Sasi Mausi (aunt), as the 67-year-old is called affectionately, looks like any ordinary village elder. But what this resident of Dengajhari village in Odisha’s Nayagarh district has achieved in the past three decades is quite extraordinary. As the president of Maa Maninaga Jungala Surakhsya Samiti, a village forest protection committee, Sasi Pradhan led the village women from the front to fight the timber smugglers and regenerate a dense hill forest spread over 600 hectares.
Urbanisation in the 1970s fuelled rampant timber smuggling in the hills adjoining the village that has just 31 families. Soon, the four streams originating from the hills started drying up, affecting farmland downstream. The men from the village tried protecting the hills, but it resulted in regular physical attacks by the timber mafia. By the 1980s, when the residents started losing hope, Sasi mausi and her women brigade stepped in.
She divided the women into teams of three and they patrolled the vast forest on a rotation basis with lathis in their hands. The groups, locally called thengapali (thenga means lathi, pali means rotation), faced verbal abuse from the smugglers but they stood their ground. “The smugglers had to bow out ultimately due to the perseverance and resilience of our thengapali teams,” says Sasi, with a toothless smile perennially plastered on her face. They still patrol the forest.
By the mid-90s, the natural sal forests in the hills started to regenerate. Soon the four streams got revived. Today, the hills have several tropical species such as mahul, mango, jamun, jackfruit, cashew nut, kendu, bamboo and varieties of medicinal plants. The residents commercially exploit the minor forest produces for their livelihood. With the help of Bhubaneswar-based non-profit Vasundhara, they diverted water from the streams to irrigate their paddy fields in 2006.
The irrigation now guarantees at least one crop season every year. The residents say that the forest department officials rarely visit the hills because they know that the forests are in safe hands. The proof, they say, is the flourishing wildlife in the once deserted hills. Deer, boar, peacock, monkeys and bears can be easily spotted in the forest. “Even the wild animals never attack us because they know that we are their friends,” she says.
First published by Down to Earth on 26 August 2019