Dengajhari is one village where the able support and intervention of the federation resulted in successfully thwarting external pressures. With that emerged a unique and powerful initiative by the women to become the caretakers of their forests. Dengajhari consists of 30 households dominated by the Kand tribe. The success that women here have achieved in regenerating and protecting their forests has come after a long struggle.
Like in the rest of Ranapur block, the once well-forested hillocks around Dengajhari had become barren by the mid-1970s. For local villagers, degraded forests meant walking much longer distances to meet their requirements and constant harassment by other villagers and the forest department. It was then that the villagers decided to regenerate and protect their forests. Two neighbouring villages, Lonisai and Madakot, joined in the effort. The three villages organised regular patrols to the forests and their efforts paid off as the forests started regenerating well. This lasted for about a decade, after which internal conflicts resulted in the breach of trust amongst the three villages. Each village then decided to protect its own forests independent of the others. Lonisai and Madakot, being politically stronger and larger in size, could sustain their protection efforts. However pressure started mounting on Dengajhari, which was a small and politically weak village. Patrolling parties, all men, began to face serious threats from the timber mafia and villagers were demotivated and discouraged. Additionally, time spent on patrolling started affecting the daily wages and to compensate for the loss men were often compelled to fell a tree.
In the meantime Ranapur Federation, with the help of an NGO named Vasundhara, started convening monthly meetings of the women from the member villages. The objective was to elicit better participation of women in the decisions related to forest protection. Women from Dengajhari regularly participated in such meetings. It was in one such monthly women’s meeting in 1999 that women from Dengajhari expressed their disappointment at the situation in their village. They were also concerned for the safety of their men involved with forest protection. After some deliberations, the women decided to take on the responsibility of forest protection. Around the same time, on 26 October 1999, 200 people with 70 carts were seen entering the forest. The village men rushed to the forest department but received no help from them. All the village women gathered at the village temple, divided themselves into two groups, waited at the paths leading to the forest and besieged the offenders with spades and sharp weapons. The offenders, all men, were scared of retaliating because of social reasons. They feared that they could get charged with violence against women—that too, tribal women—which was legally a serious offence! The men ran off. Women then sent for members of the federation and forest officials. The felled timber was confiscated and sold by the villagers, and the money was deposited in the village fund.
After this incident, women started patrolling the forests regularly. Maa Ghodadei Mahila Samiti, a committee consisting exclusively of women, was constituted with help from Vasundhara. Although all meetings about village protection are open to all villagers, women are the main decision-makers. In a state like Orissa, where women’s participation in decision-making is negligible, Dengajhari is among the few villages where even the monthly general body meetings of the Ranapur Federation are attended by women. The Federation has been a constant source of support and inspiration for these women.
The women have adopted the thengapalli practice for forest vigilance. Every day four women patrol the forest and by the evening the thengas or batons are placed in front of the houses that should take over patrolling the next day. The women’s committee has also laid down certain rules for collection of forest resources. The small population of the village, which makes for a high amount of transparency and visibility of each other’s activities, ensures that people abide by the rules. Timber is extracted only when it is required for agricultural or building purposes. A few other forest products such as date palm leaves, bamboo, etc. are extracted for crafting small articles, such as baskets, mats, grain stores, and so on. Commercial extraction of timber is strictly prohibited. For fuelwood, villagers are allowed to collect dry and fallen wood only. Poor families dependent on firewood sale for survival are also allowed to collect dry, fallen wood for sale. Hunting is strictly forbidden.
The Dengajhari women realised that the timber mafia often operates through local people of other villages. Therefore, those caught felling wood are tied to a tree in the village, and the president and secretary of their respective forest protection committee (considering that most villages have one) are called to bail them out. Fines for stealing wood often depend on who the offender is. For examples, habitual offenders are charged much more than someone caught the first time; poorer offenders are let off with smaller fines.