Saved from the axe
WRAPPED AND bound in red tape, the 276 obstinate deodars growing near Tutu village in Rampur sub-division of Himachal Pradesh's Shimla district were an uncomplaining target for freewheeling woodcutters roaming the area. This time round, they were saved from the axe by a bunch of gritty village women.
The deodars in the 0.405 ha area under question are worth about Rs 5 lakh, according to a state forest department survey in January this year. The land had been unceremoniously dumped in the barren land category. (Revenue department officials were at a loss to explain when or how the discrepancy occurred).
In 1981, under a programme of distributing land to the dispossessed, the area was handed over to Kesu Devi, a Harijan woman. The land remained protected till her death in 1986, prompting a revenue official to comment wryly that "she either did not have any vested interest or just did not know how to exploit the land". Besides, the village women who protected and nurtured the Bangarela forest, which includes the controversial plot and reportedly contains deodars worth Rs 1 crore, were actively involved in afforestation programmes.
Rampur's divisional forest officer K Sharma says, "These women have been doing a good job for years." The minutes of the Mahila Mandal (a women's organisation) show that on November 8, 1985, as part of the afforestation programme, they planted 1,000 deodar saplings in Bangarela forest. Evidence of this is supplied by a signature of a forest beat guard.
The trouble started soon after Kesu Devi's death. Her son, Teju Ram, tried to cut down some of the trees. Mahila Mandal activists persuaded the village pradhan to intervene. The women allege that Teju Ram objected to afforestation measures on his land and occasionally even uprooted the saplings they planted.
In 1992, Teju Ram started cultivating the land. The women allege that he uprooted young deodars to grow millet. Says Asha Sharma, general secretary of the Mahila Mandal, "We agree he is a poor man. But why should he spoil the forest? Uprooting young plants will not even fetch him money." The women hint that he is backed by someone outside the village who is interested in the deodars. Teju Ram, however, denies this.
To protect the deodars they nurtured, the women put pressure on officials at all levels of the state government machinery, from the local forest guard upwards. In October 1992, they even sent a memorandum to the chief minister. Finally, on the basis of this letter, Rampur's forest officials started an inquiry.
Meanwhile, a few yards downhill, Teju Ram sulked on the wooden balcony of his small house. "I do not want another piece of land in exchange," he says. Asked about the tree-felling he says, "It is my land. I'll do what I want there." He, nevertheless cooled down and explained: "I am a poor Harijan. The high caste women of the Mahila Mandal just cannot stand seeing me in a better financial state. They entered my field and destroyed the crops." A case that was filed against 14 of the women is pending. "I will fight it out in the court," Teju Ram asserts.
Finally, by mid-January, officials of Rampur's revenue department agreed to transfer the land to the forest department. Says K Sharma, "The formalities will be sorted out in a matter of days." The villagers say the decision to transfer the land was hastened because of the intervention of the local member of the legislative assembly, Singhi Ram. Ram convened a meeting of the concerned officials and village elders in the end of 1993. This proved fruitful: revenue officials agreed to hand over the land to the forest department.
The women of Tutu village were elated. As the morning sun lit up the season's first snow, the beaming village women pointed proudly to the deodars they had planted on the controversial land. Says Girja Sharma, president of the local Mahila Mandal, "We women can wait but we do not give up."
The villagers are a proud lot. "We had to knock on many doors," says a village woman. She, nevertheless cautions: "It is all right now as the government is with us. So do not sensationalise the issue."
Overtones of casteism
Given the fact that a messy caste skirmish is all too possible (the women are upper caste, Teju Ram is not), the villagers and officials are praying for a smooth settlement. So far, caste equations have never quite deteriorated to violence in this serene village of 200-odd households, but the opinion on the deodar issue is sharply divided along caste lines.
"There are many other (Brahmin) families who got forest lands with deodars. Why don't these women fight for that land?" asks Teju Ram's friend, Raghu Ram, also a Harijan. "Because they all belong to the high caste," he says. A trader from the village even accused the women of chopping fledgling deodars and attacking Teju Ram's men.
At the end of the day, the women claim that their victory has boosted the participation of villagers in the forest management programmes that have gained ground in the state. Says principal chief conservator of forests V P Mohan during a recent interview in Shimla: "Our policy has been to involve people in the management of forests. The state forest policy is to ensure people's participation in the protection of forest resources."
Asked what these women get from forests, Asha Sharma replies, "Satisfaction." However, her husband K Sharma, a teacher in Rampur's government college, looks at it more pragmatically: "The villagers get minor forest products, though they are not dependant on them. Also, when we need wood, we don't find it all that difficult to get permission from the forest department. They know we care for the forest."
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