Guarding Their Forests: Bhil

By: Subhadra Khaperde
The Sondwa Block of Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh saw unprecedented commercial exploitation of its forests which upset the fragile hilly ecosystem. The Bhil livelihood was the most affected with dwindling forest resources on one end and the Indian Forest Act on the other which deemed them criminals in their own backyard. In 1983, the Bhil of Alirajpur began organising themselves to protect the forests - their lifeline.
Tribes

I felt very angry that after cutting down all our forests to supply timber to the cities, the forest authorities should blame us for the destruction. So I got the women of our village together and started protecting these hills. Now nobody can blame us anymore,” said Daheli Bai, a Bhil tribal woman of Attha village in Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh replying to a question as to what had prompted them to protect their forests and render them as verdant as they are.

The Sondwa Block of Alirajpur flanks River Narmada and is very hilly, constituting the edge of the Vindhyas, before the river debouches onto the Bharuch Plains in Gujarat. The slopes have thin red soils while narrow strips in the valleys contain black soil of medium depth. This is underlain by basaltic hard rock with poor ground water aquifer characteristics. The average annual rainfall is 900 mm occurring in the monsoon season (mid-June to mid-October). The indigenous people of this region, Bhil, have adapted to this semi arid ecosystem by practising organic agriculture in the valleys and supplementing it with forest produce. Deciduous trees, teak, sisam, anjan and salai and various grasses, shrubs and herbs grow in abundance here. Despite hard rock underneath, the forest cover ensures that there is enough natural recharge of groundwater with the rain percolating through fissures in the rock. Consequently, streams gurgle with fresh water throughout the year.

The reorganisation of states in 1956 and the formation of Madhya Pradesh changed things drastically. Alirajpur had earlier been ruled by a feudal prince, who exerted a loose control over the Bhil. The community mostly lived in tightly knit tribes bonded by customs of labour pooling. When the area was handed over to the Forest Department the commercial exploitation of the forests for timber production began.

 

This upset the fragile hilly ecosystem and with the forests gone and thin soil layers washed away, the natural recharge of the rain was greatly reduced, drying up the streams. Of course, the Bhil livelihood was most affected as the fertility of their lands as well as the supply of forest produce declined drastically. Simultaneously, the provisions of the Indian Forest Act ensured that they were deemed criminals in their own backyard and forced to pay bribes to the forest authorities staff to access forests.

Then in 1983, the Bhil began organising themselves to demand their rights, especially the right to protect the forests – their lifeline. They formed the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangathan (KMCS) to rebuild and protect the denuded forests in about fifty villages of the Sondwa Block. The women of Attha village, under the leadership of Daheli Bai, began the struggle which soon spread to nearby villages. Daheli Bai and her comrade Vesti Bai, travelled upstream along the rivulet that ran through their village to reach the villages of Gendra and Fadtala. They explained that since the stream originated in Fadtala, full benefits of forest protection in terms of greater availability of soil, water and forest produce would only be gained if they all joined hands to protect their forests. The stream in Attha had begun to go dry with heavy deforestation, but in over a decade – early 1990s – the stream became perennial once again.

The uniqueness of this conservation effort is its reliance on the traditional labour pooling custom of the Bhil. Under Daheli’s guidance, the women of Attha formed groups of five or six and began patrolling the forest to ensure that they were not grazed and root stock regenerated. Thereafter, they made sure that the new trees were not cut. The grass would be cut only after the monsoons and distributed equally among protecting families to be used as fodder for cattle.

Emboldened with their success, the Attha women then began another conservation activity. The small teams began working in groups on farms of their members to plug the gullies in between the farms with stones so as to catch the soil and some of the runoff. Since the mid 1990s, establishment of hundreds of such gully plugs have led to an increase in productivity and soil profile of many small plots. This practice, too, was replicated in many other villages in Alirajpur.

Adjoining Alirajpur, in the village of Kakrana the winds of taking charge spelt hard decisions. The courageous Bhil posted a permanent member in the forest to sound an alarm whenever poachers arrived. Raija Bai, and her husband Dilu, were the first to take up this challenge and built their hut in the forest. Even today they live there alone with their children.

The villagers of Jhandana, Sugat, and Chameli initially had trouble protecting another forests too – however, after much fighting, they were able to resolve their differences with the help of members of the KMCS. Today, this forest too is resplendent and visible from a long distance.

“Collective action by the community for forest, soil and water conservation is the only sustainable way in which the productivity of fragile ecosystems in hilly, semi arid and hard rock regions of the country can be ensured,” opines Rahul Banerjee, who has spent twenty-five years in researching and implementing natural resource management projects in the region.

Banerjee, a graduate in civil engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, adds, “Growing forests, greater availability of flowing water leading to reduced demand for artificial energy and greater agricultural productivity achieved through organic practices all contribute significantly to mitigating climate change.” And when this is done through communitarian collective action, the gains in terms of social justice are an added benefit.

 Article contribution Women’s Feature Services, New Delhi.

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