Dengajhari is a name which will ‘not’ ring a bell in many people’s minds. Situated 60 kms away from Bhubaneswar, Dengajhari is a small village housing 30 families including 20 tribal families.
Amidst the quiet life which the villagers live, there is a battle the inhabitants of Dengajhari are fighting. Problems like illegal mining and timber extraction are slowly killing the forests which is an important source of livelihood. A persistent problem since 1970’s, this has given rise to an interesting community led conservation effort led entirely by the village Women.
We recently had a chance to witness this unique conservation effort as a group of 23 members visited Dengajhari village to celebrate the ‘Siali Utsav’. Jointly organized by City based NGO’s Bakul foundation and Vasundhara, it was a part of an initiative ‘Into nature with nature ke rakshak’. The initiative is an attempt to reconnect urban dwellers with forests and forest protecting communities in Odisha.
As we headed into the muddy roads of Dengajhari, we were joined by Nilamani Bhai. One of the representatives of Vasundhara, he was our guide for the day. After a scrumptious breakfast at the village (easily the best dalma we had in our lives!!), we started our trek to witness the flora and fauna of the forests and understand the local customs better. During the short trek into the forest, we gathered fruits and vegetables from the forest areas which we later relished!
We also had a unique opportunity to witness the Siali Utsav after the trek. The festival is celebrated on the eve of Deva Snana Purnima every year. The Siali Seeds which are planted are prepared with a special mud & dung coating that helps germination of the seed.
As a part of the rituals, village women plant Siali seeds to celebrate their relationship with Mother Nature. The colourful ritual has a significance which extends far beyond annual festivities. Siali and sal (Shorea robusta) leaves are the major source of sustenance for people in the predominantly tribal districts of eastern Odisha. The eco-friendly leaf plates are also in demand at high-end restaurants. Though a highly unorganized trade, Odisha does Rs 400 crore worth of business in Siali and sal leaves every year.
The festival gave a sneak peek into their daily lives, environment friendly customs and culture. The villagers also shared some fascinating tales about the origin of Dengajhari and how it was formed due to immigration of people from a nearby (now deserted) village a century ago. Amidst the tales, Natabara Mausa – the village elder also shared his concerns about the degradation of environment and spoke of the need to conserve forests.
One of the main concerns of the community was the non-recognition of their rights over the forest, under the Forest Rights act. Even though they’ve been protecting and nurturing the forest for decades now, the Government has turned a blind eye over their claims. Another important issue plaguing the village was the smuggling of forest wood.
Few years ago, when the forests were reeling under threats like these which would have rendered them barren from overuse, providing little wood and food – that’s when the women organized to restore and protect the forest. Anyone needing wood had to get permission from the village committee. Men were no longer allowed to carry axes into the woods. After the women began patrolling, the number of intruders dropped to nearly zero and the forest quickly began to flourish again. Even the men here credit the women for the dramatic reversal.
As we headed back to the city, images of Dengajhari and it’s empowered women flash in my mind. The forests are not just a source of food and income for these villagers, but also provide firewood and have religious significance in their customs, traditions and practices. From providing clean drinking water to natural fertilizer for the village – which in turn helps dramatically boost crop yields. The forest is an invaluable buffer against hunger and an increasingly unstable climate.
The community is hopeful that the Government will one day recognize their efforts and give them the rights.
Till then, the Dengajhari women are not going to sit back and relax – they are going to leave no stone unturned to keep the forests safe, one patrol at a time.
[Contributed by: Akshit, Prateek and few photos by Amit Jana]
Vasundharaodisha is a research and policy advocacy group that works on environment conservation and sustainable livelihood of the marginalised sections. They joined hands with Bakul Foundation – a city based NGO that works in the area of education, environment and arts to launch this innovative initiative that reconnects urban youth with the forests by taking a walk with the people living within them. Follow their page to know about more upcoming events.