Bihar’s Mandate 2015 has been billed as a choice between good governance and a return to ‘jungle raj’ (rule of the wild). But what matters most for the marginalised tribes in the state is going back to the days when they enjoyed their jungle rights.
The 899 sq km Valmiki National Park along the Nepal border in West Champaran district is Bihar’s only tiger reserve. The fringes of this forest landscape are also home to the Tharu tribal people. Along with their brethren in Nepal, they number some 2.5 lakh.
Another 50,000 people in the area belong to four tribes – Oraon, Munda, Lohra and Bhuiya – collectively called Dhangar.
Members of these tribes used to collect firewood and other forest produce. Their livelihood largely depended on collecting sought-after decorative stones from river Pandai flowing through the park and a species of wood treasured as wall carvings and certain furniture.
But in 2010, the state government restricted their entry into the park for exploiting forest resources. “The Nitish Kumar government curbed our rights. We are supporting the BJP because the Vajpayee government had granted us the right to minor forest produce,” said Nakchhed Mukhia, a tribal leader of Tharuhat village.
Locals feel the restriction was imposed to let organised syndicates extract the forest resources. “What we did was for sustenance of the entire community, not individual gains,” said Budhua Oraon of Manguraha village.
People in the area also resent the lack of attention to another major problem -– erosion of land due to frequent flash floods. “Chunks of several villages and hutments have been wiped away, but we have not had any relief measures till date,” said local resident Bhagan Mahato.
The tribal belt falls in Valmikinagar assembly constituency where the Mahagathbandhan has fielded Irshad Hussain of Congress instead of sitting MLA Rajesh Singh of Janata Dal (United). Hussain’s NDA challenger is Surendra Prasad of Rashtriya Lok Samata Party.