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She came, she saw, she saved

Shriya Mohan | Updated on January 09, 2018

Green revolution: Jamuna Tudu’s crusade against a local timber smuggling mafia began almost 20 years ago, when she moved to Maturkham village as a newlywed

Meet Jharkhand’s ‘Lady Tarzan’, whose army of 10,000 women is protecting forests from the illegal logger

She carefully lifts her yellow glittering sari and climbs the steps to the stage. The blinding spotlight makes her squint at the audience waiting in the dark silence. With an audio device pinned to the back of her blouse, a mouthpiece snakes its way around her head to sit stiffly on one cheek, even as her face breaks into a cold sweat. “My name is Jamuna Tudu,” she begins in a quivering voice, “and I nearly paid with my life to keep the forests alive.”

Jamuna is 37 and this is one of the first few times she has travelled out of her village, Maturkham, in Jharkhand’s Purbi Singhbhum district. A journey to New Delhi is rarer still. In August this year, the NITI Aayog recognised Jamuna as one of the 12 “Women transforming India”. This time around (in November), she’s in the Capital to speak as one of the “women changing the world”, at an event jointly hosted by NITI Aayog and Shift Series, an education and leadership foundation.

A love for all things green

Jamuna was raised in Odisha’s Rairangpur town. Her father was a farmer. She and her siblings grew up among the surrounding lush forests, helping their father farm by carrying saplings to his fields and tending to them. Watching seeds spurt to life had always felt like nurturing little children. “I was used to living amidst greenery, haryali,” she says in Hindi, as we meet after her talk.

In 1998, months after she turned 18, Jamuna married Mansingh Tudu, a contractor who builds homes in villages. Her husband’s village — Maturkham — was 100 km away. On the morning after the wedding, her mother-in-law and sister-in-law showed her around the house. Through the back door they entered the forests, or, rather, what once used to be a forest. “I was shocked to find a forest full of tree stumps,” Jamuna recalls. The Maturkham forests, known for sal and teak trees, had been ravaged by a local timber smuggling mafia, which had also threatened the locals into silence. This was years before the Forest Rights Act (FRA) kicked in (2006), bringing an awareness of community hold over forestland.

Jamuna decided to gather the women of Maturkham — all Adivasis — to form a Van Suraksha Samiti (forest protection group). These women, some of whom had completed primary schooling, had never stood up for themselves before, so confidence wasn’t easy to muster among them. “Only if our forests are alive can humanity thrive,” Jamuna said to them. Despite some initial resistance, the women soon made her a role model.

Price of resistance

When Jamuna and her 32 compatriots first walked up to the gang of men and women felling trees, they looked her up and down and asked, “Who are you? And when did this samiti business happen?” “We started today,” she replied and introduced herself, leaving a pause to let her name sink in.

For a year after that, the samiti had to prove it meant business. The members would go to the forests armed with sticks, spades, bows and arrows to scare away the intruders. Then they would confiscate the loggers’ abandoned saws and hide them in the village. It made it doubly hard for them that some forest protection officials and the police were hand-in-glove with the mafia.

Also, Maturkham is in the heart of the Naxal belt and their actions were likely to arouse suspicions of the wrong kind.

“But over the months, our strength increased and our work built credibility. We got FIRs registered under forest protection laws and even got a few culprits jailed,” Jamuna says with pride.

Success didn’t come easy or cheap. In 2004, when she had already formed over 50 samitis (which has now doubled in number) in Chakulia town, a notified area, the mafia wreaked her house. Four years later, during a trip to a neighbouring village, she and her husband, were attacked with sharp stones. Mansingh was hit in the head. “My husband fainted in a pool of blood. I thought he would die,” she says. Since that episode, she say, fear has no meaning for her.

From then, Jamuna (now popularly referred to as ‘Lady Tarzan’) and her band of 10,000 forest protectors across 300 villages have held night patrols, stalled felling in over 50 hectares and assisted reforestation activities, while initiating ceremonies such as Raksha Bandhan and Bhai Dooj to create a close bond between the locals and the trees among them.

Forest essential

Jamuna believes that the FRA needs to be less open-ended by affirming the role of a participatory village-level forest rights committee in determining the rules pertaining to community forestland, lest people use it for commercial purposes. She also believes that reforestation efforts should include planting local harmonising varieties, rather than allowing forest departments to take the easy route by planting varieties such as eucalyptus, which is known to grow fast but kills biodiversity.

“Such awards give me a name and respect, motivating me to work hard,” Jamuna says, visibly moved that she was being recognised by the Centre’s top planning body. But, for a Union government that has nearly dismantled the environment ministry and a State government that prioritises mining over forest conservation, what exactly does such an award mean? I broach carefully. Is it an attempt to forge friendship, pre-empting resistance?

“Just because I have had no major conflict with the authorities so far doesn’t mean I’m scared of taking on violators, be it the people or governments,” says Jamuna, ready to cross the bridge when she gets there.

Published on December 01, 2017

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