Every morning, a group of tribal women from Sarkaghat leave their houses armed with sticks and bow arrows. Together, they march to the forest that borders their village in Jharkhand, and then disperse into the deeper areas.
But don’t mistake these women as hunters or guardians against straying wild animals. They’re out to keep an eye on a different kind of threat — human beings. “We are on the lookout for people who enter the forest for illegal felling of trees, and prevent them from stealing our precious resources,” Kandoni Soren, one of the villagers, tells The Better India.
Keeping a check on mafia
Kandoni, a home guard with the Jamshedpur Police, is the leader of this initiative, which she began in 2011. “Our village lies close to 250 acres of forest. Seven more villages surround different parts of the forest, and we all depend heavily on natural resources available here,” she says.
These resources include dry wood, fruits, and vegetables. “We always choose to collect fallen woods to light fire for our chulha. But in recent years, many people have been involved in cutting trees without seeking permission from the forest department. This has affected the natural ecosystem. We are careful about using resources and have shown sensitivity towards extracting them — to the extent that we do not have pukka houses, which demand high resources,” she explains.
The 30-year-old says she witnessed unprecedented tree felling from the forest. “Many outsiders venture into the forest and extract resources. But many times, they go overboard and exploit the land. They are gangs and mafias known for notorious activities. I realised that such practices would make our lives difficult, as eventually, we would run out of resources,” she says.
She adds, “Our existence is under threat without the forest. Only if we protect it can we survive. And every villager is well aware of this.”
Kandoni says that many village residents were already beginning to feel the brunt of environmental degradation, and began migrating to other cities to look for alternate sources of livelihood. “I made multiple attempts to stop tree cutting, and even approached the village panchayat and forest officers with complaints. But in vain,” she recalls.
She approached women in her village, and shared with them her ideas of how they could protect the forest. The result was Hariyali Sakaam, a forest protection committee, which started off with just five women. The name translates to ‘green leaf’ in the local dialect.
With this, the women began venturing into the forest every day to keep an eye out for illegal tree cutters.
Jungle ki sherni
“At times, we managed to catch the culprits red-handed and shooed them away. On other occasions, our presence deterred people from committing the act. We realised that our vigil was helping a little. After a few attempts to nab the culprits and hand them to local authorities, we earned appreciation and success,” she says.
Looking at their success, a few more women joined hands with Kandoni. Over the years, the group has expanded to 40. They keep a 24-hour vigil on the forest and protect their natural resources.
“We have scheduled shifts and demarcated the areas inside the forest. There are some high-risk zones or remote areas that need more attention. We are divided into four teams and plan the shifts accordingly,” Kandoni says.
“People visiting the forest area also inform us about unusual incidents. We also receive information on WhatsApp groups, after which we rush to the spot,” she explains further.
Kandoni says that while the women are armed with sticks, bows, and arrows, they do not intend to harm anyone. “These are to guard and protect ourselves,” she says. “We report directly to the concerned local authorities to initiate legal action against the perpetrators.”
She says their initiative has helped curb the illegal tree felling by 80-90 per cent. “We cannot entirely stop it. But our attempts have helped to put a check on the wrongdoers. At times, tree cutting stops for a few days and resumes later. So our efforts have to be consistent, and we cannot let our guard down,” she adds.
In 2018, Kandoni bagged a job as a home guard. Regardless, she is committed to the cause, she says. “I complete my work and join the evening or night shift for patrolling. I do not want to give up on the cause because I have professional commitments. My effort is for a larger environmental cause and the existence of humans,” she notes.
Her colleagues call her sherni, or tigress, to appreciate her bravery and the commendable work she has put in over the years.
Sarla Tudu, a village resident, says, “Wrongdoers are scared to enter our forest and our patrolling acts as a deterrent. We support Kandoni’s cause as our community relies on medicinal plants and forest produce. We want to save them. She runs swiftly across the forest if she observes any illegal activity, and hence we fondly address her ‘jungle ki sherni’.”
Edited by Divya Sethu