Across India’s 668 protected areas that account for 1.61 lakh square kilometres of the country’s landmass, a common issue faced by Forest Department officials and conservationists is deforestation. It is not only that deforestation reduces forest cover, but it is also that constant intrusion into protected areas by people for firewood and other purposes results in exacerbating conflict with wildlife.
“In the late 90s and early 2000s, one enduring sight whenever you drove to Bandipur from Mysuru was the countless number of villagers, especially women, walking with stacks of wood on their head,” says Krupakar, a renowned wildlife filmmaker and long-time resident of Bandipur. He adds, “It was clear to us that a large part of the forest was being encroached every day for cutting and collecting firewood. The Forest Department’s reaction to the issue was also erratic. We were invested in the area and wanted to do something to change this situation.”
Along with Senani Hegde, his filmmaking partner and with assistance from the Forest Department, Krupakar set up the Namma Sangha (Our Group), an organisation whose aim was two-fold — reduce pressure on the forests and provide villagers with an alternative source of fuel.
Gas to the rescue
“We surveyed the region in 2002-03 and found that every household in the over 200 villages around the forest uses about 15 kilograms of firewood per day. This accounts for about 3.5 lakh kilograms of firewood that is extracted from the forest every day,” says Krupakar.
Stretching for an area of 874 square-kilometres, the Bandipur Tiger Reserve is among the most celebrated protected areas in India. Along with adjoining protected areas such as the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala and the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu, the region is home to the largest tiger population in India, estimated to be about 354 to 411. The region is also one of the last remaining havens for the Asiatic elephant as well as a treasure trove for biodiversity, both flora and fauna alike.
A Namma Sangha delivery van.
The Bandipur tiger reserve has 204 villages located within a five-kilometre radius from the national park. According to Krupakar, the primary source of fuel for all these villages was firewood. The wood cut from the forest was also sold in local markets in Gundulpet and other neighbouring towns. With an under-staffed Forest Department, it was impossible to keep out villagers for whom firewood was not only necessary but was also proving to be a viable source of income. This urged both conservationists and the Forest Department to consider alternative solutions in order to curb deforestation.
“We had heard about the idea of getting people to use LPG to reduce interference with forest and we decided to give it a try here,” says Krupakar. “Even if it was not going to save the forests, we thought supplying gas would at least help the women get out of smoky kitchens,” he adds.
Supplying LPG as a fuel substitute to prevent deforestation has been tested in villages surrounding other protected areas in India, such as Terai Arc landscape in the Indo-Nepalese border region, the Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand, Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan as well as in the Malai Mahadeshwara Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka. More often than not, these efforts have been unsuccessful since the conservation organisations, as well as the local Forest Department, have not been able to sustain their efforts of supplying the fuel for more than a few years. In Bandipur though, there has been consistent supply for the last 16 years.
With this thought, Namma Sangha applied and received a distributor’s license from the Indian Oil Corporation and began distributing LPG gas cylinders. “When it was started, many people even within the department thought it won’t work, that the villagers won’t use LPG. The connections were given for free and so were stoves and other additional accessories. This convinced the villagers to give LPG a try,” says Yatish Kumar, District Conservator of Forest (DCF) in Haliyal, Karnataka, who was in-charge of Bandipur in 2003. He adds, “We also didn’t want this program to be under the department alone since sometimes it is difficult to sustain initiatives that are entirely dependent on the government apparatus. This is why an organisation like Namma Sangha was tasked with the job so that they can function independently without any bureaucratic constraints. We never thought it will be as successful as it has become now, it is really quite a story. As far as I know, such an initiative has not survived the test of time as well anywhere else in India either.”
Namma Sangha had also received assistance from the Project Tiger program, which had advanced funds to the organisation. Apart from this official support, the rest of the funds required to source and distribute gas was taken care of through personal funds of the filmmaker duo as well as through donations. They had initially expected to provide not more than 10,000 to 15,000 gas connections. According to the latest figures, the agency provides for 39,350 connections.
A permanent solution
“We will never go back to firewood. We’ve all gotten used to LPG completely and we’d rather wait for a few days for a new cylinder than go into the forests,” says Nagamma C, a Jenu Kuruba tribeswoman from the village of Mugavenahalli, located a few kilometres outside Bandipur National Park. Nagamma also works as the cook at a nearby government primary school and since there is LPG supply to the school as well, her job there has also been made easier. Nagamma has been using LPG since 2006 and said that a cylinder lasts for two months on an average at her home. “I can also finish cooking quickly and go to work now. Earlier it was really a tough task to light the fire, cook, get everything ready at home and then go to work, I don’t need to worry about all of that so much now,” she adds. Namma Sangha now employs 30 persons and distributes an average of 14,000 cylinders every month.
M Meenakshi and other villagers at Mel Kammanahalli prepare a communal meal, with the LPG used as fuel.
Namma Sangha has also become completely self-sufficient and while Krupakar, Senani or all others who volunteer to help do not receive any payments, the employees from the Bandipur area receive a monthly salary. This has worked as a viable employment solution for them at a time when unemployment is a real issue. At last count, the organisation employs about 70 local youth who work in various departments, including administration, storage and supply of the gas cylinders. The organisation was running at a loss for many years but broke even and begun making a profit a few years ago. The major impediment to their work has been the supply of gas to villages, which are located in distant regions, sometimes up to 40kms from their gas storage centre. “We have a lot of trouble reaching these areas since the roads are also really bad. That is why one of our major expenses is our supply vehicles which we need to repair constantly or buy new vehicles every two years,” says Suresh P, who oversees operations at Namma Sangha.
He adds, “The program has been so successful though that other gas supply agencies have even popped up in the region. A decade earlier, this would have been unthinkable.”
The Namma Sangha example is one of the longest running conservation programs of this nature anywhere in India now, according to the group. “They had tried similar measures in other national parks but they failed after a few years in those regions. I believe this is because it was conservationists sitting in New Delhi and trying to run the entire program. This is just not possible, you need to be on the ground for something like this to work,” says Krupakar.
An aerial view of the Mel Kammanahalli village located just outside the Bandipur forests.
Improving forest health
“While no concerted survey has been done, it is obvious to anyone who is familiar with Bandipur that once biotic influence was reduced, the forest’s health improved automatically,” says Kumar, the Forest Officer. He adds, “Encroaching for firewood and cattle are like two cancers that plague Indian forests, while the cattle issue is difficult to deal with because of people’s sentiments and so on, we have found an effective solution to the first problem.”
Various reports regarding forest health have also identified biotic pressure as among the key factors for forest degradation in India. In Bandipur too, it plays a significant role in forest degradation. The report, Management Plan for the Elephants in Bandipur Tiger Reserve prepared by the state Forest Department and the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation (ANCF) had identified such pressures as a primary cause for deforestation a decade earlier. The report stated, “Grazing by domestic cattle and firewood collection although not legally permitted have become serious habitat threats degrading forest conditions almost all along the northern boundary of the BTR.” They had identified 213 villages along the forest boundary who owned over 1,16,000 scrub cattle and infringed the forests for firewood. The report had also identified Namma Sangha as being a positive agent in managing the biotic pressure on the forests.
As Krupakar says, “I believe one reason why the forest is in better health now is because of our work. People have also lost any reason to venture into the forests or use firewood. I just hope in other areas of India where they are attempting such conservation methods, they stick to it for the long-term and not abandon the idea halfway. That is the only way to make sure that both environmental goals are achieved as well as people’s lives are improved.”
Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Chennai.