Message in a baton

The decades after Independence saw rampant destruction of trees. This was followed by years of drought. It was then that the villagers realised that no forests meant no rain

Published: Thursday 30 September 1999

Message in a baton

In Kesharpur, a tiny village in the foothills of Orissa's Nayagarh district, villagers search for a baton in their frontyard every morning. Two families find a baton each. The batons decide their day's work -- guarding the forest from timber smugglers and stray grazing. Thengapalli , as this ritual is locally known, was started in 1970 to regenerate and protect the village's forests by Joginath Sahoo, the drum major of the forest movement in Nayagarh (see box: Teaching the world ).

After 19 years, the metaphorical baton has spread the message to 600 other villages in the district. The education department of Hampshire county, the uk , found this ritual so impressive that they have included a book on the village in their school curriculum. Now some 18,000 students in 3,500 schools across Hampshire read the story of Kesharpur every day.

Similar efforts to protect the forests are on in 28 out of 30 districts of Orissa, though in 16 districts like Dhenkanal, Sambalpur and Mayurbhanj they are on a much larger scale. Driven by simple economic needs, local communities have been protecting forests, mostly degraded reserved forests, since the late 1940s and early 1950s. In fact, the movement started in Dhenkanal as early as 1937 (see box: A tribal revolution ).

The present forest protection movement, however, started with the death of Orissa's once-rich tradition of cfm followed by the deforestation in the decades after Independence. In the erstwhile princely states of Bolangir, Sambalpur, Mayurbhanj and Nayagarh, village communities used to protect their forests and share the minor forest produce in a systematic way. Other districts, too, had adequate forest cover before Independence. Sambalpur, Bolangir and Mayurbhanj were, in fact, the first areas in Orissa to get railway connections. Lured by the timber reserves, the British opened railway lines to source their timber needs for ship construction and railway sleepers from these forests.

In Nayagarh and Bolangir, the kings gave forests to the villagers for protection in exchange of free fodder and fuelwood, other minor produce and a nominal tax for using the forest. "After Independence, when the kings started losing control over their territories, they allowed large-scale felling by timber merchants," says Nirmalendu Jyotishi, convenor of ojm . "Whatever little of the forests that remained sustained the villagers, who were basically forest dwellers, for hardly a decade," he adds.

Severe forest degradation was subsequently followed by soil erosion, drying of water resources and loss of forest-stripping, the villagers' only source of income. Kesharpur was one of the villages which was badly-affected by the depletion of forest resources. The village witnessed severe drought and the agriculture-based economy collapsed. At that point, Narayan Hazary, an educated youth from the village, told his people that the climatic changes were because of the destruction of forests. His message was simple: "No forest, no rain." People listened to him.

Similarly, the communities started protecting forests after two years of drought in 1956 and 1965 that ravaged the Bolangir-Kalahandi region. Here, besides the deforestation caused by timber merchants, the construction of the Hirakud dam in the 1950s saw large forest areas being razed. "The immediate impact was the scarcity of fuelwood", says Manoj Patnaik, president of the Regional Council for Cooperation Development ( rcdc ), a non-governmental organisation ( ngo ). Today, wherever there is a forest patch in Bolangir, one can be assured that there is a community protecting it, he says.

A fillip to the movement was provided by the introduction of village blocks as a unit and the subsequent introduction of community development programmes by former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. "The story of the regeneration of forests and the now famous cfm is the legacy of a deadly past," says the rcdc president. Now forests in 28 out of the 30 districts in the state are under the care of village communities (see table: Protected by people ).

Protected by people
Area under CFM in 15 out of 30 district in Orissa


Mayurbhanja 750 35,000
Sambalpur 650 80,000
Nayagarh 650 110,000
Dhenkanal 732 8,000
Anugul 630 6,000
Debgarh 110 4,000
Sundargarh 125 5,000
Bolangir 600 24,000
Baudh 25 2,500
Koraput 125 10,250
Rajgarh 75 8,000
Ganjam 80 2,500
Puri 250 6,000
Nabrangpur 150 1,000
Balesore 450 7,000

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