Born again

The dense Melaghar forests in Tripura that were destroyed during the Bangladesh war have been revived through the efforts of the Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose Briksha Mitra Sangh

By Rachna Yadav
Published: Sunday 30 November 1997

Born again

 A new  beginning: tribals in< the forests of Melaghar in Sonmara sub division of west Tripura, that were once nearly denuded, have been revived through joint forest management ( jfm) .

The Melaghar jfm area known as "Jeevan Deep" is an unique example of coppice protection through people's participation. Sal and teak trees, 7-15 feet tall, have come up within just three years. Forest officers and experts opine that besides providing floral protection, the area has shown marked improvement in faunal diversity. Tripura is the first north-eastern state where jfm has been implemented. A pilot project was started by the forest department with the assistance of the Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose Briksha Mitra Sangh ( ajcbbms ) in 1991-92. The project comprises of a core area of 100 ha and feign area of 135 ha . The legal status of the area is that of a proposed reserved forest.

The Melaghar region once housed a dense forest of sal, teak, and gargan, but was totally deforested and degraded over the years. Explaining the various causative factors, Hiralal, member ajcbbms, said "the destruction started in 1971 during India-Bangladesh war when a large number of refugees from across the border took shelter in the thick forests. Some forests still remained till 1978. However, by 1990 there were no forests left." In 1993, the first coppice protection exercise was started with 230 beneficiaries from gram sabhas namely east Nalchar, Chandigarh, Mohanbhog, and Rudijala.

These villages include general as well as tribal population comprising of Ring, Noatia, and Deb-barma tribes. Initially, about 40 ha of degraded forest was selected for coppice protection, and a Forest Protection and Regeneration Committee ( fprc ) was constituted as per government guidelines. The fprc has a total of seven members -- one member from each of the participating four villages, one member from the local non-governmental organisation ( ngo) (who is the secretary, ajcbbms ), one women's representative, and one member secretary (who is the forester in-charge of Melaghar).

Hiralal stresses that women are most dependent on the forest for day-to-day needs. According to him, a woman member plays a significant role in forest protection, as she is able to take the message of forest protection to each home most effectively.

A K Sinha, ifs, has been associated with this project since its inception, when he was the dfo (Research). While formulating the jfm resolutions, he also launched an experiment to assess impact of the new management tool. In Subodh Ranjan Sur, son of a freedom fighter, he found a devoted worker who was already involved in various forestry activities. Says Sinha, "when I took up this pilot project, I was looking for someone with genuine interest in nature conservation. I approached Sur and he took up the challenge."

C Krishnan ifs dfo (Research) is also actively involved with the project. He says that the greatest challenge lies in implementing the 50:50 share of produce at the harvest stage by circumventing legal provisions. He foresees problems in distribution of shares to the beneficiaries when the major harvest takes place 17 years later and when some of the original beneficiaries may not be alive. It may lead to a conflict among the legal heirs. Nevertheless, says M Talukdar, range officer, Sinamuar "The Sangh has motivated the beneficiaries and they are, in turn, assisting forest personnel in forest protection duties and conservation works."

ajcbbms is a rural voluntary organisation started in 1980. Today, the organisation consists of 15 members out of which nine members are in the executive body. There are two women representatives in the executive body and six general members. Located in Rudijala village, Melaghar, the organisation has spread its wings in 17 villages of west Tripura. Their major activities are forestry-oriented. They have planted various species of trees like gamari (gmelina arborea), teak gurgan (dipterocarpus terbinatus), koroi (albizzia procera), and poura bamboo. They have also undertaken agro-based projects, vocational training in cane and bamboo, and health awareness programmes. They are also working in close coordination with the Itarma Club, Nehru Yuvak Kendra, and the Voluntary Health Association of Tripura.

The jfm project "Jeevan Deep" was started with an outlay of Rs 2.5 lakh. Its various components were plantation, weeding, including eco-development schemes such as fishery, poultry, and poggery. As the people, prior to the inception of the project, were totally dependent on the forest for their daily income, the project sought to remedy the situation by reducing their dependency on the forest. It provided the people with self-employment schemes. The various components of the project are only implemented through the fprc. Even man-days of labour are specified by the committee by distributing the work load equally in the four project villages.

The executive member of the project village plays an important role. He selects the list of beneficiaries for various units of work under the project. All activities such as grazing and collection of firewood have been suspended. At present, no person is permitted to enter the forest without permission of the executive member. The executive member regulates collection of firewood and bamboo. The executive committee meets once a month and takes decisions concerning collection of firewood, bamboo, fodder, minor forest produce, and herbs from the project area. These activities are carried out under strict regulation formulated by the committee.

The ajcbbms has, as an ngo , played the major role in interfacing the forest department and the villagers. Prior to the inception of "Jeevan Deep", the forest officials and the local people were at loggerheads. Says Hiralal "it was an uphill task to motivate and educate the people about the new jfm policy of the department." The people were not eager to accept new ideas and had doubts about sincerity of the department. Sur and his group of devoted workers went door-to-door explaining the nitty gritty of the new policies. It took time for people to understand and come forward for forest protection for their own benefits. Several workshops and group meetings were organised by the ajcbbms . After a long struggle the fprc was formed, but the process of motivation continues till date.

The forests of Rudijala and neighbouring villages slowly disappeared. The reasons are not far to search. A long unprotected porous border (839 km ) with Bangladesh, offering high timber and fuelwood prices, encouraged pilferage and smuggling of forest produce. This led to denudation of forests. A daily wage-earner could easily earn Rs 80-100 overnight, whereas a day's hard labour would fetch him only Rs 20-30. The forest department was inactive and at times, conniving with the smugglers. The people were also ignorant and could not appreciate the amount of damage they were causing to their own life-supporting system. In addition to meeting local demands, firewood was extracted to be smuggled out for getting higher prices from across the border.

In the words of Sur, "as the topography of the area is undulating, covered with small hillocks, the resultant consequences of deforestation were severe. Water table was lowered to a great extent and severe soil erosion and loss of top soil took place. There was also acute shortage of water during dry season."

Inspired by this success, Sur went on to regenerate the lost forest of Rudijala. The lush green forest there, is now echoing with calls of animals and birds.

The success story of Sur is spreading fast to other areas. The National Foundation of India sanctioned Rs 4.5 lakh in 1996 for construction of a jfm training centre at Rudijala. Now, people from other villages are coming forward to take up such works. The ajcbbms is now starting its activities in south Tripura to take up regeneration of degraded forests near Udaipur.

Rachna Yadav is a freelance journalist based in Jorhat, Assam.

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