The forest and its lore have cast a spell on many for ages. It has intrigued and fascinated every other traveler starting from Henry Bates to Charles Darwin. When I was introduced to the lore of the forest through a tribal rights course in my law school by Prof. Premananda Panda, I couldn’t resist my curiosity. I got associated with an organization named Vasundhara. My curiosity took me on my first expedition to a village named Guhalbanda. After a short recourse on NH143, I crossed the tributary Brahmani. The hills with dense forest coverage started approaching. As we climbed over them and moved deeper into the forest, we could hear the dense green coverage reverberating with the tinkering of insects. This village comes under Doleisara Panchayat of Sundargarh district in the state of Odisha and is home to 47 families of which 40 families belong to the Paudi Bhuyan community and the remaining seven are Mundas. I was accompanied by Bansidhar Mahanta, secretary of Jivan Vikas – a sister organization of Vasundhara.
On reaching I was introduced to a charming young lady of their clan, Sabita Dehuri. I was made to sit in a cool mud thatched hall, called their sabha room. Instantly she started talking about her concerns regarding the village. “You don’t like this place. It is small, dingy, and primitive. Isn’t it? Tell me about cities. They are beautiful I have heard?” she asked. I had to respond, countering her assumption with a laugh. “I love this place. It is vast, cheerful, and abundant. I couldn’t ask for more.” Her gullible question, for some strange reason, was the most heartwarming gesture for me. From this conversation, it emerged that unrestricted sale of cheap alcohol and forced plantations were two serious problems in this village.
Here, the process of synthesizing alcohol is typically home-made and they come in varieties. It is made out of boiled rice grain (Handia), Dates (khajuri), Palm, Mahua flower (Mahuli), Sugarcane, etc., by the process of fermentation. Despite being known to have medicinal properties and a number of health benefits, its usage seems to have a considerable downside in practice. The water used in the process of preparation is usually unclean and contaminated; fermentation further worsens the growth of disease-causing bacteria. The desi Alcohol apart from being an element of nuisance has also been a source of fatal diseases like Tuberculosis and other unidentifiable diseases with symptoms like prolonged fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. Even a few people have reportedly succumbed to its consumption. These described symptoms and instances of death can be attributed to methanol poisoning apart from contaminated water. The alcohol suitable for consumption is ethanol (chemically) but the conditions in which desi alcohol is made are risky and end up producing mixed alcohols and this is a known reason for poisoning.
Sabita is a mother, aged 22 and yet an “ASHA karyakarta”, a trained social health activist under the National Rural Health Mission. She emphatically said “I am very worried about the health and sanitation condition of women over here. After a lot of struggle for creating awareness on communicable diseases we have attained some success in convincing people to drink boiled water. Still there is a lot to be done.” Looking at her eight months old daughter, she said “I am lucky since I could attend school; I will send her to school also and make sure she receives best education so that she becomes independent and does what she likes. For a society to work well it is very important that its women become aware.” She talked about her dream of making the village alcohol free and narrated her struggle stories of dealing with the nuisance of alcohol consumption. The women in the village are against the sale and production of alcohol and so they have organized themselves into a sort of sangathan and have resolved to completely stop it. About a year ago, by conducting meetings and discussions in the village they had taken this issue to the sarpanch but weren’t provided with any recourse. They upon deciding to sort it out by themselves organized the group into three SHGs (Self-help groups). These groups have adopted a rebellious and forceful way of stopping the instances of sale and consumption of alcohol, which has infact seemed really effective in practice. The village is now much more peaceful they say and it is all because of its powerful women.
With a spark of determination in her eyes, Sabita puts forth her strong views on women leadership and women education and how it is crucial for shaping order in society. It made me wonder about the efficacy of the sociology classes on feminism of any university in any random city. These women haven’t ever touched a book on the above mentioned neo-modern rhetoric yet they are the live manuals. If their practical lessons in form of voices would have crept into the boundary walls of our schools and universities, the energies that we put into studying and opinion forming would have got the right direction, thus removing the miseries out of the bulky degrees we bear.
As we head out of the Sabha Room to the common area and are comfortably seated facing the whole village population who came leaving their afternoon errands halfway, I could see Sabita sitting in midst of women and affectionately breast feeding her daughter. She has a charm and an indomitable zeal. The zeal has not let any barrier seem existent. The barriers that have stopped other women from speaking out thankfully couldn’t stop her.
The Jivan Vikas secretary asked them to introduce themselves. The first person stood up. Standing up was his way of showing respect for a stranger. I was more than overwhelmed and alarmed enough to ask them to sit and introduce. They had a timid and peculiar style of greeting. With both hands folded he said, ‘Juhaar!’ He uttered his name followed by the name of the village – Guhaalbandha… Panchayat – Daleisara… To my surprise every single person after him followed the same pattern of uttering their names followed by the name of the village and so on. I realized that the name of the village is not something they are mechanically habituated to speak. It is something they speak out as a part of their identity, embedded with their own names. I had to interrupt after 6 to 7 people; I felt I was wasting their precious afternoon work hours and requested them to say only their names. The person who was just about to speak laughed gullibly after my interjection. Her name was Lady Dehury. A transgender whom I was watching make plates with dry Saal leaves a few minutes ago. I had gone near her verandah to ask her, “Do you sell them in the Haat?” She explained it to me that these plates were for special occasions and for gatherings and she doesn’t sell them in the market. I ask her “What do you do for a living?” It seemed she couldn’t understand my question and smiled at me, her hands still moving, sewing the leaves of Saal, one on the other.
What came out of the discussion was a history narrating the apathy of the forest department. Two years ago, the NGO Jivan Vikas with a lawyer conducted an awareness program in the village educating them about their rights over the forest and its resources, the capacity of the Gram Sabha under the PESA Act, and the powers of the Gram Sabha in permitting plantations. The villagers say this information helped them tackle some in-situ problems that are habitually caused by miscreants and mafias like cutting and selling trees, stealing resources like chips, stones, minerals, and metals. The Gram Sabha had successfully acted and stopped these activities under its capacity. They were also helped in filing claims over their habitat and the matter went till the Sub-Divisional Committee. Few pattas had been granted but most of them still remain clogged over the years.
The forest department has made forced plantations in the area and the name of the alleged plantation is Dantaawada, they say this by pointing towards a distant hill, to which this village is a valley. The issue of forced plantations in this area is about half a decade old. The plantations done in the alleged area consist of mostly commercial trees like Eucalyptus, Teak, and Simarwah. They do not recognize the Eucalyptus trees. They say it is completely foreign and have never seen it here before. “These trees make us suffer a lot. Smaller streams are drying up and we have to go really far to fetch water, which is muddy. Grass and other useful miniature vegetation don’t grow around these trees. We are not getting fruits and mushrooms nearby that we used to get.” What they narrated was indeed true. These trees lead to serious environmental problems like soil erosion, groundwater depletion, reduction in indigenous MFPs (Minor Forest Produce) like mushrooms, grazing lands, herbs, and fruits. The villagers say this condition of the affected forest tract can be recovered by planting trees like Amla and Neem. Neem is a leguminous plant that helps in nitrogen fixation thus allowing the soil to replenish lost nutrients. It grows well in sub-humid and sub-tropical regions and is known to increase soil fertility and water holding capacity. Large scale plantation of such trees can help in fighting loss caused due to deforestation and soil erosion. Considering the understanding they possess, the indigenous people are rightly called as the guards of the forest. Forest health, ecology, and conservation depend a lot on their welfare and traditional knowledge.
For the plantation of trees and any species of vegetation by the Forest Department, consent of the inhabiting tribal villagers plays a very important role. But, when it comes to compensatory afforestation done by the government, no such rules are specified so as to give a framework on how plantations are to be done and what trees are to be planted. Under Section 4(i), of the PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, it is mentioned that the Gram Sabha or the Panchayat at an appropriate level should be consulted for planning as well as the actual implementation of the development projects in the Scheduled Area. Also, under the new CAMPA Rules, 2018, the valuation exercise of a forest ignores its spatial and biological variances. In other words, it is fallaciously assumed that the plantation of cactus over a measured area is the same as that of the plantation of fruit-bearing trees over the same measured area in another place. It does not consider the value of plants and their suitability for a provided area. By overlooking the value of trees, the new rules endorse the plantation of trees that the department finds easiest to plant irrespective of their real value.
It is because of this that the value of a tropical wet evergreen forest in the state of Arunachal Pradesh would be the same as that of the thorny-scrub forest in Andhra Pradesh. Due to this incautious law allowing the authorities to compromise with the forest health and because of the obvious incapability of the forest dwellers to understand such intricacies of the law, they remain in sheer helplessness.
The Gram Sabha is still struggling to make their voices heard against the reckless plantations. Their persistent demand is to make such kinds of plantations that will not adversely affect forest health, their relationship with the forest, and the safety of the forest.
Their expectant eyes tell a story of determination in the face of despair. In Guhalbanda the families are dependent on the small patches of cultivation land allotted to them by the government. Apart from hand-grown paddy and vegetables on those lands, they get some essential MFPs from the forest like Kendu leaves, Fruits, Honey, Lac, and natural medicines. They pull out a living by selling them in the local markets but use most of it for domestic consumption. The Indira Aawas Yojna seems to have touched their civilization recently, so one can see some families engaged as daily wage laborers busy building their houses, brick by brick, with a remuneration of Rs 150 per day.
They are left onto themselves, to dream, and to fulfill those dreams all by themselves, in their green little world. They have such a simple heart that we educated people cannot determine the ceiling of their dreams. Competition has disabled us from this because their dreams aren’t material. Peace and harmony, I think maybe a constituent.