In 1993 the DFO visited the village and explained about forest protection. With the initiative of the DFO, a local voluntary organisation took the responsibility of restarting forest protection in Jharbeda. A mahila samiti (Women’s Group) was formed in 1994 and the group was motivated to take up forest protection. The women were involved for three basic reasons:
1. According to the villagers, the women who formed the samiti were involved in cutting the forest. These tribal and SC women depended on the forest for their livelihood through fuelwood sale.
2. The women’s group would be able to check the women coming from outside villages.
3. There were no other groups in the village to take up forest protection. So people felt that it was worth experimenting with women taking the responsibility.
Four women from four different hamlets went to the forest for patrolling on rotation. They declared the forest as restricted. Taking earth from the forest for khapara (roof tiles) and stone quarrying were prohibited. Grazing was allowed and so was the collection of dry fuelwood for 3-4 days during the summer. In the same year the mahila samiti took up gap plantation work with help of the FD. The women also raised a nursery. They contributed labour and deposited the wage money in the common fund. The samiti requested the FD to help them to undertake cleaning in the forest. The decision for cleaning was taken because of two important reasons:
1. The forest had an unhealthy growth of thorny bushes, which hindered the regeneration of trees.
2. The samiti decided to give some benefits to the villagers in terms of fuelwood.
The FD released a grant of Rs 1000 for cleaning operations. The samiti invited the villagers to participate in the cleaning, and collect the materials for fuelwood purposes. The villagers responded positively and contributed free labour for cleaning. The Rs 1000 was deposited in the samiti fund. A total of 60 households participated in the operation and each got half a cartload of cleaning material free. This activity of the mahila samiti was commended by the villagers and they now reposed faith in the capabilities of the women.
In the beginning there were only 10 households that were members of the samiti. Gradually the number of members increased. However, the 30 households of the Teli caste did not become members. The women’s group repeatedly invited the opposition group to get involved in the activities of the samiti, but without any result. Some of the general caste women also became members of the samiti. The Teli caste women neither became members nor opposed the activities of the samiti. However, in spite of everything the women were successful in effectively protecting and managing the forest wealth of the village.
The samiti had played an active role in taking up fire-fighting measures in the forest. There have been three major fires in the forest since the samiti has taken charge of the forest. Soon after the women’s group took over, the opposition had set fire to the forest in 1994. The women’s group immediately went to the forest for extinguishing it. Their request to the male members for help was rejected and not a single male helped them in fighting the fire. The males in the village said that since women were protecting the forest, it was their responsibility to extinguish the fire.
The samiti took account of various forest offences and decided the cases. In the initial days of protection by this group, the women were insulted by the male members several times. The offences included the case of stone quarrying by Tikiraposh village, fuelwood selling by women of Kinjirikela village and similar cases. The group successfully resolved all such cases. It also collected fines up to Rs 100 from many of the offenders. Though the instances of forest offences were frequent, one positive development came up remarkably during the samiti’s time. The interference from the Jharbeda villagers drastically came down during this phase. With the women taking charge, the opposition groups in the village did not want an open fight.
There were some things which added to the strength of the women:
1. The activities of the samiti were staunchly supported by a majority of the villagers.
2. The FD also supported the women’s group and there were regular visits by the FD staff to the village.
3. It became a prestige issue for the males in the opposition not to have conflicts with the women, as in the traditional social structure, women are considered unequal to males.
4. People had grown sick of prolonged conflicts (for about 14 years), since the start of forest protection by the tribal and Harijan group.
The support of the FD had strengthened the forest protection activities of the mahila samiti in Jharbeda. However, there were situations when the women’s group had felt frustrated and demotivated by the responses of the FD. Once the samiti sent a written application to the DFO informing him about the rampant felling of trees, and requesting him to take quick action against the offenders. But there was no definite action taken by the FD; nobody from the FD even ever came to enquire about it. The offenders challenged the women’s group, saying, ‘Your FD did not come to help you. So no one is going to come to rescue you even if we kill you.’
In 1997 the women’s group apprehended 6 carts in the forest which had come to take trees from the forest. They rang up the DFO immediately and asked him to send his staff to decide the case. The women held the carts for a long time but nobody from the FD reached them. The women were thoroughly frustrated when, being unable to fight against the offenders, they had to set them free. Slowly faith in the FD started declining and all future hopes rested in them were gone.
The women also expressed doubts about the role of the present forest guard. They complained that the guard neither helps them at times of need nor does he act against the forest offenders. In 1997 a contractor, in connivance with the forest guard, took trees for 30 Indira Awas Yojana houses which he had taken on contract. Repeated information to the FD did not yield any result.
A state-level award for forest protection was conferred on the women group in 1995. The representatives from the samiti were selected to go to Bhubaneshwar to receive the award. The samiti granted money from its own account for the travel and other expenditures. However, the representatives returned back to village as the award ceremony was postponed. The samiti incurred an expenditure of Rs 300. Again in 1996 three members were sent to Bhubaneshwar for receiving the delayed award. Unfortunately, due to the death of a national leader the programme was further postponed. The entire group was dissatisfied over the award issue. A small fraction of the samiti withdrew from membership and indulged in destroying the forest. They accused the representatives of misappropriation of the money which was given to them for travel and other expenditure. Meetings could not be organised regularly, as many of the women did not attend any longer. In June 1996 the women who attended the meetings regularly formed a new samiti and invited the breakaway group to join. This confusion continued till 1997. The internal conflicts resulted in loosening of the protection system, and destruction of forest by others started once again.