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Village battles to save a green patch

Prakash Mishra, a local journalist involved in the campaign, remembers how the hills were left with just tree stumps when industrialisation triggered deforestation in Bokaro…reports Rahul Singh

Tribal activist Yogo Purti’s face lights up every time he surveys Satanpur hill, located behind his modest dwelling at Jaipal Nagar in Sector 12 of Bokaro district in Jharkhand.

The 47-year-old, who runs the Asas School that offers free classes to the underprivileged, has fought off threats from the land mafia, the mistrust of villagers and official inertia in Jharkhand to restore greenery on what was just a denuded landscape in his teens.

Purti’s environmental activism took shape in 2000, when he successfully mobilised the youth of Satanpur panchayat for a sapling plantation drive on the Satanpur and Bandhgora hills, adjacent to the district’s Chas block, known for its steel plant. With time, the villagers began to watch out for encroachments funnelled by real estate and land mafias and passed on the gathered information to the district administration and the forest and police departments.

The system worked well to stop encroachers in their tracks, and with it, sakhua, khair, jamun, palash and other varieties of trees bloomed and spread shade. The water level increased and much of the wildlife and birds that hadn’t been seen here since before the 80s were thriving once again.

Along with Ramkumar Manjhi, Ramdayal Singh, Shyam Lal Bauri, Ruplal Manjhi and Shrinath Marandi, Purti and the other villagers thus transformed the hills into a buffer zone to protect their habitat from the onslaught of urbanisation.

“Many low-altitude hills around this place were levelled and sold. These two survived only due to our spirited involvement and vigil. We used to organise van mahotsavs to plant saplings at the foot of the hills. At times, rallies were held to spread awareness about tree conservation. We also bonded over freshly-prepared khichdi served on the occasion.”

Prakash Mishra, a local journalist involved in the campaign, remembers how the hills were left with just tree stumps when industrialisation triggered deforestation in Bokaro.

“Alarmed by the sheer volume of environmental damage, we held a meeting with the villagers and decided enough is enough. With our sustained care, the stumps grew back to life. We planted more saplings at the foot of the hills, too,” he added.

The local residents here understand that a thriving hill means a thriving life. They have witnessed how thousands of villages in the state migrated due to rampant mineral ore mining in the region.

The real breakthrough, however, came in 2006, when the then Dhanbad divisional forest officer (DFO), Sanjeev Kumar, organised a meeting with the villagers of Satanpur. He played a pivotal role in constituting forest defence committees, which would go on to look out for encroachments and inform the departments concerned to prompt swift action. Simultaneously, Purti received support from an NGO, Sahyogini, for the plantation drive.

The lands around the hills – the Garga, a tributary of the Damodar river, flows adjacent – were originally occupied by peasants. They were part of the swathes acquired and transferred to Bokaro Steel Limited (BSL) for building the plant. Additionally, forest lands were given to BSL – incorporated as a limited company first and later merged with the Steel Authority of India – to conduct a massive afforestation drive. However, BSL did not utilise the land as required and encroachments soared.

The sticking points

Over the years, several colonies emerged around the Satanpur and Bandhgora hills. Purti and his team alleged that the adjacent plots fell into the wrong hands, who then fabricated documents by posing as peasants. The encroachers later sold them to builders. During his tour of the area, this correspondent also noticed rapid construction and levelling of land.

According to activists, the presence of colonies has heightened the risk of encroachment on the hills. They cited an incident from August 2014, wherein the forest department booked four office-bearers of Adarsh Cooperative Society, one of the many builders around the region, on charges of clearing two acres on Satanpur hill.

A forest officer who retired from Bokaro division last year said, on condition of anonymity, that the hill was given to BSL decades ago.

“Our department had made repeated correspondence with the public sector enterprise during my tenure to get the land back, but in vain,” he added.

On the issue, BSL Communication Officer Manikant Dhan claimed he was “not aware of the Satanpur hill land being under BSL’s control”. However, he did accept that many colonies had cropped up in the area.

Forest Range Officer Niranjan Tiwari said that only the DFO could provide information on the subject. When this correspondent managed to reach Bokaro DFO AK Singh after several attempts, they were officially asked to file a Right to Information (RTI) request with his queries.

On the other hand, Bandhgora’s ownership status is as clear as can be. A few years ago, Purti had filed an RTI application with the Bokaro divisional forest office in this regard. The reply clarified that the forest department fully owned the hill, citing the plot number and details of the entire forest area in the township.

The activist further said that the administration had taken action several times on the complaints local residents raised, but they still have to constantly write to the departments concerned, file RTI pleas and create awareness to save the hills. After he once wrote to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, it directed Jharkhand’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), in August 2015, to stop the felling of trees and illegal encroachments.

The environmentalists find solace in the fact that one portion of Satanpur’s greenery is protected by the presence of the Jharkhand Armed Police’s firing range. Set up almost 15 years ago at the foot of the hill, it significantly helped curb encroachments on that side, besides preventing the extraction of murram soil used for filling land during construction work.

Testing times

“We saved both the hills by preventing forest erosion and encroachments, but our forest defence committees have been dormant for four to five years,” rued Ramkumar Manjhi, a member of Purti’s green brigade from Santaldih. “Real estate and land mafias lure residents to clear forests on their behalf, which is more difficult for us to stop as it leads to fights in the village and creates personal enmity.”

Ramdayal Singh, who contested the recent election to head Satanpur panchayat, nodded in approval: “These local agents hamper our work.”

Purti and Manjhi claimed that the committees became inactive primarily due to the issue of local agents. Department-level negligence, too, has affected them, especially as forest officers play key roles in their formation and operation.

Sanjeev Kumar, who is still remembered by the villagers for his unflinching support for their campaign, is now the additional PCCF of the forest department’s CAMPA Project.

“When I convened the meeting to form forest defence committees, we vowed to ensure that it wouldn’t die out as a one-time programme. Instead, it should set an example for others,” Kumar said.

Unfortunately, only the group led by Purti and team is presently active – basically on their own terms – and land mafias are not pleased. Yet, they yearn to persist to keep the villages green and sustainable.

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Community-led bank in UP helps villagers keep moneylenders at bay

That inspired solution — the local bank run by Tharu tribals in the village of Bishunapur in Bahraich has been an inspiration in how to free the community from the exploitation of moneylenders…reports Azeem Mirza

In the foothills of the Himalayas, surrounded by the dense Katarniya Ghat forest, lies the small village of Bishunapur, 47 km from Mihinpurwa village block in Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich district. Home to 2,500 people, of whom 2,200 belong to the scheduled tribe Tharu, the villagers here have had a troubled history with moneylenders.

The residents couldn’t even get half the price on the crops they toiled for as the Mahajans (moneylenders) would take the harvested crop at deeply discounted rates in lieu of loan repayment. If the borrower didn’t have food grains, moneylenders recovered the loan at the rate of 10 per cent per month. However, the situation has changed for the better through an impactful initiative undertaken by the villagers.

Eleven years ago, the youth of Bishunapur formed a bank, named Adarsh Swayam Sahayata Samuh (Ideal Self Help Group). Any resident of the village can borrow money from this bank at an interest rate of only 1 per cent. The people decide and inform the bank when they can repay the loan. Further, if someone is able to repay the money within 15 days, no interest is charged. This has helped the villagers emerged from the web of moneylenders.

That inspired solution — the local bank run by Tharu tribals in the village of Bishunapur in Bahraich has been an inspiration in how to free the community from the exploitation of moneylenders.

Basant Lal, the Pradhan of Bishunapur and the president of the Adarsh Swayam Sahayata Samuh, said, “Ten years ago, our village was in a bad condition. The money lenders would come here as soon as the crop was ready – be it paddy, wheat, maise, lentils – throw down the sack and say, ‘I want the sack to be filled’, without so much as considering if there was enough harvest. So our family elders had to give away the required grain to the moneylenders, even it meant borrowing from others in the village. It was hard to recover from such debts.”

The people of the village brainstormed for many days until the idea for a community-led bank emerged. It was unanimously decided that members would deposit Rs 100 per month to create the fund, and it would be used to give loans to those in need at an interest rate of just 1%.

“One by one, people kept joining, and now the group is 47-members strong. At present, the bank has a sum of Rs 12,16,081, inclusive of deposits by members, interest and fines. A meeting is held every month and it is mandatory for member-shareholders to attend. Absence or failure to pay the monthly deposit in time incurs fines, Lal told said.

Three people in the village manage the Adarsh Swayam Sahayata Samuh: one person motivates villagers to deposit the money, the second person is in charge of collecting the money, whereas the third person maintains the fund and the accounts. In addition, the three members are responsible for updating all the other shareholders of the bank regarding the transactions in the monthly meeting.

“Earlier, when we used to go to borrow money from moneylenders, they used to sit high up as we sat on the ground, waiting for hours. But now, the moneylenders themselves come to the village to ask if anyone needs money. They say, ‘generation after generation has been taking loans from us, why not you?’ We tell them, ‘those days are no more.’ Now, if anyone needs money to sow, buy fertilisers or medicines, they can take money from our bank – the need for the moneylender is over. It is better not to be dependent on anyone to solve our problems. We want such a group to be formed in every village,” said Lal.

The changing legacy of the Tharus

There are seven Tharu villages in the Mihinpurwa Tehsil, having a collective population of about 10,157, said Jang Hindustani, who runs the NGO Sevarth Foundation and has been working in the region for over a decade. “The situation of all these Tharu villages was almost the same as Bishunapur. After establishing the ‘Adarsh Swayam Sahayata Samuh’, other Tharu villages have also followed suit. However, the Bishunapur organisation being the oldest has more funds and has been able to help more people,” he added.

The Tharu tribals have a reputation for being loyal and straightforward. Once Tharus establish a relationship of trust with a person, even if they are simply a shop owner, they will continue to conduct business with them, and only them, unless they are deceived. The Mahajans, who had historically held the households’ trust with ready funds, had taken advantage of this trait for years, said Hindustani. “But now the younger generation has become very smart and aware,” he said.

The Tharus have a colourful history, according to Dr Neelam Agrawal who has been studying the Tharus of Bahraich, Balrampur and Lakhimpur and currently teaches at National PG College, Lucknow. The ‘Rana’ Tharus are considered to be the descendants of Maharana Pratap’s queens. It is believed that when Maharana Pratap was attacked, his queens fled into the forests with their servants and soon their community was established. “This is why the status of women is relatively high amongst Tharus,” Dr Agarwal said. The Dagoria and Kathotia Tharus also consider themselves the descendants of the kings of Nepal.

The tribe, whose bloodline once coursed through royal kingdoms and palaces, had to plead at the doors of the moneylenders. This used to hurt the community’s sentiments and they were ashamed of their poverty. But not anymore, said Munni Lal, a native of Bishunpur village.

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In this ‘crime-free’ Bihar village, police haven’t registered a case in several decades

“To the best of our knowledge, except for one road accident case, no other complaint has been registered from Katraw,” Superintendent of Police, Bettiah, Upendra Nath Verma, said…reports Shilpi V.

Parwati’s house in West Champaran’s Katraw village, Bihar, was not locked for four days when she was at the hospital to treat her fever and chills. When she returned home, everything was intact – no one had broken in.

“The villagers here do not prefer to lock the doors when they move out of for a few days,” said Sunil Garhwal, the chief of Jamuniya panchayat that governs the village. “Locking of the door is construed a great disservice and disregard for co-villagers. However, one is at the liberty to lock their house if they are away for weeks,” he added.

Katraw is located 285 km from Patna. It has about 1,500 people from various communities, like Tharu, Muslim, Mushar and Dhangar. Its jurisdiction is patrolled by the Sahodara police station. The officers here have not registered more than a single case since India became independent in 1947.

“Nahi chhuwe la samantha koi kekaro (touching others’ belongings is a profane crime here),” said Hansa Devi, adding: “It is not as if altercations or disputes do not take place in Katraw. But, we resolve it amongst ourselves at the village level if the issue arises among ourselves.”

A single case in 70 years

“To the best of our knowledge, except for one road accident case, no other complaint has been registered from Katraw,” Superintendent of Police, Bettiah, Upendra Nath Verma, said.

Such has been the allure of Katraw that even former Director General of Police of Bihar, Gupteshwar Pandey, could not stop himself from visiting the village when he was surveying West Champaran in July last year. “Everyone should draw inspiration from Katraw where no cases or FIRs have been registered so far. This (model of the village) deserves to be emulated [by other villages] so that India can shine,” Pandey said.

The peace perhaps dawns upon the hamlet due to its ingrained judicial setup. Called the Gomastha Bayawastha, it was born in the early 1950s. The system was the brainchild of Bihar’s first chief minister Shri Krishna Sinha.

A Gomastha is essentially a patriarchal judicial authority – passed down from father to son – who delivers amicable solutions to the minor disputes that may arise in Katraw. A Gomastha may even penalise a person guilty of initiating a clash. Katraw, which has elected representatives in the panchayat system, seems to have unflinching faith in its Gomasthas.

The village, to date, has followed the verdicts delivered by the Gomasthas. Its testimony lies in the fact that the law and order has prevailed here for 75 years since India became independent.

“In Kathraw, a Gomastha is virtually regarded as a demi-god, whose order is invariably acceptable to all,” said Shailendra Garhwal, the president of Bettiah Zilla Parishad.

The position of Gomastha is not recognised by the government, although the local administration is aware of its prevalence in the Tharu tribe. “The system is followed in the Tharu community for long. It underscores the people’s firm belief in the democratic system, said Garwal, who belongs to the Tharu community.

“Ours is the third generation of Gomasthas,” said Vijay Kumar Gaurao who is at present the Katraw Gomastha. “I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that no cases – either civil or criminal in nature – have been registered in the court or in the police station since India gained independence.”

Local, community-conscious justice

The court of a Gomastha bears an anachronistic, antiquated look – the villagers sit under a tree or a community hall and dispense the justice after hearing the warring sides.

For instance, in July 2020 Mukesh Kumar was asked to pay a penalty of Rs 5,000 for slapping his sister-in-law. The Gomastha also demanded a written apology saying that Kumar’s actions had brought “disgrace to the women in a civilised society”.

Such a punishment was meted out to Chandrika Mahato and Visheshwar Mahato after they got into an altercation in broad daylight. Chandrika was angered after Visheshwar’s goats had grazed on his land.

The dispute culminated in an invitation into the Gomastha’s court, which charged each of them a fine of Rs 500 for “debilitating the social order”. The Gomastha also directed Visheshwar to pay Rs 300 to Chandrika as compensation.

An individual, who does not follow the Gomastha’s verdict, is excommunicated by others.

The fine collected from the directives is spent on marriages in the village or other social obligations.

The marriages are a community affair here. Invitations are sent out to every single villager, who are then bound to make arrangements for raw rice, pulses and vegetables among other eatables as a contribution.

Such social harmony is a matter of pride for villagers like Rohit Kumar and Shekhauddin. “We fix our own problems and we want to pass this legacy to the next generation,” Kumar said.

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To protect crops from wild animals, Uttarakhand villagers are ‘seed bombing’ forests

NGOs like the Reliance Foundation have also embraced the campaign. Kamlesh Gururani, Project Head of the Foundation says, “For the last three years, we have been throwing seeds in the forests of Uttarkashi which appear to have grown…reports Varsha Singh.

The farms in the hilly villages of Uttarakhand, have been under regular attacks from wild animals over the last few years. These constant attacks have left several people dead, cattle injured, crops and buildings damaged and farmlands barren.

Recently, the plantation technique of seed bombing has been mooted as a solution to this problem. Seed bombs, or balls of seed covered in soil, are being thrown in the forests to ensure food for wild animals is available in the forest itself, thus negating the need for them to attack the farms. The campaign, which started in 2017, has now spread to the entire state, including Dehradun, Tehri and Nainital.

Since 2017, when the seed bombing initiative began, the number of hectares of crops damaged has dropped (though it rose again last year). Similarly, the number of injuries to humans, cattle and buildings have been fluctuating. So while the data suggests the results of the campaign are inconclusive still, it has continued to receive support from the community, civil society and government.

NGOs like the Reliance Foundation have also embraced the campaign. Kamlesh Gururani, Project Head of the Foundation says, “For the last three years, we have been throwing seeds in the forests of Uttarkashi which appear to have grown. In the next few years, we will be able to come to a conclusion on whether this method is effective or not. This year we have decided to mark a specified place to scatter the seed bombs. Then we will also be able to monitor them. We will also assess whether there has been any marginal increase in the yield of the farmers as compared to earlier. But to restrict the wildlife to the forest, we have to make arrangements for water along with food. Chalkhals have also been made at some places for this,” he said.

The seeds of the campaign

The seed bomb campaign was started in the state by Dwarka Prasad Semwal, Secretary, Himalayan Paryavaran Jadi Booti Agro Sansthan (JADDI), Uttarkashi, a non-governmental organisation focused on environmental conservation. Explaining the idea behind the campaign, Semwal said, “We planted bare seeds in the forest in 2017 but most of the seeds were lost, eaten by birds and trampled by animals. We did not even achieve one per cent success. To protect the seed, we made a ball of soil, manure and water and put two seeds in it. We named them beej (seed) bombs. We started this campaign on a small scale in a few villages and then took it to the entire state.”

Today, the campaign is active in many villages of Uttarkashi, where women and youth together make seed bombs and scatter them in the forests. Seed bombs are prepared in the month of June-July just before the onset of rains as the seeds are most likely to germinate in wet soil. The clay balls are dried in the shade for three to four days until they are neither too hard nor too soft before being taken into the forest.

Tulsi Devi, the former village head of Nathuakhan village of the Ramgarh block in Nainital is optimistic about these seed bombs. “We made seed bombs with seeds of pumpkin, gourd, zucchini, cucumber, corn and pulses. Just before the rains, some seed bombs were thrown towards the forest. If we grow these vegetables and fruits near the forest, then our agriculture will survive. This is our third year of making seed bombs,” she said.

The seeds are chosen carefully, in accordance with altitude and soil, said Dwarika Prasad. His NGO consulted with several experts like the Vice-Chancellor of HNB Garhwal University, Dr Annapurna Nautiyal; NK Singh, Assistant Horticulture Officer at Uttarkashi; Dr Pankaj Nautiyal, Krishi Vigyan Kendra at Chinyalisaur, and few others to pick the seeds.

This year, seed donations are also being sought from the community. Semwal explained, “There is a feeling of conservation attached to seed donation. Many people have donated seeds; some give two, some give 10.”

Akash Nautiyal, a member of the Mangal Youth Foundation of Uttarkashi, said that they have been asking for seed donations from every house they go to. “Farmers keep traditional seeds in their homes even today, which they sometimes give to us,” he said.

In Nainital, Jagdish Chandra Jitu works closely with the local youth for the seed bombing campaign. He returned to his village, Nathuakhan, last year after the pandemic struck. “Looking at what Dwarika Prasad Semwal ji was doing, I also made seed bombs and threw them in the forest during the lockdown last year. After 10-15 days many seed bombs were seen sprouting. The places where we had thrown the seed bombs are now green. It is our endeavour to take this campaign forward every year. Then we will see good results from it.”

A zero-budget success story

Dr Arvind Darmora, director, Parvatiya Vikas Shodh Kendra (Centre for Mountain Development), HNB Garhwal University in Srinagar tehsil, Uttarakhand, believes that the success rate of seed bomb campaigns is very high, especially relative to the costs involved when compared to large-scale government plantations. “Despite spending lakhs of rupees, plantation programmes are only successful to the tune of 20-30 per cent. But the seed bomb campaign is up to 80 per cent successful,” he explained. Beej bombing, meanwhile, is a zero budget campaign where seeds, soil and fertilizers are all sourced through enthusiastic community participation.

Darmora recalled an example of the students of Kamad Intermediate College in Uttarkashi who left seed bombs in the forests of Buda Kedarnath from Anyar Khal in Uttarkashi. “A nursery of about three lakh plants has been prepared there. This campaign is strengthening people’s bond with the forest,” he said.

Savitri Saklani, a teacher of Rajkiya Kanya Vidyalaya (Government Girls School) in Cheenakholi village of Dunda block of Uttarkashi, said she and her students were also inspired by the seed bombing campaign. “The students collected soil, manure and seeds. We made over a thousand seed bombs. There is a forest near our school. The girls threw the seed bombs in the forest. Only girls here go to the forest to get grass for their homes. So, when they went, they also took the seed bombs with them and left them in the forest,” said Saklani.

Dr Rajnish Singh, the Chief Horticulture Officer of Uttarkashi, stated that despite the dangers that forest fires pose to these young plants, he has been suggesting seed bombing to villagers who come to him with complaints about wild animals destroying their crops. Sandeep Kumar, former Divisional Forest Officer of Uttarkashi has been promoting it as a solution to landslides. The seed bomb experiment was also tried in parts of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve, where forest guards walk in the forest carrying seed bombs, according to SS Rasaily, Additional Chief Conservator of Forests in Uttarakhand Forest Department.

In addition to enthusiastic support from the forest department, many important people like Governor Baby Rani Maurya and former Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat have been endorsing the campaign, especially during the Harela festival (a folk festival in Uttarakhand). So while the jury is still out on whether seed bombs are enough to meet the stated objective of reducing man-animal conflict in Uttarakhand, the community is determined to keep trying.

(The author is a Dehradun-based freelance journalist and a member of, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)

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Jammu border village harvest crops without fear

In fact, India and Pakistan had signed a ceasefire pact in November 2003 but they haven’t been able to honour it, especially after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks…reports Umar Shah.

A folk song, “Jade log de jandene ithe qurbaniyaan, duniya chi rendiya ne undeya nishaniya” sung by farmers in the agricultural fields of Jammu, means — the ones who render sacrifices are the ones remembered by the world after their lives. However, this tradition of singing in the fields has been on a decline, at least in the village of Suchetgarh, which is a stone’s throw from Pakistan along the International Border in Jammu’s RS Pora sector. Bombings across the border have made farming a life-threatening livelihood to pursue in this village that has a little over 200 households. Singing or being carefree is out of the question.

However, things are looking different this year. Last month, India and Pakistan declared a ceasefire — it’s the first time in many decades that a truce has been called here during the harvesting season, which spans from March to April. A ceasefire was announced earlier too, during the holy month of Ramzan in 2018, but it proved to be short-lived.

In fact, India and Pakistan had signed a ceasefire pact in November 2003 but they haven’t been able to honour it, especially after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

Given the chequered history of this agreement, it’s difficult to say how long the latest ceasefire will last but the locals are hailing it as the new dawn. It’s been unusually quiet in Suchetgarh for the past few weeks. The thuds of the guns and mortar shells have been replaced by the carefree chirping and warbling of birds. The families are wandering into their fields without fear, admiring the crops and hoping for good returns.

As per the government records, 454 hectares of land in Suchetgarh is under cultivation and is used mostly to grow Basmati rice and maize.

“The feeling that no one is going to kill you (in the crossfire) is inexplicable. You have to experience it (to know what we are feeling right now”,” shares Madhu Kumari. Her family’s four-acre farmland is the closest to this border, which the locals call ‘the zero line’.

What’s farming like on the border?

According to Kumari’s husband Bhaga Ram, more than 20 residents of Suchetgarh have lost their lives in the ceasefire violations but none have died while working on their farmland. “But there hasn’t been a single year since my childhood when harvesting wasn’t a scary affair. All the time a sword was hanging over our heads that artillery fire might hit us as we reap the year’s hard work,” the 61-year-old says.

In Avinash Kumar’s case, the mortar shell missed him by a few metres in the cross-border hostility that escalated in 2018. The violence that year was worse than it was during the 1971 Indo-Pak war, residents of the border villages have described in this report.

“I remember it was February. My father wasn’t well. So I went to the field to prepare the land as the harvest season was a month away. Suddenly,I heard a loud thud and a strong blow of air threw me off to a corner. My ears were toggling with strange sounds as I tried to crawl around to take shelter. Within one hour, we all were taken away in a government bunker and later shifted to a safe-house. The land, the crops, the harvest — everything was destroyed,” remembers the young farmer.

It’s a drill the residents of Suchetgarh have got used to. Every time the armies trade fire across the border, they have to flee their fields and homes and take shelter in government safe-houses. And when the tensions subside, they return to bruised homes and farmlands. Farmer Talib Hussain dubs the experience nightmarish.

“(After the skirmishes in 2018), we would often find some unexploded shells lying around. Our own fields had become death wells for us. We were reluctant to sow the crops (the season begins from September). We were even hesitant to harvest them,” he recalls. That year, he incurred a loss of more than Rs 2 lakh as a part of his crops got damaged in the violence.

Forced to do other jobs

Farming in Suchetgarh has suffered in more ways than one. The bombings have left behind toxic residue on the farmlands, turning them infertile in most places. A putrid odour greets you when you visit the fields and there is no respite from the constant buzzing of mosquitoes. In fact, according to government records, an estimated 17,000 hectares of land get destroyed due to shelling every year all over Jammu & Kashmir.

Suchetgarh’s Vinaay Kumar knows the pain of losing his land and crops all too well. He could not sow anything on his two-acre land after the intense shelling from Pakistan in 2018. “(I was hoping for a profitable yield that year). But I got nothing at the end. I could not sow any crop the next year. The land was giving off the pungent smell of a burnt powder keg,” Kumar remembers.

The volatile situation has forced the residents to look beyond farming, which has been their traditional source of livelihood — A quintal of Basmati rice sells for Rs 4,000. “Farming is in our blood. My father often tells me that his farmland is dearer to him than his three sons,” says Avinash with a gentle smile.

But now, many have either started migrating to nearby towns or have taken up odd jobs to supplement their income. Vinaay, for instance, runs a shop to sell bicycle spare parts while his brothers work as masons. Vinaay has little choice but to do this because the compensation given to the farmers after the crop loss due to firings is too meagre to even cover the basic farming costs.

He explains, “We were given Rs 6,000 as compensation in 2018. Initially, I thought it was a joke or maybe the government was planning to pay us in instalments of Rs 6,000. But I was told by the local relief officer that the amount was full and final.” A farmer in Suchetgarh, on the contrary, spends almost Rs 12,000 to buy seeds and fertilisers for an acre of farmland alone, he adds.

‘Let us live & sing’

Despite the disappointment, the farmers haven’t protested against the paltry compensation yet. They don’t want to be thrown into this situation ever again, that’s all they say. They want the ceasefire to be honoured in true spirit.

“Saving our lives and the lives of our families is always a priority for us. We can only hope that the ceasefire remains intact so we can live and do our work without any fear,” Ram says. And do it with joy, adds Avinash as he says: “Believe me, the toilers of this land had abandoned that trend (of singing songs in the fields) a long time ago. But now, it seems the truce will last and we can euphorically sing ‘Jade log de…”

(The author is Srinagar-based freelance journalist and a member of, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. Views are personal)

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Can bamboo turn this former firing range green again?

The project originally envisioned that experts from the NECBDC would reach J&K to impart training to the local community to start bamboo-related businesses…reports Bivek Mathur.

A special pilot project is underway in Bhanderwah valley in Jammu’s Doda district. It is often celebrated as ‘mini Kashmir’ for its lush-green meadows, snow-bound peaks and clear waters. But for 15 years, the Army and CRPF had been using Malsoo and Rainda hills in the valley as a shooting range, turning the hills barren.

Worse still, it has exacerbated the problem of landslides during winter and monsoons. A landslide had flattened more than three dozen shops here in March 2019. Two people were killed in a landslide just 10 days later. A month after this, another incident of landslide damaged a dozen houses in the region.

Now, with the firing stopped, citizens have come forth to help the government find a solution to these landslides. The government has started to plant bamboo on the region’s hills because of bamboo roots’ famed potential in arresting soil erosion. Many research reports recommend growing bamboo in regions ravaged by landslides.

One such report — titled ‘Rainfall-Induced Slope Failures and Use of Bamboo as a Remedial Measure’, published in Indian Geotechnical Journal in October 2020 — notes how bamboo roots strongly hold the soil. The report says that growing bamboo is a sustainable option to prevent landslides, preferable over other options such as making retaining walls, crib walls etc.

So when the district forest department of Bhanderwah decided to experiment with bamboo cultivation, a local NGO, Awaaz, stepped up to help it execute the project. The first phase of the plantation drive was executed on April 9 with the help of about 130 students of the Government Post Graduate College (Bhaderwah) and the residents of Rainda hills of the Neeru Range. The NGO and the student volunteers dispersed about 10,000 seed balls into the hills.

Seed balls are balls of soil and clay containing one or more seeds. Tossing seed balls onto the land is a quick and convenient way of plantation.

The second phase of the project, on April 14, saw 18 members of the NGO and about 30 employees of the Territorial Forest Department and Forest Protection Force release about 5,000 seed balls of bamboo, cedar and kail trees on the hills.

Bhaderwah Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Chander Shekhar said that since the theme for this World Environment Day is ‘Ecosystem Restoration’, the administration chose two barren hillocks for afforestation.

It was lucky that Awaaz had prior experience with this sort of thing; it had led the efforts in rejuvenating a barren hillock in Saroj Bagh area in Bhanderwah Forest Division. Today the entire hill is a dense forest, said Tahir Nadeem Khan Yusafzai, the General Secretary of Awaaz, who is also a senior environment journalist with Greater Kashmir and a Doordarshan anchor.

The time from April to August is ideal for bamboo seeds to start taking roots. DFO Chander Shekhar said that his team recently visited the sites and noticed that some saplings have already begun sprouting. These are likely cedar and kail since bamboo shoots take much longer to grow as bamboo plants initially grow strong and deep roots.

“These hills are sandy and get adequate sunlight both in summer and winter. The Dendrocalamus Strictus variety of bamboo can also grow in minus temperatures. So, I think there is no reason to lose hope,” Yusafzai added.

Concurrently, the J&K administration had been making big moves to develop bamboo cultivation and allied activities with the aim of generating employment. Following the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Jammu & Kashmir government and the Ministry of Development of the North Eastern Region in January 2021, a five-year project was mooted to establish three bamboo clusters in Kathua, Jammu, Samba, Reasi and parts of Udhampur to provide direct employment to about 25,000 people.

This would involve bamboo production, undertaken with expertise from the North East Cane & Bamboo Development Council (NECBDC), and the establishment of clusters for making bamboo basketry, agarbattis and bamboo charcoal, according to Vikas Gupta, Director of Handicrafts and Handloom, Jammu.

These developments gave extra impetus to the team greening Bhanderwah hills. Chairperson of NGO Awaaz, Rashid Choudhary, said bamboo’s potential to provide work is one of the reasons they stepped up to help the government with this project. If the bamboo cultivation picked up, they could persuade the administration to extend the project to Bhanderwah and perhaps even set up a cluster here.

The project originally envisioned that experts from the NECBDC would reach J&K to impart training to the local community to start bamboo-related businesses. While travel restrictions owing to Covid-19 have put a brake on these plans, Awaaz and the government are hoping that this engagement between experts and the community can be initiated once the restrictions are lifted.

The government’s plan is to keep the local community highly involved in the growth and cultivation of bamboo. The fact that bamboo forests stand to serve the local dwellers later — by providing them with raw materials for making a host of items — is another incentive for the community to be involved in growing bamboo forests.

Social forestry, which refers to the practice of managing forests with the participation of local communities, is touted for a high probability of success in afforestation drives. Several studies have pointed out that the involvement of locals in growing a forest instils a feeling of ownership in them and they actively take part in forests’ safety and upkeep.

(The author is a Jammu-based freelance journalist and a member of, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)

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In this Jammu village, the dead live on in the trees

“Shastron mei likha hai” (it is written in the scriptures) and “punya ka kaam” (it is virtuous work) are two phrases repeated by the priest and locals alike while explaining the origins of this practice and its link to funerals…reports Asian Lite News.

In the lush green village of Kalihand, residents commemorate their deceased by planting trees, the fruits of which are meant for friends, neighbours and travellers.

“When someone dies in our family, we plant a tree,” said Nath Ram (75), a resident of Kalihand village in Doda, a remote district in Jammu and Kashmir. Spread over 572 hectares, the village is located 25 km away from Doda town.

Surrounded by lush green trees and rugged mountain slopes, villagers in Kalihand have a unique culture of commemorating the dead by planting a fruit tree and watering it for at least a year or longer till it bears fruit. Nearly a third of the population in the village are Hindus who follow this tradition.

“Shastron mei likha hai” (it is written in the scriptures) and “punya ka kaam” (it is virtuous work) are two phrases repeated by the priest and locals alike while explaining the origins of this practice and its link to funerals.

Pandit Daya Ram, the village priest, referred to Garuda Puran (a Hindu religious text that speaks of heaven and hell, karma and rebirth and ancestral rites, among other things) to describe how this culture is deeply rooted in religious beliefs. Those who follow the Sanatan Dharma, the priest explained, believe that there is life even after death. And the deeds you do in your life, or those done in your name after your death, decide your path – either leading you to heaven or hell.

“When someone rests under the shade of the tree or the fruit satiates someone’s hunger, it becomes punya ka kaam that would help in the salvation of the one who has died,” he said. “Planting a tree also ensures that the soul of the deceased would have shade to rest and fruit to eat,” he continued while adding that the tradition has been around for generations and has become part of the village’s culture and identity.

“There is a shared understanding among the villagers about what a funeral entails. For economically weaker families, the villagers who come to mourn the deceased contribute financially in order to offer support and sympathy to the bereaved,” said Babu Ram Sharma (45) who planted apple trees in his backyard in honour of his deceased family members.

The actions lead to afforestation on a community level, with apple, saadiyan (wild apricot), and pear trees surrounding the hamlet. “The tree can be planted in a field, on one’s own land or anywhere nearby since one needs to water it daily. Forests are not safe because of the wild animals,” said Sunil Kumar, the Naib Sarpanch of Kalihand. The backyards of homes are filled with trees, a bittersweet reminder of the many generations of bereavement the family has endured.

The tradition has evolved over the years with the inclusion of various types of trees, plants and shrubs but one thing that remains common is that the fruit born by the tree is freely available for everyone except the family members themselves, who are forbidden from picking the fruits.

“Grapevines and shrubs of aakhein (golden evergreen raspberry) are also planted but it is forbidden for the family to eat the fruit from such a tree or plant or profit from it. We have to give it away or any traveller can take the fruit if they desire,” Kumar said.

The practice, whether derived from mythology or passed through tradition, is not restricted to just this village anymore. It is being adapted in nearby villages and also in other regions in the union territory. Krishna Dev, a resident of Bhaderwah, Jammu said, “Planting of trees after the death of a family member is a recent phenomenon here, dating back nearly ten years.”

Across different countries, there are varied rituals connected with death and funerals that help soothe the grieving family. These rituals give a purpose to the actions and offer the solace of being connected to something greater. For residents of Kalihand, growing a tree and sharing its fruits with neighbours, travellers or those in need is a way for them to keep alive the memory of the deceased and offer them safe passage into the beyond.

(The author is a Jammu-based freelance journalist and a member of, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)

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