Woman power

When the men of Dengajhari failed, women took up arms to protect their forests

By Satyasundar Barik
Published: Sunday 31 March 2002

Woman power

A meeting of the Maa Ghodadei< (Credit: Vasundhara)The women of Dengajharia non-descript village in Orissahave broken through ages of gender and caste oppression to pioneer a revolutionary forest protection movement in their village.

When the men called it quitsit was the women from this village in Nayagarh district who took up cudgels. The once densely forested areas of Nayagarh have now been denuded by rapid population explosion and the setting up of heavy industries. "It got so bad we had to go at least 12 kms into the forest to arrange a suitable log for our yoke" recalls village elder Natabar Pradhan of Dengajhari. Necessity forced villagers to think about regeneration of the adjacent Pathar Gada forest.

Three villages -- LunisahiMardakote and Dengajhari -- haphazardly ventured into forest management. The united village committee wasneedless to sayall male. Over the 10 years that this venture lastedthe men on vigil were losing labour daysand trees were felled to compensate for the loss in earning. In additionthere was pressure from timber smugglersagainst whom the forest officials were no help at all.

And this is when the women of Dengajhari took matters into their own hands. Recalls Sashi Pradhanwho then led the movement"Early morning on October 261999around 200 people with 70 carts were moving into the jungle. A few women spotted them and ran to the men for help. The men rushed to the forest departmentonly to come back disappointed. Just the thought of the extent of likely damage caused us to call on all women to resist the intruders. Around 29 women assembled near the village temple to chalk out a future plan of action. We divided ourselves into two groups and waited at two passes to the forest. When the carts approachedwe besieged them with spades and other sharp weapons."

With this victory came confidence. The women constituted a village committee that comprised exclusively of women. Rekha Panigrahi and Y Giri Raosocial workers with Vasundharaan ngo involved with jungle protectioncoordinated with this committee to formulate byelaws. Thus was born the Maa Ghodadei Mahila Samiti (mgms).

The women worked out an interesting practice -- Thenga Pali (turns with the baton) -- to take turns at keeping vigil on the jungle. Everydayfour women would patrol the jungle. When they are through with their duty at 4.30 pmthe thengas are placed in front of four different houses to indicate that the next day's duty is fixed.

The mgms ' self-made constitution gives equal importance to livelihoodregeneration and forest conservation. In keeping with this spiritthere are no restrictions on collection of Siali (Bauhinia vahilii) or Tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) leavesfruit collection and non-timber forest products. Similarlyvillagers are only permitted to collect dried woodas per the mgms charterand there is a heavy penalty for felling trees. Only a Dengajhari is allowed access to fuelwood -- an essential jungle product for the villagersmost of who lead lives well below poverty line -- in Pathar Gada.

"We have been able to save around Rs 150from fines. Besides thiswe have collected Rs 30from the monthly deposit of Rs 10 by mgms members. All these proceeds go towards forest and village development activities" says Chhatiani Janian mgms member. The mgms also lends money to needy people at a reasonable interest rate. "The sum might not sound like a lot to a citydwellerbut in a village where the annual income of a household is never above Rs 100the amount collected by the mgms is substantial" says Rekha of Vasundhara.

With news of mgms ' success spreading187villages in Ranapur block of Nayagarh district alone have started similar movements. A block level jungle protection federationMaa Maninaga Jungle Surakhaya Parishad (mmjsp) facilitates the resolution of inter-village conflicts. The success of this movement is best illustrated in the fact that where only one woman was present at the first mmjsp meetingtoday there is the active participation of over 25 women. They want their sayand have it too.

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