Villagers turn 3 arid hills 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 principal, wakes up, he is greeted by the singing of hundreds of birds, the sight of wild rabbits playing in the field near his home, and the sight of a lush green forest. on three hills at a distance.
“They all come from the forest, which we have developed in the hills, a stone’s throw from our town. Before, everything was rocky and barren. But now there is a lush green forest, inhabited by birds and wild animals. The villagers protect them, ”said Mahanty, a resident of Jharbagda, a remote village in the Purulia district of West Bengal, about 250 km northwest of Kolkata.
However, the situation was markedly different even in the early 1990s. Back then, years of deforestation had left the hills totally bare and rocky. Villagers said there was only one tree left on one of the mounds: a palm tree.
“While during the summer the temperature rose to 47-48 degrees Celsius making life unbearable in the rocky terrain, during the monsoons streams of water gushed up the hills, through the ravines, eroding the land in the foothills and making that the farmland was almost infertile, ”said Tapas Mahanty, a farmer in the village.
With hardly any forest land around, the women of the village had to walk to a wooded area about five kilometers away to collect branches and leaves for fuel. The ponds and tube wells in and around the village would dry up in the summer and the inhabitants had to walk about two kilometers to collect water in the scorching heat. The farmland produced very little grains and vegetables.
It was around 1998 that the villagers decided to restore the vegetation to the area in the hope that it would put an end to the monotony. They approached an NGO, the Tagore Society for Rural Development (TSRD), which was already engaged in greening projects in the area and in Jharkhand. Jharbagda is located near the border between Bengal and Jharkhand.
“We had to start from scratch since the area was totally destitute. A detailed plan was made to restore vegetation, stop water erosion, recharge groundwater, and raise groundwater level, without which the trees would not survive for long. The villagers jumped on us and the work started around 1999, ”said Nandalal Bakshi, coordinator of the TSRD project in Jharbagda.
More than three lakhs of saplings of around 75 species were planted along the hills that span 300 acres in the next five to six years. The villagers made sure that no person or livestock harmed any of the young trees. There are about 400 to 425 households in the village.
On average, the district receives between 1,100 and 1,500 mm of rain each year. But since the district has very hilly terrain, the runoff is very high and more than 50% of this water is wasted, making large parts prone to droughts. That is why the district is called ‘Ahalya Bhumi’, the land with a heart of stone.
“Ravines were covered and stepped trenches were dug to stop soil erosion and stop rainwater during the monsoon. The young trees were also carefully chosen taking into account the soil conditions and the slope. Four categories of young trees were planted: wood, fuel, fodder and fruit, ”said Bakshi.
Once the saplings matured into trees, the water content of the soil automatically increased and erosion decreased. Farmers could now start intercropping and their agricultural products soared as well. The water table began to rise. The once arid fields were covered with lush green grass and plants that were made suitable for livestock.
The women can now collect twigs and leaves for cooking from the hills, saving them a lot of time. The village’s ponds and tube wells also don’t dry up in summer, which means that women do not need to walk a mile or two in the unbearable heat to collect water.
“I own two bighas of land at the foot of the hills. Before I used to get around 6-7 quintals of rice. Now, I get between 9 and 10 quintals. The moisture content has increased. The two cows I have can also graze in the village fields. Before they used to feed only on rice straw, ”said Sujit Mahanty, a villager.
The villagers could notice yet another change. The lush green forest also acts as a natural air conditioner and has been able to lower the summer temperature.
“Before, when the area had become destitute, the summers used to become unbearable. The earth used to stay warm until around 9pm at night. Now we can feel the difference. The temperature doesn’t skyrocket to that extreme and it’s at least 4-5 degrees cooler than 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 a few months.
“We discovered that during the summer wild animals faced severe water shortages and used to leave the forest in search of drinking water. With the help of the villagers, we decide to dig a pond inside the forest so that there is no shortage of water for them. The villagers do not use the water. It’s just for the wild animals to drink, ”Bakshi said.
The area has now become an area of great interest not only to the locals, but also to the Japanese agency that funded the green project. They come and visit the area at least once a year.
The locals and the NGO have also named the hills Makino-Raghunath hill.