The Munda tribals of Jharkhand are holding up the flag of ‘community forest management' despite the Forest Rights Act eluding them

Garurpidi Village, barely 35 km from the capital city of Ranchi in Jharkhand, is too small to count. That it does not appear on an internet search is proof enough in today's technology-driven world. This ‘backward' village, located in Namkum Block of Ranchi District, is as nondescript as any of India's 6.4 lakh villages. What sets it apart is its people's silent successful effort to keep alive the tradition of protecting its forests – the greenery that is the basis of their life, livelihood and inspiration. Their ethos is simple, “The forest is our mother. We live by her affection, without which life cannot sustain”.

The hamlet of Garurpidi houses nearly two hundred members of the Munda community. There is a clear absence of the basic essentials like electricity, roads and health services here, yet this diffident community has nothing to complain about. Accepting exclusion from development as their destiny, the Mundas continue to believe in their inherited wisdom, walking in the footsteps of their ancestors, and takeing the onus of protecting and conserving its own forests.

From shepherd to Pahan (the religious head), every single individual in the community, irrespective of social status, bears the responsibility of protecting the natural asset.

Protection and conservation is done by setting up their own security system. Three teams with ten boys each have specific tasks assigned to them. For instance, every team will guard the forest for four hours each during different times of the day. The role of shepherds is crucial: while grazing the livestock, they safeguard the forest.

There are few but strict rules and regulations laid down by the villagers, dutifully followed by every member of the community. No one is allowed to axe down a young and fruitful tree. For fuel, only dry leaves and wood can be used. There is strict prohibition on the exchange of jungle wood for monetary compensation. The amount of wood required by each house is also decided in community gatherings and then distributed accordingly. The forest is never subjected to the high-handedness of any particular individual.

According to Etwa Munda, a freelance journalist, “Villagers have had this inclination towards the security of the forest, the only source of their sustenance since time immemorial. Like the other forests in the State, the natural wealth of Garurpidi was at threat from the mafia which couldn't penetrate the defence layer of the villagers who stood united against the selfish marauders. This is the only reason why valuable trees still survive and flourish in the region.”

For sustenance, villagers trim the forests once a year. This helps the trees grow faster and healthier. This they do without any help from the forest department which, like roads and electricity, is effectively missing from the picture.

Curiously, the forest officers have held back from joining hands with the community in what is essentially their professional mandate. The presence of Naxals in the region is many a times seen as a reason for their passivity. No programme has been initiated by the officials so far for the conservation of the forests. The other issue raised by the community many a times before the forest officials is the allowance of the land to the people residing in or near the forest under the Forest Rights Act.

According to Purnendra Munda, an active member of the tribe, “The forest officials are avoiding offering the land to the beneficiaries. They continuously misdirect us in the official procedures under the Forest Rights Act, telling us that officials will complete this task only when they will come to the village. Seeing the current relationship of the officials with the Naxal infested village, we are guessing our wait for them will be quite long.”

Despite all the hopelessness around them, the villagers here are incessantly working for the betterment of the forest. The reason for their deep understanding and relationship with the woods is their ancient involvement with nature. In ancient times, the Munda tribes were the traditional wood cutters who later shifted to agriculture for their livelihood. Today, in the absence of irrigation sources, there sole source of water supply remains the natural rains. That is the reason they deeply understand the significance of the forests for their very survival. Budhram Munda, a local, maintains that the destruction of the forest will lead to the destruction of the community.

Today, when issues like global warming and deforestation are looming larger over the rest of the world, the Munda tribals are holding up the flag of ‘Community Forest Management' in their backward region. Their affection and dedication is showing the world a fresh way of looking at our natural resources. (Charkha Features)