After independence, the authority to oversee land matters and nistar (forest resource) rights of people shifted from the jagirdar (as this region was under the jagirdari system2 ) to the Revenue Department. The control over granting access to forest resources—firewood, minor forest produce, etc.—now lies with the talathi (the land records officer) through the Nistar Patrak. The overall management of the forest lies with the forest department.
Aided by a corrupt administration, timber started being illegally extracted by outsiders from this forest. The villagers watched helplessly as the forest was gradually being denuded. Soon residents from a neighbouring village, Mayar, started selling firewood from the forest. A time came when some of the villagers in Saigata themselves started selling firewood. Around the early 1970s the forests were all but wiped out. Due to the extreme degradation of the forest, livelihood options based on collection of non-timber forest produce (NTFPs) such as mahua flowers, tendu leaves, gum, etc. were no longer possible, and the availability of forest resources for personal consumption—fuelwood, fodder etc.—were also affected.
In 1973 a krushak charcha mandal (farmers’ discussion society) was established in the village under the leadership of a dalit,3 Suryabhan Khobragade. The aim of this group was to initiate reforms to improve the agricultural productivity in the village. This mandal also had a kabaddi team and a dramatics group, and served as a useful platform to bond people together. The synergy which emerged from these activities also led to the formation of the Nabhovani Shetkari Mandal (a farmers’ collective) and a library.
With the evolution of the krushak charcha mandal came the realisation that it was critical to conserve the forests for future survival needs of the village, and a special gram sabha (village council) meeting was called on 31 March 1979. Khobragade stressed the relationship between the forest, land and water, and called on the villagers to protect the forests. The message was well received and a unanimous resolution was passed by the gram sabha to protect their forests.
The villagers started patrolling the forests to stop the removal and sale of timber and firewood. It was initially decided that everyday two villagers would patrol the forests and stop the woodsellers. This was a tough task, as many people from Saigata itself were engaged in these activities for their livelihood and were not ready to give this up. But the village community decided that they would first tackle the people from their own village before they stopped the wood-sellers from other villages. Though they eventually managed to wean the Saigata villagers away from selling firewood, information is not available on whether concrete alternative livelihood options were offered to them then. The surrounding villages were more difficult to tackle, but by now the villagers had grown in strength and managed to deal effectively with the timber thieves even though they received death threats. The patrolling often involved confiscating axes and ropes from these people.
The conservation initiative had a minor hiccup in the period around 1982-3 when there was timber felling by outsiders with the help of a certain section of the village itself. This strife continued for two years. But the villagers recovered from this and renewed their resolve to conserve the forests after another special gram sabha meeting called by Khobragade. They formulated certain rules in their village, which included charaibandi (ban on grazing), kurhadbandi (ban on use of axes), nasbandi (population control) and a ban on sale of any form of wood. Access to basic forest resources was available after consulting the gram sabha.
Though the village had strengthened itself considerably by the mid-80s, the struggle was far from over. In 1982, they had to take on the forest department itself. The local department officials confiscated the grass bundles which the villagers had cut for use in their homes, even though the grass had regenerated only as a result of the protection efforts of the community. But the villagers met the Divisional Forest Officer of Chandrapur. The DFO asked villagers by what right were they claiming to protect the forest. Villagers responded in writing saying that it was the responsibility of all villagers to protect the government forests in their vicinity. Eventually, the grass was freed and the Department stopped questioning the village authority to protect the forests. The villagers got their forest boundaries demarcated clearly by the department on the ground. Around the same time a major battle had to be fought during the construction of a road coming to the village (the Khed-Saigata road). The 650 labourers engaged for this work were exerting tremendous pressure on the forest. The villagers guarded the forest round the clock during this period and faced many confrontations, several of them violent.
In the late 1980s, the village decided to keep two paid chowkidars to guard the forest. These were chosen from the village and contributions of Rs 10, 20 or 30 (depending on the economic status) were taken from the villagers. The villagers also imposed a ban on hunting in the area and vigils became stricter as the people fought fires, confiscated axes and bullock carts of thieves, and faced armed robbers and on occasions even hostile relatives.
It is important to remember that though the initial catalytic movement was provided by the Krushak Charcha Mandal and later the gram sabha was used to give a call for forest protection, neither of these really developed as strong institutional structures. Though the village fiercely guarded their forest, the village depended largely on the guidance of Khobragade rather than any village institutions.
In 1993, the villagers were approached by the Range Forest Officer, Nagbhid, to join the official Joint Forest Management (JFM) scheme of the Government. The villagers agreed to be a part of this and a van samrakshan samiti (VSS) (Forest Protection Committee) was elected for this purpose. Soon plantations, pit digging, etc. were taken up, providing employment opportunities to some of the villagers. This was for the plantation work, which was undertaken over 125 ha. As this partnership with the government completed eight years in 2000, Khobragade and a few others with whom the author interacted felt JFM has strengthened their initiative of twenty years by giving it a legal backing. The villagers are also expecting to reap the benefits of their initiative, as some of the forest produce will be harvested, giving them their 50 per cent share as per the benefit-sharing mechanism. In 1994 three wings of the forest department— Working Plan, Social Forestry and Territorial—sat with the VSS members in Chandrapur to draft the micro-plan, but the villagers expressed a lack of their proactive involvement in the drafting of the working plan. The micro-plan should ideally have been drafted in the village with maximum participation of the villagers and not in a faraway place like Chandrapur where a only few village members could have made a small contribution.
Initially, some conflicts were also created with the neighbouring villages as Saigata villagers did not allow extraction of fuelwood. Eventually, people moved to using agricultural residue and planting fuelwood trees on their agricultural fields for fuelwood to overcome the scarcity.
In 1993 grazing was stopped in the entire protected forest. Between 1994-5, to encourage regeneration, only rotational grazing was allowed. Subsequently the entire forest has been opened for grazing, except where new plantations are taken up. In the initial years the villagers had reduced the number of goats per family. The number of goats has now increased again because of a government scheme under which loans are given for buying goats.
It is important to note that the forest produce (wood, grass, etc.) is presently used for personal consumption only. Since 1989, there has been no commercial exploitation of the forest produce by the villagers. However, they allow the neighbouring villages of Uchli and Kaleta to collect mahua, charoli and palas leaves for their business of making leaf-plates, as they have done traditionally.