Sadini Harijan (29), belongs to Gand community ' identified under scheduled caste in Orissa ' and hails from Ghantmal village under Madhakhol Reserve Forest Area (MRFA) in Narla block of district Kalahandi. There is no way of communication with this village aside from radio even after 60 years of independence. Neither electricity nor first-aid facility exists for the inhabitants of this settlement, which is marked as vote-bank of Indian democratic system.
Ghantmal is situated in the foothills of Gandmardan hills. Light rains keep them off from rest of this locality since the nearby river flooded abruptly. Recently, this locality has been attached with district headquarter Bhawanipatna through Pradhan Mantri Sadak Nirman Yojna (PMSNY). But this newly constructed link road washed away at different places and ultimately Ghantmal remained unconnected once again this year. So, "'the inhabitance of this area, stopped to think of such facilities. Let it be the matter of government officials to think the necessity of us people", explains Sadini Harijan.
She is a low profile leader of at least 150 environmental lieutenants of this area to save, conserve and protect local environment. This locality was identified under reserved forest area two decades ago, but the degradation of bio-diversity continued to increase day by day. "Deforestation caused soil erosion and imbalances in local climate", says Uma Shankar Kar, a local journalist of Bhawanipatna. The green-lush mountain converted into black and brown and "'plummet of under ground water level began to be the cause of mass migration of villagers to unknown places till the advent of rains", recalls Boi Manjhi (55) of this village. The situation was going from bad to worse. "The grassy land, where our kids used to play and have fun, befallen into moonland," Gunjan Harijan (45) remembers.
In the late 1990s, the women of this locality came together under the leadership of Sadini Harijan to prevent the exploitative cutting of the forest by the outsiders. They started a movement that helped to form inter-village groups which then addressed not only this issue but also "larger concerns of forest conservation and management", says Sarat Chandra Nayak, the Forester of this area. With special initiative taken by Sadini, the villagers formed Forest Protection Committees (FPCs), which operate both at individual level and an apex level consisting of several villages like Tolbrahmini, Karanja and Pajibahal.
Sadini was playing her lead role. The village FPCs protects demarcated forest areas around their villages with their set of rules. "No one is allowed to carry an axe into the forest", Sadini reports proudly. "Only dry and dead wood is allowed to be removed for fuel requirements and that too, only for personal use", says Pano Manjhi (50). Timber for making ploughs and bamboo for domestic uses is allowed only by the permission of the FPC lead by Sadini Harijan. "These efforts by the villagers of at least one dozen hamlets were subsequently synergized with those of the Forest Department", Jeetshatru Pattnaik, Divisional Forest Officer, Kalahandi describes. Van Suraksha Samitis (VSS) were constituted by the Forest Department (FD) at the villages' level. "Generally, the village FPC also acts as VSS. The FD only approves the decisions", S.C. Nayak tells.
In course of protecting the forest, the women formed various Self Help Groups (SHGs). The FD started widespread employment programme by comprehensively involving the SHGs in plantation work. This paved the way for natural regeneration, resulting in ample increase in biomass productivity and enhances availability of fuel, fodder, fiber and non-timber forest products. Now, cutting trees have been stopped by the environmental lieutenants. Drawing on the experiences in MRFA, the unprecedented achievement encouraged villagers and FD to work in collaboration to save and sustain forests. The protection of forest by the villagers, especially women, is now encouragement for others since it carries the pious objective of conserving and regenerating degraded forest areas.
In a joint effort, both villagers and FD are at ease in protecting the MRFA. But there are some grievances of hundreds of grassroots crusaders, engaged in forest protection. "We need legal status for our committees as this would check forceful transgression of village boundaries and make sure the safety and security of villagers against muscle power of the lawbreakers can be checked by legal provisions", Sadini argues. The villagers want the involvement and intervention of FD. On the other side of coin, the FD feels ill equipped to handle the jurisdiction of the entire forest range.
Sadini is proud of her dedication, devotion and commitment towards this pious mission. She is pleased for robust mass support in the context for protection and promotion of MRFA but she realizes her limitations too.