ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Forest Vigilance and Traditional Customs

Thenga Pali

Forest communities in India and elsewhere are central to protecting forests and forest resources.

In November 2018, Balarampur village in the district of Dhenkanal, Odisha, saw a heated conflict between the people and the state concerning the acquisition of forestland by a corporate body—the Industrial Development Corporation of Odisha—for the construction of breweries. The community was largely dependent on the forest produce for their livelihoods. The bottling unit was sanctioned in 2016 and the villagers were engaged in resisting its establishment by raising the issue in the gram sabha. They appealed to all concerned authorities in vain. They resisted by not allowing the company officials to enter the allotted site. However, they were caught unawares when around 1,000 mature trees were cut down in the wee hours of 17 November 2018 in an attempt to start the unit. The villagers staged huge protests, in which the women hugged trees to halt attempts to cut them. Some protesting villagers were arrested and forcibly removed from the site, but ultimately, the government had to give in to the pressure from the villagers and the media coverage, finally withdrawing from the land acquisition and stalling the setting up of the brewery.

Forest communities in India and elsewhere have been central to protecting forests and forest resources even if the specific practices might have undergone changes with the passage of time as well as the introduction of and amendments to legal and institutional structures. There exist several practices—direct and indirect—that contribute to forest governance by the forest-dwelling communities. Indirect ways refer to those customs practised in everyday living or worship with an emphasis on sustainability and their inextricable and symbiotic linkages with forest resources. Direct ways of forest governance refer to those that take the form of formal or informal arrangements aimed at protecting the forest.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA), 2006 institutionalised the rights of forest-dwelling communities by law, but there are several traditional practices that the communities have engaged in since the enactment of the FRA. In Gujarat, the Bhil community of Rampuri village started a cooperative society, Dharihar Dungru Vruksh Utpadhan Sahkari Mandli, as early as 1986, which prevented anyone from entering the forest without permission. A four-member watch group was formed with a monthly payment to protect the forest. In Karnataka, mapping of the sacred sites of the Soliga community in Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Hills is another example of communities protecting their spaces and boundaries within the forests.

In Odisha, at sites like Ranapur and Kandhmal, communities perform rituals such as Girigobardhan Puja, Benguli dance, and Dharani Penu Puja to renew their commitment to protecting forests and livelihoods. During the 1970s, to meet the demands of rapid industrialisation, several areas within the district of Nayagarh witnessed rampant illegal felling of timber. This gave rise to negative externalities such as shrinking livelihoods, especially of women, scarcity of daily items of forest produce, drying up of streams, and so on. Dengajhari and other nearby villages decided to undertake regular patrolling to counter this attack on their forests. This continued for a decade. As a larger measure to ensure women’s participation in forest governance and vigilance, the non-governmental organisation Vasundhara helped set up a Mahila Committee in Dengajhari village. It was in one of the committee meetings that the women expressed their disappointment over the inefficient patrolling and threats from the timber mafia. They decided to engage in patrolling through Thenga PaliThenga means lathi or stick and Pali means rotation. The protecting community patrols the forest in groups. The Thengas, at the end of the shift in the evening, are placed in front of those houses whose members would undertake patrolling the next day. This system was introduced in a structured manner, ensuring that the work is evenly distri­buted among the villagers with ownership and accountability. In October 1999, a massive timber-felling exercise was thwarted by these women by grouping and stationing themselves on the path leading to the forests. Thereafter, these women took up the practise of Thenga Pali in Dengajhari in a more systematic manner.

What are the factors that may have induced a tribal community to adopt this mechanism for the protection of forest resources? This is, at the outset, indicative of the ineffectiveness of the state infrastructure in protecting the forest. Sasi Mausi, a Kandha tribal woman in her late 60s, is a pioneer in bringing about a structural change in the forest management of this area over three long decades. She and the other women from the community have led the rejuvenation of four streams in the forest and the successful diversion of water for paddy cultivation every year for at least one crop since 2006.

During a visit to Landabaga village of Sundargarh district, we learnt that since 2000, the villagers have been involved in the protection of the forest. Prior to this, there was a considerable reduction in forest produce due to the overuse of forest resources by people from other villages. Unmindful of the resentment by other villagers, every day, a group of men patrolled the forest. To further strengthen and institutionalise the process to ensure its sustainability, they adopted the method of self-declaration through Pathar Gada. At the entrance of the village, a big rock is installed on which the main rules and regulations about forest laws are inscribed. This method was first used in a neighbouring village, and after due discussion among key stakeholders in both the villages, it was replicated in Landabaga too, where all deforestation has since stopped.

In all these villages, there is a high degree of transparency and visibility of each other’s activities, ensuring that people abide by the rules that were collectively decided. Felling of timber for commercial purposes is prohibited and is undertaken only for agriculture or building. For the purpose of fuel, only those pieces of wood that are dry and have fallen on the ground are collected. Only economically poor families who depend on firewood for their livelihood are allowed to collect and sell dry and fallen wood. Collection of bamboo and date palm leaves for making mats and baskets is allowed.

Celebrating festivals commemorating changing seasons and other nature-related rituals as well as practices such as Thenga Pali or Pathar Gada for forest vigilance are not only instruments of solidarity but also symbols of ownership. These have become significant in the wake of the acquisition of forests and settlements of forest-dwelling communities for development projects. Such acts of sustainability and governance signify the networking of social and human capital that results in community-level solidarity within the ambit of a robust social system to deal with adverse scenarios created either by the state or any other entity.

This article is drawn from the report “Forest Dwelling Community and Forest Rights Act 2006: Evidence from 24 Sites” by the Council for Social Development, Hyderabad, and Vasundhara, Bhubaneswar. The authors thank Kalpana Kannabiran and Y Giri Rao for their encouragement and suggestions at different stages of the study.


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Updated On : 12th Jun, 2022
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