Rohit Prashar | Oct 3, 2022 | 6 min read
They grow broad-leafed trees in 215 hectares, which spare women from fetching cattle fodder from risk-prone valleys under the constant shadow of death and injury
Mandi, Himachal Pradesh: When young Nekram Sharma of Nanj in Karsog block of Mandi set out on a mission to revive a forest exactly three decades ago, he had two things in mind — ensuring fodder for cattle in his village and preventing deaths and injuries in falls from heights.
Women had to tread the narrow paths in risk-prone valleys located far away from Nanj to get cattle fodder then. Alarmed by the situation, Nekram, fresh from graduation, approached the forest department for advice on how to revive the forest adjacent to the village, named Prog, which had turned barren due to overgrazing.
Many families had lost a member to slippery slopes, yet they were not ready to join him at first. It took four years, that too after they noticed the benefits that had begun to trickle in.
Initially, people would uproot the saplings or set the forest floor on fire to allow fresh growth of grass for the next season. Many thought Nekram had a political motive and continued to graze their animals in the area where he had planted saplings. Finally, thorny bushes had to be used to keep the saplings intact. They were removed only when the plants were big enough. “It was difficult. But when they saw the benefits, everyone came on board,” Nekram told 101Reporters.
Women from the Mahila Mandal patrol the Prog forest in Nanj to deter any illegal felling of trees (Photo: Rohit Prashar)
Today, Nanj stands as a testimony to how effective community participation makes life easier and better. Every day, a vehicle carrying milk cans leaves for the market from the village. Animals have been highly productive, thanks to Prog forest that provides them with fodder. Not just the cattle rearers in Nanj, even thousands from Khaniyal, Mandi, Mamel and Sarahan panchayats have reaped rich dividends.
Restoring the green patch
Grassy shrubs were present in abundance in the area, but plants that can serve as rich fodder for cattle were missing. So, Nekram decided to plant broad-leafed plants and trees on 215 hectares of forest land between 1992 and 1996.
“I first researched about the plants and trees that could serve as fodder for animals. In the beginning, I bought 5,000 saplings of shahtoot (mulberry trees) from the forest department nursery and planted them with the help of some villagers,” Nekram said.
Nekram led an initiative to plant broad-leafed plants and trees on 215 hectares of land to solve the fodder crisis of Nanj, Mandi, Himachal Pradesh (Photo: Rohit Prashar)
According to Dr Vimal Choudhary, broad-leafed plants can ensure fodder for decades together. “Their branches can be cut during winter, when grass is in short supply,” said Choudhary, who heads the Department of Agroforestry at Dr Yashwant Singh Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry in Solan.
Dr Sushil Sood, a senior veterinarian with PhD in reproductive technology, claimed that broad-leafed plants served as better fodder as they carried higher levels of nutrients.
Draupadi Devi, who is involved in forest conservation, said they had planted 40-plus varieties of plants and fruit-bearing trees. The results are quite astonishing as the forest is now home to mango, pomegranate, lemon, guava, bamboo, shahtoot, kachnar, byul, amla, ber, sheesham, dadu, jamun, drek and sheersh.
The forest department is closely associated with the conservation from the beginning itself, suggesting species suitable for the place and providing saplings from its nurseries. It also spreads awareness among locals on forest conservation and community participation. Nekram also mentioned the role played by former divisional forest officer Ashok Kumar Simal in increasing the plant diversity of the forest.
Chandramani Sharma of Nanj said forest revival changed his life. “Prog forest has bolstered the livelihood of not just me, but every cattle rearer and farmer in the locality.” Women sell amla and pomegranate collected from the forest, which earn each of them around Rs 20,000 per annum.
Village women Krishna Devi, Chandravati and Vimala Devi said in unison that they have been spared from long walks in search of cattle fodder. There was a time when they had to set off to distant places along risky routes to find fodder, hoping and praying all the while that they would not fall into a gorge.
Ramkali, the secretary of Mahila Mandal in Nanj, Mandi, Himachal Pradesh is actively involved in the conservation and upkeep of the Prog forest in her village. She, along with other village women patrols the forest and creates fire lines to deter forest fires (Photo: Rohit Prashar)
“Remember, we had to return home with heavy loads of fodder on our heads. It was a tiring task, not to mention that it would take us the entire morning and most of the afternoon to get back home.”
They said rescue was very difficult when someone fell off the slope. “Many died before reaching the hospital.” Baldev Sharma and Ram Kishan had gone through such harrowing times. “My daughter Babli Devi had gone to cut grass, but she never returned. She was just 26,” lamented Sharma, as he recounted the incident that happened 30 years ago.
Kishan told 101Reporters that his mother, now aged 75, escaped only because of luck some 40 years ago. “She slipped and fell while fetching fodder. She had to be taken to the state hospital in Shimla.”
Prog forest has also improved the groundwater levels in the locality. “We have 10 baolis (reservoirs) around the village. Four of them now hold water throughout the year, while the rest are very much on the path of revival,” Nekram beamed.
The participation of every community member has made a difference in Nanj. Women from the Mahila Mandal patrol the forest during the day. They also create fire lines to prevent forest fires.
Right now, Prog forest is off-limits for grazing. “We find new pastures for animal grazing and hold regular meetings to inform people not to graze animals and lit fire in the forest,” said Nekram. Once the fodder in Prog is ready for harvest, villagers cut and distribute it among themselves.
The people in Nanj are also taking steps to conserve biodiversity of the region by scattering seeds of indigenous species of plants and nutritious grains such as foxtail millet and barnyard millet during monsoons.
What more, taking inspiration from their story, the whole of Karsog is set to adopt the plan. Over 70 Jungle Bachao Samitis have come up in the block, and there has been an increase in community participation. Nekram also visits nearby villages and holds Van Mahotsavs to share their story.
Edited by Tanya Shrivastava
This article is a part of 101Reporters' series on The Promise Of Commons. In this series, we explore how judicious management of shared public resources can help the ecosystem as well as the communities inhabiting it.
The cover image is of the Prog forest conserved by Nanj locals under the guidance of Nekram and forest department, captured by Rohit Prashar.
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