Applicability of Tribal Forest Act and Traditional Forest Rights to the Kukis in Manipur

Published on April 15, 2010

Applicability of Tribal Forest Act and Traditional Forest Rights to the Kukis in Manipur

By Priyadarshni M. Gangte

Tribal Forest Act, 2006 & Traditional Forest Rights of Tribals with its Applicability to the Kukis in Manipur*

“How can you buy or sell sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own freshness of the air and the sparkle of the Priyadarshni M. Gangte water, how can you buy them? We are part of the earth, and it is part of us. The rocky crests, the juices of the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man – all belong to the same family.

The shining water that moves in the streams is not just water, but blood of our ancestors. If we sell you land, you must teach your children that is sacred – that each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of memories in the lives of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.

We know the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next – for he is stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold, like bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind a desert…

Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. The end of living and the beginning of survival”.(Chief Seattle, 1854- Extracts from a letter to the President of the United States of America in response to an offer to purchase a large tract of his tribe’s land)

In Manipur, the genesis of land ownership system, in tribal inhabited areas, is very complicated issue. There is a marked difference in land holding and ownership system between the tribals and non-tribals in the State. The tribals are the Kukis and the Nagas. There is also feudal system of ownership of land in the non Naga people better known as Kuki. The chiefs called ‘Haosa’ are the masters of the land and the villagers are tenants. Whereas the Naga villages have community, clan, and individual lands. But the individual tillers of the land have rights of possession of the land inhabited.( P. Binodini: Tribal Land System of Manipur, Centre For Manipur Studies, M.U. Canchipur & Akansha Publishing House, Delhi, 2006 p.2)
* Presented at the One Day Seminar organized by Tribal Research Institute, Govt. of Manipur at Conference Hall of TRI, Imphal on 08-12-2009.

The Tribal Forest Rights 2006, a step to fulfill the government’s promise that the administration will take all measures to reconcile the objectives of economic growth and environmental conservation, particularly as far as tribal communities, dependent on forests, are concerned. It is a very complex issue in Manipur especially for its application to the Kukis. We all know that the land holding system of the Kuki is under the Chieftainship. By the very act, the threats that are faced by the tribals in general and Kukis in particular in the era of neo-liberal- globalization are much greater than what had been assumed and thought in the past. Why we maintain that can be visualized through the following reasons:

Manipur has adopted the pattern of classification of forest lands (as defined in Chapter IV of Forest Act, 1927) into three categories viz i) reserved forests, e.g. Langol Forest (Imphal), which are under the management of State Government mainly for sustainable development and economic exploitation of forest products;  ii) protected forests e.g. Loktak Lake catchment areas which are being protected from ever increasing degeneration as a result of human invasion and sustained to restore critical ecological balance but not necessarily for economic exploitation;  iii) unclassified reserved forests which are owned and managed by the tribal communities through covered under the Joint Forest Management Plans of the government that will facilitate socio-economic development conservation etc.

First, the withdrawal of the State from the social sector has a devastating impact on the life of tribal people, especially the women and the poorest among them (Prabhat Patnaik: Conservation And Tribal Development in the Forest Right Bill, Social Scientist, Vol.34, Numbers 7-8, July – August, 2006:p.1). This is mainly because the Kukis have had to depend on State welfare measures to meet their daily needs. Besides, the gap between the tribals and the others is increasing day by day. Its significant is to increase more marginalization and growing inequalities between these areas and others. Moreover the current Act does bide well for the Kuki society and the traditional forest right is not in the social reality (Right to LIFE OR DEATH ?: For Bharat Both Cannot Be ‘Right’-B.B. Pandey: Supreme Court cases (1994)4 SCC(J)p.27).
The significance of the Act in its implication to the already practice of chieftainship among the Kukis,  can go only to a limited distance in ensuring sustainable livelihoods for local people. However, it is of greater significance as a political tool that can be used to affect more wide ranging changes in the nature of forest laws and management in the country(ibid). Theme of forest policies and the legislative framework for the management of forest, the relationship between local people and the forest department relates to the macro-picture with the plight of forest produce, collection in the Chikimz inhabitant areas.

As far as the system of control and management of lands by the village chief with the right to cultivation for individual members are concerned, the Kukis have strong institutionalized autocratic chieftainship (Haosa). The Chief has to consult his council of ministers called ‘Semang Upa’ or ‘Pachong’ before allocating the plots for jhuming. In return, each family has to pay to the chief a tax (Changseo) in the form of basket full of paddy, annually. (T.S. Gangte: The Kukis of Manipur, Gyan Publishing House, Delhi, 1993:p.136).Hence individual or family could not claim ownership rights over the plots which were allocated to them in the past. The chief has the absolute right of ownership over the entire of the village. The villagers have no right over the land whatever (Ibid). If the families are in not good terms with the Haosa they have to leave the village and live elsewhere but they should have to obey the law as long as they live in the village. This practice is still prevalent among the Kuki societies. The chief does not ordinarily have the right to altogether deny a resident member of the community for his fair share of a plot. But also he cannot exercise ownership in such a manner as to reduce the aggregate share of the members of the community. Thus, the right of the chief deals with the right of management of the community resources as well. This makes the chief often a hegemon.

Traditionally, government and administration under the Chieftainship/Haosa of the Kuki is hereditary and, is fascinating almost absolutely within their territorial jurisdictions. The chief is the head of the village council (Village Authority). The members of the council are drawn from various clans in the village and they hold office at the pleasure of the chief. The council or Semang Upa assists the chief in administration and dispensation of justice. However, it is more of a consultative body, dependent, and in case of any subversive things to the chief he may or may not accept their advice. It is  left with the chief to take a final decision.

In a welfare State, considering the differences in the customs and traditions of various communities, it would be appropriate for the State Government to implement composite and integrated socio-economic development projects which have internal control and regulation mechanism to deal with a wide range of issues viz, social and cultural economic development and customary laws without interfering into the already prevalent administrative system of different communities. Certainly the tribal communities, themselves, will acquire the required skill and the capacity to stand on their own feet.

For obvious reasons, opinions are divided among the tribal people whenever the question of the right to land and forest arises. The village chief asserts and claims his right as unassailable; the intellectuals and political leaders shy away from such issues of grave/public concern; the poor majority would not bother as bread earning is their priority. In spite of all this, it is a fact that the tribals cannot afford to ignore the imperative of sustainable development of forest vis-à-vis their right to forest. The laws suitable to deal with such crucial issues should be framed. The question is, whether the stake holder like the State Government authorities, the tribal chiefs, the political leaders, the intellectuals and the people are prepared for this challenge?. To make things happen, we need a participatory or collaborative approach.(Sholun Touthang, aged 39 yrs.(S.Touthang), Old Lambulane, Social Activist interviewed on 01-12-2009).The State should take the initiative in this regard. A responsive administration will make a lot difference. The intellectuals and the political leaders should join hand in sensitizing the poor and ignorant majority to this critical problems concerning their life and future.(Ibid). The message is to make the people, who have so far been deprived of the benefit of various welfare programmes, aware of the danger that loom large in the face of ever degrading forest and environment.  Education and the economic empowerment will go a long way in the direction of protecting their rights in every sense. To start with, the authorities/agencies concern should focus on primary, elementary and vocational education, because education will provide its multiplier effect.(Ibid) in the process of peoples empowerment, particularly the women folk.

It is high time that the administration and intellectuals introspect and sensitize the people to the problems of damaging environment and prospects of sustainable development of forest resources. It is a question of providing alternative means of livelihood through programmes like Horticulture Mission, NREGS, resettlement policy near market places and accessible for them to good transport and communication or cluster of villages for the smaller groups to survive socially and economically from exploitation of the major groups in the context of globalization of the world. For example, scattering of small villages over different places distant to each others is another problem for the planner or authorities in taking up a proper planning of development for each of the villages due to geographical dislocations.(Ibid).

In the face of global warming, which is ascribed to degradation of Forest & Environment across the world, the Central Government has stressed importance and urgency of sustainable development of natural resources. The Government of India has adopted a multi pronged approach – regulatory, preventive and developmental. For instance, the Government had framed a number of Acts from time to time in the past including this Forest Rights Act, 2006 which has been enacted with a clear objective to prevent and control devastation of forests through stringent legal provisions and mechanism. Master Plans and Joint Forest Management measures are being launched vigorously. The efforts are rewarding. However, these need to be implemented at the grass root level, effectively, unlike in the past in the villages and forests alike. In this regard, let us see the successful forest movement for its preservation among the Baiga Community in Rajasthan. Cluster groups at the village level if formed of the villagers might go a long way in preserving the age old forest protection techniques and water management at the village/territory level.(Ibid).

Unfortunately, economic and social compulsions like poverty and culture/lifestyle attracted to flora and fauna have compelled the tribal people and forest dwellers to exploit natural resources either ignorantly or without seriously thinking about the dangerous consequences. To make things worse, unscrupulous speculators i.e. timber mafia’s indulgence in pernicious practices and rampantly cutting of forest trees for jhum cultivation in the absence of alternative means of livelihood has made the mechanism more complex. Such people go unpunished and the problem multiple.

Tribals ancestors who are generally considered as ‘uncivilized’ knew essence of mutual relationship between human being and natural – flora and fauna. They were more close to nature. To maintain ecological balance, they resorted to selective killing of animals and felling of trees. They created forest reserves as buffer green zones for protection of trees and animals. Let us remember the universal truth that tree gives water; water gives life. Man can survive in a congenial environment more comfortably, especially when he is in tune with nature and natural resources.

We should perhaps now seriously think about alternative development – models. For example, will it not be better to stop construction of road through forests! Villages would be established where basic services could be provided easily. This kind of approach will create a win-win situation where the tribal people can access the benefits/facilities available in other progressive areas and at the same time, we can save forest & environment from human invasion, although when we are having an increasing difficult scenario with reference to the rising and ever increasing population in different sectors, cities and smaller urban areas or villages.

There is enormous pressure on land for the purposes of implementation of developmental projects and for human habitation both, in the valley and the hills. To say that, demand for land to build industries and other public purposes has been on the rise continuously. In the absence of any major industries, land still remains an inalienable part of the life of the tribal communities in the North East India.

In the State of Manipur, tribal population has been enjoying the status of special constitutional safeguards, like exemption from the Land and Land Revenue Act Manipur, 1960 under Article 371C without the Sixth Schedule. The administration of the hill areas are under the Manipur (Village Authorities in Hill Areas) Act, 1956. In case of the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, they have run their civil affairs under their customary laws without constitutional recognition. Therefore, the State is absolute authority in lands related and other administrative matters. As a result, the Arunachal Pradesh opted for the Panchayati Raj institution established in 1969 and not the District Councils system as it prevails in most tribal areas of the Northeast (Report of the group-VII, National Institute of Rural development, Hyderabad). However, Lokendro has maintained that another significant issue worthy of discussion is the extension of MLR and LR Act, 1960 in the hill areas of Manipur. There is in fact difference of opinion among the academicians, policy planners and social activists.(N. Lokendra: Land Use System in Manipur Hills; Rajesh Publication, New Delhi, 2005, introduction-XI). Broadly there have been two groups – one arguing for an immediate extension of the MLR and LR Act, 1960 in the hills for a rapid socio-economic change, whereas the other opposes such a view as the extension would not only lead to the break down of the traditional land system which so far sustained hill peoples life and identity but also lead to privatization of hill land and the subsequent unrest of greed and profit.

The problem of land alienation among the tribals of Manipur is commonly viewed as the leading cause of tension between the tribals and non tribals in the State. It is true that tribal land in Manipur mostly in Sadar Hills and hill valley has been alienated mainly to more or less such non tribals. The exploitation of poor tribals by well-to-do tribals through appropriation of land is also creating havoc at the social level in the hills.

The accelerated process of tribal land alienation has begun after the introduction of MLR and LR Act, 1960, which has been amended from time to time, contend Laldena.(Atrocities on Lands of the tribals. Seminar-cum-Training on SC and ST on Presentation of Atrocities Act, 1989, Organised by the Manipur Tribal Council, MTC in collaboration with Tribal Research Institute (TRI) on 26-27 June, 2009, held at Synod Hall, IB Road, Churachandpur, Manipur).He further said that despite opposition from tribal leaders, the Act was extended to 89 villages of Churachandpur in 1962, 14 villages in Sadar Hills of Senapati and another 14 village in Khoupum, Tamenglong.

Laldena maintains that the need of the hour is introduction of new and separate land laws in the hills as the MLR and LR Act, 1960 does not suit the topography of hill areas and is against the traditional land use. (Ibid). Morever, we have noticed, from the very opposition and protests from our Nagas under the caption “Tribal and Forest laws – A rejoinder to the release of Forest Department, Government of Manipur IFP, April 4.

It is a known fact that in the past the numerous tribal groups living in Manipur had been placed under the administration of their respective customary laws. These were gradually replaced by ordinances for better and effective administration (P.M. Gangte: Customary Laws of Meitei And Mizo Society of Manipur. Akansha Publishing House, Delhi). At the threshold of Indian Independence, the Manipur State Hill People (Administrations) regulation was enacted in 1947. However, we understand that the customary laws were not totally abandoned, but the same were retained to deal with various tribal social and political problems as the lowest enforcing agencies at the village level. This was subsequently improved by another Act called the Manipur (Village Authorities in the Hill Areas) Act, 1956(Ibid). It created a strong sense of opposition by generating a great deal of discontentment and apprehension of a possible government extent to do away with the chiefs’ right. The Kuki Chiefs vehemently protested the application or extension of the Act in the Manipur Hills. In desperation, the pan – Kuki social organisation, KNA, demanded of a Kuki State in 1960 through Thingkangphai meeting. Since then KNA has been repeatedly demanding the right to “self-determination”. (Struggling for Identity and Land Among the Hill People of Manipur by T.S. Gangte, National Conference on Folklore, Identities and Performance” held at Imphal on 23rd May 2006 organised by the Forum for Laboratory Theatres of Manipur).

The Indian Tribal Customary Laws of different communities often stand in the way of land reforms. However, to take initiative for harmonizing the customary laws will be crucial to establishing a modern & scientific and land tenure system, thereby making way for conservation and sustainable forest & environment. For that, the State administration and the intellectuals should take initiatives. The Tribal Forest Act, 2006 provides the format within which many operative measures can be adopted.

The absence of land registration or patta system in the hill areas of Manipur has also adversely impacted people’s psyche without having any legal title or right to the lands they are tilling or where they have been living for centuries, the tribal people take little interest in protecting or developing land. The village Haosa often dislodge the de facto land owners from their settlement. As a result, the individual do not have a right or title to land, whereby, the financial institutions/banks are not willing to provide credit to them because they cannot provide security in this regard. However, with the new Act, 2006, things should change for the betterment of the forest inhabitants.

According to the Directive Principle of State Policy laid down by the Constitution of India, the onus of socio-economic upliftment of the poor and the weaker sections of the society including the tribals lies with the States. Given the constitutional mandate, the State Government is duty bound to, inter-alia, protect the interests of the tribals in the State. However, contrary to this constitutional mandate, most of the government acts/laws so enacted from time to time which intended to deal with various issues confronting the tribals has always lacked its credibility and sincerity in addressing the real issues, since such acts/laws which contained the provisions of diluting the age old social institutions of the tribal customary laws and traditions relating to the lands and their rights, which the tribal communities shall never concede to in the absence of long term alternative provisions for them.(S.Touthang).  Hence, any government measure in such case has required an extensive prior consultation and deliberation with the concerned parties to be affected and benefited with the measures before being translated into action, so that the consent of the parties is obtained primarily and the same may be placed into acts/laws for enforcement by the authorities. For instance, the Forest Rights Act, 2006 basically affects the rights of the Chiefs of the CHIKIMZ in terms of the issue over the land ownership. Then, how the Kuki communities whose land is under the institutions of chieftainship should accept and implement the Act in their lands which they have considered it against themselves despite the fact that the same provides the role of the tribals to maintain a friendly relationship with the forest and environment from exploitation and being ever degrading at the hands of human invasion is stressed upon.

The Kuki communities whose social institutions are influenced overwhelmingly by tradition and customary laws have a strong faith in ‘Chieftainship’ has effectively managed their administrative affairs as well as in the dispensation of justice. As a matter of fact, the institutions of chieftainship being vested with the power and authority to resolve and settle all disputes; whether be it major or minor including criminal and murder related cases  which occurs between different individuals or groups within the jurisdiction of the communities has been dealt with in accordance to the customary laws; thereby impacting a huge administrative relief for the authorities of public administration from involving themselves into the affairs of these communities. Thus, the administrative system of Kukis under the Chieftainship is comparatively laudable as it is unlike with other communities whose traditional and customary laws unable to provide a system of support to the public administration to the extent of managing their affairs on daily walks of life.

Given this fact narrated above, the so called axis of  rider ‘Chieftainship’ being  bondaged with the age old social institutions of the Kukis, even in this modern age  it deserves an appreciation for those intellectuals,  political parties, social workers and civilized societies rather than simply looking upon it as an obstacle on the anvil of land reforms in the tribal areas just for a cause of legal right or title over ownership of land  for individual without deeply considering the substantial contributions it has made to the public administration, and until an alternative framework to substitute this social institution of Chieftainship is framed in a democratic manner and acceptable to communities.


From the preceding paragraphs, it can be seen that we have clearly pointed out sufficient reasons to continue to uphold the existing social institutions of the Kukis under their chieftainship which is the perennial source of their customary laws within the lands they had inhabited as their ancestral lands. The importance and urgency has been stressed under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 for the role the tribals play for conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance in strengthening the conservation regime of the forests is unavoidable. It is the incumbent upon  the States to find out an alternative way and means beyond this Act which can ensure to deal with sustainable development of forests and environment at the hands of Kuki communities without diluting their rights under the institutionalized chieftainship systems. Forest Act 2006 is welcomed but it definitely requires a thorough critical evaluation before it is implemented in the zones where Kukis hold their sway.

The writer, who has authored several articles and books, is a lecturer in the history department at Damdei Christian College, Manipur, India. She is the wife of late Thangkhotinmang Sielpho Gangte (T.S. Gangte), a well-known historian in the Kuki society.

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