Armed with pebbles and conch shells, women in an Odisha village took on the task of protecting and restoring the Sal forest, and succeeded

The onset of the new millennium brought with it a new challenge for the determined women of Kalamachua village in Baleswar district of Odisha. Appreciative of their success with the anti-alcoholism drive, the headman implored them to protect the adjoining tract of around 200 acres of the Sal forest, which was under severe degradation due to legal and illegal stone quarrying and relentless tree felling by vested interests.

Thus was born the all-women, Maa Tarini Ban Surakshya Samiti. It had representation from all the four key sahi (hamlets) of the village and all other castes and communities as well. A forest protection strategy was devised, whereby group of women from different hamlets began to patrol the forests, armed with little more than few pebbles, a water bottle, a shankh (conch shell) and a missionary zeal.

Brimming with confidence from their recent successfully tested non-violent weapon of gherao (sit in) of liquor shops and local officials, they first prevailed upon the local tehsildar (revenue official) to cancel the quarry leases and then made rounds of various forest department offices to seek help for the control of the timber mafia.

Pebbles were meant, while on forest patrol duties, to scare away the intruders and the conch was to attract the other vigilante teams present elsewhere within the forests to rush on hearing the conch sound to the scene of ‘action’. A strict code of conduct was that no matter how busy a member, she had to rush to the forest on hearing the call of the conch.

In due course some men even began to carry water to the forests for use by the vigilante teams.

The patrolling women were not scared by the wild animals. They say, “Yes, sloth bear, hyena, jackal, snakes are found but we do not fear them and our group movements keep them at bay. As regards men folk, their entry is a strict no-no, as we detest their ‘politics’ and know that it spoils everything.”

Now in its 13 year, the result of the Samiti’s efforts have borne fruit. Quarry signs in the forest are all but hidden with vegetation having taken over. The rejuvenated Sal crop has reached dense ‘pole stage’ and it is a pleasure to trek through it. The Samiti allows the Sal leaf (utilised to make various household items) collectors to enter and collect leaves and permits livestock grazing in a regulated manner within their protected forest.

The challenge before the Samiti now is to keep up with its momentum and the morale of its members once the degraded state of the forest is no longer there to challenge and enthuse. The interest in patrol duty amongst the members is beginning to wane and initial leaders/members are ageing. While there is the presence of new and younger faces amongst the membership, yet the Samiti remains largely informal and is sustained pre-eminently by the missionary zeal of its founding leadership.

Another key challenge is the manner in which the resources (mainly timber) from the area could be harvested and equitably shared, in due course. This would require a formal community prepared management plan and an implementation mechanism. That men could, no matter their politics, also make a useful contribution, is another aspect that needs attention.

The Samiti, with hardly any financial resources of its own, is keen for facilitation of suitable water sources within the forest through water and soil conservation measures. A state level forestry sector development project is now working to assist the Samiti in its endeavours through micro-planning and eco-development inputs.