Baiga Chak’s forest survival due to decade-long local conservation measures


Pauri, one of the many hamlets in the Baiga Chak area of Dindori district in Madhya Pradesh, offers a lush green panoramic view to visitors, especially during monsoon. Today, much of its forest has survived, thanks to conservation measures undertaken at the village level. Way back in 2004, a forest protection committee (jangal adhdhyan mandal) was formed in the village with an aim to protect and conserve forests. The result is there for all to see: forests have lived on in this part of central India, thanks to local involvement on a vast scale. According to Balwant Rahangdale, an activist from the non-profit, National Institute of Women, Child and Youth Development at Dindori district, school children have played a big role in safeguarding forests in Pauri.

“At least 60 per cent of Baigas’ livelihood is dependent on forests, but the forest department used to control vast areas for timber extraction. The department usually sees forest as a commercial venture. But the Baigas view jungles as a source of income and food. That is why they agreed to safeguard their precious resource from destruction,” Rahangdale said.

At the onset, the condition of forests was discussed with the locals of Pauri. Many were of the opinion that forest fires should be prevented and young trees must be saved. The idea of forest protection committees started in 15 villages initially. Later, the concept gained momentum with the launch of padyatras conducted in 2007 and 2009 across all the 52 villages in Baiga Chak. “We prepared a route map. Even if we could not go to all the villages, we called the residents,” added Rahangdale.

Rahangdale informed that about 1.5 lakh acres of forests have been protected due to the presence of forest protection committees across Baiga Chak. In the initial stages, forests were studied minutely to know the exact condition. Then the participatory ruler approach was adopted. Meetings were held with gram sabhas. During such meetings, most people agreed that the condition of forests was in danger. Women and children were involved on a large-scale.

According to Pauri resident Ram Prasad Samardaiyya, by 2006 everyone in the village got involved in the enterprise. “We formed committees to prevent forest fires. This is a safety measure as we get firewood and food from forests free of cost. Earlier, the forest department used to cut trees indiscriminately. Now, they have stopped since 2011. But at times they create trouble. But now if they try to cut down trees, we surround them and seize their arms. We have done that many times,” he said. Samardaiyya recalled that forests were highly dense in this part before the forest department started felling trees for commercial purposes.

Rahangdale informed that Serajhar was the first village in Baiga Chak to experiment with the idea of a forest protection committee way back in 1998. Later, other villages got involved gradually. In Dhaba village, the movement started in 2003, a year before Pauri. “The participatory ruler approach was highly successful as we discussed the rights of villagers. Community participation is needed to secure livelihood and the rights of local communities. From morning till night, the Baigas are dependent on forests,” Rahangdale explained.

Involving women and children

Hariaro Bai of Pauri village said that when Baigas go to forests, they usually collect food like mushrooms and leafy greens. “Such foods will vanish if forests are destroyed,” she pointed out.

The best thing about the forest protection committees is the involvement of children in Pauri village. Children numbering about 300 took part in the forest conservation drive. Even now, they daily go to forests and take a look at it. They monitor all kinds of activities and also gather food. They generally go after 3pm in the afternoon. During monsoon, they collect putu mushroom and saal ki piri mushroom, two local varieties relished by the tribals. They also gather medicinal herbs and collect honey, Bai said.

In Pauri, the children formed three separate groups and started visiting forests regularly to identify trees after school hours. Apart from Pauri, children’s study groups were formed in 21 other villages.

Bai explained that the presence of putu mushrooms has increased since the drive to protect forests started. Water quantity in jhirias (local streams) has also increased. Earlier, local rivers used to go dry in summers, but now there is water in them throughout the year. Pauri has seven fresh water streams from which the Baigas drink water.

The movement

The movement gained force in 2003 in Serajhar village where residents lost a number of wild foods due to forest felling. At that time, locals formed committees and started saving forests. Later, other villages also adopted the idea. Almost all the 52 villages of Baiga Chak are now aware of forest conservation. Bouna village emulated the idea much later, only in 2015. The Bouna village samiti has 18 people, says resident Laxman. “The samiti keeps an eye on the forests and tries to prevent forest fires. Our forests yield precious things like kanda, a type of root, which we consume. There are 18 types of kanda found in forests.”

Dhaba village resident Sukkal Singh Rathuria recalled severe drinking water shortage in the month of March in the early 2000s. “At that time, I started educating people about the importance of forests. We started soil conservation work first. Then we realised, that only this will not suffice. After that, we formed groups. Everyone got involved in these committees. Women formed a separate group. Initially, children used to cut trees. But when they understood our mission, they stopped,” he said.

Rathuria recalled that the forest department marked a lot of trees for felling in 2003. “When the DFO came, we took him to the forest and showed them the markings. When he supported us, our mission derived strength.” He agreed that jhirias have been revived because of forest protection.

According to Ranhangdale, jhiria protection has work been carried out in Pauri and Bouna villages of Dindori district. “When we started forest protection in the villages in Baiga Chak area, we noticed that soil moisture increased and forest fire incidents reduced. At the same time, water level in these streams increased. The Baigas, 80 per cent of them, depend on these jhirias for drinking water, as hand pumps go dry in the peak of summer. Thus, the survival of jhirias is interlinked with forests,” he explained.

Rajeev Bhargav of NIWCYD, Bhopal branch, said, that the idea of forest protection committee is still continuing, which has managed to retain forests till today. “It is a village level conservation process. This kind of initiative at the community level is a good step towards forest conservation across India in the face of development.”



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