The swaraj dream
MENDHA. A small adivasi village tucked away in the interior of
Maharashtra's Gadchiroli district. In this nondescript village,
the residents have raised the revolutionary banner of Mava
nate mava raj (Our rule in our villages) - with the help of
some outside 'friends- and waged a war with the authorities
to gain control over their own natural resources.
Now, twice a year these 'friends' flock to Mendha and rub
shoulders with the Gond adivasis to study the village's 1,800
ha verdant forests. "This unique experiment - Mendha
Forest Study - is helping us concretise our shared dream of
gram swaraj," says Devaji Tofa, coordinator, Gram Niyojan
evam Vikas Parishad (GNVP), the village organisation which
carries out planning and development. "And we learn a lot to
enrich the limited extent of our knowledge," points out N R
Udemoge, an ethnobotanist.
"The forest is our lifeline," says Somibai, member, Mahila
Sangathana (ms), which mobilises women to carry out grassroots activities. "For proper resource planning, the villagers
decided to take the help of outsiders to study the region's pristine forest that occupies as much as 91 per cent of the village
area," says Mohanbhai Hirabhai Hiralal, secretary,
Vrikshamitra, a Gadchiroli-based voluntary organisation.
The people of Mendha have taken the task of development
in to their own hands. "Nobody imposes his or her ideas on us;
not even the government," beams Tarabai Alta, member, ms.
However, the villagers had to wage a long war with officials on
issues like protecting the forest, including their traditional
nistar rights (the rights to use forest products for their
"In 1989, we started fighting the government to gain our
nistar rights following a decision of the gram sabha (the village
general body) to build a gotul in the village," says Tofa. ghotui
is the traditional village institution - a youth dormitory
which serves as the common forum for the villagers to meet
and discuss various issues. The villagers decided to cut the
required amount of teak from the forest for building the ghotul without seeking permission from the forest department.
The people, under the leadership of the women, chopped
enough number of trees. An official crackdown followed. "We
built the ghotul in one night. But the next day, forest officials
arrived with 300 cops and dismantled the entire structure,"
recalls Muribai a resident of the village.
But it could not deter the intrepid villagers. Today, the
beautifully constructed ghotul stands in the village as a monument to their will and determination.
As the villagers moved from confrontation to construction, it became necessary to have a detailed knowledge about their forest
wealth. Two years ago, the gram sabha unanimously decided to root for the study. In, December 1993, noted ecologist Madhav
Gadagil called a meeting of a group of I
dedicated scientists in Bangalore. After
a three-day discussion, they opted for,
carrying out their studies independently;
to exchange their findings, they agreed to,
Hence, once in every six months,
Mendha bustles with activity. It is a festival
celebrated with the spirit of inquiry
and quest for knowledge. Scientists and villagers enthusiastically carry on experiments together in the forest.
No formal structure of the study group
has been evolved. "The concept was not tol
formalise the structure as we wanted the
study to take its own course," says Tarak Kate, an inspiring fig-1
ure behind the concept. "Hardly six per cent ofthe village area
is under cultivation; even then it is self-sufficient in foodgrain
production," says Kate. Nobody sets any agenda to follow.
A few committed individuals have graduallyl
become involved with the study. Rahul Bais, a 25-yeal
old Ayurveda scholar, is the youngest member of the team.4
He, alongwith Satish Gogulwar, a doctor, has identified
some medicinal plants in the forest. Musadi (Chlorophyttiml
sp), used as a tonic, had reached the verge ofextinction in
the state because of its overexploitation by drug companies;
this plant grows in abundance in Mendha.
The Bais-Gogulwar duo, with a contribution of Rs 5,000 from the gram sabha, are setting up a programe herbal nursery in the village. The plants of the not have
nursery will later be shifted to the forest. The agenda, i
local vaidu (physician), Bavji Topa, has gained a
ot rom t e vIsItors. ave earne ow to
make syrup from Bh~ineem (Andrographis sp) to being doj
treat malarial fever and Shatawari (Asparagus a piecem4
racemousus) powder for treating leuccorhoea," manner. I
Mendha's forest is the perfect laboratory for .
others as well. Gopal Paliwal, a young entomolo- complain
gist studying bees, has been involved with the
project since its inception in 1993 (See box: Batty about bees).
Other experiments too, are being carried out. Fondly
called pittewala (the bird man) by the villagers, Ramesh
Ladkhedkar, an orinthologist, studies birds in the local forest.
"I aim to make an encyclopaedia of the birds in the local
Gondavi language, and a build museum in the village", says
Ladkhedwar. Similarly, the Mohini couple -Divakar
Purushottum and Sunanda -is engaged in the sociological
and linguistic study of the village society.
But the project suffers from some problems. Firstly, the
entire process is too slow. As the programme does not have a
fixed agenda, it has led to the study being done in a piecemeal
manner. But no one is complaining. Says Kate, "Change
cannot be brought overnight."
The funding agency, Oxfam, is showing
signs of restlessness. Also, the participation of
ne does women in the study seems more symbolic than
a fixed real. They rarely go to the forest along with the
t has led other members of the team, and during the
d open discussions, they come and sit quietly in
the back rows. "We lack unity. We don't sit
e In together and discuss the issues," admits
al Dasasribai Tofa, a villager.
The Mendha process remains confined to its
own little world. Threats from naxalites, who
.treat the development process being followed in
Ing Mendha as 'bourgeois', is one reason. Besides,
the leaders in Mendha have made little effort to
popularise this unique experiment. Lekha, a neighbouring village with a mixed population of 350, remains untouched. The forest protection committee formed in Lekha five years ago to
protect its 25 ha forested land lies defunct today, and the villagers are unaware of things like the much propagated joint forest management. The village upsarpanch ( the deputy head),
Kamlakar Janjal, blames the people of Mendha for their uncooperative attitude, "Once, we proposed to protect our forest jointly, but the Mendha people refused as ours is a small forest
and they didn't want to share their forests."
However, Tofa ridicules this. "We were always interested
in the joint protection of forest. But whenever we called a
meeting, Lekha people came drunk and refused to cooperate,"