Surviving on wood

Collecting fuelwood provides a basis for survival for the poor around Dharwar

By Manu N Kulkarni
Published: Tuesday 31 May 1994

-- THE TRAIN from Londa to Dharwar on the Miraj-Bangalore metre gauge in Karnataka passes through the jungles on the fringe of the Western Ghats. I asked my co-passengers, Hussainbi and Moinbi, a mother-daughter duo which is responsible for denuding these jungles. They are both headloaders. For the past 15 years, they have sold thousands of tonnes of fuelwood from these jungles around Dharwar -- a sleepy district town which has produced celebrities like Girish Karnad, Mallikarjun Mansoor and Bhimsen Joshi.

With practised ease, hundreds of headloaders like Hussainbi tie fuelwood bundles with iron hooks to the window of the train which stops for just a few seconds in Alnavar station. They invented these iron hooks to prevent passengers from complaining about the inconvenience.

I tried to make Hussainbi feel guilty about the receding forests, reduced rainfall and water shortage. She retorted agitatedly: "We do not cut the trees. The big timber contractors cut them. We pick up fallen branches, twigs and leaves. I know that if I cut the trees I cannot sustain my livelihood. In 15 years of wood collection, I have never cut a tree."

The jungle pays
I asked her daughter Moinbi why she dropped out of school. She countered my question with another: what would she get if she went to school? The forest was more attractive than school. I told her she could learn and earn enough to own a camera like mine. She quietly asked me the cost of my camera, and then replied that she could just as well buy the camera with the money that she makes from selling fuelwood.

Feeling snubbed, I addressed the same questions to her mother Hussainbi. She confessed that when she lost her husband she needed a helping hand to sustain the household and so made Moinbi a headloader.

My queries about ticket less travel met with an equally practical answer. She said, "I pay the ticket collector 2 or 3 rupees every day, and the forest checkpoint clerk 3 or 4 rupees. I don't even know the weight of the bundle -- it may be about 20 kg. I quote the price on the basis of the size of the bundle. I make about Rs 50 every day, sometimes more."

The fuelwood market of small towns like Dharwar is fed by forests within a 10-20 km radius. The very fact that headloaders like Hussainbi have survived in this business for nearly 15 years shows that the forests are still prolific producers of fuelwood. This informal industry operates with its own efficiency.

But what are the implications for forests, for dependent children like Moinbi, for households headed by women like Hussainbi and for fuelwood consumers? How long can forests that are already fragile feed the fuelwood needs of towns? Why doesn't the Social Forestry Division of Dharwar organise a cooperative of fuelwood gatherers, give them rights to protect and collect fuelwood? After all, protection of the livelihood of local people is now an accepted part of social forestry.

Manu N Kulkarni is the Bhopal-based representative of UNICEF

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