MUMBAI: There is no dearth of stories about the traditional knowledge of tribals that matches science. But in Baripada, a small hamlet straddling the Maharashtra-Gujarat border, collective tribal wisdom has taken it to the next level. With a population of barely 1,000, the village has not only helped conserve their forest but also meet the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, benefiting everyone in the process.
It’s not as complex as it sounds, according to Chaitram Pawar, the driving force behind this change. “The villagers conserved the forest. And, forest helped in conservation of water. Water enabled agriculture and farming. Farming brought prosperity, which in turn helped improve literacy. And, literacy broadened horizons and led us to total transformation,” he explains. “Elementary, my dear Watson,” as Sherlock Holmes would have said. If only life was as simple.
Having developed dairy and poultry over the years, the villagers have also evolved a system for marketing their products. This ensured a steady flow of revenue and kept poverty at bay. To boot, the villagers share their common land with landless families to ensure ‘zero hunger’ and ‘reduction of inequality’.
Baripada scores well in gender equality, too. Fifty per cent of the men have willingly undergone family planning surgeries. In a bid to promote healthy habits, the villagers have brought in a self-imposed prohibition of alcohol and tobacco products.
Plus, there are innovative measures like cookery contest of forest vegetables.
The village committee has set a fine of Rs 4,000 for families that don’t send their children to school. At the same time, there are measures in place to ensure the school is run regularly and properly.
The Gram Sabhas are strong and progressive enough to ensure women’s involvement in decision-making.
Besides, the villagers are game for any experiments involving water, land, forest conservations, biodiversity registration, biogas, solar power, building basic infrastructure through public participation, etc. Chaitram Pawar, who is in his late 40s, is the man behind the movement. “After completing MCom, I wanted a salaried job in the city. Then I met Dr Anand Phatak, who used to run a dispensary in the neighbouring village. He asked me to pursue agriculture. When I explained my reasons for going there, he asked ‘Who will change the condition of the village if not you?’. That changed my life,” says Chaitram.
But it was tough. “Decisions on prohibition, tree plantation were made at the village meeting and immediately implemented. But, to restrict entry of humans and animals in the 445 hectares of village forest was a major task,” Chaitram recalls.
In 1993, the villagers set up a Forest Protection Committee to guard the jungle. They contributed Rs 3 per home, and employed elders as watchmen for a salary of Rs100, imposed a fine starting from Rs 50 for cutting trees, and rewarded people, other than watchmen, who reported them. Fifty acres of the forest was set aside for grazing. By 1998, it grew tall and thick; the forest department awarded the village Rs 1 lakh.
In 2003, the village participated in a competition on ‘Local Knowledge and Innovation of the Rural Poor’ organised by International Fund for Agricultural Development and won the award for the Asian region. This impressed Dr Anil Gupta of IIM-Ahmadabad, who sent his students to Baripada. Their intervention kickstarted a cookery competition with forest veggies. Around 200 families from Baripada and neighbouring villages participated. It helped document around 50 forest vegetables.