The village of Budher is one of about 50 plus villages that constitute Mahan. It can be reached by swerving left off the main road after a 40 km drive from the industrial town of Waidhan. The road meanders through a series of small hills as agricultural land gradually gives way to the dry deciduous forest. Villagers in twos and threes can be seen on either side of the road, collecting Mahua.
The villagers of Budher are humble and hospitable. They live in small mud-walled houses consisting of a room or two and a courtyard along with small patches of farmland outlying their homes. Their cattle mostly include a few scrawny cows and goats which roam around like the lords of the village during daytime only to be tethered indoors at night-to keep them off the buffet of a prowling leopard.
On our arrival, a huge number of villagers assembled to welcome us and also constructed a make-shift shelter on an empty patch of land outside the house of Bhajandari Khuswaha, a prominent member along with his daughter, Anita , of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti. At night the girls were to sleep inside the house whereas the guys would camp under the temporary tent. The courtyard was to serve as the kitchen and dining hall.
That night after the camp setup was complete, Kripanath, a resident of Amelia village, 6 km away at the foothills briefed us on the grass-root scenario of Mahan; about the importance of the Mahua tree in their culture and the evil politics of the local administration and Essar, who plan to evict them from their ancestral land and raze down the forest along with its wildlife- all for less than 14 years of coal! Here I shall try to explain briefly what was said.
The forests of Mahan consist of various species of trees; economically and culturally important to the locals are the Mahua, Tendu and Sal trees. The Mahua flowers blossom only for a month every year in the month of April. Their importance lies in the fact that it is a cash crop. Hence the more the villagers can collect, the more they can earn. The Mahua that is collected can be sold to the middlemen, someone with a fat purse in the village or even the final buyer at rates ranging from rs 20/kg to rs. 25/kg.
Mahua can be used to make ayurvedic medicines, cosmetics, jam, a variety of domestic food products and also the much hyped about alcoholic drink. Villagers can sell their entire collection or hoard a part of it to sell at a later date. Most leave their houses as early as three in the morning and venture deep into the forest with their baskets to start their collection.
This ancient livelihood, based on traditional knowledge and practices is today in danger of being completely wiped out due to corporate and government greed.
"These big companies have come as a curse to us. They will change our way of live and we are too poor to even cry out for help. There is no one who will listen to us", says Kripanath, one of the founding members of Mahan Sangharsh Samiti, an independent movement that comprises of like-minded villagers from across Mahan; people who have pledged to stand up against companies like Essar and the local administration and defend their forest homes.
Greenpeace has been working closely with MSS since the last three years and what started as a group to frightened people has grown into a bold team of about 5000 members from various villages.
Thus we were there, a group of volunteers from various cities and various backgrounds. To help the villagers collect as much Mahua as possible; which would eventually be used to gather more funds for the struggle!
Siddhant is a Greenpeace volunteer.