Three decades ago, Machkot village was in the grip of tiger terror. But this is forgotten now, as young men from the village spend their days and nights roaming the forest, guarding over its Sal trees.
Bastar: In a small bamboo hut, deep inside the dense Sal forests of Machkot village in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, Kamlu Baghel sits on a spartan, wooden bed, blankets lying in a heap and mosquito net folded upwards. This is not his home but this is where he lays his head most nights, after work. Beside him, on a table are packets of spices, plastic water bottles, steel utensils; and three pieces of horseradish waiting to be cooked for dinner that Baghel would share with his ‘roommates’.
As members of the Van Prabandhan Samiti or Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC), Kamlu and a dozen other young men from Machkot village all live together in this ‘camp’, guarding over the valuable Sal trees. Baghel, dressed in a checkered shirt and shorts, is likely in his 20s, almost as old as the Samiti itself, which was registered in 1999.
He is certainly too young to remember how, back in the mid-90s, tigers terrorised their forest village situated on the Chhattisgarh-Odisha border. He bravely patrols the forest now, keeping his backyard safe from poachers, timber thieves and encroaching cultivators but this would have been unthinkable for the previous generation.
When 52-year-old Dharamdas Baghel was only 25, his wife’s older brother was killed in the forest by a tiger. The government gave the family a compensation amount of Rs 25,000. An elderly woman was killed when she ventured into the forest to collect leaves and another woman was snatched from her home. In the neighbouring village of Tiriya, 15 km away, two people were killed in tiger attacks.
Dharamdas recounted the terror that spread through the forest like wildfire — how people used to only venture into the forest in groups, playing the drums loudly to scare off the predators. At night, houses were securely fastened. Eventually, the forest department intervened, brought in specialists who trapped the animals (four adult tigers and two cubs) and moved them to Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh.
But not before some 16 people had succumbed to the tiger across the Tiriya Machkot range, forest deputy ranger, Jugdar Baghel remembers anecdotally. During those days, the forests were denser and there were no proper roads. Only bullock carts were seen plying around Machkot and Tiriya.
Today, Machkot, which has been a revenue village since 2017, has clean, pucca roads, concrete houses and piped water supply. This development was primarily led by profits from timber. And this is what the young men like Kamlu are striving to protect.
Taking timber, making money
The Sal forests yield good quality timber. Machkot resident Ganeshram Baghel said that tree felling is carried out in 12 compartments of the forest, sustainably and according to a ten-year plan. The 4,118-hectare forest has yielded about Rs 3 crore between 2003 and 2021.
“Whenever trees are felled and auctioned off at the Sargipal depot in Bastar, 15 per cent of the proceeds get deposited in the account of the Samiti,” said Forest Ranger Budhsan Baghel, who is posted in the Dhanpunji office, 12 km from Machkot.
“After we started receiving a share of the profits from timber sale, we were able to develop the village. This work started in 2007 when mud houses were demolished and new constructions were carried out,” Ganeshram said.
Guardians of the Sal
Almost a kilometre away from these pucca houses are the ‘camps’ where youths like Kamlu work, live, cook, eat and sleep together, as they “keep an eye on poachers who try to cut valuable Sal trees”. Walking away from the camp for about 25-30 mins, we come across a barbed-wire fence indicating the end of the Chhattisgarh border. There is a similar camp on the other side, falling under Odisha’s Koraput district.
Here Tulsiram Dhurwa, a resident of Malchamal village in Koraput, and his two companions — Laxman Dhurwa, and Gurudas Dhurwa — keep guard. They were appointed two years back by the Machkot Samiti to prevent encroachers from entering the forest from Odisha. All these young men, 20 in total from both sides of the border, are paid Rs 5,000 each every month by the forest department. The department also employs its own people to watch over the forests.
The men start their day early to patrol the 4,000 hectares of forests. They take a short lunch break and carry on till late afternoon. They return to the camp late in the evening and eat a simple meal of rice, pulses and vegetables. They bathe in a pond nearby, and bring rations from the village when it runs out.
Deputy Forest Ranger Jugdar Baghel said that people enter the forests from Sukma district, 173 km away, and cultivate crops after clearing patches of forest in the Tiriya-Machkot range. It’s Kamlu and his team members who keep guard against this and said that the illegal felling of trees has considerably reduced since their active involvement. It’s an easy and obvious partnership. In Chhattisgarh, there are 7,887 JFMCs, operating over a forest area of 33,19,000 hectares, according to the forest department.
Shifting power to communities “Post-Forest Rights Act 2006, JMFCs are no longer valid and should be dissolved, ” said Tushar Dash, a Bhunabeswar-based independent researcher on forest rights. These committees are set up by the forest department with the officials controlling the planning and funding processes. “The JFM committees serve as an extension of the forest department and in most cases undermine community forest rights,” he said. While a large number of JMFCs continue to function in the states of Odisha and Chhattisgarh, there is also a growing number of community-led FRCs in Chhattisgarh — 3,800, according to a government official who didn't want to be quoted.
Speaking to 101Reporters, Stylo Mandavi, who until recently was Bastar's District Forest Officer, said that JFMCs are supposed to merge with forest rights committees or FRCs. “Right now, both are separate though there will be a possible merger in future. We have to prepare 642 FRCs, but only 193 FRCs exist,” she said. "Common resources like forests should be controlled by the gram sabha. It is because the compartments allocated to JFMCs and profits paid to them are arbitrary,” said Prakhar Jain, FRA and PESA [Panchayat (Extension of the Scheduled Areas) Act] coordinator at the CM office, Chhattisgarh. Remarking on the tiger attacks in Machkot, he said that the animals may have moved to the village because of the disturbance in their original habitat due to tree felling or timber smuggling. This would not have happened had the forest been looked after by the gram sabha.
This article is a part of a 101Reporters' series on The Promise Of Commons. In this series, we will explore how judicious management of shared public resources can help the ecosystem as well as the communities inhabiting it.
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