By Antara Sengupta for Youth Ki Awaaz:
For the last year and a half, Mamta Warkade, a tribal girl from the Gondia district of Maharashtra, has been living a fun yet unusual life. On most afternoons, the 21-year-old can be found engaged in various forms of adventure activities like rappelling, rock climbing and ziplining in her village in Nawatola.
The activities aren’t just her source of fun, but also her means of income, thanks to an initiative of Deputy Conservator of Forest, Gondia Jitender Ramgaonka who decided to preserve Hazra falls, a dying waterfall by involving the youth in the area and training them in adventure sports.
As a part of the initiative, an entry fee is charged from visitors and the village youth performing various adventure activities for them. From collecting entry fee at the counter to taking part in the adventure activities, everything is done by the youth in the village.
“I observed that because of underdevelopment and large scale unemployment, people were destroying the forest to earn money,” told Ramgaonka to Youth Ki Awaaz. “So I thought of gathering support from the local tribes to save the forest and the waterfall.”
“This ensured income from the forest to the young population of the village,” adds Ramgaonka.
As part of the initiative, a contingent of 24 girls was sent to the Atal Bihari National Institute of Mountaineering, Manali, and the National Institute of Watersports, Goa, to learn adventure sports.
Warkade was one of them. She says her life has been transformed since she joined the initiative. She wakes up at 5 am, finishes her household chores and is out on the Hazra Falls trail by nine. It is a 3 km walk, but she has no complaints.
“Once there, we first clear the litter left behind by tourists and monkeys. Then we divide activities to be undertaken between girls and boys and proceed to our respective areas,” says Warkade.
The participants earn anywhere between ₹3,000 to ₹6,000 a month, depending on the season. August, say, villagers, is the best time of the year with the area receiving a huge influx of tourists.
Says 20-year-old Jyoti Wike, another participant. “It was like a dream-come-true when I was called to train in Manali in 2015. I had never been so far from my village,” “I trained in Manali with English-speaking people. I had a complex initially, but the tension eased when we realised that we were picking up the sport faster than them. I feel very confident now when interacting with outsiders, some of whom are foreigners. Seeing my rappelling skills, one of them even called me ‘Jhansi ki Rani!’,” says Wike.
Wike’s family says that their lives have changed since Jyoti started working.
“I run a small hotel in the village. That is our only source of income. Now that Jyoti is learning such activities and getting paid for it, we are living a much better life,” says her mother, Jhulan Bai.
According to Census 2011, of the 2,65,214 households in Gondia, 2,20,816 (83.26%) households have a monthly income of less than ₹5,000, making Gondia one of the poorest districts in the area.
The project was started with an initial investment of about ₹50 lakh approved by the District Tourist Committee. “Last year we collected ₹11 lakh from these activities, and it has risen to almost ₹20 lakh this year,” says Ramgaonka.
The income generated is deposited to the village development account. While a part of the money goes in paying the girls’ salaries, the rest is used for forest development.
Ramgaonka maintains that the primary aim of the initiative is not tourism. “It is to provide an alternative livelihood to the village youth and to reduce rampant illegal felling of trees.”
“It is good to see that someone is taking interest. My only hope is that the initiative remains self-sustaining. If the IFS officer is transferred, the tribal people should still be able to continue with it,” says Pravin Mote, Secretary, All India Forum of Forest Movements, Maharashtra.
“I am very proud of my daughter. She is studying as well as contributing to saving our home, which is our forest. It helps that she brings extra money home.” says Anil Dhurve, father of Roshini Dhurve, who is another participant. “I’m glad our children can now earn by living in the village itself. It is hard to let them go out to work.”
The initiative is already starting to bear fruit with the forest department registering a fall in tree felling. Incidents of crime have also reduced.
“Before the Hazra Fall initiative, at least 23 people used to die annually in the area. No one has died in the area so far,” says Ramgaonka.
The project has also had a positive impact on saving the forests.In 2012-13 (when the initiative began), the area lost ₹30,86,790 due to illegal tree cutting. This has come down to ₹23,75,282 and ₹11,30,582 in 2015-16 and 2016-17 respectively.
According to data provided by the Hazra Falls Ecotourism JFM Committee, Navatola, the number of tourists has also increased from 15,416 in 2015 to 22,102 in August 2016 in the meantime. The money collected from adventure sports has also only risen.
“Under the Hazra Falls initiative, not only tribal youth but others too have found a livelihood,” says Suresh Rahangdale, 27, forest guard and secretary of the Joint Forest Management Committee, who assists Ramgaonka. “Some people have put up food and handicraft stalls around the area to earn money. This effort can help ease poverty in the area.”
“This is a Naxal-affected area, so I wanted tribals to take charge and protect their own forest. I am glad to see that it’s working. I now plan to take the initiative to other villages,” says Ramgaonkar.
Mamta Warkade is equally upbeat. “Earlier, people my age used to go out of the village to earn money. Now, we can stay right here, in our own forests, to earn a livelihood,” she says. “I feel empowered that I am able to do what generally boys are supposed to do – earn money in a respectable way and support the family.”
(Antara Sengupta is a Mumbai-based independent journalist. A research fellow with ORF Mumbai and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)