A lesson in regeneration
The story of Joint Forest Management (JFM) in Tripura began in the early 1990s, right after the National Forest Policy 1988 was formulated,' says Dipak Datta Ray, chief conservator of forests, Tripura. The state was one of the first seven states in the country to adopt the policy in 1989. "We had a particularly enthusiastic, young team of forest officers and were trying to locate a site for a JFM pilot project,' recalls Datta Ray. However, officials also acknowledge work done by the group of bright and energetic youth from Melaghar, a forest division comprising three villages, who had volunteered to implement the project. "They were mostly graduates or post-graduates from the local villages and had the dedication to work for the project,' says Rameshwar Das, divisional forest officer (Sadar). "The credit for the success of the Melaghar JFM project goes entirely to these boys and girls.'
Melaghar falls under Sonamura sub division of west Tripura. Close to the Indo-Bangladesh international border, west Tripura, which had up to five reserve forests till the early seventies, is now totally degraded, except for the Sipahijala reserve forest.
Until the Bangladesh war in 1971, Melaghar had good forest cover' says Dutta Ray. The exodus of refugees after the war brought about an increased pressure of population on land. And within a decade, there was not a tree in sight in Melaghar. Taking a cue from a very successful JFM project undertaken at Araberi by the Left-front government in West Bengal, the Communist government in Tripura decided to carry out the experiment in the state. A socio-economic survey of Melaghar area was conducted by the forest department in 1984-85 which reported the area to be totally degraded and inhabited by refugees from Bangladesh . There were about 240 families living in the area. There was such a large influx into Tripura in those days, agricultural labour was so cheap that either wages failed to sustain a family or there was no work.
The forest came in handy. And within a span of a decade, it was reduced to a stretch of grass and coppices. "The forest guards would be there chasing us, but we were desperate and didn't even care if they had guns. They soon gave up. The timber were sold off to the Thikadar (contractors), our livestock would graze in the forest and everything else including birds and wild fowls would be consumed by the villagers,' says Malatibala, a widow who has been in the area since she left Bangladesh after her husband was killed during the war. When the people saw that their only source of sustenance had vanished, they then realised what they had lost.
The local youth in the meantime organised themselves into a voluntary society called Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Brikshamitra Samity and were led by a young graduate Subodh Sur. A plan on the benefit sharing process was drawn up by the Samity with technical help from the forest department. It was decided that unlike in other states where 25 to 40 per cent of the revenue goes to the participating families, JFM projects in Tripura would give the participating families a 50 per cent share from the forest produce.
In 1991, the Jeevan Deep Project for JFM in Melaghar started with 135 families. Today they have some 340 beneficiary families. Large-scale afforestation of local timber species like sal, garjan, gamar were taken up along with other indigenous species like bamboo and simul. The Nehru Yuba Kendra of the Union human resource ministry came forward to train the beneficiaries of the project in alternative sources of employment. Along with Brikshamitra, they started training the beneficiaries in floriculture, bee-keeping, pisiculture, raising poultry and maintaining nurseries. Since last year, the beneficiaries have started reaping the rewards. The Brikshamitra which coordinates the entire project, issues entry passes to the beneficiaries for the forest. They keep an account of what each beneficiary is collecting along with the dates of collection. The accounts register is open for inspection of both the beneficiaries and the forest officials. Besides JFM, Brikshamitra has also convinced the local people about the need for social forestry.