The Kanha–Pench forest corridor is rich in biodiversity and home to a large concentration of tigers, leopards, gaurs, barasingha, and cheetal. But with the population of the villages increasing and land holdings shrinking, conservation efforts were paramount. If the needs of the villagers for improved livelihoods are not met, there is danger of increased forays into the forests for firewood, timber smuggling and poaching. Angry villagers are known to poison the big cats that raid villages and kill cattle.
To reduce the antagonism of communities living around national parks and sanctuaries to wild life and to protect our green cover, it is increasing being realised that there has to be economic empowerment of tribals and forest people. Only if they are safe, happy and see a future for themselves in India’s growth and prosperity will our wildlife and tree cover be safe.
Cultivating this harmony between man and nature, two NGOs, and a bank and field director, JS Chauhan of KNP, are taking the lead in sustainable development. Since 2009, the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) and PRADAN (Professional Assistance for Development Action), supported by the Royal Bank of Scotland Foundation, have been working with forest households to live in harmony with nature with improved agricultural practices and more money in their pockets. By 2018, they aim to boost incomes of 12,500 families.
With the support of Taj Hotels, Chauhan has set up a training centre in Kanha for the hospitality industry, and has skilled and placed 160 Baiga tribals, including 12 girls, in four-and-five-starred hotels in Goa, Hyderabad and other tourist destinations. Others were trained as security guards, electricians and masons by an Army brigadier and the NGO Pratham. Almost all of them have found jobs with starting salaries of Rs 10,000-Rs 12,000. Of the 21 trained electricians, 15 have set up their own businesses. With job security, these youngsters and their families are now less antagonistic to forests and wildlife.
FES and PRADAN work with forest communities in Mandla and Balaghat districts. Forty two villages have been identified as the weakest links in this forest corridor, and six of them are in Mandla District. Most of the 65 families of Khuksar village, just 10 kms from the Khatia Gate of Kanha, have two-10 acres of land. But 12 families have no land. With FES support, villagers have come together to discuss problems and find solutions. Digging wells, drawing water from village ponds and by using improved farming techniques, they now harvest two crops a year.
Instead of looking to the forests for firewood, villagers have started growing bamboo and Jamun trees with FES money. Agricultural fields have been fenced and turmeric and ginger is grown to keep wildlife at bay. Migration has dropped from 80 per cent to 10 per cent. FES acts as a bridge between the village community and the forest department, and in areas where land holdings are small, they have asked for community forest rights.
In Bagaspur village, with people’s contribution, drip irrigation has been introduced to counter the acute water shortage. Women’s groups, too, are using the 109 drip irrigation pipes to grow tomatoes, spinach, gourd and beans which they sell in the local market. There are plans to construct a check dam on the upper catchment of 42 villages to augment water supply for irrigation.
Women are at the forefront in villages looked after by PRADAN in Balaghat. The 5,000 families practice organic farming with seeds procured from the Beej Bachao Andolan. Each village has four to five women’s self-help groups (SHGs) that give small loans to women and discuss village development. Trained by Mahila Samakhya to do street plays to sensitise men on gender issues, they are self-assured and can speak to collectors about the village needs.
Dwarka Didi, a member of the SHG and forest committee of Sawarjhodi village of Paraswada block, says, “Earlier we lived in thatched huts and our lives revolved around the jungle. We collected forest produce to make ropes and sold them to buy food. Now we get enough from agriculture to feed our families and sell the surplus in the market”.