Eleven years ago, Muturkham forests, lying southeast of capital Ranchi, used to be the timber mafia’s busy workplace. No different from the rest of the state, which has lost 50% of forest cover to illegal logging in the last 10 years. Until 1999, when Muturkham’s jungle mafia met ‘Lady Tarzan’.
Jamuna Tuddu, 32, a short and stout woman belonging to the Santahl tribe who had studied till Class X, led a band of 25 tribal housewives to form the Van Suraksha Samity (Forest Protection Committee) and registered it with the state forest department. The women patrolled the forests in three groups, collared illegal loggers — usually hired hands from nearby villages — and handed them over to the forest department. Word spread that the trees in Muturkham were not to be touched.
The 50-hectare forest in East Singhbhum district which had turned barren (the mafia had chopped down every tree over three metres tall) now has one lakh trees. There is a kendu, eucalyptus or acacia tree every six feet; the gap between two trees 10 years ago used to be more than 24 feet. Several species of reptiles and avians, wild boars, hares and the elephant have made this forest their home.
Tuddu has worked as a mason as well as a beautician to supplement the family income. Her reasons for forming this committee were prompted by basic economics: there was no firewood in her kitchen.
“In the summers, there was no shade. We had no firewood, no fodder for our cattle and water levels were dipping across a 15-km area,” she says. “Today, anyone caught felling trees is fined R501 and handed over to the forest department.” The amount is deposited in the Samity’s fund, utilised for community welfare work and to purchasing cell phones for better networking during patrols.
Muturkham has been rewarded for its brave enterprise. A smooth road connects it with the Chakulia-Tata Main Road and an overhead water tank ensures 24-hour supply to every household. There is a well and a check dam on a hill stream. There is a school building, a generator set and machines to make leaf plates.
Most of these were delivered by the forest department as a gesture of thanks for the Samity’s achievements under the World Food Program and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
Tuddu, however, does not rest on her laurels. It is 6 am and ‘Lady Tarzan’, as she is locally known, is tightening the strings of her bow in her house. A group of around 12 women, some with children in their arms, quietly assembles outside, each carrying traditional weapons and lathis for the daily patrol. Tuddu leads them to the Muturkham forests.
The Samity membership has now grown to 70 women. The youngest is Bahamayee Tuddu, 13, and the oldest is Malati Tuddu, 70. The older women guard the foothills with village dogs to prevent illegal lumberjacks from escaping. At night, some men accompany the patrol team.
Tuddu’s women say their forest duties do not affect their household and farming responsibilities. The village head, Charu Charan Tuddu, says the entire village is in their debt. The forest department has adopted Muturkham as a model village.
The work can be dangerous. Last November, Sister Valsa John, a 52-year-old nun from Kerala, was hacked to death with spears, clubs and axes in Pakur district for protecting tribal rights and forests. But Tuddu is not scared. Her team has so far nabbed over a dozen illegal woodcutters. “Now the summers are no longer unbearable. We have shade,” says local youth Kanu Ram Hansda, 28.
Women who earlier had no mode of earning now make plates from sal leaves with hand-operated compressors and earn up to Rs 12,000-15,000 a year selling them in nearby marketplaces. The state government has recognised the committee’s achievements led by Tuddu with cash awards. Tuddu contested the panchayat polls last year for the mukhiya’s post but lost by just 18 votes.
But Tuddu has a bigger job. She is the guardian of the forest.