Seetabai the village headman's wife cooked the food for us. It was rice, dal with some curry. It must have taken a lot of effort for them. Our tour fees included paying Rs.20 for hiring a bed per person, cooking and food charges
to the lady and fees for the village men who acted as guides for us in the forest trails. We all stayed inside the local primary school. The villagers were too shy to speak to us. But it was an effort to bridge the gap between the tribal folk and the city
dwellers, to remove the misconceptions and also to use true spirit of eco-tourism to bring some livelihood for the local people. Our discussion continued after the meal. We decided to drop the idea of going into the forest late night as we had to leave early
The next day, we started our walk around 7.30am , into the forest surrounding Maisampet and at the edge of the village; there was the VSS *( Vana Samrakshana Samiti-Forest Protection Society) community room. Through the window,
we could see some skins of spotted deer hanging inside the room from the ceiling. “Where are these skins from?” Waheed asked the head man. “They were taken out for the Diwali celebrations!” the headman replied.
“These are old skins which they use for traditional rituals. Now if there was a journalist, he would have taken a photo of this and immediately with headlines, it would come out in the papers, “Animal hunting under the nose of the
DFO”. The villagers hate us because we tell them to not cut the trees and not to kill wild animals. They see me with suspicion, because I would book cases on them. But the district administration and the ITDA should be strict with them. They keep giving all
kinds of goodies to these people and never bother to make them responsible. But fortunately, this time we have a good collector, she is a lady. She warned the villagers that if they cut the forest their ration and other amenities will be stopped. That is
the way these people should be dealt with”.
Before we could leave the village, he called out our attention; I thought he was going to show us some special bird or something.
“Before we leave the village I wish to show you all something here, look at this village. The houses resemble simple sheds, but just take a closer look; they must have cut at least 20-30 teak trees to make this shed. This is excellent
teak which is judged by its grain and colour. Some fellow from the city when they come and say, why don't you sell it to us, they simply pull down the house and sell it for some money. Then they go into the forest and cut down another 20 trees to make a new
shelter. If we book a case on them, they speak about the tribal rights to the forest. But I think there has to be some line drawn somewhere. The NGO's keep going against the establishment and the press is too happy to give coverage to them. When something
happens here in the forest, it should be brought to our notice. People go to the press directly. Now, I would have no idea what has happened. My boss would read the news in the press and simply ask me to answer or sometimes they suspend people, since there
will be pressure from Hyderabad . There needs to be better understanding between all parties concerned.” He lamented.
“Sir, you may speak for yourself, but all the people in the department are not like you. Our present DFO of Jannaram Mr. Vinod Babu had been very pro-active; he understood our views and has co-operated immensely in our conservation
work. He was instrumental in removing the unauthorized settlements of the Meena tribe which came in from Rajasthan and simply settled in the middle of the forest with their huge cattle. They are not original tribes of Andhra. But since the lambadas have been
declared scheduled tribes here in A.P, so many of these people from Rajasthan come and settle in this state. But
before that we had to go from pillar to post in the department trying to get people's attention to the issue. Most of the time, the people in the forest department do not know a thing about wild life or eco-systems or about plant
species. What will they protect?” Imran asked him.
Photo credits: Cut trees by Saraswati Kavula
Settlers in the middle of the forest by Asif Siddiqui
*VSS is a grass root community group part of the Joint Forest Management programme of the state government.
( To be continued)