Phuljhar Village

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 Location  Ecosystem Type    Conservation Type    Area(hectare)  Legal status 
 Sundergarh, Odisha  Forest  Ecosystem Conservation  more than 100 hectares  Joint Forest Management

Case Study (2009)


Phuljhar is situated in the Bisra block/range of Sundargarh district in Orissa on the borderline between Orissa and Bihar. Phuljhar is a case which reflects a never-say-die attitude in the protection of its forest resources. Since 1965, protection has been jeopardized and revived many times. The forest adjoining the village is a sal forest, which cannot cater to all the forest-based needs of the people. The villagers therefore depend heavily on other forest areas to meet the other requirements. Yet the realization that the forest is a village property mustered the support of the villagers to protect it. With more than 100 ha of area under protection and over 30 years of protection, Phuljhar stands as the only forest-protecting village in the entire panchayat of nine revenue villages. Lindra, another village in the panchayat, has recently started protection (in 1997).

There are 120 households in Phuljhar. There are various community groups, including the orang tribe, Muslims, sahoos and scheduled castes. Ten households have no land, 20 are involved in business (grocery, cloth and dairy), 20-25 are dependent on wage labour, 10–15 households are engaged in regular service, while the rest are cultivators. While some households cultivate vegetables, paddy remains the single most common crop grown here. Only five households sell paddy and the rest of them use it for their own consumption; the paddy may or may not meet their needs for the whole year. Those depending on labour for their livelihoods work in a brick kiln for ten months (September to June) in a year and as agricultural labour for the remaining months. There is also seasonal migration outside the state, the intensity of which increases during crop failure.

Before 1960 Phuljhar was surrounded by dense forest with no roads and infrastructural facilities in place. Along with sal, other species like mahua, char and sissoo were also available. Though the village heavily depended on the forest, its importance was realised only after the forests were gone. The forest in discussion is the khesra (revenue) forest, which is within the village boundary. There is however no clarity of whether the revenue forest belonged to the village or not. The density of the forest allowed people to have a self-sufficient life with absolutely no dependence on the outside world. Collection of sal seeds, mahua flowers and seeds, mushrooms (from fields and forests), berries and sal leaves provided alternate sources of livelihood in case there was a crop failure. There was no formal committee or rules governing the affairs of the forest.

Trouble began after a railway line from Rourkela to Ranchi was operationalised in Dec 1965. The work of the railway line took away all the valuable forests. All sal trees were felled and used as railway sleepers. In retrospect some villagers feel that they were fortunate that only one railway line was laid. Initially people were supportive of the railway line as it meant more connectivity, labour opportunities in the construction of the line, and employment in the railways. These kept the villagers from resisting or opposing the project. At the end of 1965, when they felt the scarcity of forest resources to meet their requirements, the villagers started feeling the pressure. Procuring sal leaves even for daily use (used for making plates) became difficult and the thick forests became lengthy patches of cleared forests. The Phuljhar villagers then realized that they were in deep trouble and that it was impossible to live without forests.

In December 1964 some villagers—Ratia Orang, Rama Bhagat, Sakarati Puja and Jinat Mian— came together to protect the forests. Many of the villagers were not interested, as there was no forest remaining to protect. However a general body meeting was organized to discuss the possibilities of forest protection, and after prolonged discussions the entire village unanimously agreed to initiate forest protection. One reason that they initiated protection of the khesra forest was that they could not heavily depend on the adjoining reserved forest which belonged to the forest department (FD). During this time there was no forest committee and these four people were given the main responsibility for forest protection.

Two watchers called moharirs were appointed, though they were not required to follow any regular system of watching and guarding the forest. They initiated a flexible system of protection and went patrolling whenever they had time from agricultural or personal work. Each moharir was to be paid either Rs 5 or given 5 kg of paddy, which was collected from each household. The moharirs were supposed to patrol the forests and inform the leaders in case of forest offences or irregularities. Once the offender was caught, the cutting instruments would be seized and the villagers would decide the penalty accordingly. Only after the penalty was collected was the cutting instrument returned. In case the same person repeated the offence, a severe penalty was imposed. 

In 1981, after 17 years, the forest protection system broke down. This was mainly due to the death of both the watchers, Sukhei Orang and Mahadev Mahali, in 1981, who were, the villagers say, extremely committed to safeguarding the forests. They had taken selfless initiatives for the same. As they grew old they began spending the entire day in the forest. The villagers say that their contribution to forest protection was supreme and that the village was not able to find equally committed watchers on a full-time basis. Whoever else was taken could not prove effective, as they had to devote time to agriculture and other livelihood-related work. Such irregular patrolling resulted in the interference of outsiders as well as insiders in the forest, leading to confusion and conflict. Also, the benefits derived from the forest were not enough to meet the needs of the villagers for fuelwood and other forest products. After 17 years of protection, people’s expectations from the forest were high, and people consequently started frequenting the forest to meet their needs. An offence by one villager encouraged others to follow suit. People also became very irregular in giving their monthly contribution to the watchers and as a result the watchers also lost interest. Some households stopped contributing altogether. For Phuljhar it was time to critically reassess the benefits and other issues related to the forest.

Soon after the breakdown of the system, an ad-hoc committee was formed. It did not function well and interference in the forest continued. Forest protection was scattered: as one hamlet protected, the other hamlets destroyed. This sort of an arrangement indicated that people were concerned but could not come together to tackle it. This situation continued for eight years, till 1988. In the opinion of the leaders, one of the main reasons for the breakdown of the protection system was the absence of strong leadership. The continued destruction and interference resulted in massive depletion of the forest. The forest was back to what it was in 1965. This disturbed the villagers and they realized that cutting the forest was not a healthy sign. A common understanding for re-initiating formal protection was established once again.

In May 1988, a general body meeting of the village was called for, and a five-member forest protection committee was formed. This old committee was restructured in the process. Four watchers were appointed and rules and regulations were modified. A fine amount of up to Rs 125 could be imposed. The president and secretary were to take all decisions with regard to felling permissions for household requirements. Each household was to pay 15 tambis (1 tambi = 750– 800 gm) of paddy per month to contribute to the watchers’ salary. Non-compliance with the rules would result in the cancellation of any rights of that person over the forest in the future. Strict protection continued till May 1994. The protection once again enhanced the growth of the forest. After six years of protection and consequent regeneration, villagers began entering the forest for fulfilling their needs. As forest offences were on the rise, the villagers who were contributing paddy or money for 30 years were distraught. The three broad reasons for this to happen were:

1. Abundant forest also meant more scope of exploitation and large scale use.

2. The rules with respect to benefit-sharing needed to evolve.

3. A dominant sal forest does not cater to all the needs of the people such as agriculture, building material, etc. Besides, it took some time before the sal trees could be used.

Through 1994, the women participated actively in cutting trees for fuelwood. In order to keep a check on the women offenders and to motivate more women into protection activities, a decision to involve women in forest protection was mooted and accepted. A seven-member special women’s protection force was created. They were to help the male watchers in the forest protection. The group patrolled the forest mainly to catch women offenders. This was done at a time when it was strongly felt that forest protection was impossible without the active involvement of women and that this step would force them to realize the gravity of the situation. Unfortunately, this group of women broke up in 1995.

In 1996 certain cases of conflict further weakened forest protection. The need for invigorating the protection stemmed from a case where a villager of one hamlet cut a mahua tree without the permission of the committee. This agitated other members from the same hamlet, and two groups were formed. Both groups felt that the forest protection did not yield any result and implied that they were not satisfied with the functioning of the committee. A series of discussions were held and it was found that the committee had a number of weaknesses. A majority felt the need for restructuring it. The main problem identified was that the committee continued to function without any change or review of its activities or leadership rotation.

After more deliberation in 1997, a general body meeting was called again to elect a new forest protection committee. Eight members were elected and new rules and regulations were set to enable the committee to evolve. The new protection arrangement had two new provisions. One was that the moharirs were taken in as regular committee members for the first time, and the second was the equal distribution of the collection among the committee members (earlier it was only for moharirs).

Some of the new rules were:

1. The secretary and assistant secretary would approve the applications of villagers for forest requirements and inform the moharirs.

2. The four moharirs would go patrolling on a rotation basis: i.e., two of them on alternate days unlike the earlier system.

3. A monthly contribution of Rs 35 or 15 tambi of paddy per household was fixed as charges towards protection. This was divided equally among all the eight members of the committee.

4. Prize money was awarded for information/intimation about a forest offence. For a general villager it was Rs 30 and for committee members including the moharirs it was Rs 20.

5. The rule that no tree was to be cut without permission would have to be strictly followed.

6. In case of an application, the committee members would enquire whether the need is genuine or not, and accordingly assign the task to the moharirs.

7. Maximum two trees per household were allowed to be cut in a year. If more trees were required, then they would have to be bought from outside. A charge of Rs 10 was to be collected and deposited in the committee fund.

8. A fine amount of Rs 50 was fixed for a villager from Phuljhar. The amount could also differ from case to case and when the offender was from another village.

9. For marriages, one tree and branches was allowed for a chamundia (platform with temporary roof) made of tree branches.

10. After a tree is cut, the root is to be preserved for regeneration and the committee makes provisions for protecting it.

The committee has the primary function of protecting the forest. Besides that it has certain seasonal functions. In the agricultural season the committee takes decisions and imposes penalty on cattle-owners when cattle destroy the crops. It also acts similarly during the vegetable cultivation season. The committee also intervenes and decides in conflict situations. The committee members do not have a fixed tenure, but continue to function till a conflict between members arises or the committee does not function well. If there are many complaints against a single member, then the member is replaced with someone else.

The FD has approached Phuljhar several times for forming committees and helping them with forest development work such as trench making, plantations, etc. But Phuljhar has refused. They feel that the FD will raise the plantations, hire guards and gradually take control in their hands. Phuljhar is averse to the idea of seeking help from the FD. They recount experiences of how the reserved forests were sold out to contractors and green trees were felled en masse. They believe that this could happen only because the forest was under the custody of the FD. That is why they chose to protect the khesra forest. Villagers also say that the FD staff is insensitive towards people’s needs. Villagers do not want to be in a situation where for every permission they have to look up to the FD. Also any collaboration with the FD would imply other outside villagers accessing what will be called ‘government’ forests.

The first phase of protection resulted in the growth of forests to provide material for repairing and construction. Sal leaves were available again. Nearly 15-20 quintals sal seeds were collected per year and usually got exchanged for salt. Collection of char seeds for consumption was also resumed. When the forest cover improved, grazing was allowed during the rainy season.

There was dissatisfaction amongst the villagers with regard to the lack of benefits from the regenerated forest. For the villagers the forest has still not started supporting their needs, but they feel that after 10-15 years more they would be able to avail benefits in terms of wood at least. Today sal is invariably used for a number of purposes that range from house construction to agricultural equipments to fuelwood.

At present the forest provides facilities for grazing, collection of mushrooms for three months, sal leaves and seeds, and occasionally house construction material. Earlier the people of one hamlet used to engage in leaf-plate making but they have abandoned this as the sal trees have grown tall and out of reach for leaf collection. Many villagers see this as a positive indicator of a growing forest. 

An overall conclusion would be that sal being the dominant species, other trees that are sources for NTFP collection are not much present. The villagers have to go far off, sometimes even to Bihar, in order to get wood for agriculture and building material. However, now that many other villagers have also initiated forest protection, they face difficulties in accessing those forests as well. At times, they are stopped by forest guards, and they have to pay fines or give bribes to them. The villagers strongly feel that their forest would eventually save them from such humiliation. 

The real problem that Phuljhar faces is that the choice of species for differential use is not enough. Secondly, internal dynamics and external pressure do not let the initiative survive for long stretches of time. 

  This case study been compiled based on information contained in: Vasundhara, ‘A Case Study of Jhargaon Village, Jharsuguda District, Orissa. Devolution of Forest Management: Creating spaces for community action for forest management (Bhubaneshwar, Vasundhara, 2001).

Plot No. 15
Sahid Nagar, Bhubbneshwar 751007
Tel: 0674 2542011 or 12
Email: [email protected]

This case study was part of the Directory on Community Conserved Areas (2009), published by Kalpavriksh. The directory can be downloaded here.

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