How the villagers of Pujara Ki Chowki foiled hamhanded attempts of the state forest department to force-start a plantation on a forest already protected and nurtured by the people
The range of rage
"THE Range-wallahs want to kill us and our cattle to plant trees for the townspeople. Let the people in the towns plant trees on their own land," rages Punia Bhima, a wizened Bhilala tribal of Pujara Ki Chowki village in the Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh. Bhima is a veteran of many battles against the Madhya Pradesh forest department (MPFD) and has even served a 12 year sentence for killing a logging contractor to protest against commercial felling in the '50s. Today, instead of staying home and playing with his grandchildren, he is still at the forefront of the battle against the government's continuing policy of dispossessing the local people from their natural resource base.
Pujara Ki Chowki is a small village of about 700 people, mostly Bhilalas. The average landholding is about 1 ha (calculated on the basis of the number of adult males dependent on the land recorded in the name of family heads). The total agricultural land is only about 125 ha, compared to 260 ha under the MPFD, most of which is degraded -- except for the areas protected by the people.
The villagers were deprived of most of their agricultural land in 1956, when the settlement survey was conducted. This has rankled ever since. Some villagers continue to cultivate forest land and this contributes to the constant friction. The people are mainly subsistence farmers cultivating sorghum, millets, maize, groundnut, sesame, beans and pulses. There is no irrigation, no fertilisers and no high-yielding varieties. Incomes are supplemented by selling Tendu leaves, Mahua flowers and seeds and, increasingly these days, toddy made from Tad palm. Most of them, however, have to migrate seasonally to work as labourers in high-input farms and in construction.
The villagers fanned out at once to the nearby villages and found that the others too had been similarly informed. A joint meeting was held at the traditional Dahelan Amba -- a grove of majestic mango trees believed to have been planted by the original settlers, the Dahelas.
At the meeting, Dhansingh, the sarpanch of Sookhi Vavdi, revealed, "In March, just after Holi, the deputy ranger of the area asked me to round up 40 villagers to go and meet the sub-divisional officer." Next day, a representation from Sookhi Vavdi went to the SDO, S V Mazumdar, and were told that a new scheme was being started in the district under which forest land would be allotted to the tribals for protection and regeneration. The tribals would have to form Treegrowers' Cooperative Societies (TCS) by depositing Rs 11 each. A TCS was to be formed in Sookhi Vavdi to protect and regenerate the nearby forest.
The villagers protested, saying that the land in question was already being protected by the villagers of Pujara Ki Chowki and it was providing for the daily needs of all the nearby villages. The SDO tried to threaten them but the villagers remained adamant and said that unless the people of Pujara Ki Chowki were consulted, they would have nothing to do with the scheme.
Since nothing more was heard from the official quarters, they thought that was the last they had heard of it. This was news for the villagers of Pujara Ki Chowki and they castigated Dhansingh for his naivete. The people at the meeting unanimously decided to oppose any plantation work.
The Alirajpur tehsil of Jhabua district, where all these villages are, lie on the fringes of the Vindhya hills. Once densely forested, the area had to bear the depredations of unscrupulous logging contractors over the years, turning most of the forest into a barren wasteland. This has severely affected the tribals' livelihood as their earnings from minor forest produce and animal husbandry have plummeted. Even agriculture has become unproductive due to soil erosion and decrease in moisture in the soil.
All this has alienated the tribals and they have lost their protective attitudes toward the forests. Out of pique, they even inflict damage on the forest to get their own back on the MPFD. The MPFD has started 23 joint forestry management schemes in Jhabua since 1991, with a total outlay of Rs 60 lakhs. These schemes, being imposed from above through the same corrupt and repressive staff without any special effort to win the confidence of the tribals, were doomed to failure from the start.
In the last week of April this year, the MPFD staff came to Pujara Ki Chowki with 400 labourers armed with bows and arrows from villages like Dabri, Valvai and Burkuva, which are over 5 km away, to start the plantation work. The sarpanch of Burkuva, Shankar Ravat, threatened anyone who dared to oppose them with dire consequences. Munglibai, mother of 5, says, "I went up to Shankar and asked him whether he would feed my cattle and provide the fuelwood to cook food with or the Kadai roots with which I treat my children when they are down with dysentery. I told him that we have been looking after this bit of forest for 5 years now and we are not going to give it up to the range-wallahs. I then called all the women together and we surrounded the ranger and the sarpanch. We told them that they would have to kill us before they could dig the pits."
Finally, the ranger, B S Bamnia, offered to call off the labourers for the day so that the SDO could come and sort things out. "We told the SDO the next day that there was already barren land where MPFD had dug pits and had dumped saplings without planting them last year. So, logically, that is the place where work should be done and not in the area already being protected by us," says Motla Thuna, a youth from Pujara Ki Chowki.
The SDO, after considerable hemming and hawing, finally agreed to the people's demands and told the deputy ranger to consult the people before deciding on the area and type of work. The people waited a week after that, but the deputy ranger never turned up. Then, one day, the boys who had gone to graze cattle came rushing back and said that the MPFD had come with armed police and had started digging. The villagers immediately went to the site, only to be faced with the hostile guns of the police.
The villagers were forced to retreat, but came back at night to cover up all the pits. This farce of digging by day and covering up by night continued for some time till one day the police came to arrest the men. But they were foiled by the women. Eventually, the MPFD had to abandon the work. Friction still exists, with the department again trying to start plantation work this year.
The government order on joint forestry management (JFM) in Madhya Pradesh concentrates all powers in the hands of the forest department staff. Mazumdar asks, "What do the tribals know of forestry that we should consult them before making the working plans? As for finances, no other department has to reveal the funds available, so why should we do it just because we are doing JFM?"
The SDO believes that he is perfectly justified in terrifying the people with armed police because they are "harming government property". On being asked about the timber smuggling taking place on the sly with the collusion of the MPFD staff itself, he said, "Indira Gandhi herself said that corruption had become a way of life. What can I do about it?"
The JFM scheme is thus in the same mould as other such schemes like the Integrated Rural Development Programme and the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana. Jhabua requires massive investments in watershed development programmes through the recently-elected panchayats to shore up the flagging agricultural tribal economy and to generate enough biomass to meet local needs. Only this will ensure that the tribals will be economically secure enough not to degrade their surroundings further.
Rahul is an activist of the Khedut Mazoor Chetna Sangath in Jabhua, Madhya Pradesh
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