Written by Kanak Shree Chauhan



The north east of India which is a home to the majority of the indigenous population of India is also the land of forests. The land which was majorly covered by forests at one point of time has seen unprecedented depletion of forests since the advent of the British rule in India. The government that had totally refused to accept the role of people in the management of forests had on the contrast given the management of forests in north east to the hands of the very own people of the area. But this bold step of the constitution of India is now starign point blank in the eyes of the very people who created those very provisions of the constitution making them doubt the validity and appropriateness of the doubt.

This paper is an attempt at the story behind the depletion fo forests in north east with a special attention to the sacred grooves, the forests that are worshiped. The paper aims at studying the impact of the social and economic conditions of the north east that had forced the people to destroy the very forests that they worshiped and for that matter of fact we would also look into the provisions made under the Article 244, 244A and the Schedule VI of the constitution of India.  A special emphasis shall be laid on the sacred forests.

Key Words : indigenous people,  sacred grooves, North-East, Article 244, 244A, Schedule VI of the constitution of India



The easter region of India is connected to the rest of India via a narrow corridor through the Silliguri region (21-40 kms in width)  and comprises of 7 states commonly known as the 7 sisters : Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and tripura. All these states came to be a part of India at different times as late as the  20th century[1].

These states are known not only for their vast naturl resources i.e forests and ensuring water flows to the plains they are also a home to the largest ethnic population of India. There are approximately 220 ethnic groups and equal is the no. of dialects spoken in the area. The population diversity is a result of migration where people came from several regions like Tibet, Himalayas, Bangladesh, Indo gangetic plains etc.[2]

The forest cover of the states has always been appreciated, for the states account for 1/4th of the forest cover of the entire country while they only constitute 7.9% of the total geographical area[3].WWF has identified the entire Eastern Himalayas as a priority Global 200 Ecoregion[4]

The forests in NE  are classified majorly into 6 categories: tropical moist deciduous forests, tropical semi evergreen forests, tropical wet evergreen forests, subtropical forests, temperate forests and alpine forests. And account for around 62% of the total area[5]. It is also one of the 25 classified biodiversity hotspots (Indo-Burma hotspot) the worlds 2nd largest.[6]


There are 6 Forest reserves in the North East which are: Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh(1985 sq kms), Kaziranga National Park near Guwahati in Assam(430 sq Kms), Orang National Park Assam (78.81 sq kms), Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary Assam(38.8 sq. kms.), Sepahijola Wildlife Sanctuary (18.53 sq. kms.) in Tripura, Keibul Lamjao National Park(40 sq. kms.) near Imphal in Manipur[7].


History and the need for Special provisions


There were mongoloids who practically inhabited the whole north east once they came and had now become special ethnic groups with time who then slowly becam Hindus and then came Ahoms  who ruled Assam for almost about 600 years till the britishers cam einto power[8]. History gives evidence that the NE was always governed by different principles than the rest of India, for as britishers came they decided not to disturb the running and administration of these region and therefore chose to rule them indirectly. And thus the traditional systems of governance were not interfered with and the issues relating to land, inheritance, forest, dispute resolutions, etc., were dealt with according to the customary laws as according to the clans and tribal chiefs. With the Government of India Act, 1919 declaing them as “backward areas” The Government of India Act, 1935 turned them into, “excluded” and “partially excluded” areas.. the difference being that while excluded areas were not represented at all in the legislatures the others were somehow. But the Jurisdiction of the courts of British India was limited in such areas[9].

Only those areas were declared reserved which were high on commercially viable timber including teak and sal while everything else was left open.This was done for the government did not find the administration of these regions as economically viable for the costs were to be more than the revenues[10]

The need to uphold the distinctness of this region was recognised by providing special provisions regarding their governance. These provisions were included on the basis of the recommendations of the North-East Frontier (Assam). Tribal and Excluded Area Sub- Committee of the Advisory Committee of the Constituent Assembly of India popularly known as Bordoloi sub- committee named after its chairman Gopinath Bordoloi, a member of the Constituent Assembly and the then Prime Minister of Assam[11].

The major recommendations being the establishment of autonomous districts in Assam which were later extended to the state of Tripura and also exist in the state of Meghalya in 1984 with reorganization of the North east region[12].

Article 244 of the constitution of India was inserted giving power to the parliament to make laws for tribal areas of assam giving them power to form Autonomous district Councils for the better governance[13].




The District Council works at 3 levels: the village administration as first tier, the ‘Elka’ Administration as the second tier and the Constitutional District Councils at the third level[14]. All members are elected , with a maximum of 30 members out of which 4 can be nominated by the governor and the others are to be elected with a term of 5 years[15]


The powers of the Council are given in the Section 3 of the VI Schedule which states that

It can make laws with reference to the allotment, occupation and use of forests other than Reserved Forests, Management of forests, regulation of shifting agriculture, and appointment of chiefs but these laws have to get a prior assent of the Governor.[16][17]


The forest cover in the hands of the government is merely the reserved forests while the entire forest cover of the region is either regulated by District Councils(Meghalya, Mizoram ,Tripura, Assam) and by villages and clans in Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh


Current Fucntional District Councils are[18] :

Assam: The North Cachar Hills District Council and The Karbi Anglong District Council., Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC)

Meghalaya: Khasi Hills District Council, Jaintia Hills District Council and Garo Hills District Council.

Tripura: Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council.

Mizoram: The Chakma District Council, The Mara District Council and The Lai District Council.


Nagaland : is majorly divided into villages which either followed the democratic pattern (eg Angamese and Aos) while otheres followed the chieften format ( Semas and Konyaks). These villages function on clans and are characterized by rule of a council of elders. The government realizing the importance passed the Nagaland Village, Area and Regional Council Act, 1970 giving power to the people to have their own rules and governance. At present Nagaland has 1,045 recognized villages and each village has a Village Council. And management of forests is an important task entrusted to these councils.[19]


Manipur: The Panchayati Raj institutions are functioning only in the valley districts and Jiribam sub-division. In the hill districts, there are village authorities, almost similar to village Panchayats, functioning under the  provisions of the 1956 Manipur (Village Authorities in Hill Areas) Act[20].



While everyone advocates the involvement of people into management of forests the situation in north east now appears to raise a big question on the efficacy of the Joint Forest management and Community forestry. So it is necessary to dwell into the reasons of failure of the north east way of governance.

The district Council Forest Act of 1958 (in the state of Meghalya) states that the forests were to be looked after by the owner, or the clan depending upon the ownership of the forests be it private, community or village forests. But the manner of looking after was not prescribed thereby affording great degree of discretion to the people. There are no working plans given for the management of forests. Rather it lays down various formalities to be fulfilled before exploiting the timber produce of the forests a mistake which the British made a long time ago. In such forests the entire power lays with the owner or the chieftan of the community that owns the forests and the district council do not have any kind of control other than the making of the forests which results in the exploitation of forests by the people who use them to earn money and pay royalty to the ADCs

The working of Syiems in Meghalya is another big example of how community exploit there forests on their own. While district councils made them administrators of the forests but they refused to let go of their pre constitution positions and thus end up ignoring all the rules and provisions of the ADCs and fuction according to their own whims and fancies. Who deplete the forests for they are there major source of income and deny the authority of DC over them. This was possible for the laws do not provide for any manner of looking after of the forests and only provide provisions for payment of royalty. Thus forgetting the basic purpose of giving ownership of forests to the community , the regeneration of forests.

Another major reason for exploitation of forests is the fact that people who cultivate pine on watelands are given certificates of inheritable and transferable right over that land , thus making it private forests. The people in order to gain private ownership clear wide majority of the trees existing. For wastelands have not been defined anywhere.(these happens mainly in the Jaintia hills of meghalya). Moreover these forests do not fall in the definition of private forests within the Forest Act of 1958 making it impossible for the government to regulate their views giving total autonomy to the owner.

Another major reason is the lack of understanding of the people and their inability to make laws that suit the nature of forests and other characterstics of their autonomous district for example the Garo hills district has adopted the Assam forest regulation Act 1981 which do not suit the requirements of garo hills.

Another major reason is the simultaneous existence of two types of laws while the plains are regulated by Assam Land and Revenue Regulation Act 1866 the hills are governed by their own customary laws which are different in different tribes and as evident no autonomous district has a single tribe or clan inhabiting that area.

The payment of fees to the clan had has also become a problem. The Nokmas are required to be paid a A will fee to the Nokma  out of which 25%goes to the Nokma while the 75% goes to the  ADC. Thus the monetory benefit gained out of expoitation of these forests ensures that these forests are exploited for the more they are exploited the more money they would earn. This results in a disinterest in regulation of use of such lands, and hence once the land is given for private use the Nokma or the ADC do not take any interest or steps to check if the exploitation is within the permissions granted.

Another major reason is that all the laws made are more business and trade oriented. The DC justify themselves saying that they have no other option left for they gain little or no financial support from the government and hence have to majorly depend upon the revenues form the forests which has to be attributed to executive, legislative and judicial function. They also use this reason to describe their inability to ensure afforestation in their regions.

Moreover they have no means to ensure the implementation of laws, courts do not have mechanism to ensure attendance of accused no methods to punish them as a result they go to the police and the police produces them infornt of magistrates and hence the authority of DC remains unenforced.

Jhumming is another major reason of exploitation of forests whereby the process of slash and burn agriculture is followed. People go on implementing the shifting cultivation method which was possible in the prior times for the forest cover was vast. But a continous use of this method has ensured that the forest cover has substantially been reduced making the land unfit as far as the resource value is concerned.



These are the forests which are relatively untouched and have faced the least exploitation due to the religious authority that they hold. It is the general belief of the people that Gods and Deities  live in these forests and therefore they should not be interfered with. People worship and cherish these forests.

But these  forest are also dealing with deforestation and exploitation now due to the disregard of religious values in the people. After Christianity became a major religion in certain regions these forests saw a decline in there religious values for now they no longer believed in the religious sentiments which gave these forests their sacredness thus making it possible for the people to exploit them. Moreover the materialistic values had touched the lives of the new generations of the tribals due to coming in contact with the General population and hence the money that the expoitattion of these forests could offer became a bigger temptation for which people were ready to take on the wrath of their gods, for they had no other means of subsistence other than forest expoitation.

The District Council has entrusted the management of sacred groves i.e. Law Lyngdoh, Law Kyntang and Law Niam to the Lyngdohs and other such religious priests.  But there are no rules for how the violation of these religious beliefs was to be handled. The only punishment remains the falling under the curse.

These forests for governance purposes are so vide spread that makes it impossible to be dealt as one unit and at the places they exist they are merely small patches of forests and constitute of very small areas. The todays position being that only 1% of these forests remain undisturbed

The north easter region has lost a total of 549 sq kms of forests from 2009 to 2011 says the forest report of 2011[21]

While the countrywide data depicted an increase in the forest resource with a net increase of of 3,775 sqkm(between 2013-15) the hilly states of north east along with uttarakhand are reported to have lost a major area of there forests. The decline in the north eastern forests was recorded to be 628sq kms in a period of 3 years.(Forest Report 2015). [22]

With Mizoram whose total forest area accounts to 88.9% of the total area has lost 306 sq kms of  forests and stands at the first position in the list of highest decline in forest cover of the report.[23] The recorded reason for this loss is shifting cultivation patterns and other biotic reasons[24].

Inspite of all these reports the states like Arunachal Pradesh are to host about 12 hydro power projects which would mostly be located in dense forests and thus ensuring further depletion of forests[25].

According to the Sixth Plan document for Tripura, “the 2000 odd recorded as protected forests, do not contain any forest worth the name, except – scattered trees and lower types of vegetation[26]”.


Though on the face of it, it might seem that the people have failed to take care of their forests but it cannot be concluded that the position would have been better if the power would have been in the hands of the government for the government has remained a mute spectator and has failed to provide assistance to the ADCs in terms of machinery and finance and has also stayed away from passing necessary legislations so as to supplement the less capable laws of the ADCs.

What we have done is created community rights which ensures that these rights become marketable and purchaseable which the contractors take on by expoiting their lack of awarness or simple ignorance and the knowledge that the people are in dire need of money. What needs to be done is to provide employment to the people and to ensure that they do not entirely depend upon the forsts for money making and to reinculcate the values of importance of forests into the people.

Till then legal safeguards taking into account the problems discussed in the paper would be a step ahead to proper management of these forests.




[3] Ghanekar, Nikhil M, North eastern states have lost 628 sq kms of forest: State of forest report,  9 December 2015,DNA India (








[11] Tuolor Robert, Autonomous District Councils in North East India with special reference to the North Cachar Hills Autonomous District Council of Assam: A Historical Analysis, International Journal of Advancements in Research & Technology, Volume 2, Issue 8, August-2013

[12] ibid


[14] Dutta Ritwick, Community Managed Forests: Law problems and Alternatives



[17] For a  further understanding of District Councils see


[19] idib


[21] (the official website of the ministry of development of the north eastern region)

[22] Ghanekar, Nikhil M, North eastern states have lost 628 sq kms of forest: State of forest report,  9 December 2015,DNA India (

[23] ibid

[24] ibid



[26] Dutta Ritwick, Community Managed Forests: Law problems and Alternatives