The tagline of the small lodge like hotel that we stayed at in Kawardha said ‘Temple. Tribals. Trees. Tigers.’ Apart from the Bhoramdeo temple which is a smaller replica of Khajuraho but with tribal features, I’m not too aware of temples of Chhattisgarh. As for tigers, there are a few tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries on paper yet nobody knows anything about them. But what you can see everywhere in this state are tribals and trees. Lots and lots of them.
Carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000, Chhattisgarh now has 27 districts. Whether it’s for better administration or making politicians happy, is something which is debatable. What can’t be debated however is the beauty of this state. Chhattisgarh is exquisitely rural and thick with trees. The forests and hills have largely evergreen Sal and Mahua; while the plains are filled with trees which are huge, full of character and gnarled with age and wisdom like Mahua, tamarind, peepal, mango, leechi, banyan and many more which I couldn’t recognise.
(a beautiful full grown mango tree)
Most of the tribals are abysmally poor with only a few options to eke out a living – like farming in land less than an acre, labour work and collection of tendu leaves, mahua flowers and sal seeds as per season. To give a perspective, the Forest Department (now regulated) pays Rs.100/- for 100 bundles consisting of 50 tendu leaves in each.
|(a tribal woman making tendu bundles)|
Early morning, we followed a few tribals into the nearby forest which was devoid of wildlife. What left me uneasy was the technique the tribals used to collect the leaves. They usually do not allow a tendu tree to grow and keep cutting it down...so that tender new leaves will grow. Often they put fire to the forest, so that from the ash new tendu plants will grow which will fetch them good leaves. Not surprisingly, one can hardly find any full grown tendu trees in the forests these days. The tendu fruit, a better tasting version of chiku is a rare find here. But if you stop the tribals from doing this, you take away their one source of livelihood; and if you don’t you let an existing forest get depleted.
(a hacked tendu tree)
Our next stop was Sarguja district which is situated in the Sarguja highlands, an extension of the Chotanagpur Plateau. Replete with mythology as the place where Sita was kidnapped from, Sarguja is thickly forested and more beautiful than Kawardha. Here in the midst of a thick healthy evergreen forest we saw signs of a strange campaign run by the state forest department called ‘Bigre Vano ka Sudhar’ or regeneration of degraded forests. The forest nowhere looked degraded but was infact an elephants’ corridor and full of wildlife including bears. Looking closer, we found that most trees had cuts around the bark, a method used by the tribals to kill off a tree slowly. Things suddenly fell into place when we were told that the area was being surveyed by infrastructure companies and power plants. What best way to give away prime forest land than by killing off trees and declaring it degraded.
Chhattisgarh has an abundance of natural wealth which even the tribals in an effort to live a decent life, are forgetting. Tribals like Pahari Korbas who till now only lived in deep forests are cutting down trees to make space for agriculture and roads. A pristine land devoid of urban waste like plastic is slowly and surely headed for a similar fate like that of rest of India.
Just where to stop so that the tribals can have a better life and the natural wealth can also be saved is a huge task for all concerned, be it the government, the ngos, environmentalists or even its people.
(a village inside a forest - full of natural wealth)
Time however is slowly running out.