Selling trees for rotis

Selling trees for rotis THE morning hours in Barapal, near Udaipur, present a curious sight. Hundreds of headloaders crowd around the national highway looking for vehicles to transport charcoal or firewood to Udaipur. All of them are victims of drought. Selling wood illegally felled from government forests is their last resort for survival.

Kesa Mina begins his day at two o'clock in the morning when, with a sack of charcoal, he stealthily treks down from his village, Goira, in the Aravalli hills, to Barapal. He keeps his sack hidden in a ditch and sleeps in the open till dawn and then hitch-hikes to Udaipur city to sell the charcoal.

"Trees are being cut down recklessly in the drought-stricken districts of Rajasthan to make both ends meet," says Rajiv Khandelwal, a social activist in Udaipur, "For want of a proper relief programme, drought victims have to migrate to towns or fell trees. Those who migrate do not manage to send enough money. So, those left behind cut trees to supplement their income."

"It takes two days to collect a bundle of firewood," says Homli Bai of Barapal. Firewood has been her only source of income since Diwali. Homli Bai claims that some women sell their entire firewood stock. "If there is nothing to cook, why keep the firewood?" she asks.

Forest officials allege that the villagers cut green branches clandestinely. "The number of forest offences registered in the last few months is mind-boggling," says D Pandey, a senior forest officer.

The villain is the government. Nathu and Kesa fell trees because no relief work has been organised. "If I can get some work, I will stop making charcoal," says Kesa. "In Pai village, where we have several schemes, the people are economically fenced against drought," says S N Bhise, divisional forest officer, Udaipur.

The villagers of Barapal say they are depending more on the forests this year than in previous drought years because relief has not reached their village yet. "Forests have always been an important support during drought," says Dhaniji of Hama hamlet of Khajuri, another drought-hit village. "Earlier, we used to get food from the forest and also make money through khair, gond (glue) and other forest products. But the forest department has destroyed our forest. Wild fruits and leafy vegetables have disappeared."

Things are, however, changing. The people of Khajuri are now protecting their trees. Charcoal-making has been given up. Limbaji, the gamati (village chief), says, "Our village society keeps a vigil on the forest. Those who cut trees without permission are penalised."

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