In the early 2000s, a group of foresters walked into the village of Nagesh in Gariaband district, Chhattisgarh, carrying a set of maps. They conducted a mini-survey and then proceeded to plant munaras, or posts, throughout the village. Some posts were planted in vacant spaces shared by two or more households of the Bhunjiyas – a community categorised as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group in Chhattisgarh, owing to their declining population, high poverty rates, and fading culture.
“When we asked the foresters why they were doing the same, they simply told us that they were trying to decipher the real border of the forests,” Arjun Singh Naik, a local leader and former village head, or sarpanch, told me. The households that fell on the ‘wrong’ side of the border were warned of eviction. Time and again, members of these households have had to travel to the district headquarters, nearly two hours away by foot, to plead their case with forest officials. There, a forester invariably rolled out a map, pointed to a thin line and justified the existence of the forest in a way that made the Bhunjiya presence feel like an accident or mistake. The lines on the map were made to appear as acts of god and not the government. Perhaps this is why the radical geographer John Brian Harley contended that maps “exert a social influence through their omissions, as much as by the features they depict and emphasise.”
Two decades later, the same communities are using digital maps to impose a different meaning on the landscape from the one asserted by the government. Scholars in fields such as critical border studies and critical cartography liken this to an exercise in ‘counter-mapping.’ In the context of Indonesia, the rural sociologist Nancy Lee Peluso describes counter-mapping as the appropriation of mapping technologies in a way that “increase(s) the power of people living in a mapped area to control representations of themselves and their claims to resources.” In Chhattisgarh, one grassroots organisation, Khoj Avam Jan Jagriti Samiti, has empowered Adivasis to deploy geographic information systems in their bid to resist, contest and redefine the borders imposed by the postcolonial Indian state.
The power of maps
According to the artist and cartographer Denis Wood, maps masquerade as neutral representations. This ‘naturalises’ borders, making it appear as if they have existed from time immemorial. In his book The Power of Maps, Wood makes an emphatic case for how this amounts to a devious strategy – one that conceals the politics of the modern nation-state and its motives for making maps. Activists based in Chhattisgarh’s state capital, Raipur, explained how the extension of forest borders is often a desperate bid by the forest department to recover acreage it has lost to mines and dams elsewhere. One activist in Gariaband, Gannu Ram Poya, averred that “it is not always villages that encroach on forests, the opposite can also be true.”
There is reason to believe that such incidents also transpire due to inter-departmental contestations over a category of land called ‘orange areas,’ locally described as small forests with sparse tree cover. The government’s revenue and forest departments are notorious for sparring over such areas. The forest department often tries to undertake extended plantations; the revenue department, on the other hand, seeks to levy taxes on the agricultural uses the villagers have of such lands. An Indian Express report from last year relates how this continues to date. Control of close to 300 square kilometres of orange area in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region was transferred from the forest to the revenue department in March 2022. In response, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change asked the state to stop the transfer of land.
Around 2006, foresters began to increasingly circle the Udanti-Sitanadi wildlife sanctuary, which covered nearly half of Gariaband district’s 5,800 square kilometres. They developed a new set of maps that, in 2008, elevated the sanctuary to the status of a tiger reserve. Several Bhunjiya settlements within the ‘core area’ of the reserve were now threatened with displacement.
On 15 August 2022, India’s 75th Independence Day, I was in Karlajhar village, a few kilometres from Nagesh. Shortly after a flag-hoisting ceremony to mark the occasion, Karan Singh Nag, a village elder, said, “Brother, this core has turned us into chor [thieves].” We were standing close to an outline map of India drawn on the ground by school children even as Karan Singh described how the forest department’s maps had turned the villagers into trespassers in their own homes. Here was the power of maps on full display. The ensuing discussion centred on how the government’s mapmaking processes were non-negotiable, deterministic and not without their silences. “What of the forests that have been robbed from the Adivasis in the name of development, is there not a map for it?” a Bhunjiya youth, Arjun, asked.
Khatia girdawli and its discontents
The work of Khoj shows how new community-led bordering practices contest the hegemony of the state’s mapping processes to create more democratic spaces for conservation.
In my first meeting with Beni Puri Goswami, the founder of Khoj, he explained how the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, saved the Adivasis of Nagesh and Karlajhar from being displaced. The Forest Rights Act, as it is widely known, gives forest dwellers ‘tenurial rights’ over land they have already been living on or holding. After 2008, when the rules for implementing the act were framed, Khoj became increasingly involved in the promulgation of individual forest rights. Most often, this meant helping Adivasi communities with the necessary paperwork. “Little did we expect that this would bring us back into conflict with the government’s mapping processes,” Beni Puri said.
The government had set up teams to visit villages and settle individual forest rights on the ground. “Everything was fine, only that these teams were accustomed to khatia girdawli,” Beni Puri explained. In Chhattisgarhi, this refers to the bureaucratic predisposition to conduct surveys from a distance, comfortably seated on a village cot, or khatia. The net result was usually inaccuracy and confusion. Several claimants were given less than their fair share of land. If the amount allocated was correct, often the address of the household was wrong. Worst of all, two or more households were often given rights over the same plot of land, resulting in tremendous conflict.
The government’s mapmaking processes were non-negotiable, deterministic and not without their silences.
The only way to prevent these issues was to hire retired patwaris, or surveyors, previously associated with the revenue department. Local youth were attached to such surveyors, and individual forest rights claims were verified on the ground prior to being filed. This added to the labours of organisations such as Khoj but prevented future conflict and confusion.
However, as one set of problems was being addressed, another emerged. The Adivasis in the core area of the newly founded Udanti-Sitanandi tiger reserve were finding it enormously difficult to access forest resources. Arjun, the local youth at Karlajhar, told me that patrolling by forest guards had intensified, and his relatives were ordered to till only on the land they had gained rights over. Things proved to be more extreme for the Kamar community of Kulhadi Ghat village. The Kamars, much like the Bhunjiyas, are categorised as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. Kulhadi Ghat today boasts pucca houses, concrete roads, community taps and other signs of government patronage, but this does not remedy the village’s sense of lasting powerlessness. “The period following 2008 proved to be highly difficult,” Ban Singh Kamar, the village sarpanch, said. “Foresters began to think that just because they have given some land to the Adivasis to cultivate it was enough, and we should stop entering the forests.”
What history says
Surveying in nineteenth-century India was primarily about governing a subject race and not effecting social justice. The guiding objective was to fix and determine the landed property of individual ryots, or tenant farmers, if not of zamindars, for purposes of tax collection. In the process, indigenous societies’ more fluid, seasonal and overlapping systems of interaction with forest-based resources were either glossed over or negated. The historian Gunnel Cederlöf’s assessment of India’s Northeastern frontiers in the early nineteenth century confirms that “counter-arguments concerning the validity of custom or practice were swept aside” in land-settlement processes. The same processes favoured the propertied over itinerant and conventionally unpropertied tribespeople. In all probability, the Bhunjiyas, Kamars and several other Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups, by virtue of traditionally being hunter-gatherer communities, lost out from this discriminatory practice, with lasting repercussions.
Paired with the landed elites, the colonial powers came to describe such tribes as ‘criminal gangs’ wandering the countryside. The criminalisation of the Bhunjiyas as thieves and poachers in their own homes echoes this history.
Other map historians, such as Matthew H Edney, lay bare how geographic surveyors were also accompanied by colonial geologists and foresters in the nineteenth century. While geographers transcribed landscapes into maps, geologists pried for evidence of ores and minerals, and foresters scouted tracts for timber production. The more geologists and foresters consolidated control over land for their objectives, the more difficult life became for nomadic societies that veered away from the norm of settled agriculture. The author and scholar Henry Schwarz illustrates how the mobility of these communities, which continually defied cartographic ordering, gave birth to colonial frustrations and paranoia of different kinds. Paired with the landed elites, the colonial powers came to describe such tribes as ‘criminal gangs’ wandering the countryside. The criminalisation of the Bhunjiyas as thieves and poachers in their own homes echoes this history.
There are also other resonances with the past. Even as the government was settling individual forest rights, forests were being marked for timber production. Tiger reserves started coming into being to promote tourism at the cost of the people already living in and near them. Across Chhattisgarh, an estimated 21,000 hectares of forest land was systematically diverted for mining between 2006 and 2012. The total non-tax revenue reaped by the Chhattisgarh government from mining more than doubled over this period to stand at INR 38,353 million between 2010-11.
Digitising traditional borders
Khoj’s grassroots workers, or karyakartas, believe that the namesake promotion of tenurial rights was always part of a strategy to curtail access rights to forests. The experiences of the Bhunjiyas and Kamars were sufficient to make the organisation turn its focus from individual forest rights to community forest resource rights. Whereas the former rights were limited to habitation and self-cultivation, the latter offered the hope of resurrecting a wider gamut of socio-ecological transactions, including the use of forests for seasonal resource access, fuelwood, fodder, basic construction material, grazing, bamboo for crafts and forest water bodies for fishing. This is of vital significance for Adivasi communities who also turn to forests for recreation, festive celebrations, and as sites of ritual worship.
In Chhattisgarh’s 2018 state election, the Indian National Congress toppled a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government under Raman Singh. Ever since, the Congress-led state government has been generous in granting community forest resource rights, in keeping with the Forest Rights Act. Its provisions grant gram sabhas, the lowest tier in India’s Panchayati Raj framework of local self-government, the powers to harvest, regenerate and manage forest produce.
The sole condition for granting community forest resource rights to a gram sabha is that the resources under its care should fall within the ‘traditional borders’ of the village it belongs to. But the recognition of such borders often follows an arduous path involving confrontation with state-defined borders. “In the said circumstance, we went about doing what we knew best,” Manu Singh Netam, one of the local youths who accompanied retired patwaris in the surveys for settling individual forest rights claims, said. “We made PRA maps indicating traditional borders on the ground, using locally available material, and then sketched the same onto chart paper,” he explained. Manu was referring to maps made through participatory rural appraisal exercises held in the village squares, an approach that development professionals are keenly familiar with. But when such participatory maps were attached to application forms and submitted to the government, they often became a subject of ridicule.
In 2021, Nagari became one of the first peri-urban areas to win community forest resource rights, over a net area of 4,132 hectares of forest land.
As per procedure, a survey team is required to visit every village that files for community forest resource rights. Such teams, previously famed for khatia girdawli, now found opportunities to express highhandedness in a different way. The survey team that visited Nagesh told villagers that their traditional borders were all over the place, much like ‘spilt water.’ The survey team that went to Karlajhar asked locals what ‘compartment numbers’ their borders belonged to. As part of its colonial legacy, the forest department divides forests into compartments that favour the state’s agendas. Such compartments are used to monitor the growth and output of timber. Intervention varies across the compartments depending upon the age and quality of the trees. Traditional borders, which did not fit this system, stood de-legitimated. The team visiting Kulhadi Ghat also demanded to know the scale and area in hectares, of the local PRA map. In all such circumstances, the villagers had little or no idea of how to respond.
This might have been the end of the villagers’ hopes. But, one day, Beni Puri noticed the ease with which some younger karyakartas handled Android smartphones. “It could put some of my city-bred nephews to shame,” Goswami recalled thinking. In 2016, he took a gamble and sent three karyakartas – Manu, Saraswati, and Nitish – for training in the use of satellite imagery, aerial photography and geographic information systems – all of which had become more accessible and affordable in the last decade.
From there, Khoj rented a handheld GPS device. Manu, Saraswati and Nitish visited a set of villages and mapped traditional borders, or what are called sarhad, with the device. Elders and priests revealed the sarhad to them during lengthy walks, sometimes spread over days, explaining how a number of propitiatory rituals were conducted at such thresholds to invite favourable forces and energies into the forests of a given village. Saraswati and Nitish said that the use of modern technology brought them into a more intimate rapport with the prevailing customs and ritual practices that comprise the materiality of borders than PRA maps alone ever could.
The readings secured in this manner were finally plotted on a ramshackle computer in Khoj’s humble office, in the township of Mainpur, a few hours’ walk from Nagesh. “Through continual trial and error, and a thousand calls to our trainers, we finally made our first map,” Nitish said.
Today, a 24-year-old karyakarta, Harish Netam, does most of the mapmaking for Khoj. During my brief stay at the Khoj office, Harish related how traditional borders are laid out on Google Earth maps to give them pictographic reality. “Our maps are also superimposed on the cadastral maps of the forest department, which makes it possible to submit the compartment numbers covered, and the area to the nearest decimal,” he added. As a result of these maps, villagers have been able to fend off queries, insults and insinuations from authorities. Khoj and the villagers who have benefitted refer to these maps as nazari nakshas, or visual maps, but considering the science, technology and interaction they involve, these nakshas are more than simply ocular. They are proof of what the geographer Jeremy W Crampton describes as pluralist and user-friendly ‘geographic visualisations,’ as well as an effort in building local perspective of the landscape – what is called nazariya, but with added nuance.
Democratising the map
By the end of 2020, the Chhattisgarh government had allocated community forest resource rights to at least 54 villages across 10 districts. This process has continued apace, but not all such allocations are backed by a cartographic nazariya. This, however, does not dilute the import of what is happening in Kulhadi Ghat, Nagesh, Karlajhar and other places where digital maps have played a role.
Indeed, nazari nakshas paved the way for Kulhadi Ghat to win its community forest rights, which apply to over 1,321 hectares, even as foresters remained somewhat resistant to this. Nagesh and Karlajhar’s claims, covering 1,939 and 1,623 hectares respectively, are currently being processed. Khoj has assisted another five villages in the core area of the tiger reserve – Karhi, Baroli, Joratarai, Masulkhoi and Bahigaon – to gain community forest rights. It has also extended its operations beyond Gariaband and into the neighbouring district of Dhamtari. In total, Khoj has helped 103 villages map their borders and file claims.
Tractor-loads of both were being siphoned away from the forests and sold in the Nagari township area. This was depriving households of their share of forest resources and driving them to take up poorly compensated labour to facilitate resource extraction.
“But it is not about the numbers, not even about the map – it is about the process,” Beni told me. Saraswati said that “even at the village level, the maps we develop have the potential to create greater controversy than PRA maps.” She explained that, “right from the start, the administration was hesitant to accept CFRR applications from Nagari nagar panchayat, for the reason that it was classified as a peri-urban area.” Indeed, when I visited Nagari town, in Dhamtari district, there were ample signs of rapid economic development, including new roads, shops and eateries. But the area’s constituent ward sabhas, such as Tumbahra, Churiyara and Nagari, also possess large populations of Adivasis, many of whom live below the poverty line.
Villagers at Tangapani, a small settlement in Nagri, explained how development projects in Nagari were accompanied by excessive pressure on sources of sand and fuel wood in the surrounding forests. Tractor-loads of both were being siphoned away from the forests and sold in the Nagari township area. This was depriving households of their share of forest resources and driving them to take up poorly compensated labour to facilitate resource extraction.
From the moment participatory mapping using geographic information systems was introduced, there was a sense of change, and those benefitting from the status quo began to get agitated. “As soon as they gathered that these maps would foster a sense of local ownership of resources and further encourage a bottom-up process of planning, an affluent minority began to complain and disrupt the meetings,” Saraswati said. This lengthened the process and three ward sabhas were able to arrive at a consensus only after a year. In 2021, Nagari became one of the first peri-urban areas to win community forest resource rights, over a net area of 4,132 hectares of forest land. The story was splashed across newspapers and magazines. Reports in Down to Earth said that the allocation of community forest rights in Nagari was marked with intense confrontations over borders to the point that it had weakened village institutions.
Saraswati and Nitish said that the use of modern technology brought them into a more intimate rapport with the prevailing customs and ritual practices that comprise the materiality of borders than PRA maps alone ever could.
From my own conversations, I gathered that the process had changed the very imagination of maps in local minds. Maps were no longer static – made once by the state and handed down to the people to abide by thereafter. Rather, they have become representative artefacts that can be debated, discussed and even changed. Some traditional borders were also altered as part of Khoj’s process of mapmaking, proving that traditions are not frozen in time. Through such deliberations and friction, maps acquired a democratic character, gained community backing and became receptacles of collective rights. Here, they went from being instruments of control to instruments of collaboration and collective action.
This became apparent in the months after the rights were allocated. Beat guards in Nagari, accustomed to playing custodians, were suddenly disturbed by how the villagers were taking the law into their own hands to prevent the commercial sale of fuel wood and sand in town areas. Subhas, a youth from Tumbahra, said that once, when challenged by forest guards, “we flipped out our maps and showed the beat guards the limit of their jurisdiction.”
Reports of such cartographic resistance are not limited to Nagari. Salhebhat village, in Gariaband, won community rights over 674 hectares of forest at roughly the same time as Nagari secured its rights. Residents of Salhebhat recently used their nazari naksha to show that foresters were mistakenly burning shrubs within their allotted area. They also informed the foresters of how the concerned shrubs were part of the food chain and habit for local wildlife, particularly leopards and snakes. At Kulhadi Ghat, the naksha proved useful in resisting the department-driven plantation of sal trees in select compartment numbers that fell within the village’s traditional borders. The local Kamars objected to the plantation on the grounds that it disturbed the existing floral composition and, as a result, honey production.
The making of nazari nakshas remains a highly interactive process where village-level users both work as cartographers and revisualise their landscapes as crucial first steps in establishing a conservation agenda. Seeing this process in action is a reminder that the social history and anthropology of maps can do much to ‘denaturalise’ borders. It can further serve to disturb, as Edney suggests, the deceptive “shell of objectivity” that surrounds the state’s maps, and maps in general. Nazari nakshas point to how technologies developed at the behest of the triumvirate of the state, empire and capital can be claimed by Adivasi communities to assert local autonomy. This assertion can make maps, and mapmaking, more pluralist, interactive and democratic.
Varun Sharma is an independent researcher with a PhD in social work from the University of Delhi. He is currently exploring the interface between Adivasi culture and mainstream science in the Gariaband, Dhamtari and Kanker districts of Chhattisgarh.