It’s 6 am and Jamuna Devi aka ‘Lady Tarzan’ (30) is tightening the strings of her bow in her house in Muturkhan village, Jharkhand.
A group of 15 women quietly assembles outside, each carrying traditional weapons and lathis. Jamuna leads them to the nearby Muturkhan forests.
“We’re going on our routine patrolling,” says the tribal woman, as she joins others in singing traditional folk warnings to stop illegal woodcutters from felling trees.
For the next two hours, the women scan the 50-hectare forest in East Singhbhum district for the timber mafia.
Ten years ago, this vast swath of hilly land was barren and dry. The timber mafia had chopped down every tree over 3 metres tall.
“In the summers, there was no shade. We had no firewood for our kitchens, no fodder for our cattle and water levels were dipping across a 15-km area,” says Jamuna, a daily wage earner. “It was then that we decided to fight the timber mafia to protect the trees.”
In 1999, 25 women got together to form the Van Suraksha Samity (Forest Protection Committee) and registered with the state Forest Department.
Then, they split themselves into three groups, patrolling the forests morning, noon and night.
As they collared the illegal loggers - usually hired hands from nearby villages - and handed them over to the forest department, word began to spread that the trees in Muturkhan were not to be touched.
The Muturkhan forest area now has over 1 lakh trees - many of them sal trees that have sprouted naturally, others like karanja and acacia planted by the forest department as part of the re-forestation effort.
In a state that has lost 50 per cent of the trees in its forest areas to illegal logging in the last 10 years, this is no mean feat.
“In the last 50 years, Jharkhand has seen a temperature rise of 1.21 degree Centigrade in May, which is higher than the global temperature increase of 0.74 degree Centigrade,” says Dr A. Wadood, chairman of the department of Agricultural Physics and Meteorology with Birsa Agricultural University (BAU), Ranchi. “Rapid deforestation has contributed immensely and any effort to protect the state’s trees, however big or small, is a welcome move.”
Jamuna and her team have so far nabbed eight illegal woodcutters and handed them over to forest department officials. “Now, the summers are no longer unbearable,” says assistant village head Charu Charan Tuddu (50).
The forest is also helping hike the standard of living for the 110 families in Muturkhan.
Women and children make plates from sal leaves in their free time and earn up to Rs 4,000 per month selling them in nearby marketplaces.
As a gesture of thanks, the forest department gave the village a school building, a concrete approach road and a Jal Minar (water tower) three years ago.