Living With Loss and Hope: the Charcoal Producers of Northern India

With their cultural heritage in decline, the people of Lakkar Mandi continue to find strength in the beauty of the surrounding landscape

Living With Loss and Hope: the Charcoal Producers of Northern India
Lakkar Mandi, in northern India, has a mixture of old and new architecture. (Devyani Nighoskar)

It was 5 o’clock on a cold summer morning in Lakkar Mandi, a hamlet in the forests of northern India. Satto Devi, a young woman in her 20s, had been up and about for an hour, collecting wood and branches from fallen trees. She tossed them in the bamboo basket on her back and occasionally glanced at the infant bundled in her dupatta shawl. As the sun rose, she proceeded to burn the wood that she used to produce and sell charcoal — a livelihood that was the center of her identity.

Satto recalled this scene as we sat outside her mud hut in Lakkar Mandi almost 50 years after it actually happened. The gold rings around her nose complemented her gray eyes, which glimmered as she remembered the past.

“We would wake up at 4 a.m. every day. I would carry the youngest of my six children on my front and the basket on my back. We would go into the forest to make charcoal and then towards Dalhousie market to sell it,” she said. Playing with her great-grandchild, a toddler, she added, “It’s my time to rest now. Anyway, there’s no more charcoal making in Lakkar Mandi.”

Lakkar Mandi is a picturesque village in the state of Himachal Pradesh, which borders Jammu and Kashmir. Surrounded by the snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas, it is nestled among the lush foliage of towering deodar trees. On the village’s left, a dirt road leads into the Kalatop-Khajjiar Wildlife Sanctuary. On the right, a paved road from Dalhousie leads further up to Khajjiar, a town popular with tourists from India and abroad.

Lakkar Mandi is home to the Dhogris — a term denoting miners, ironsmiths and charcoal producers. They speak a dialect called Mandiali and are primarily Hindus, belonging to various castes.

The Dhogris were originally inhabitants of the Bara Bhangal area in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra region. Colonial records and the elderly population of Lakkar Mandi indicate they were brought to the Chamba Valley by the British during the mid-19th century to sow seeds and sell wood and charcoal.

As the forests were being cut down for timber to construct India’s railroads, the Dhogris were given land on which they built “jhuggis,” or temporary huts, for themselves — eventually becoming permanent residents. In Hindi, Lakkar Mandi means “market for wood.”

Today, the “market for wood” and its people lead a difficult life on a beautiful land. They must contend with bitterly cold temperatures, a lack of job opportunities and the withering of their economic and cultural heritage. All of this is made harder by labyrinthine bureaucratic procedures that make it tough for them to secure their basic rights to the land of their forebears and a governmental system that promises them much on paper yet often fails to deliver in practice.

Despite this, Lakkar Mandi residents continue resisting the pressures of resettlement and are hopeful for the future. This story is not theirs alone. India’s infrastructural development has often been at the cost of its environment, its forests and those who inhabit them. The struggle of Lakkar Mandi’s community mirrors that of many others across India who continue fighting for their rights to forest land while trying to preserve their traditional knowledge systems. This is key to understanding and controlling the country’s environmental degradation.

After deforestation in the 1970s, India’s environment laws became stricter, directly affecting the lives of the Dhogris. First, the Indian Parliament passed legislation that incorporated around 11.8 square miles of forests around Lakkar Mandi into the wildlife sanctuary. Then, the following decade, the Environment Protection Act of 1986 was brought into effect. This authorized the central government to protect and improve environmental quality and reduce pollution from all sources. The act, however, not only targeted some of India’s largest corporations in Lakkar Mandi but also removed the permits of Dhogris to make charcoal within the forest grounds. This was the start of the community’s decline.

The Dhogris insisted they relied on trees that had already fallen to make their charcoal. They would burn the wood under high heat in “bhattis” (makeshift furnaces) to remove all moisture and volatile constituents. The remaining residue was charcoal. Three months after the ban was enacted in the 1980s, villagers successfully lobbied to have their permits reinstated, but the respite did not last. By the 1990s, charcoal started losing its value as Indians turned to alternative energy sources. Business came to a halt when permits were banned once again in 2000.

“Our fathers and forefathers have lived in the forests for more than 100 years. Making charcoal was the only skill we had. But, with the permits stopped, our livelihood died a slow death,” said 61-year-old Naveen Chand Sharma, who spent his youth helping his father make and sell charcoal.

For the past two decades, the Dhogris of Lakkar Mandi have remained in limbo, often taking manual work in the tourism and construction industries.

The path outside Kalatop Sanctuary, near Lakkar Mandi, is paved for tourists. (Devyani Nighoskar)

As the harsh winter months gradually roll in, many of Lakkar Mandi’s residents will now be preparing to leave town temporarily. Every year, starting in October, the village becomes a ghost town for the winter as people lock up their houses and go to districts in the foothills to work.

I traveled to Lakkar Mandi last year, driving up from Dalhousie to Khajjiar. The village marks the entry point for tourists and trekkers on their way deeper into Kalatop. Nearby, a few shops were open, selling visitors cheap snacks. Men sat on their haunches waiting for work while the women were busy in their homes. The laughter of playing children echoed.

For the tourists who come to the area looking to enjoy the scenery, Lakkar Mandi offers romantic, rustic mountain charm. However, beyond the winding roads dotted with mist-covered deodar trees, the reality is far harsher.

While the Indian constitution has several provisions to protect historically-marginalized populations, reports and testimonies indicate that forest-dwelling and tribal communities have found it hard to protect their interests and have been left behind in India’s development.

In Lakkar Mandi, about 700 people live in 200 dilapidated wooden huts. Shanti Devi, a short, frail woman, ekes out an existence that is fairly typical of Lakkar Mandi’s residents. She lives at the far end of the village in a small, two-room mud hut with minimal furniture and no gas supply for heating or cooking. Several steel kitchen utensils sit under the dim glow of a light bulb in her kitchen-cum-living room.

While Lakkar Mandi has communal toilets, residents complain they are inadequately maintained, and women — fearful of venturing out too far alone because of concerns about their safety — go in groups into the forest to relieve themselves. Himalayan black bears roam the surrounding mountains, and while attacks by the animals are extremely rare, signs warn tourists of venturing too deeply into the woodland. For residents who have always tried to coexist peacefully with nature, there is no alternative.

A nationwide government program that aids people in constructing lavatories has yet not extended to the people here because, until recently, Lakkar Mandi was on protected forest ground. Likewise, people were prohibited from building concrete houses because they do not own the land. Lakkar Mandi has no primary clinic, so residents must travel miles for health care. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that hardly anyone has access to a car, meaning the sick and injured must be carried on foot. I was told of an elderly villager who died on one such journey. The difficult terrain and isolated location have also resulted in girls dropping out of education after primary school because their families deem it safer and more convenient for them to stay home.

To qualify for national development schemes and government funding to improve local infrastructure, Lakkar Mandi would have to become what is known bureaucratically as a “revenue village.” Revenue village status essentially takes control of the land away from the forest department. Under the law, the village’s borders get defined, and it becomes an administrative region, with its welfare and development coming under the purview of the government’s revenue department.

Residents of Lakkar Mandi tried to achieve this status for decades, yet the process of conferring it began only six years ago.

Starting in 1976, this pursuit to become a revenue village has been a drawn-out battle for the villagers. “People from the [government’s] revenue department came and said that the village would be resettled on to a different land and be made a revenue village,” explained one elderly resident, Shyamlal Kashyap. The villagers were required to submit documentation to claim individual land rights. But the people of Lakkar Mandi had neither formal documentation nor the desire to leave their homeland.

Throughout this period, the residents have felt marginalized. With no political or economic influence, they are an easy target for bureaucrats who want to be seen to be protecting India’s natural beauty while the actions of far more serious environmental polluters go unchecked. Since the 1986 Environment Protection Act was passed, the youth of Lakkar Mandi have become more interested in their rights as they began to fear their families would be evicted from their land. Among them was local resident Kewal Singh. For years, Singh, along with other youth and the village council, petitioned local authorities and even contacted the Human Rights Commissions in Delhi to assert their right to Lakkar Mandi as forest-dwellers. In 2006, they appeared to have made a breakthrough when the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, or FRA, was introduced and received constitutional backing. The FRA recognized that communities living in the forests depend on the landscape’s natural resources for their homes and livelihoods.

The FRA grants forest-dwellers individual rights, such as the right to self-cultivation and habitation. The act also facilitates community rights, such as grazing and access to water sources in the forest. Under the FRA, forest-dwellers are acknowledged as guardians of the forest — entrusted with responsibility for its conservation and protection. The “revenue status” is also a right granted under FRA legislation that initiates conferring land rights to the villagers.

However, inhabitants must be able to prove they have lived on the land since December 2005, or for three generations, and have been primarily dependent upon it for their family’s livelihood.

In 2016, 10 years after the FRA was introduced, the deputy commissioner of Chamba district, Sudesh Kumar Mokhta, finally started pursuing FRA settlement cases for Lakkar Mandi. He told me that individual land titles had subsequently been granted to 53 Lakkar Mandi families who were able to prove that their livelihood depended on the forest. However, appealing for help via the FRA is a lengthy, complicated process. In communities like Lakkar Mandi, where many people are less-educated or illiterate, the paperwork can be overwhelming. While villagers wait for their claims to be reviewed, they can continue to go into the forest to collect firewood for their household work but might still be fined or reprimanded for doing so.

Officials in Himachal Pradesh have implemented the FRA sparingly, despite the fact that 70% of the state is categorized as forest land. According to the environmental advocacy group Himdhara, since 2016, 170 community claims under the FRA have been made. As of October 2018, only seven had been successful — one of the worst rates in the country.

Lakkar Mandi was granted revenue status in 2019. With this, and the confirmation of their individual land rights granted by the FRA, some villagers are hopeful for a better future. All houses in the village now have a tapwater connection. Many villagers are also applying for development schemes that promise to provide affordable housing to the poor. During my visit last year, two houses in the village were already under construction. Yet this is not the first time people in Lakkar Mandi have been promised concrete, or “pucca,” houses.

Singh told me that, in the 1950s, the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, visited Lakkar Mandi while traveling through the Chamba region. On seeing the squalid living conditions of the resident charcoal makers, he ordered local administrators to build them concrete houses. When Nehru left, however, the administrators reneged on their promise. When Nehru said he would return to the area a few months later, the administrators were finally compelled to act. Although they didn’t have the time to build concrete houses, they managed to build several homes made from deodar wood just before the prime minister came back. This story of willful neglect and belated action is symptomatic of how people here have long been treated.

While the houses built under Nehru’s government have ended up lasting for more than half a century, the properties have begun to look their age, worn down over decades by the extreme weather conditions that are a feature of life in Lakkar Mandi. Only a few wooden houses still stand in the village, alongside dwellings of stone and mud, each covered with a tin roof. The concrete houses that have been under construction offer hope for a more promising future.

Lakkar Mandi’s isolation still poses issues for the community. Even if residents were legally allowed to continue making charcoal on forest land, the trade would be of little economic benefit to them and would fail to address the local poverty that derives from widespread unemployment — particularly during the harsh winter months, when heavy snow is common.

The region’s economy now depends heavily on tourism. The Chamba Valley is full of lush, dense forests, while the nearby town of Khajjiar is known as the mini-Switzerland of India because of its picturesque mountainous landscape. Hotels, guest houses and restaurants have sprung up across the region, with guided tours on offer to visitors. Many of the men in Lakkar Mandi work as laborers constructing new hotels. Yet while tourism brings much-needed revenue, villagers are aware it could further erode their culture if it is not managed responsibly. For this reason, some want to take a more active role in ensuring that the right kind of tourism is encouraged. Singh told me the community can make Lakkar Mandi a self-sustainable and environmentally-friendly tourist destination. Donning a traditional Himachali hat, the 44-year-old teacher enjoys the reputation of being the person who knows everything about Lakkar Mandi. He has been instrumental in leading the struggle to gain ownership of land titles and rights under the FRA.

“Our Lakkar Mandi is not less than heaven,” Singh told me. “We can have homestays, introduce our local culture and history, traditional food and locally-brewed alcohol. Moreover, our people can guide trekkers and tourists about flora and fauna.”

Singh’s plans for his community appear to mirror the state’s tourism strategy, which aims to encourage economic development and environmental awareness in rural areas. But striking the right balance will not be easy in Lakkar Mandi. While the village’s strengths — its natural beauty and heritage — may attract visitors in the short term, they also risk holding back the kind of long-term development needed to make the area comfortable for tourists and habitable for residents. Even essential infrastructure projects like the installation of sewage pipes do not always get official backing due to the risks they pose to the surrounding woodland. More importantly, whether the FRA has been fully implemented remains unclear. Residents complain that between two and three families have been clubbed together under one land title.

“Where will the tourists stay? There is no space even for the residents,” said Rishi Kumar, president of Lakkar Mandi’s Village Forest Committee.

One researcher I interviewed, who specializes in resource management and forest rights, suggested the people of Lakkar Mandi could be resettled in a low-lying district so they would have access to basic facilities and the government could protect the woodland and its wildlife. But uprooting an entire community that has lived in an area for generations is likely only to create a new set of problems for its people. Instead, the answer might be a more concerted effort by all sides to compromise. During my visit, the ongoing construction of a few concrete houses suggested modernity and justice could exist alongside a traditional village life. Perhaps Lakkar Mandi can be a remnant of what once was and what can yet come to be: the old and the new India.

As Satto told me, “Our fathers and forefathers have lived here all our lives. This is our land, and it’s rightfully ours. We don’t want to go anywhere.”

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