Orientation cum Training Camp in Forest Villages (23rd-24th May, 2009)
SWANS organised a 2 day 1 night camp in the forest villages Neelgarh and Dhunwani in Ratapani Sanctuary, Raisen District, MP in collaboration with the Forest Department. The camp was intended to orient the SWANS on life in the forests, problems encountered by Forest department and tribals in protecting the forests and identify areas of development in forest villages.
Starting early in the morning on 23rd May, we drove 85 kms to Ratapani Sanctuary, entering from the Bhopal-Jabalpur route, playing Antakshari on the way. The 4 km drive into the forest to reach the first village Neelgarh was as exciting as enthralling for the SWANS. We were accompanied by the Ranger and his team. Upon reaching Neelgarh, we had breakfast that we carried from home and went trekking up the hill on a gradual slope that looked more or less like a landslide many years before as the top soil was covered with loosely held pebbles. We came down a steep slope trying to find our way through irregular natural steps like formations. While the villagers who accompanied us were so comfortable, our SWANS panted and sweated as they trekked.
Collecting firewood on the way, the SWANS got busy in cooking lunch, with groups dividing the work among themselves. It all looked like a factory shop floor with every activity related to cooking falling in the proper place at the proper time. It looked like the flock based activity had got rooted in the SWANS. Some of them took charge of erecting the tents that were provided by the Forest Department.
Later in the afternoon, the Forest Officials (DCF Mr Ravindra Saxena, Ranger Mr Soner) and their team visited the camp in the afternoon and briefed the SWANS on the various activities, responsibilities and problems faced by the department in conserving the forests and the concept of Joint Forest Management (JFM) with the tribals.
Lunch was followed by group games like Pithoo. Then it was time for work. The SWANS were given a Questionnaire to record details of every house in the village. 35 houses were covered by 26 SWANS with a SWAN doing at least one house before it turned dark. The questionnaire was aimed at giving an insight into the socio-economic status of a tribal family, and included questions on all dimensions including livelihood, health, education, etc. The villagers gathered around us after dinner for a chat. They were divided into age groups and SWANS in groups of 3-4 sat with them enquiring about their problems. It was so good to see the SWANS gel in so easily with the villagers and the discussions would have carried on had a few drops from the sky not reminded them that it was too late.
With no electricity around, dinner was cooked in the light provided by a Biogas Petromax, and the rooms and tents were lighted up by LED lights powered by Cowdung (Gobar Battery). Both the products were developed by some SWANS from MANIT Energy dept, and were put to ultimate test that night. While the lights attracted crawling and flying insects, it also attracted the villagers who saw light for the first time the whole night.
After dinner, a few scorpions ran helter-skelter to drive off sleep of some SWANS, and they chatted, sang, played cards overnight. Some slept in the cottage, others slept inside the bus. Those who chose to sleep on the bus roof climbed down when it rained, then again went up only to be sent down with frequent bouts of shower. But those who kept awake filled their eyes with innumerable stars that almost shone like a galaxy when the clouds drifted away. They had not even seen 20% of those in the cities and realised how pollution had blinded their vision of a clear sky.
The next morning was more challenging. Used to comfortable bathrooms, the SWANS for the first time were exposed to the natural and forest ways. They used the forest to freshen up, handpump to brush, and wells for a bath. But all this pumped up their spirits and they were fresh and bubbling for the day. After breakfast, the SWANS began their trek to village Dhunwani (about 2.5 kms from Neelgarh). Braving the scorching heat and beating it with water and glucose, the SWANS covered the distance in 50 mins.
But on reaching the village, without wasting any time they moved on to do the door to door survey of the houses. Some interacted with the Panchayat member in the village and took a look at the unfinished stop dam and wells. Back to the base near the central well, the SWANS and villagers gathered for a one-to-one interaction. Similar to the Neelgarh study, here too the villagers were divided in age groups, with one group specifically of women, and SWANS divided themselves in groups to interact with the villagers and capture their problems.
After about an hour of interactions and making promises of coming back, the SWANS started their trek back to Neelgarh. All fascinations of Aquaguard and Mineral water vanished, as they quenched their thirst with sweet cold water from the well. The energy of SWANS seemed to have doubled, as immediately after reaching Neelgarh, they swung into action to prepare lunch. Food never tasted so good before with all the hard work and team work the SWANS put in.
And then it was time to pack bags and leave, as we had to leave the forest before dark. With a heavy heart, and with memories of a lifetime, the SWANS drove back singing songs on the way.
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