Lok Sabha Elections 2024: Happy with Modi, Yogi Govts, Vantangiya Villagers in UP Struggling to Get Land Rights

Vantangiya is a group of forest inhabitants who are Dalits and members of several Other Backward Classes (OBC). It is not a community. Most of them are Gaurs and Nishads (who belong to scheduled castes).
Their settlements are surrounded by Sal trees grown right into the sky in mesmerizing geometrical symmetry.
Their settlements are surrounded by Sal trees grown right into the sky in mesmerizing geometrical symmetry.The Mooknayak

Gorakhpur (Uttar Pradesh): Amidst depictions of contemporary living, such as dish antennas atop homes, electricity in almost every household, brick or interlocking roads and two-wheelers zooming by, one can easily discover stark contradictions of life in small villages on the outskirts of Gorakhpur. The settlements mainly inhabited by Vantangiya people are surrounded by Sal trees grown right into the sky in mesmerizing geometrical symmetry and maintained and protected by the Forest Department.

Contrary to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s claims that that the villages of the forest dwellers in his native district (Gorakhpur) have attained a “VIP status under the state’s initiatives”, people here are living in extreme poverty, with malnourished children without clothes and evident hopelessness on their faces.

During the colonial era, Lord Mountbatten brought the Vantangiya people from Myanmar to this region for afforestation activities. While ‘Van’ means forest, ‘Tangia’ is a distortion of the word for the Burmese practice of shifting hill plantations.

Vantangiya is a group of forest inhabitants who are Dalits and members of several Other Backward Classes (OBC). It is not a community. Most of them are Gaurs and Nishads (who belong to scheduled castes).

“Our main concern in this election is land title. We were allotted pattas (land deeds) in 2011 by the then Mayawati government. However, we still don’t have khatauni (record of rights or record of land ownership). The Forest Department has title on the land leased out to us, thus it is still not our property. It can evict us as the lease period expires. We are living at its mercy,” Vishambhar Maurya, a resident of Ramgarh Urf Rajahi in Gorakhpur’s Chargawan block, told The Mooknayak.

He said that no one could bank loans against the leased land in absence of khatauni.

About 750 families live in 150 houses in the village. Majority of houses here are newly built. The locals said the houses have been constructed under the Mukhya Mantri Awas Yojna and the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna.

Their settlements are surrounded by Sal trees grown right into the sky in mesmerizing geometrical symmetry.
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The second biggest issue of the locals is unemployment. “Majority of us are construction labourers, who work in Gorakhpur or go to bigger cities to earn livelihood. Those who work locally do not get work for over 15 days a month. Furthermore, in this age of extreme inflation, the earnings, which vary from Rs 350 to Rs 400 per day, are insufficient to bear the expenses of a family of even four (husband, wife and their two children) persons,” he said.

Though Maurya is not an elected gram pradhan (village chief), he is known as mukhiya among the Vantangiyas.

The village was adopted by actor-turned-politician and Gorakhpur MP Ravi Kishan. However, he — according to the locals — never returned to the settlement after 2019 when he had descended here to inaugurate a primary school.

“After 2019, he came here in 2021 to shoot a movie but did not bear the pain to visit the village again. He stayed in the Forest Department’s guest house and left. The adoption of our village is just for namesake,” alleged the villagers, who boast of being loyal voters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Why so? “Whatever development works such as construction of pucca houses, electricity supply, construction of brick roads, etc., have been carried out here have happened in the past seven years when Yogi took over as the chief minister,” they reasoned.

“Earlier, we were not even citizens of this country as we did not have voter identity cards. We got our ration cards recently. The roads and the primary school were built in our village under the BJP rule. This could have been done by the previous governments as well,” said 24-year-old Kamlesh Nishad, who is also a daily wager.

When countered the narrative of inaction on part of previous governments with his fellow villagers claim that they got land lease in 2011 when Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati was the chief minister and what they got in the last five-seven years, they would have received it after producing the land document, he agreed — stating that they used to live like “nomads”.

“We used to stay on a patch of land for five years for planting trees and looking after it, and when the plants grew, we used to be shifted by the Forest Department on another patch for afforestation,” he said.

The residents also complained that not every resident of the Vantangiya villages is the legitimate owner of the land they hold as many of them still don’t have a lease.

Maurya is one among them. Despite submitting all required papers to the Revenue Department, he said, he has not so far been granted a lease of the land in his possession. “I am not a rightful owner of even a single inch of land in my control,” he admitted.

Of the 25 kattha (0.77 acre) of land that he owns, 15 kattha (0.46 acre) is legally owned by one Shyam Yadav, 40.

On paper, Kamlesh has 26 decimal (0.25 acres) of land out of the total 30 decimal (0.29 acres) in his possession.

Of the 16 kattha (0.49 acre), Kalavati Devi has a lease of 10 kattha (0.30 acre) of land. She has four children.

Vijay Nishad is landless, though he unlawfully occupies 10 kattha (0.30 acre) for agricultural farming.

Though Ramdev, 65, is in possession of over 15 kattha (0.46 acres) of land, just eight kattha (0.24 acres) is officially registered as his property.

Residents of all five Vantangiya villages in the district have the same tale to tell.

There are 18 Vantangia villages in neighboring Maharajganj district, five each in Balrampur and Gonda and one in Bahraich.

Ramgarh Urf Rajahi has a 720-meter interlocking road, which was constructed in 2020 under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Many of those who had worked in its constructions allegedly did not get a single penny of their wages.

Fifty-three people in the hamlet, according to Maurya, have MGNREGA job cards, but they have hardly got work for 100 days in the past six years.

A few kilometers away from the village is Tinkonia Jungle-3 — which CM Adityanath had adopted. It is comparatively dense and compact, consisting of a mix of pucca and kutcha homes.

Sonu Nishad, who owns a ration shop, expressed his ire. “The cost of everything is soaring. There is no work. Rarely does anyone get work under MGNREGA. We are disillusioned. Instead of talking about issues impacting people, political leaders are indulging in slugfest and busy playing communal cards,” he said.

Sandhya Devi, a primary school teacher, too complained about the land title, but she is hopeful that the issue would be resolved if the Modi government (in the Centre) is re-elected.

“We had kutcha houses with thatched roofs. There was no school, no hospital and no electricity. We were afraid of the nights because wild animals would prey on our animals and babies. But life has changed now,” she added.

In an effort to integrate into mainstream society, the chief minister designated 18 Vantangiya villages as revenue villages in January 2018. But the decision is not proving to be of great help.

A revenue village is a small administrative region with defined borders. One revenue village may contain many hamlets. A village officer is the head officer of a revenue village.

The idea behind it was to make it possible for the administration to implement development initiatives like establishing dispensaries, schools and other services in these villages. For the people living here, however, the majority of these facilities remain a pipe dream.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act does not treat the forests in which they live as revenue villages, so the people still struggle to meet their basic needs when it comes to using fruits, honey, wax, wood and leaves from the forest.

It is important to highlight that thousands of hectares of valuable sal-teak forest in the Gorakhpur and Maharajganj districts came into existence over a century because of the Vantangias, who are still marginalised.

Vinod Tiwari, who runs Sarvahitkari Seva Sansthan, an organisation that has been working in Vantangia villages for three decades, said it took the government 15 years to give the people of the hamlets their due and that too partially.

“However, they are still far behind the mainstream society,” he added.

Following multiple rounds of negotiations with the laborers’ delegation from Vantangia settlements, he said, the then state government in 2006 finally agreed to grant them rights through the enactment of the Scheduled Castes, Tribes and Traditional Residents Act.

Its manual was framed in 2007 and came into effect in December that year. This law stipulates that families shall receive their rightful share of the forest land if they can demonstrate that they have lived there for three generations. Because of a few technical errors in the law, Vantangias were not getting land entitlements even after it was passed.

Uphill Task of Forest Farming

The Forest Department allots people vacant land. To make the ground suitable for farming, they have to plough it time and again. With a gap of 15-feet between each saplings, sal and teak are sown in a row. The dwellers grow in the spaces between the trees. The officials used to take half of their yields.

In the second year of the forest plantation, they had to clear the gap from the agricultural farming. In the fifth year, they had to leave the patch completely and shift to another allocated area where they had to repeat the same. This process led the villagers to live there for decades.

Their settlements are surrounded by Sal trees grown right into the sky in mesmerizing geometrical symmetry.
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