Issue 14

When a people’s eyes are as moist as a land: The Tharu speak

Tisha Srivastav
The Skin of Chitwan, an online multimedia exhibition by the Nepal Picture Library, gets inside a long history of dislocation, with a sensory, multidisciplinary vitality.

A people whose eyes are as moist as the land they once knew, as their own.

The Tharu of Chitwan, living close to Nepal’s south-central border with ours. India’s 1751 km border with Nepal, may be open, but ask the average Indian about the Nepalese, he or she might mention a Gurkha as guard or soldier, a farmer tilling the rice field, and a people migrating to India freely. None of this would be inaccurate, but ask some more, have all Nepalese migrated? What about the Tharu, native to an Indo-Gangetic marsh on both sides of the border? With Yogi Adityanath’s UP home terrain of Gorakhpur being part of this landscape. A bog, like London, was once. But what is this Terai?

Geographically, Nepal is not only at the centre of the Himalayan arc, it has the longest stretch of the Himalaya. The Siwalik hill range, under it, is an undulating comma threading Chitwan and Rapti valleys, in the lowlands. Dr. Toni Hagen, a member of the Swiss Technical Assistance team in 1950, who was the first to do a geological reconnaissance of the country, classified the edge of the Gangetic floodplain as the Terai. In Urdu, it implies the edge of a watershed; in Hindi, low-lying plain or foothill. Terai, or the moist land. Wild swamp. Unpredictable sinkhole. Inundated with floodplains. In part a fertile extension of the Indo-Gangetic plain, thick with forest, grassland, and an all-around sticky humidity. Click to see the immensity of this forest landscape, in The Skin of Chitwan online exhibition, (referred hence as TSOC exhibit). Nature’s own no-entry sign, as we will see, for colonial powers and the Nepalese themselves.

The Tharu, a forest people, are native to Nepal’s Terai. Their name, some say, comes from where their ancestors migrated, the Indian Thar desert. Some say it comes from sthavir, referencing followers of Theravada Buddhism. In fact, one TSOC exhibit quotes scientist Ulrike Müller-Böker’s The Voices from Chitwan: Oral histories, ‘The forest presents itself to them as a familiar environment, whose rich biological stock they know, and know how to use, very expertly.’ A life of gathering thatch-grass for their home, firewood for cooking. Land close-by for grazing cattle and growing rice by the riverbank. (A TSOC click-through album shows you their rice diversity from the Nepal Gene Bank. Another photo album highlights their foraging choices for fermenting grain. A moving, matter of fact audio clip describes how the simal tree’s fluffy fiber made their pillows and blankets. Yet one more, lets you flip the pages of a Tharu shaman notebook, with a hand-drawn herb a page and a few lines on how it can be used). Scientists in both Indian and Nepalese academia have also written several research papers on whether the Tharus are more malaria-resistant than those who came after them.

But wait. This is one photo of two Tharu women, at home in the Chitwan valley. The story of this basin with sediments of the peaks from the Northern parts, after all, turns into a political scratch card across Nepalese history. We will in fact use four images borrowed from the multimedia exhibition, to tell the Tharu story.

‘Photo of women “A domestic record of being in time and becoming of place. Old family photographs collected from the private albums of Harnari’s inhabitants.” Mangani Raut’

Firstly, a need to maximize revenue base, means land grants are given in this Terai over two centuries of Gorkha and then Rana rule. A landed class emerges. Some supply timber to the then British-colonized India. The jungles with one-horned rhinos, swamp deer, and Asian elephants are also easy game for hunting howdahs. None of this includes the earliest settlers, the Tharu. Forest and timber offices come up under the Ranas here by 1880, as does a national level Central Forest Management office in 1924. But the threat of malaria is still so real that the forests and the Tharu survive into the 1940s.

It’s the year 1951. Mount Everest is yet to be scaled, and the era of foreign aid to Nepal begins. The US is first, India follows. As does a political revolt. 

Rana rule after over a century is replaced with a blink and miss political party formation and while democracy appears still-born, a bureaucracy doesn’t. One of the early development projects set off by King Tribhuvan in 1952 with external aid, is an inspection to Chitwan. The aim is to see if the upper hill folk, reeling under landslides, food shortage, and a flood in 1953, can be rehabilitated in this valley. In 1957, the new rulers of Nepal pass the Nationalization Act. All forest land is now government-owned.

At about the same time, American marine biologist Rachel Carson is becoming the public voice of science, as she leads a decade-long DDT expose in the US. While the US stirs in the wake of a burgeoning environmental consciousness at home, a forerunner of USAID along with the WHO in 1953, begins funding and leading the spraying of DDT on Nepal’s Terai. The spray reaches Chitwan by 1956. Dr. Randall Packard debating this developmental policy writes in 2009, ‘Following World War II and the development of new anti-malarial drugs and pesticides, including DDT, malaria control and eradication were increasingly presented as instruments for eliminating economic underdevelopment. By the 1960s, however, economists and demographers began to raise serious substantive and methodological questions about the basis of these claims.

But this is still the 50s. With the success of the malaria eradication programme, the fear among the hill folk recedes. They clear the dense Terai quickly. The new moniker for their settlement, Moujas. Between 1927 and 1977, sixty percent of the Terai forest is gone. Most of it over two decades of this resettling, steered by King Mahendra. Population triples in a decade. Arguing for the hill folk to be seen as environmental refugees themselves, a 2010 paper acknowledges, ‘Chitwan was indeed the site of tremendous agricultural extension during the 1950s and 1960s, and substantial agricultural intensification in the 1970s and 1980s. Intensification included irrigation, fertilizer, mechanization, improved seeds, and the creation of the country’s first agricultural institute (located in Chitwan).

‘New settlers hoe their fields in Narayanghat.
Photo by Bill Hanson

Some say that the king wants more monarchy-loyal settlers to move, hoping to stem future revolts. Ex-military personnel in particular are encouraged to move closer to the Indian border near Chitwan. (Another TSOC exhibit looks at this from the Tharu point of view). To neutralize local opposition in the 1970s, 1400 hectares are apparently distributed among 696 local politicians. Some of them, Panchayat leaders. While serious land reform which includes the Tharu or agricultural sharecroppers is never seen on the ground, the Forest Act gets several updates.

Hunting by the new migrants makes the swamp deer and the wild buffalo disappear. The numbers of the Bengal Tiger, one-horned rhino, and wild elephants dip alarmingly and the Sarus crane becomes endangered. The Tharu, largely illiterate and lacking official documentation, become poorer and in debt, with each passing year. To address this wildlife crisis, Nepal gets its first national park in 1973 – The Royal Chitwan National Park. 

Kathmandu’s focus on the Terai is also evident from the fact that out of the 22 Forest Resources Survey publications to come out between 1965 and 1973, only two end up being on non-Terai areas. In the first of many roads, an all-weather road comes up in 1979, linking Chitwan’s largest town, Narayanghat, to the eastern part of Nepal’s East-West highway, which opens up toward Eastern Nepal and India. Narayan, who the Tharu believe to be the provider of sunshine, rain, and harvests, becomes the namesake for the transportation hub by the 80s.

The TSOC exhibit channels this dislocation of the Tharu, ‘Almost overnight, in-migration turned the Tharu into minorities in their own homeland. In 1955 nearly 100 percent of the population were Tharu; in 1970, that figure was only about 14 percent. Today, only a third of the valley is forested, and almost all of that forest lies within the national park.’

‘Travellers cross the Narayani River at Pitauji Ghat, down the river from Narayanghat. Logs are piled across the river, which will be brought over to be hauled to India.
Photo by Dave Hohl, 1967’

The Army moves in to regulate poaching, but also to evacuate 20,000 Tharu as the park expands. They also have to pay to access their thatched grass now. An excerpt from Joanne McLean’s 1999 paper, Conservation and the Impact of Relocation on the Tharus of Chitwan, Nepal documents clashes between soldiers and locals in a TSOC exhibit as well. Between 1966 and 2000, state control of the forest becomes a financial asset, as it earns 3398 million in tax revenue from the sale of forest products and approximately 2751 million in Nepalese currency, through the sale of timber. In fact, through the late 1950s and 1960s King Mahendra’s coined slogan, ‘Hariyo Ban, Nepal ko Dhan’ {Green forests are Nepal’s wealth} gets a local version which goes like ‘Hariyo Ban, Raja ko Dhan’ {Green forests are the King’s wealth}.

‘The degraded landscape: A spectacle of modern technology opening a new frontier in Chitwan. A dozer clears forests to pave way for the construction of infrastructure and an integrated economy.
Photo by Dave Hohl

Community forestry laws with multiple amendments from the late 70s to the 90s have now made a pathway for decentralized natural resource and forest management? With iffy early gains, forest cover in many parts of Chitwan has improved, as has its wildlife numbers. Although by 2005, only 10 % of the Terai forest user groups get to have a say in how the national park functions, as against approximately 24 % of the hill forest groups. While the Tharu community itself scatters with a very mixed Chitwan now.  

With the People’s Revolution in 2006 overthrowing a corrupt Panchayat system and a national population census planned in 2021, this is still a live tug-o-war between top-down instruction and bottom-up need. Not to mention the silences in between. Quite like the experience of tuning in to the Skin of Chitwan online exhibition.

The featured photo is by Amrit Bahadur Chitrakar, Nepal Picture Library.

Tisha Srivastav teaches Media Studies at Ashoka University.

All the images are courtesy of the photographers attributed in the story and Nepal Picture Library. 

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