Villagers turn 3 barren hillocks into dense forest in Bengal’s Purulia, wild animals make it their home
Every morning when 67-year-old Dwijapada Mahanty, a retired village school headmaster wakes up, he is greeted by the chirping of hundreds of birds, the sight of wild rabbits playing in the field near his house and the view of a lush green forest on three hillocks at a distance.
“They all come from the forest, which we have developed on the hillocks, at a stone’s throw from our village. Earlier it was all rocky and barren. But now there is a lush green forest out there, inhabited by wild animals and birds. The villagers protect them,” said Mahanty, a resident of Jharbagda, a remote village in West Bengal’s Purulia district, about 250 km northwest of Kolkata.
The situation was, however, starkly different even in the early 90’s. Back then, years of deforestation had left the hillocks totally denuded and rocky. Villagers said that in one of the hillocks there was just one tree left – a palm tree.
“While during the summer the temperature would soar to 47-48 degrees Celsius making life unbearable in the rocky terrain, during the monsoons streams of water would gush down the hillocks, through the gullies, eroding the land at the foothills and rendering the farmlands almost infertile,” said Tapas Mahanty, a farmer in the village.
With hardly any forest land around, the village’s women folk had to walk to a wooded area around five kilometers away to collect twigs and leaves for fuel. The ponds and tubewells in and around the village would all run dry in the summer and villagers had to walk about two kilometers to collect water in the scorching heat. The farmlands bore very little grains and vegetables.
It was around 1998 that the villagers decided to restore the greenery of the area with the hope that it would put an end to the drudgery. They approached a NGO, Tagore Society for Rural Development (TSRD), which was already engaged in greening projects in the area and in Jharkhand. Jharbagda is located close to the Bengal-Jharkhand border.
“We had to start from scratch as the area was totally denuded. A detailed plan was made to restore the greenery, stop the water erosion, recharge the ground water and raise the ground water level without which the trees wouldn’t survive for long. The villagers dived headlong with us and work started around 1999,” said Nandalal Bakshi, coordinator of the TSRD’s project in Jharbagda.
More than three lakh saplings of around 75 species were planted all across the hillocks that spread over 300 acres in the next five to six years. Villagers ensured that none of the saplings were damaged by any person or cattle. There are around 400–425 households in the village.
On an average the district receives 1100 mm–1500 mm of rain every year. But as the district has a very undulating terrain, run-off is very high and more than 50% of this water is wasted making large parts prone to droughts. Thus the district is called ‘Ahalya Bhumi’ the land with a stony heart.
“Gullies were plugged and staggered trenches were dug to stop the soil erosion and arrest the rain water during the monsoon. The saplings were also chosen carefully keeping in mind the soil condition and the slope. Four categories of saplings – timber, fuel, fodder and fruits – were planted,” said Bakshi.
Once the saplings matured into trees, the water content of soil increased automatically and the erosion dropped. Farmers could now start intercropping and their farm produce also shot up. The ground water table started rising. The once barren fields were covered with lush green grass and plants which became suitable for cattle.
The women can now collect twigs and leaves for cooking from the hillocks which saves much of their time. The village ponds and tubewells also don’t run dry in the summer, which means women need not walk for about two kilometers in the unbearable heat to collect water.
“I own two bighas of land at the foothills of the hillocks. Earlier I used to get around 6-7 quintals of paddy. Now, I get around 9–10 quintals. The moisture content has increased. The two cows which I own can also graze on the village fields. Earlier they used to feed only on paddy straw,” said Sujit Mahanty, a villager.
The villagers could notice yet another change. The lush green forest also acts like a natural air conditioner and has been able to bring down the summer temperature.
“Earlier when the area had become denuded, the summers used to become unbearable. The land used to remain hot till around 9 pm in the night. Now we can feel the difference. The temperature doesn’t shoot up to that extreme and it is at least 4–5 degrees cooler that before.
Villagers said that wild animals including wild boars, jackals, rabbits and many birds have made the forest their home. Every year a herd of around a dozen elephants also come and stay here for some months.
“We found that during the summer the wild animals had to face severe scarcity of water and often used to come out of the forest in search of drinking water. With the help of villagers, we decided to dig a pond inside the forest so that there is no scarcity of water for them. The water is not used by the villagers. It is solely for the wild animals to drink,” said Bakshi.
The area has now turned into a major area of interest for not just the locals but also for the Japanese agency which funded the greening project. They come and visit the area at least once every year.
The locals and the NGO have also named the hills Makino-Raghunath hill.