Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Holes in the jungle

Sneha Koilada recently volunteered at one of our mobile health camps, in Melghat Tiger Reserve. She sent us her impressions of the experience, the communities she met and their impact on the forest...

I was to volunteer for a medical health camp with NCSA. I made my reservations, did the shopping and sat in the train not knowing where I’m going! There was no warm welcome and no one guiding me about the camp. Professional expectations led them all to believe I knew what to do, when in fact I had not an inkling!

We started at 6 am sharp for Melghat, picked up the doctors on the way, brought the veggies at Paratwada, made a breakfast stop at Harisal and kept going. The first place we reached was the Knowledge Resource Centre in Harisal. It was set on about 2 acres of land, a tiny utility building with a few people hanging out in the porch, setting off to work. The education officer Manasi Sharma wasn’t around, so I still didn’t know who to talk to!

The bathroom break now done, we ascended the ghat roads and then began the endless journey of twists and turns. The forest got thicker and thicker, the roads got rockier, the sun started beating down the windshield and the people on the roads dwindled to none. We had our breakfast under a huge tree on a tiny bridge as the clear water trickled from under us in the shallow lake.


The first village on our itinerary took us longer than expected to reach. It was past twelve and most men and women had left to work in the farms already. Dhokda had thirty households, all uniformly grey and earthy looking. We set up in a hut beside the primary school which was the first building in the village. The men and women who had stayed back home took their time to decide which of them was sick and trickled down slowly to the doctors’ sitting area. The doctors were pretty fast in diagnosing the twenty odd patients who came their way, most of whom suffered weaknesses from vitamin and mineral deficiencies. The villagers were all humble and accommodating. They did not understand much of what was going on. They had no idea what the doctors were doing or prescribing. They just knew that the pills they were going to receive would make them feel better. Rest is irrelevant.

We traversed through undergrowth filled roads, the undergrowth sometimes being as high as six feet to reach Dhokda. There were so many streams in between which could have potentially ruined the roads in the season. There was no other way to reach the village. But the villagers seemed unconcerned. When asked what they would do in case of a medical emergency, they nonchalantly replied that they would take the ailing person to Rangubilli or Dharni when they could. Apparently mortality isn’t something they were afraid of.

The quaint little resthouse in Rangubilli. Apparently Jim Corbett stayed here when he was called in to track down a man-eating leopard.

We stayed in a rest house in Rangubilli which is a fairly larger village with two Dhanas and a Patel (a village head). We were renting one large room with four beds and a makeshift bathroom in an interior room. The kitchen was quartered separately and ran on firewood. The dining quarters were separate as well. Our resthouse was on the foot of a hill and I did trek on to the top of it when I could. It was so full of trees and undergrowth and scary looking spiders screening the pathways with cobwebs. The area was impeccably green and the pathways were gravelly.

Occasionally I would come across animal feces and get excited despite it looking like cow dung. Apparently it was, as Guddu, the ambulance driver kindly pointed out to me. "Yes, this far up the hill." "Yes, cows can climb." The entire area, so thick with vegetation was rendered useless for wildlife due to the constant grazing that goes on in the area. As a result of that, I did not have my fantasy of screaming a bear into submission, fulfilled.

Never mind, the trek was awesome and I did manage to find a view that showed me the exact demarcation of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and the exact line where the forest ended.


Guddu and I handing out the medicines

On Day Two, we went to another village called Khamda which was set up on the clearing in between a couple of hills. As the other ones, this village too was a short kutcha road lined with huts on either side. At the beginning of this road was the primary school with a long corridor where we set up the camp. In front of the village were fields growing all kinds of mixed vegetation. At the end of the road was a small clearing that led into the forest.

Most of the men and women who came to be treated at the camp were extremely thin, quiet and with children. The kids got multivitamins and the women were prescribed a slew of antibiotics. We left quickly but not before attending to the last patient. We were to visit another village called Kund, but a stream flooded the road that reaches there. Guddu aka Sanjay traversed the length of the stream and decided that it was too risky to pass. We bathed in the stream instead, its water warm and the surface mossy and slippery.

I was alone in a shallow stream in the middle of a dense forest, at a place where the settlements
couldn’t be reached if the water level is high. I was just on the brink of the Melghat Tiger Reserve and I couldn’t see a thing from the point where the vegetation started at the bank of the stream. And I was totally and utterly unafraid of wildlife, completely sure that not a tiny bird would make its way towards me. And that was not a good feeling. That was not what I wanted to feel in the middle of the forest. Cows and lambs were not what I wanted to see in the dense forest pathways. Yet that’s what I saw and I knew that the human encroachments were the only reason why vast areas of the thick forest were uninhabited by wildlife.

At Rangubilli: The midwife of the village (right) with her daughter and grandson that she delivered. She says the government doesn’t pay her regularly for her efforts in about five villages around Rangubilli.

Day Three: we went to Khokmar after another successful round at Rangubilli in the morning. Khokmar was fairly easy to reach compared to the other villages and was set in a sweet little clearing surrounded by hills. The view was spectacular from any point in the village, but the mood was ruined when I was informed that these are the kind of areas that the chital and other wildlife like to graze and inhabit. Since it is a fairly accessible village, the villagers weren’t very interested in the ambulance that passed their way.

There were only a handful of people who needed medical attention. I spoke to a man with a ghastly cut in his right foot haphazardly dressed. When I told him the medical camp was set up at the school, he was almost carelessly reluctant to have it checked. There were other villagers who looked on nonchalantly when I told them about the camp, some of them well above sixty five years of age. And there was no other medical help in the village itself. A woman with a grandchild shunned me away as I told her about the medical camp. I did not have enough time to get to the root of the situation, but I can only assume they either get regular medical attention or that they did not believe in the system.

Medical camp at the primary school in Khokmar

I met a couple of girls whiling away their time in a hut who told me that they do nothing the entire day if they did not go to the field. I am not usually one to judge and I am definitely not an expert, but it felt like the people in these villages are living an extremely laidback lifestyle, most times ignoring the problems at hand, even if it is health care. A woman and child both looking emaciated came to us as we were just leaving. I tried explaining to her that good food and sanitation were important for her boy to get healthy, but she did not try to understand me. I was an outsider for her, it was understandable, but she did not look like she even wanted a solution for her problem. The boy was diagnosed as malnourished and he looked extremely weak and lifeless. They have a Yojana that provides protein-filled food in the Anganwadi or the school, but it was obvious that the woman doesn’t send the boy to school enough for him receive any nutrition. She told me he doesn’t eat as much as half a roti on any given day.

I am not sure yet what kind of education the people in these villages receive. I was told that they get no assistance from agriculturists and their fields are generally filled with all kinds of random crops depending on what they need at the moment. The children have some kind of healthcare system in place, but it was doubtful that any one of them gets educated beyond the fourth or fifth standard education the school provides. The huts are illuminated through solar panels as these villages have no access to the grid, but there was no assistance for the non-functioning units. There is talk of yojanas for agricultural equipment and medical insurance, but there is no talk of any organisations talking among these adivasis about a life outside of the village, except for the occasional bazaar in a nearby village. None of the villagers have any plans for moving out and finding better things unlike the rest of the population in rural India.

We could not reach the last village on the itinerary because the rain had swamped the road, which also meant that no other supplies or assistance would reach that village till the ground dried and become accessible to the larger vehicles.

There are dozens of bridges like these all over Melghat and there is no way to repair them if they are swallowed by the stream, rendering the villages on the other side inaccessible.

The return journey to Amravati was largely uneventful and quiet as all of us felt mildly thwarted at being unable to reach the final village. I spent my limited daylight time glued to the binoculars swearing to myself that I wasn’t leaving Melghat without seeing something other than the monkeys!

As the roads darkened and my hopes began fading, the pack decided to say hello. From a distance I thought they were just the regular village dogs out for a run, or some cattle. But Guddu was sweet enough to point out that we had just chanced upon a pack of wild dogs (Dholes). And oh my, were they majestic! All you wildlife enthusiasts know everything there is to know about them, so I’ll spare you the details and tell you just how my breath got knocked out of me for the whole five minutes they took to decide which way to go now that their plans were ambushed by the unexpected ambulance sighting.

So I smiled all the way back to the Resource Center in Harisal, met Manasi Sharma who I thought was awesomely ambitious to take up the job and the guys who run the resource center, who I’m sure were extremely capable of running such great activities as NCSA and the Satpuda Foundation conduct.

Text and photos: Sneha Koilada
Melghat Tiger Reserve
October 2010

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