kaba among the Galos, are extremely transparent; and the villagers also have a sense of ownership towards the proceedings. This sense of ownership is not present in the Panchayat proceedings because the funds for the Panchayat come from outside. The village is less invested in the disbursement of these, and therefore do not demand accountability.

Here then, is Jarjum Ete's prescription for effective management of Arunachal's natural resources: Respect traditional wisdom; add scientific knowledge; convince the present and future leaders to incorporate both. In it's desperate race to 'harness' the area's rivers, is the Indian government listening?

This interview was done during the 4th Sustainable Mountain Development Summit at Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh on 08 October 2015.

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