The sleepy morning of December 23 found fifteen unusually Vayam chirpy volunteers at the Shivajinagar ST Bus Stand in Pune, eager to embark on an unusual weekend journey, which promised to be a blend of environmental excursions and self exploration, peppered with informal yet issue-specific motivated discussions. Our destination was ‘Patryachapada’- a tribal hamlet located in the forested area of Trimbak taluka, 40 km Nashik and the trip was slated to be the first step in furthering Vayam’s programme of ‘building community resilience’ among the residents of Patryachapada, the surrounding hamlets and the village that it was a part of.
Once a rich source of resources, the forests surrounding the hamlets were slowly depleting, with the once self-sufficient tribal community being forced to depend on the nearby city’s weekly market to purchase resources that were once abundantly found in their own backyard. The plan was to scour the forests, interact with the members of the community and try and ascertain the extent of degeneration of the crucial resources necessary for the community’s sustenance. The rudimentary database that would emerge at the end of the trip would provide the premise on which a plan of action to build a self-sustaining model of community resilience would be chalked.
After almost four hours in the ST vehicle we finally reached the Nashik bus stand where we were met by Amit Tillu, one of our unofficial tour guides and our host for the three-day trip, the other one being Milind who joined along the way. Snugly seated on Amit’s tractor, we saw the concrete jungle giving way to mountains crowned with real forests that were to be our workplace for the next three days.
Our entry into Patryachapada was welcomed and after a cursory round of greetings to the villagers we were on our way to a tryst with our first mountain. A walk across the fields, an encounter with a makeshift cement block ‘bridge’ across the stream, a trek into the mountains was the daily exercise that we followed to reach Amit’s house on the top of the hill. A modest yet incomparable dwelling, Amit’s house boasted of a self-sufficient supply of bio-gas, running water supply from a reservoir nearby, a solar heater and of course his sprawling acres of farmland.
Our days began with a trip into the forests, with either Amit or Milind dada and another villager to guide us through the greens and point out species of trees, insects, birds, fruits and other aspects of the forests and explain their characteristics. Amit dada’s theoretical expertise combined with his first hand experience with the region was a great asset to us nature’s novices who had confined biology to books.
After a day’s bout of roaming around in the forest, we gradually began to see glimpses of the work that lay ahead. Fruit trees of the forest were greatly reduced except mangoes, which were seasonal. We discovered that the mahua trees which many be considered as a forest cousin of the coastal kalpavriksha may prove to be a profitable business venture as every part of the plant possesses a use. Select small shrubs that grew in the wild may be harvested as medicinal plants to be used as Ayurvedic cures for something as mundane as a ear infection or to boost post pregnancy health.
However a welcome addition to Vayam’s endeavour was Chaitram Pawar, a tribal leader from the Baripada village whose efforts at making his village an example in tribal self-sufficiency and ecological conservation had received international recognition. Chaitram bhau had been invited on the second day of our trip to interact with the villagers and share his experiences. Bhau’s humble narrative of his impressive achievements was displayed to the Patryachapada residents in a public screening of the documentary on the story of Baripada’s development, by and for its residents.
Baripada’s native forest policy that continues to prevent undue tree-felling, its priority towards primary education, the community’s self-sustaining nature of activities and Chaitram bhau’s foresight did create an impact in Patryachapada as well, which could be gauged by the flurry of people surrounding him after the screening. Tips were taken and problems were shared. The aim was not to create another Baripada, the aim was to renew Patryachapada based on the model that its natives envisaged.
Interactions with the people whose houses we visited also revealed problems related to the water resources drying up during summer leaving the crops languishing without any source of nourishment. Firewood was a scarcity, with a couple of old trees having been cut down recently, that heralded the oncoming possibility of deforestation to meet the demand for fuel. The families depended on markets for vegetables and spices that were homegrown a decade before. Crops for subsistence rather than sale were creating losses.
The problems were many but so were the possibilities. The forest treks had opened our eyes to the treasure that lay waiting to be explored, but the second and probably the most trying part of the challenge was to convey our realization to those who needed to see. We were not there to develop the community’s resilience nor to propound business ventures and suggest a line of ‘development’. However what we realized was that once the community ascertains the value of the resources that define its resilience, building and sustaining that resilience will automatically become the community’s responsibility and will no longer be restricted to a Vayam project.
As we reached the end of the stay, after three days of exhausting trekking and hiking, enriching conversations, pangs of helplessness at encountering the vulnerability of the community and its resources and a glimmer of hope that Baripada offered, we realized that what began as a muddled journey involving concepts like ecological conservation and resilience ended in a muddied one with each one of us fifteen Vayam volunteers having gained some insight on what defines the resilience of our lives.