Forests have played a vital role in the socioeconomic and cultural life of the tribal people of India. It is well-known that majority of the tribal population lived in isolation in the forested regions of India with harmony, security and trust for many centuries and developed a symbiotic relationship with the forest.
The forest environment satisfies the deep-rooted tribal traditions and sentiments throughout their life until death. Even after death, the deceased tribal is laid to rest in a grave close to a forested region by most of the hunting and gathering tribes of India. Thus, even after death, the tribals are close to the forest.
The forests provide the tribals and other communities living close to the forest habitat, shelter, raw materials for household equipment; other objects of material culture like resins, gums and dyes etc., wood for building houses, fencing and tool making etc., Firewood, herbal medicines; fodder for cattle and grazing areas; other material cultural objects like ornaments and religious items etc. These are some of the direct benefits the tribals and indigenous communities get from the forest.
In India, the life and economy of the tribal people are intimately connected with the forests. Majority of the tribal population in India actually lives inside the forests and make a living out of the forest produce collected by them; mainly edible roots and tubers and by hunting small animals.
These primitive hunting and gathering tribal communities who are numerically very small live mostly in Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The survival of these primitive tribals is dependent on minor forest produce like mahua flowers, sal seeds, sal and Tendu leaves, edible roots, tubers, bamboo and wild fruits etc.
Tribals in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand indicate that over 80 per cent of the forest-dwellers collect 25-50 per cent of their food from the forests.
Thus for the hunting and gathering tribal communities like Birhor, Korwa, Pahariya, Asur, Birjia, Chenchu, Kadar, Paliyan etc., minor forest produce is the major support for their survival. While the tribals who are settled agriculturists like Santhal, Munda, Oraon, Ho, Bhil, Gond, Baiga and others, who are considered as major tribes of Central India tribal belt are economically much better off than the minor tribes living close to or inside the forested regions in central and eastern India.
Many Mongoloid tribes living in the northeastern States of India, the Naga-Kuki tribes, make their living by practising shifting cultivation (jhum cultivation) within the forest area. The Maria of Baster and by the Khonda of Orissa calls the shifting cultivation penda. Shifting cultivation degrades the forest to some extent but whether this is wasteful and totally avoidable in the present context is debatable, because the very existence of these tribals depends on shifting cultivation.
Before the advent of the British rule in India, the forest-dwellers and other indigenous communities enjoyed freedom to use forest or exploit forest resources for their livelihood.
The British colonial administration realised the commercial value of forests and began to use them to augment revenue and in the process tried to regulate the rights of the forest dwellers and other indigenous people over forests.
The British forest policy was mainly based on commercial interest and it aimed at supplying timber and other forest resources to colonial forest-based industries. The commercial exploitation of forests was to encourage at the cost of the forest-dwellers, the tribals and other indigenous communities, for the greater interest of the colonial rulers. They permitted licensed contractors to collect forest resources by all means without considering the future consequences.
The colonial laws have led to the State ownership of nearly 97 per cent of India’s forestland, which limit people’s accessibility to forests. With the loss of forest cover and accelerated deforestation, the socio-economic and ecological impacts on local indigenous communities have become acute. Degradation of the surrounding environment and rigid forest laws has adversely affected food accessibility, livelihood options and quality of life, of local indigenous communities. In real life, such communities have been seriously affected as a result of both degradation of forestland and their reduced accessibility to forest resources on account of strict forest laws.
After Independence there was some rethinking on the issue of forest policy. The Government of India declared the new National Forest Policy in 1952, which emphasised ecological and social aspects of forestry and gave only secondary importance to the needs of commerce and industry and also to the revenue collection.
In a way, this was an extension of the policy during the British rule, which lay down that the claims of the communities living near forests should not override national interests. The tribals living near forests were discouraged from using forests and forest produce.
For the eight per cent population of India represented by the tribals, the forest is the main source of livelihood and the concept of “social forestry” developed by the National Commission on Agriculture (1976) cannot meet the needs of the tribals or the poor rural population for the fuel, fodder and other minor forest produce.
It is to be noted that the tribal economy is basically subsistence economy. Traditionally they produce only for themselves and for their immediate community. It is a general feeling of the Forest Department that the tribal people destroy the forest through their harmful practices like shifting cultivation and reckless felling of trees for firewood etc.
The most significant aspect of the National Forest Policy of 1988 is that it calls for the involvement of the forest-dwellers, tribals and the neighbouring communities of the forest in the management of the forests.
As the tribals of different regions have different socio-economic and cultural characteristics, the nature of involvement and extent of participation of the tribals in the forest management will be different under different situations. Joint forest management involving the tribals may be very successful in one area but may not be so in another area, as this depends upon the capacity of understanding and adopting this innovation of the government by the tribals.