The system had an exchange system for forest use. In return for the use of the forest, the other villages each contributed some money, rice and a goat (as saribodi) to the Earth festival in December and to the Chornia Mandai , another festival, in April. Each village had their own jungle (forest) sarpanch or headman and also engaged watchmen to look after their forests. On the last day of the Chornia Mandai festival, a meeting would be conducted whereby all the jungle sarpanches met. They would discuss the state of the forests and protection efforts, and warn villages that engaged in excessive tree felling.
In 1937 this system of traditional forest protection was discovered by the Chief Forest Officer in charge of Bastar while he was on tour. Subsequently, a formal working plan was drawn out, according to which the forest was divided into 7 or 8 felling series. Each felling series was assigned to a set of villages, which were then responsible for its management and the payment of the watchers. The felling series were further divided into forty coupes, one of which was opened every year for tree felling, the produce being distributed among the relevant villages. Certain trees, such as mahua, tamarind, harra, mango and trees forming the sacred grove around the local deity’s shrine, were not to be cut.
In addition to the contributions at festival time, the sarpanches collected 1.5–2 kg of paddy per rupee of land revenue, which was stored in a central depot that was utilized towards paying the watchman, buying uniforms, axes, the construction and repair of the grain depot, etc. The watchmen were paid 30–60 kg paddy per year and exempted from corvee (crop tax). Apart from meeting at festivals, the jungle sarpanches met weekly (called the council by the then British Administration) at the bazaar (market place) in Bajawand. The council had to be approved and confirmed by the administration, which also had powers to revise the council’s judgment if necessary. The council was vested with powers to impose a fine (upto Rs 25) for offences connected with illicit felling or excessive removal of timber, fuel, grass, and non-timber forest products (NTFP). The money went into ‘the furtherance of the Ulnar forest conservancy’.
Although this official systematization of the unofficial system seems to have been disbanded around 1952, following the nationalization of the nistari forests and their conversion into protected forests (PF),4 it has carried on informally in some form or the other.
In the neighbouring village of Junawani, the villagers have been protecting their forests since at least the 1930s, when they contributed approximately 10–15 kg of paddy per household to hire three watchmen. Additional money (e.g., for festivals) was raised by selling wood to neighbouring villages which lacked forests of their own. Villages which used the Junawani forests on a regular basis contributed grain for the watchmen, 100–150 kg of paddy and one pig at festival time (first sowing). Timber for house construction or for a funeral was given on application to the jungle sarpanch who would consult with the other villagers. Those who took wood without permission were fined, or would have their tools and bullock carts confiscated and auctioned at the first sowing. The position of the jungle sarpanch would rotate.