Saigata Village

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 Location Ecosystem Type   Conservation Type   Area(hectare) Legal status 
 Chandrapur, Maharashtra Forest Ecosystem Conservation 280 Protected Forest

Case Study (2009)

Background

Saigata is a small village situated in the Brahmapuri block of Chandrapur district in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. For over twenty years this village has protected 280 ha of its surrounding forests. The population of 426 in the village consists of people of various castes and religions and also includes tribals.

The protected forest patch has a large water reservoir on one side. The patch of forests to the southern end is protected by the neighbouring Lakhapur village; on all other sides virtually no forests remain. Saigata forests are mainly dry deciduous forests with tree species like lendia, saja, ain, teak, bija, mahua, and charoli.

The population of Saigata village is 426. The eight communities residing here include dalit Buddhists, gonds, dhivars, govaris, manas, malis, lohars and kunbis. According to official classification, these belong to scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, nomadic tribes and other backward castes. In the year 2000 there were 88 households in the village. The main source of livelihood for the community is agriculture and employment as agricultural labourers. Some (mainly the younger generation) are employed outside the village.

Forests protected by Saigata villagers are legally classified as Protected Forest (PF), under the Indian Forest Act, 1927. The rights over forest produce in this forest are as per the Nistar Patrak,1 1956.

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.

This initiative has helped the village achieve local empowerment. ‘It has united us, increased the esteem of the village community, and helped us overcome barriers of class, caste and religion,’ says Khobragade. Achieving social equity as part of the effort towards forest conservation and equitably sharing the benefits of the conserved forests have definitely been among the major achievements of the community. This was clearly indicated in the 1970s—when the rest of Brahmapuri taluka faced riots between Dalits and other castes, this village of eight different communities fought together to conserve their forests under the leadership of a Dalit. Local empowerment has also helped the villagers assert their rights and responsibilities.

According to the villagers the regeneration of the forest has facilitated the availability of basic survival resources such as firewood, fodder, and so on. The water table has gone up, and while earlier there was no water after January they now have enough drinking water as well as water for irrigation. Villagers do not use water provided by the government and meet their entire drinking water requirements from the two borewells in the village. Besides, the rise in the water table due to forest conservation has helped improve agricultural productivity. In recent times some of the works undertaken under the JFM scheme have also provided employment to the villagers. NTFPbased livelihoods had once disappeared from the village, but from 2002 onwards mahua flowers are being sold by the villagers.

A 1999 observation4 showed that most of the regeneration was actually coppice shoots that had grown after the stumps of trees (that had been felled repeatedly in the past) were given adequate protection. Amongst these coppicing trees were numerous other seedlings of various different species. There were also thickets of the usual secondary growth species like kombal, Flacourtia indica and different kinds of climbers. Villagers have carried out bamboo plantations, which often do not succeed as the seedlings are uprooted by the wild boars which feed on the rhizomes of the bamboo. According to the villagers, the wild animals found in the area include leopard, spotted deer, barking deer, black-naped hare, wild boar, jackal, Indian wolf, and various species of birds and snake. According to a local professor, V.N. Mahajan, 70 species of birds and 250 species of plants have been recorded from the protected forests so far. Villagers also claim that in 2004, a gaur was sighted in the fields close to the forest.

There have been no forest fires since 1980. Fires are extinguished as soon as they start. Controlling the fires along with regulated grazing has greatly helped in the regeneration.

While the forests around Saigata stand testimony to the efforts of the villagers, there are several challenges before the villagers.

The villagers feel they need to strengthen the gram sabha as an institution and also develop a second line of leadership, as a large part of the effort has depended on the initiative and guidance of Khobragade and remains till today an individual-driven effort.

While the villagers feel that the JFM programme has given legal backing to their conservation initiative, it appears that it has not been internalised either by the villagers or the FD. Forest protection even today is more an outcome of the informal efforts of the villagers rather than the VSS. This could be due to several reasons, some of which are mentioned below:

1. The VSS is elected every five years and includes three women members, seven men and one forester. The VSS has to yet establish itself as a strong institution. Interaction with some members of the VSS indicated that the committee met very infrequently. Villagers felt a need for it to meet more often. They also expressed the need for a more proactive participation of the Forester, who is the Member-Secretary of the VSS. Forest related decisions are made in the gram sabha rather than the VSS.

2. Another important issue is the need for sustained employment opportunities within the village. As the youth look outwards for employment opportunities, it is difficult to gauge how this will affect attitudes of people towards their natural resources in future. While the forest protection initiative is old, one of the main reasons in people’s interest in the official JFM programme has been the employment opportunities it provided, although temporarily. The JFM programme is now facing serious monetary constraints to carry out its activities. This programme was initially supported by a World Bank loan. This fund, however, is now over. Self-sustaining livelihood opportunities have not really taken off: for example, the dairy farm project is yet to start, almost three years after it was initiated. According to Khobragade, the VSS itself is responsible for inertia on this front, as they have also not pushed the issue strongly enough.

3. A lack of proactive involvement of the villagers in the micro-planning for management of the forests is another vital issue. This is in many ways linked to the weakness of the VSS. As the commercial exploitation of the forests and subsequent sharing of benefits is slated to begin, the need for active involvement of villagers in the planning process is vital to ensure that their conservation initiative of 20 years is not undermined and that there is sustainable exploitation.

The increasing wildlife populations have also brought with them increasing rates of crop damage. The population of wild boars has increased considerably. Wild boars reportedly cause much damage in the forests as well as to agriculture. In 2004 wild boars have been declared as pests by the government and license-holders are allowed to kill damage-causing boars. However, the body of the animal killed in this manner needs to be buried and cannot be consumed. The government has also agreed to pay compensation for crop damage. Such compensation is paid based on a joint assessment done by the sarpanch (elected political representative), forester (local forest officer) and patwari (local revenue officer). However, no such compensation has been paid in the village so far.

On the one hand the villagers have been trying to control the goat and sheep populations in the village; on the other, under a government scheme the villagers are being granted loans to buy sheep and goats. This has resulted in the increase in the number of goats in the village now where they had once nearly disappeared.

A very interesting feature to examine will be to compare the forests of Saigata and the neighbouring forests of Lakhapur, which have also been protected by the village residents. It is important to note that the forests of Lakhapur were never wiped out as were those of Saigata. According to Khobragade, the Lakhapur forests are not protected as well as the Saigata forests, but more detailed social and ecological investigations will have to be undertaken to examine this. Some of the possible factors which might have been responsible for the Lakhapur forests surviving the degradation the Saigata forests experienced could be the relative isolation from the main road and less pressure from other villages. 

  This information has been compiled based on the following sources: Neeraj Vagholikar, ‘Saigata: A forest reborn’, Hindu Survey of the Environment, 2000; Suryabhan Khobragade, ‘Ek Gaon Saigata’ (Marathi), Note on the community conservation initiative of village Saigata (undated), ‘Above all differences’, Down to Earth, 30 April 2000; Questionnaire filled on 1 February 2000 by Suryabhan Khobragade; and Vivek Gour-Broome, ‘Note on first impressions of the ecology of Saigata forests’ (2000), unpublished.

Suryabhan Khobragade,
Village Saigata, Brahmapuri Block,
Chandrapur District,
Maharashtra, India.

Prof. V.N. Mahajan
A/6 Sharda Colony
Brahmapuri 441206
Dist. Chandrapur
Ph: 07177-272192

1 An official government document which lists out types and quantities of forest resources people can extract as their customary right for bonafide personal use.

2 In the jagirdari system the state administration assigned a certain area to an individual, the jagirdar, as a favour. The jagirdar collected the revenue from this area, with a portion going to the state.

3 A generic term for communities which have been traditionally the lowest castes in the Hindu caste system. 4 Unpublished report by Vivek Gour-Broome, independent biologist, Pune.

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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