By Richa Sharma
A group of tribal women in Mayurbhanj district in the eastern Indian state of Odisha have taken authorities head on and stopped an eco-tourism project that was coming up in a reserve forest adjoining their villages in violation of their forest rights.
About 200 women under the banner of the Budhikhamari Community Forest Protection Committee (BCFPC) in March protested against the Odisha forest department's eco-tourism project 'Sriram Vatika' covering 118 hectares of Manchabandha Reserve Forest-I of Baripada forest division.
It all started in January when the forest department started construction activities for the project in the sal tree forest while villagers were busy with the panchayat elections in the state.
"The forest department started fencing and constructing a road inside the forest. As a result, an estimated 1,000-1,500 sal trees were felled in the forest, which had been completely regenerated in last three decades by the indigenous community," Vishnu Nath Purthy, convener of Mayurbhanj Jungle Manch, which supported the protest, told IANS.
Four villages in Baripada, the district headquarters of Mayurbhanj district -- the biggest district in Odisha -- have been protecting this forest since 1985.
The majority of their population is tribal and they are dependent on the forest for their livelihood.
"When we protested against the fencing of our forest, the forest department told us that they have got the consent of our gram sabha to take over the land as the project will generate livelihood," said Sarla Devi Singh, president of the core committee for forest management in Baripada.
Angered by the violation, Sarla with the support of women from other villages led the protest and gheraoed the district officials.
"Together, we demanded cancellation of the project as it would attract outsiders to our forest and villages. They can indulge in activities like drinking and teasing women and this would destroy the quite atmosphere here. It would also prevent us from accessing the forest, which is a source of our livelihood," Lilima, another member of the committee, told IANS.
When their protest yielded no result, the tribal women met the Mayurbhanj district collector. It had the desired impact and work was stopped.
Under the eco-tourism project, the forest department planned to fence off the whole forest with only one gate for entry, enlarge existing ponds for boating, build a 3 km long jogging track inside the forest, create sitting and dining places, build staff quarters, a watch tower and overhead tank for water supply, convert part of forests into lawns, panchakarma centre and a deer park.
However, Baripada District Forest Officer B.K. Panda told IANS that approval of the villagers for the project was taken.
"The eco-tourism project activities have been planned after taking into consideration the livelihood needs of the local people. It will provide employment to tribal people. We had taken their gram sabha's approval," he said.
According to NGO Vasundhara, working in the area, taking forest land without the consent of the villagers is a violation of Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006.
The Act gives tribal people right to protect, conserve and manage the forest besides allowing them to collect and sell minor forest produce.
Without their consent, no land can be taken for construction of any development work, the NGO said.
Sudhanshu Sekhar Deo from Vasundhara said that the key issue in the case is that forest rights, which are recognised and protected, were violated by the forest department by implementing the eco-tourism project.
The forest resources directly and indirectly contributed to an annual income of Rs.40 lakh (Rs. 4 million) to approximately 600 households in four villages, Deo told IANS.
It is also a source of fuel (dry leaves and twigs), fodder (grazing by domestic animals and collection of tree leaf fodder), food (different types of mushrooms, tubers and green leaves) and income (sale of sal leaf plates).
"The work has stopped but we have not been provided a written assurance that it will not be restarted. We are now patrolling the forest everyday in groups to ensure that no new construction is done," said Sukara Singh, a member of BCFPC.
(Richa Sharma can be contacted at email@example.com)