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Paharkol – how the barren land of Bankura turned green in a govt-public drive - GetBengal story

30 March, 2024 10:47:23
Paharkol – how the barren land of Bankura turned green in a govt-public drive - GetBengal story

And here is a lush green hamlet tucked amidst the barren topography of red laterite. Who could have ever thought the sprouting of a huge forested land in the middle of nowhere? But that’s what has happened, thanks to a green drive taken up by a group of villagers. They might not be educated, nor have taken up green activism previously, yet they are today the messiahs of environment, conserving it for the future generation. The new attraction of West Bengal’s Bankura district is Rinku Gope’s hamlet, Paharkol. Rinku is a simple Adivasi woman from the Santhal tribe, who has played a pivotal role in the rejuvenation of a hillock believed to be the sacred resting place of the local deity Paharsene.

Transforming what was once a barren hillock in a hamlet comprising 44 households, her efforts have led to the creation of a verdant sanctuary. The hillock is now covered with blossoming trees, and is home to various bird species. The forest acts as a natural barrier, effectively preventing soil erosion. Rinku’s dedication to environmental conservation and restoration of this sacred site has not only beautified the landscape but also contributed to the preservation of local ecological balance and cultural heritage. She has inspired many from her community who have joined hands to work out a magic, something that many urbanites have failed over the decades. This inspiring initiative stands as a testament to the profound connection between community, spirituality, and environmental stewardship.

Locals believe that the deity of Paharsene blesses them with monsoon rainfall during the kharif season when the farmers sow paddy. Hence, every year they worship the deity during the winter harvest festival of Poush Sankranti. They visit the hilltop in order to pay their respects and get the deity’s blessings. Across Bengal, Poush Sankranti is celebrated through the making of the sweet called “pitha” or “pithe”. This festival is celebrated in Paharkol by women who climb atop the sacred hillock to sacrifice a hen followed by cooking delicacies as offerings to Paharsene. In Paharkol, agriculture stands as the predominant occupation, with Gope, like many other farmers in the hamlet, actively engaged in cultivating the land. Small farmers depend on the monsoon season entirely. Even though there is a dam in Paharkol lying within 100 metres on the Shilabati river, adequate rain is needed for the dam to be full of water. Thanks to Gope, the water level in the dam has increased after the hillock turned green, water depletion has stopped.

Even three years ago, the situation was completely opposite. The Paharkol hillock, situated in Bankura's Hirbandh block, lacked any vegetation, leading to surface water runoff carrying loose soil and pebbles to the farmlands below. In response, a restoration initiative began during the 2018 monsoon, aiming not only to safeguard farmers' lands but also to rejuvenate the sacred resting place of Paharsene. “The state forest department decided to start social forestry where residents will be involved. People like Gope actively participated in planting more than 14,000 saplings of Sonajhuri (Acacia auriculiformis) trees,” said a forest official of Bankura beat. Why were Sonajhuri chosen? Botany professor Shyama Dasgupta said: “Any species of Acacia can thrive with minimal water, making it well-suited for arid environments like that of Bankura. They are thorny and hence can retain water longer.”

Some locals like Gope came forward and were so active that they were trained under an NGO named Pradan, who taught the locals how moisture retention can be increased and the entire region can be saved from soil erosion by effective plantation drive. With trees, came flocks of birds. Today Paharkol can boast of a big and diverse bird population, from Indian mynah, spotted dove, Asian koel to eagles. As the area has turned green, local cattle fodder is readily available. Environmentalist and Green Technologist Somendra Mohan Ghosh lauded this initiative taken by the government and local people together. “More the trees, less is soil erosion. Be it in the coastal areas or around the banks of rivers, trees help in securing the land by holding the soil firmly. It has to be ensured that the trees are not cut down again. Such as in Sundarbans, deforestation was done by the local people to enhance their livelihood by catching fish, so the local authorities have to keep an eye on Paharkol too. But the step is impressive and needs to be preserved by the locals equally.” 

For years, soil erosion has been the main evil which was affecting the agriculture of the area and Bankura being an area totally dependent on agriculture was facing different challenges due to this. In Paharkol, farmlands were being damaged by soil and gravel tumbling downwards from various arid hillocks due to erosion. Today, about 170 men and women are working together to cover not only the hillock but also drought-prone uplands with plantations. In 2017, the West Bengal government initiated the Usharmukti scheme to implement the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), a rural employment guarantee scheme. This scheme aimed to transform barren lands into productive assets in the Jangalmahal region. Spread across Bankura, Purulia, Birbhum and West Midnapore districts of West Bengal, Jangalmahal is primarily inhabited by tribal communities. The primary focus of the Usharmukti scheme was to revitalize the land, create livelihood opportunities and curb migration by addressing the employment needs of local population.

NGOs like Pradan also played a crucial role as the technical partner for Usharmukti in Bengal. Collaborating with the state government in Bankura, Pradan undertook land treatment initiatives, treating 9.5 hectares of land in the hillock area. Himadri Das, overseeing the Paharkol reforestation project on behalf of Pradan, highlighted the organization's engagement with communities through village-level meetings on watershed management. The planning phase occurred during the financial year 2017-18, with implementation commencing in 2018-19 for the revival of the hillock. In addition to planting sonajhuri trees on the hillock, fallow lands in the surrounding areas were also covered with horticulture species such as mango, aiming to provide livelihood opportunities for local residents.Plantation work on the fallow lands occurred to some extent in the subsequent years, with planning extending into the 2022-’23 financial year. Presently, a 10-hectare mango orchard with 3,600 trees has been established. 

Bankura predominantly has Sal forests along with trees like Eucalyptus and Akashmoni. Bankura holds one of the best qualities of Sal Forest in West Bengal particularly at Radhanagar, Sonamukhi and Patrasayer and the entire Bishnupur sub-divisional jurisdiction. Its flora bio-diversity increased substantially over time. The success of Paharkol can be an example for any other reforestation drive across India where locals have been so active in turning an arid zone green.

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