Territorial Army on a green mission in Chirang with Bodo villagers
There was a time when many Bodo men and women in villages near the Chirang Reserve Forest in Kokrajhar district of western Assam would fell trees and sell the timber for livelihood. Today, some of them earn their livelihood by planting trees in the forest.
Two decades of insurgency in the region and an active timber mafia had taken a heavy toll on the Chirang reserve forest that spills into Bhutan.
Col MNR Pawar (left) and Col Naveen Sharma (right) have led the Eco Task Force, which had planted about 2.3 million tree saplings in the last 4 years
In the process, the forest lost an estimated 30000 hectare of its green cover out of its 59529 hectare spread.
However, in a dramatic turn of events, the Territorial Army which had been dispatched to the region to check insurgency, stepped in to check the denudation of Chirang by forming its ‘135 Eco Task Force’ in August 2008.
“In 2007 and 2008 there was rampant felling of trees in this area and the forest was encroached to such an extent that encroachers had almost reached the northern side of the forest bordering Bhutan,” said Col Naveen Sharma, Commanding Officer ETF from 2009 till recently.
ETF was determined to reverse the trend. The greening of Chirang forest is a work of collaboration involving the ETF consisting mostly of ex-servicemen, Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BTAD) forest department officers, local villagers and the Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd (Salakati) that is funding the plantation drive since second year of the project.
The plantation work is in progress at the severely deforested patches of the reserve forest in Digli area under Haltugaon forest division and 275 retired army personnel are involved in the project toiling together with locals, who once resented the planting of trees.
“Initially the locals showed a lot of resentment as they could not cut trees and they were also stopped from taking their cattle into the plantation sites,” said Sharma.
He said that while going through NREGA he found that forestation was also one of the jobs offered.
They received a grant of Rs 12 lakh for the first year under the project. Locals were hired as labourers. Now there are 150 locals planting trees for a daily wage of Rs 120.
About 150 locals are currently involved in planting trees for a daily wage of Rs.120
“We are now carrying awareness programmes for the locals and their children telling them the importance of forests,” said Sharma.
Chirang is home to many wildlife species like golden langurs, elephants, wild boars, leopards, deer and hornbills.
But never did the elephants hurt anyone during their plantation drive, said Sharma, adding: “The elephants are intelligent and maybe they got positive vibes from us.”
Though the locals engaged with ETF are also gradually understanding the importance of environment, there is rampant cutting of trees in the eastern side of the same forest division, near Lumsung, where adivasis have been clearing forest land for cultivation.
“In the four years of our plantation we have planted 2.3 million plants comprising 47 species, indigenous to that area,” said Col MNR Pawar, present Commanding Officer ETF.
He had been associated with the project for the last four years. He said that some of the trees planted there are Ghamari (Gmelina arborea), Sal (Shorea robusta), and Teak (Tectona grandis), among others.
The idea is to plant local species and fast growing trees. Most trees are valued for timber and take 50-60 years to mature.
He said the project is funded by the Power Grid Corporation for three years under their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility).Till now 24 square km area has been covered by afforestation.
With regular patrolling of the ETF personnel, timber cutting has come down by about 80 percent in the region.
Ambushes on security personnel take place in the vicinity of the project area. In April the anti-talk faction of the NDFB (National Democratic Front of Bodoland) had killed eight BSF personnel at Ultapani.
But the ETF is not to be bogged down. It carries on.