Stories of survival, courage, cooperation, and unity are easily available to read and listen, but the aura and influence are astounding when the story itself is where you have stepped into with the actual characters who have created some wonders, narrate to you with utmost simplicity. You meet people who are unheard and unspoken, witnessing their lives. Saliyatoli is one of such villages in Jharkhand in Gumla district, situated near a Naxalite forest.
"The story begins in the early 1980s", Rantha Pradhan, one of the pioneer settlers of the village begins to narrate. Displaced from their fatherland, the tribe settlers had nothing to earn their livelihood from. Agriculture is their inherited skill, but creating a cultivable land in a forest is next to breaking a mountain into pieces. The next ten years, for the tribe, are going to be the toughest time to survive. "With no livelihood options, we started selling woods to nearby villages that gave us in return some food and clothes. Most of the time the food was not enough for the tribe, so with no options left, we used to get ourselves fed upon the bark of Sakhua tree and the flowers of Mahua. This went on for another ten years". To curb the situation, Rantha Pradhan at a young age, went to North East in search of livelihood. He migrated to Nagaland, then Assam. He returned to 'Saliyatoli' in 1992, unsatisfied. His hard work could not help the village for long and the conditions remained as they were. In his absence, other issues began to raise threats to their village.
During the late 80s, the Rural Development Projects resulted in shedding off the forests for the construction of the roads and other private constructions. This almost drowned the existence of the tribe... It is said that the struggle of the last breath and last push is the strongest, so was the response of the tribe. They began to understand the scene and decided to respond intelligently in unity. They formed among themselves a Forest Conservation Committee (Van Sanrakshan Samiti) in 1987 and deployed men at the strategic spots of the forest for communicating any destructive activity in the forest. On their signal, the entire task force of the committee rally to the spot and makes the work difficult for the intruders. This struggle went on for two years until they ensured the security of the natural resource of their village.
During the struggle, they realized the importance of education and need to learn calculations to trade and measure their lands. As earlier, their response to this realization was empowering. They on themselves initiated an 'Adult Literacy' initiative with the help of an educated well-wisher in a nearby village. With education, the earned self-esteem fills us with the confidence and intellectual ideas, so it did to the villagers. And the idea hit the tribe to transform Saliyatoli into an agricultural forest village. They scouted for a fertile and clear land nearby and started plowing the land nearby a river. It was not enough though. The idea of cutting the forest was not abiding by their principles. "What to do now? We were out of ideas", says Rantha. There are 27 families in this village and the land was not sufficient to feed them as well as sell.
"Alas, an idea hits me!", the villagers sitting around smiled at Rantha as he said this. The glee of hope, self-esteem, and humility was visible in their eyes in anticipation what Rantha was going to tell the next is something of which they all were proud and they feel the part of it.
Rantha said, "the idea was to divert the flow of the river into a straight path rather than the curved path on which it was flowing earlier. At first, to the villagers, the idea seemed too humongous to execute. Having no other option the villagers agreed to this task and do something than watching their children die of hunger and cold. They calculated that this diversion will save them 27 acres of cultivable land! They began digging the diversion of the river by cutting a strike through the land that would bypass the river within the forest leaving behind a huge chunk of land. Well, that was not easy without imagining the existence of any machine during those times with no money. However, they tried manually doing this huge task. Every day, they dug, eat and sleep and the routine begins every next morning. But most of the time rains dragged their progress two steps behind. One year of hard work could not give them an encouraging result.
Then they decided to take a bold and tough step. They collectively decided to contribute money from every pocket to get this done with the help of a machine. The hard work began to get even harder. They have to find earning to contribute. They cultivated on whatever land they found and judiciously consumed and sold the produce in nearby villages. With whatever they earned, they managed to gather two lacs of rupees in another two years! The money they earned was spent as decided and it took them 4 months to get the diversion created through the forest with the help of hired machines. In return for their hard work and tenacity, the river gifted them 27 acres of most fertile land.
The lessons learned in hardships and integrity with hard work paid them off… Today they produce rice and all seasonal vegetables with modern and innovative techniques taught by local NGOs. SRI technique, Machan Kheti, and organic farming to produce potatoes, tomatoes, chilly, mushroom, mangoes, and several vegetables. With collective earning of the village, they purchased pumps and dug wells for irrigation. (image at right: A villager at his farm with Machan Kheti)
Today they fight not for the survival. But the fight is not over yet. Their struggle today is for their rights against the administration for the ownership of their land. By law, the land belongs to them, but the institutionalized corruption is the toughest enemy to fight against. It has been 70 years of independence and the villages like Saliyatoli still have no electricity supply. The district official do visit, but installation never seems to be happening.
The lesson is much important for the humanity to learn from the people of Saliyatoli. Solving the social problems with the help of social capital, mutual respect, and honesty. The leadership is not a personal attribute, it appears as a social attribute and manifests as a beautiful positive change for good.
Today the strength of self-reliance is so profound in people that it is visible in their attitude, integrity, humility, and honesty. They are the savior of the culture, the nature, and the beauty of the humanity. A true story of empowerment, courage, self-reliance, and hope at Saliyatoli, a beautiful forest village in Jharkhand.
Kushal Kumar Maurya (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Founder & Editor of Think it Again