By Arunima Sikdar
Jayanti, a quaint locality, situated near its namesake Jayanti River, is characterized by an amusing admixture of geography, ethnicity and history. Within an area of 759 square kilometres, it harbours a river, a mountain, an international border and people of at least four different ethnicities. One can easily sense the uniqueness of this area.
I came across this landscape while working in the Buxa-Tiger Reserve in North Bengal this January. The Jayanti River lies at the tail of the Tiger Reserve, beyond which a series of mountains form the Indo-Bhutan border. Naturally, this area is a tourist hive and the residents thrive on tourism-based income. There is a clear division in this landscape into two distinct villages (Bhutia Basti and Compartment 5), located on opposite sides of the river. Nested within the Tiger Reserve is Compartment 5, which is well connected to the town of Alipurduar. On the other side, the small village of “Bhutia Basti” (the locality of Bhutias) is perched on the mountains near the Bhutan border. This is an isolated piece of land, with its back against a wall (literally).
The struggles of cohabitation with wildlife in a reserved forest and the history of border formation are like fossilized stories awaiting discovery. There exists a stark contrast in the livelihoods of the people on either side of the river. Every year, during the monsoon, when the river swells up to its brim, it cannot be forded. This severely disrupts the livelihood of people. And leaves Bhutia Basti isolated, with only the Indo-Bhutan mountain range by its side.
Every year, the residents of Bhutia Basti stock up supplies for the monsoon. The monsoon period is a series of sleepless nights haunted by the sound of the rippling river. Floods are frequent and no work is available or possible during those months. No tourists come in, no locals go out. Mothers leave their children (no matter what age) on the other side of the river as that is where the school is. Nature is nothing when it comes to a mother’s will.
These accounts of daily struggle were brought to life when we visited this Basti while returning from our fieldwork in the adjoining Sanchapho forest, one morning in January. The houses in Bhutia Basti are built with their floors raised at least two feet high. The locals explained that this is a precaution against the very frequent elephant visits (Jayanti is an elephant corridor). The houses are built with the utmost simplicity and care, decorated with plants that impart an aesthetic aura to it (Figure 3).
We had stopped at the most colourful house in Bhutia Basti one day. The house faced the river and was overflowing with flowers of all kinds. It was colourful like a child’s drawing. I guess that’s how lovingly it was built, 70 years ago, when the eldest member of the Mukhia family took refuge here from Bhutan.
Bhutia Basti comprises mostly Bhutanese refugees of three generations. In 1947, when Bhutan decided not to join India owing to its distinctiveness in culture and faith, a number of Bhutanese refugees were stranded here. Pre-border formation, this was a continuous piece of land, though now it is in India and not Bhutan. Stranded between high mountains and a river, the people decided to stay back and make this piece of land their home. Bhutan or India, it didn’t matter to them. The present members of Bhutia Basti speak Hindi, Nepali, Bhutia and Bengali. They can welcome you and give you a glimpse of all of these cultures. Salt tea to mishti doi, they have let the intermediarity of their location result in diversity.
I enjoyed a warm cup of tea and chit chat with old Mr. Mukhia who was used to having guests over. He spoke fluent Nepali, though I spoke to him in Bengali and Hindi (too ashamed of my broken Nepali). Mostly, Mr. Mukhia was happy and content with his abode, colourful walls and his little mischievous grandson. A part of him was worried, as a few years ago this Bhutia Basti had over a hundred families residing, but over time they had been evicted by the government to expand tourism-based activities. There are only sixteen families left. Mr. Mukhia anticipated an eviction order in his name any day. “Houses have started disappearing, one day the entire Basti will be wiped out” – hopelessness reflected in the creases of his forehead as he explained the situation to me.
He was, however, thankful to a legal case that was going on against the government regarding the tourism activities in Buxa-Jayanti, the core region of the Buxa Tiger Reserve. A few years ago, young kids also had organised a protest inside the Tiger Reserve, concerned about the disappearing wildlife due to anthropogenic activities. This legal case had left their eviction orders hanging. On either side of this case was the conservation of wildlife, and preservation of human livelihoods.
For the time being, people’s livelihoods here hangs by a thread of hope. There are loopholes in this legal situation which are skillfully used by the people to make a living. Tourism here is beyond a legal do or don’t, it is a necessity. How else do you survive? In a land torn between two countries, how do you surrender your livelihood to wildlife?
Arunima is a Ph.D. student working on the Bio-resources and Sustainable Livelihoods in
North East India project at ATREE. She has a Master’s degree in botany from the University of Calcutta. She has been residing in the hilly town of Gangtok for almost a year and has picked up the local language and explored the various fronts of Nepali culture. Arunima is interested in life in the Himalayan foothills and often documents her observations and thoughts in the Blog – ‘Lost in Translation’. She is interested in the vulnerability of forest ecosystems in the Eastern Himalayas and the consequences on human livelihoods.