India — The vast jungles, torrential rivers, stretches of grassland, towering mountains and the infinite variety of flora and fauna are manifestations of nature, the basis of life on earth. It is this bewildering variety of life, which is central to our existence
To weaken or worse destroy this natural resource would be a recipe for a disaster.
Closer home, forests for Bastar are the repository of many life-sustaining resources, accessed by the communities. So why is it that these jungles are bursting into flames every now and then?
There is a slew of Forest Protection Acts and measures in place. . Reserved Forests fall under the purview of Forest department can in no way be destroyed or encroached without the state machinery coming down heavily on such acts.
But there is another threat, that from within. Within the forest communities who traditionally have been known to be natural ‘protectors’ of the forest, which feeds them with its produce and takes care of their daily needs of food, medicine, health and utility items.
Somewhere there seems to be a gap, in understanding. Why else would the adivasis themselves light the fires, which destroy their precious forests?
Forests are not static. There is growth, there is decay. Trees, shrubs, foliage and the greenery underfoot all change with the seasons and put forth flowers, leaves, fruit, herbs and berries with the changing season. This is what the adivasis pluck and collect, use or sell in the local village markets, ‘haats’. The forests in Kanker district, in south Chhattisgarh too follow this pattern. .
‘Mahua’ is one of the most valuable trees which in spring after the festival of colours ‘Holi’ puts forth abundance of flowers which the adivasis swoop down on during the season, scouring the forest floors for this dainty white flowers.
There are many uses for Mahua, the most popular being brewing an intoxicating drink, a favorite with the adivasis. The state government has made it permissible for adivasis to brew 5 litres of this liquor, which is distilled using local contraptions.
Actually ‘mahua’ has multiple uses, amongst them a ‘flour’ or ‘atta’ made from the crushed flowers. It fetches a good price at the haats as well. This official ‘sanction’ to brew country made liquor has infact made the community lethargic, reinforcing their natural tendency to be laid back sometimes bordering on anti-social activities.
So why do these adivasis who know only too well, the value of the forests, set it afire during and after the mahua picking season, typically in May-June? It causes widespread devastation. Tender young plants which have taken root in all possible places in the forest are charred. The regenerative quality of forests takes a beating at this human negligence.
One can make a calculated guess. To facilitate the picking of mahua flowers, hidden under piles of fallen leaves and twigs, the adivasis start a fire, without really gathering the leaves in a pile. It is meant to ‘reveal’ the flowers without causing extensive damage. But there is nothing friendly about a fire, which is untamed, and it goes wild.
Even a small fire can simmer on and on till it virtually destroys everything in its path. Scores of fires in the Bastar forests have lain to waste precious natural wealth. This is the tragedy of the region, of the adivasi mind-set. They cannot perceive a danger from an act done in the best possible intention. ire is also for them an element in nature to be used. And it is not only in the mahua-picking season that it is used. The forest yields an array of produce through the seasons: ‘ kusum phal’, ‘tora’, ‘harra”behda’ all fruits, leaves and berries which find a market thus giving a cash income to the adivasis to buy essential items like dry rations to stock up for the monsoon period. One of the prized forest produce used for making ‘beedis’ is the Tendu’ patta( leaf).
Lighting a fire near the roots of the plant, leads to the growth of fresh leaves of a fine quality, highly sought after by the adivasis and by the traders who supply it to feed a burgeoning ‘beedi’ industry across the country.
The adivasi connect with the forest probably dates back to a pre-agricultural era. Long before land was cultivated, tools for tilling, harvesting and irrigation were in use, the adivasis were picking and plucking forest produce and managing their lives. Gradually land began to be brought under the plough and today what we find is a confluence of the two eras, two sets of life-styles. Adivasis today still collect forest produce, yet they also practice agriculture.
What is unfortunate is that the form of agriculture also leads to a burning of the forest, the ‘jhoom’ form, practiced extensively not only in Chhattisgarh but also by forest communities across the country.
Somewhere this mayhem has to stop. And the onus clearly falls on the government who need to take measures to co-opt the adivasis into protection of the forests. This does not require a quantum change in direction, only a tweaking of the current practices, a re-orientation to the rhythms of the forest, which the forest communities have running through their veins.
The Charkha Development Communication network feels that forest protection and all the right sounding slogans and programmes will only begin to make sense if they are rooted where forests exist and have communities live amidst them. By Kumar Singh Toppo(ANI)