Where the deodar and oak flourish again

An NGO demonstrates what happens when determination takes root

Reoghati, at a height of over 8,500 ft in Kotkhai block of Himachal Pradesh’s Shimla district, brings good tidings. Over 90 per cent of the saplings of deodars and oak planted here three years ago have survived and grown into young trees in an area roughly 85 bighas. This, despite four feet of snow this winter!

For the members of voluntary organisation Paryavaran Sangrakshan Samiti (PSS), which had spearheaded the campaign in the five panchayats of this apple-rich belt, this has been no mean achievement. More so, because this hilly forest area had been encroached upon and trees were felled with the intention of raising apple orchards. The organisation has been struggling for the last 10 years to get this and other forest lands vacated by encroachers.

“Large-scale encroachment of the forests is causing a lot of environmental issues and therefore it was necessary to create awareness and raise our voice against this illegal activity,” says Digvijay Chauhan, President of PSS.

The core committee of PSS had run from pillar to post, making innumerable visits to the forest and other government departments, battled inside and outside the courts to get the land in Reoghati vacated and have it restored to the forest department. Once this was done, members of PSS, youth clubs, mahila mandals (women groups) and hundreds of volunteers drawn from the villages of the five panchayats — Parali, Sheeli, Panog, Bagar and Kiari — spent three days even as it rained hard to plant over 5,000 samplings of deodar and oak that the forest department had provided.

To date, PSS has been able to drive forest plantation in several other areas which have been cleared of encroachers. “Our main concern is that if we are not able to save this forest wealth, the coming generation will have to bear grave consequences.”

PSS began by roping in half-a-dozen schools for the plantation drives. All the campaigns were funded by contributions from the community as the NGO does not take government grants or funds from other sources.

The pradhans of the five panchayats, in a resolution, urged the High Court to get the encroached lands vacated as 30 to 40 per cent of the forests in the valley, considered a gold mine for apple cultivation, had been encroached upon. “There has been some success in getting the land vacated, by small encroachers, but the big fish continue to hold on to hundreds of bighas where they have raised apple orchards,” alleges the Vice-President of PSS, Rajesh Chauhan. And even while the organisation continues to work towards getting all the encroached land vacated, it is hopeful that there will be no further encroachments in the face of the court rulings.

Reviving catchment areas

PSS also realised that because of the encroachments, water catchment areas and small water drains were drying up. As there are no rivers in the area, people depend on State schemes to lift water from the small seasonal rivulets. Due to scanty rainfall over the last five years, some villages are receiving water once a week, some even after 10 days, during the summer months.

To address the issue, the core group of PSS decided to begin the recharging of underground water by digging ponds near the forest slopes. As it could not undertake the activity directly due to some rules in the Forest Act, it took to lobbying and a few years later there was a positive response from the forest department, recalls Digvijay. “The first pond was dug in 2016 at Baronghat through our own contributions, though it was later reimbursed by the forest department.”

PSS, through its own resources, surveyed the forests and identified several other spots where all-weather ponds could be dug. It made concrete proposals to the department and the effort paid off. Soon 20 more ponds were dug with government funding.

PSS General Secretary Shiv Pratap Bhimta says that water levels in the catchment areas have already begun to rise and eight to 10 more spots for digging ponds have been identified. “None of these ponds have dried up even in the peak of summer, that indeed is our greatest reward,” says Digvijay.

Last year, even the 11,000 samplings given by the forest department fell short as there was overwhelming demand for them. This is reflective of the level of awareness among the people to preserve forest cover, something PSS has been working tirelessly for.

Principal chief conservator of forest Ajay Kumar says the community has a key role to play in the conservation of forests and his department will continue to extend its support to any positive initiative from the community.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

Published on June 14, 2019

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