In the Bonai Forest Division, which covers an area of 2,934 square kilometres in Sundargarh district, Western Odisha, there lies a special plantation measuring about 4.7 acres (1.9 hectares) called Sarojini Vana (‘Vana’ means forest). What makes this plantation site special?
A dry and denuded patch of forest two years ago, today it’s home to about 3,000 wild trees consisting of indigenous species like Amla, Mango, Phasi, Guava and Jackfruit, amongst others.
But without the efforts of Sarojini Mohanta, a 34-year-old local changemaker and forest watcher, who was hired by the forest department on a daily wage of just Rs 315, this plantation site wouldn’t have ever existed. Going beyond the call of duty, Sarojini has gone on to create a patch of forest on what was a dry and barren piece of land just two years ago.
Besides physically protecting and watching over the site continuously for the past two years, she was also responsible for the proper application of soil treatment practices and post-planting operations through vermicompost, DAP fertilisers, urea, watering, etc.
Thanks to her efforts these plants have gained a maximum height of 14 and 15.5’ (feet) in the case of Amla and Sisso, respectively. Going further, the average height of the plants is currently 8’ for Amla, 4’ for Mango, 5’ for Phasi, 8’ for Sissoo, 4.5’ for Guava, and 5’ for Jackfruit.
Paying tribute to her stupendous efforts, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF), Sisir Ratho, who was very impressed by her efforts during a recent inspection, suggested that the plantation should be named after her as, ‘Sarojini Vana’.
“Planting trees and taking care of them has been my passion since I was a child. When I was given the opportunity and responsibility of taking care of this site, I gladly accepted it. I am from Ulsurei village, which falls under the Kuliposh Range of the Bonai Forest Division. My husband and I are engaged in cultivation, and the site is 1 km away from my house,” says Sarojini.
Sanath Kumar, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of Bonai, says, “Sarojini is a very courageous lady. From our very first inspection, we understood the dedication with which she took care of this site. Most residents we engage as plantation watchers treat the task as a joke. In some cases, less than 50% of the saplings planted at the site would grow. In her case, the survival rate was anywhere between 95% and 99%.”
“She took care of each sapling like her own child. At the time, there was a growing perception in the forest department that only men were capable of such work. She challenged and shattered this notion completely. Her dedication levels were high. She knows every plant in the area sprawled on 4.7 acres of land like the back of her hand. Sarojini would know which plant would die if it wasn’t watered immediately. The dedication made all the difference,” he adds.
How did Sarojini Vana come into being?
Funding for this initiative came from the district mineral fund (DMF). This fund is used to improve the environment and support the livelihood of people in mining-affected areas. One of the initiatives undertaken by the forest department that employs DMF is afforestation.
“This particular plantation is about 10 km from the Bonai subdivision headquarters. Before our initiative, it was a barren area. So, we decided to set up a plantation here. In similar plantations over the past five years, we would employ local watchers to oversee and supervise them. When the pitting operation started at the site, we saw Sarojini Mohanta, who lived near the site. She was a member of the local Vana Samrakshana Samithi (VSS), a village-level body which consists of members from the forest department and the local community for the protection of the forest. Sarojini requested to become the watcher and take care of this plantation site,” recalls Sanath.
Initially, Sanath says that there were apprehensions about whether a woman could protect this plantation at night because the material used to set up the fencing wire demarcating the plantation site would often get stolen. Thus, night patrolling was an important facet of this work.
“However, she provided proper care and treatment from regular watering, manuring, weeding, etc. We had labourers to help her, but she took total control of all the critical activities on the plantation site. These plants have achieved very good heights in the past 1-2 years. These saplings were planted in July-August 2020 after the monsoon season,” says Sanath.
Other sources of disturbance for these nascent plantation sites include intrusion by local cattle looking for areas to graze, although the wire fencing helps a little here.
“Another thing she needs to do is protect the plants from pests and diseases given the number of species growing there. She has delivered the necessary treatment on time with assistance from the forest department, besides monitoring the labour arranged by our officers to engage in watering or soil working. After all, we are short-staffed and our forest officers can’t monitor every activity on the field. She ensured that all these works were done properly,” he adds.
Meanwhile, Sarojini notes, “The soil of the plantation site is Murum (a type of laterite soil) based and some village people have also tried to encroach it. When we decided to organise the plantation with the help of the forest department, some people protested. The main challenge was to grow them on such Murum soil. Another threat was the chance of theft of wire mesh fencing provided to the plantation. I worked round the clock to ensure its protection.”
She also ensured that all maintenance activities such as weeding, soil working and watering are done well. Regular lines of communication were open to foresters, forest guards and labourers.
“Casualty replacement has been done timely to ensure 100% survival. I actively participated in digging pits for each sapling. We filled them up with vermicompost. Subsequently, I ensured that all saplings were regularly watered. And there are cattle from six villages nearby that pass near the site to grazing grounds every day. Until they return to their sheds in the evening, I stand guard near the site since there’s the possibility that cattle may stray onto the site,” she says.
Even today, she visits the plantation site two or three times a day to water the trees and protect them from insects and other pests in consultation with the forest department. “Due to good maintenance of trees under the supervision and cooperation of the forest department, the trees were able to grow well. Now some of them are bearing fruits. I’m so happy that this forest is named after me. I wanted to prove that women can do this too,” says Sarojini.
“We will replicate this model of naming these plantations after daily wage watchers who are doing an impeccable job. We have already given this assignment to examine more such plantation sites to our range officers. Ensuring that these forest watchers feel a greater sense of ownership of their plantation site can motivate and inspire more residents,” notes Sanath.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)
(Above feature image of Sarojini Mohanta at the patch of forest named after her.)
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