When your days are spent away at boarding school and you return home for the summer holidays in the seemingly glorious Mahan forest; one wonders what life would seem like to you. Some of them are far too young to have left home for boarding school, whilst the others are older, filled with aspirations for a better tomorrow.

Barely 6 or 7 years of age, Akshay Kumar is quite literally the Mowgli of Budher. You will find him scampering away, barefoot, an equivalent amount of enthusiasm shown in every activity he takes part in. From picking mahua, carrying sal wood logs on his back, playing with the boys to washing his underwear after a bath and wringing it to perfection, before setting it out to dry! Fondly called Munni Lal by friends and family, he is energetic, lively, intelligent and a fast learner who knows the way of the forest far too well for his tender age.

Every time I sit down with him and attempt to engage him in some kind of conversation, all that emerges is a big, wild grin on his chubby face, accompanied with an, "Eh? Ack?" or an "Ek dum mast hain, (This is fantastic)," in response to photographs he caught a glimpse of on my phone or point and shoot camera. A day before I left, he came up and asked me, "Everyone is saying you're leaving tomorrow, will you come back?" For some reason, I was touched at his momentary concern at our camp's dispersal. He continued, "We love having you people here, it's a lot of fun. Did you climb any trees this time? Next time, we'll climb some trees."

His innocence lay in his belief in the eternal youth of the forest; thousands of children like him from the Mahan forest could potentially be torn away from their natural habitat because mighty corporations like the Essar Group will destroy these forests for coal.

20 May 2014

Akshay Kumar

 

Young Priyanshu Kumar Kushwaha is back home in the jungle spending his summer vacation swinging from the branches of the ancient banyan tree, frolicking in the lake, playing games with the boys, all of this, after picking mahuas each day.

A little over 10, he's talkative, friendly and incredibly enthusiastic. I ask him what he wants to be when he grows up and pat comes the response, his eyes are gleaming, "I want to become an engineer. Subjects like Science and English, greatly interest me. When I'm away at school, my father wants me to be at home, but when I'm at home for too long, he again wants to send me off to school! He gets angry if I waste my time in anyway," laughs Priyanshu. He is the youngest child at home and has three older sisters who are married.

He is particularly skilled at creating marvelous topis made from banyan and sarai leaves, put together with twigs and sticks. Not to mention, his favourite sport happens to be football and the ultimate jungle past time is spent with his friends playing goti (a game played with stones)."You know something, didi? I don't enjoy collecting mahuas, I'd much rather be in school studying."

I ask him rather seriously, if a day came by, when he could no longer return to the forest, when there were no more trees to climb, fruits to pick and lakes to swim in, how would he feel? He sat there silently staring back at me. And then a gamut of emotions flowed, "I've heard we may lose our land sister, but we will never give it up! The jungle is our home, these trees are my friends, and this is our life. I think our government doesn't respect nature at all. They just want to eat up more and more of it!"

20 May 2014

Priyanshu Kushwaha

 

Inquisitive and quiet, Niraj Kumar Panika's big bold eyes stand out, as he stares from the doorway. He mutters quietly when I ask him about himself, "I'm 10 years old, the holidays are going on." He looks on, into the distance where a group of boys are playing by themselves, I ask him if they are his friends and he nods shyly, a slight smile on his face.

We're at the village Amelia, at a small stone establishment belonging to Ganeshi Singh Gond used for holding Mahan Sangharsh Samiti (MSS) oriented meetings. This is the second time that I've observed Niraj standing at the doorway on the peripheries of a heated conversation. I ask him if there's something particularly striking about the conversations he listens in on and the people that he observes coming and going from here. "Meetings happen, problems come up, and arguments are seen. Somehow solutions come about to settle the matter or at least the matter is dissolved amidst themselves," he says.

He's always calm, silent and observant. I ask him if there's something comforting about coming here and witnessing the MSS discussing and solving some of their most pertinent and distressing issues. He says, "They are good people. Trying to do what they can. "

20 May 2014

Niraj Kumar Panika

 

Ram Lalu Singh's 17 year old son Lal Babu is friendly yet distant at most times. Back home from boarding school, he says he will definitely return to the forest to live once he finishes his education. "I've been living at my boarding school since the past 3 years or so, I enjoy the company of having friends my age in school. Over here they are like a group of my younger brothers who I look upon to take care of," he smiles. His affection for them is evident, he plays an interactive role in many of their games, never failing to watch over from a distance when they're running, jumping and climbing trees.

He tells me about the animals he has seen and the experiences he has had, "If you see an animal around our homes, it's most likely going to be the bear. I remember the first time I saw a bear, I was 8 years old and I was roaming around in the jungle. The moment I saw the bear I stopped walking, the bear came near me, I didn't react and then it walked away. I'm not scared! I love the animals. Especially the monkeys and the cheetahs."

It's common knowledge that the company often threatens the forest dwellers. I ask him if the MSS group have provided any solutions when it comes to dealing with confrontations with company goons. He says, "I think the radio can play an important role in voicing such concerns. I've always enjoyed listening to the radio. We've been told that if we are posed with any direct threat, we can call up Radio Sangharsh and immediately report our problem."

I finally ask him, if he believes they will win against the corporations and reclaim their forest rights. "In the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti Group, we have made it very clear we want to save our forests and we will fight till the very end! We will all stand together, come what may. Somehow we must win."

20 May 2014

Lal Babu

 

Ram Kumar Singh takes a break from collecting mahuas and climbs up a neighbouring tendu tree. He begins picking fruits for his troop of boys.

20 May 2014

Ram Kumar Singh

 

Akshay and Priyanshu Kumar Kushwaha (boys in blue) wait patiently along with their friends, standing below the tendu tree, waiting for Ram to throw down some fruits.

20 May 2014

 

Cheeky little mowgli, Akshay eats the tendu fruits; one can observe the Greenpeace volunteer team sitting together collecting mahuas in the background.

20 May 2014

 

After collecting mahuas, Priyanshu Kushwaha, Ram Kumar Singh and Akshay Kumar settle down to play a game of goti (a game played with stones).

20 May 2014

 

Shashwati Shankar is a volunteer with Greenpeace India.