The sound of a specific cycle bell deep inside the jungles of Kashinathpur village in Angul (Odisha) brings vibes of joy. Everybody recognises that bell because it belongs to 24-year-old Urmila Bahera who sometimes cycles to villages as far as 15 kilometres, braving bumpy roads, streams and elephants.
After graduating from college, Urmila was looking for a job, so she began tutoring school children. “Bhuvan Pradhan, a Panchayat Resource Person (PRP), along with some representatives of Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) visited our house. He explained his work as a PRP and offered to recommend my name for the post of the Community Resource Person (CRP) for my village. I agreed,” says Urmila. Little did she know that unknowingly she had carved a future path for herself.
Delighted to be able to serve her community, Urmila began her journey as a CRP by learning about her village’s shared natural resources, also known as commons, the formation and functioning of a village institution to manage and protect these resources, her responsibilities towards the village institution, and so on. Initially, Urmila’s responsibilities included working with women’s Self-Help Groups (SHGs) to improve their participation in the village institution’s processes, and sensitising people about various government schemes.
As she continued to engage with her village community and participate in capacity building programmes, Urmila’s understanding about the need for conserving commons improved; she learnt how to identify, map and protect natural resources, especially shared water resources.
Educating about resources in local dialect
Meanwhile, during their visit to Kashinathpur, FES representatives made a presentation about water and forest resources at Urmila’s Gram Panchayat. By now, everyone had discovered Urmila’s communication skills, so she was asked to explain it to the community in a simplified manner. In this way, she accompanies FES representatives to other nearby villages, and helps communities in becoming more aware and active in protecting and managing their commons.
“Urmila is a master in simplifying complex ideas. For instance, explaining to the villagers about the need for forest conservation and water-budgeting is not easy. But she has a way with words. Her examples and rustic rationale connect with the villagers,” says FES representative Dron Kumar.
Urmila has conducted the water assessment exercises in 15 villages in Angul district, an activity that has helped communities correctly assess their local water situation, and has also presented the findings from these assessments to the communities. This has triggered discussions on water use and management, aiding communities to understand and implement informed ways of recharging groundwater.
During her training with FES, Urmila had learnt to use the Groundwater Monitoring Tool (GWMT) on her phone. She helped her village community understand how to measure well-water levels and feed the data on the tool, through demonstrations. She also sensitised people to the provision of Community Forest Rights (CFR), including eligibility criteria and processes involved in claiming their rights.
Soon enough, her capabilities were recognised far and wide in the community; this, combined with her passion to work for her people led to her taking on the position of a Panchayat Resource Person (PRP). Urmila has been actively engaging with the community to collect forest and water-related data, which she presents in every Panchayat meeting and prompts discussions on the implications of this data.
Through these interactions, she is working to sensitise local government functionaries towards the long-term impact of water conservation, while also explaining how ward members can persuade people to use resources more judiciously.
Angul’s dwindling water levels and Urmila’s work
In Angul and most parts of Odisha, rainfall is the singular weather element that influences the patterns of farming systems. Since most farmers are engaged in rain-fed agriculture, the seasonal variations affect their production directly.
Angul district has a considerably consistent availability of groundwater resources. If wells and ponds are constructed in specific sites, it may result in increasing the irrigation potential and meeting the drinking water needs.
“Unlike many other villages, Kashinathpur has enough sub surface and groundwater, yet the villagers were busy trying to find more water resources. Urmila made them realise that the water was there, but it wasn’t reaching their farmlands. Now, with her help, the Panchayat is drawing up plans for building canals and bringing electricity to irrigate farmlands,” adds Kumar.
Further, due to her wisdom walks, many families have begun using forest resources in a more responsible and sustainable manner. Today, a majority of the families earn 20-25% of their livelihood through forest resources such as fuel wood, bamboo, mahua, tendu patta, and oil from mahua and sal trees.
“Selling tendu patta can fetch a family INR 8,000-10,000 per season while dealing in mahua fetches them maximum INR 12,000-15,000 per year. The selling of seed oils (from mahua and sal tree) can get them an additional INR 2,500/- per year. Many families have now begun dealing in these resources for livelihood,” adds Dron Kumar.
With her help in documentation, the Community Forest Rights (CFR) claims of 14 villages have been submitted to the concerned authorities. While they await the approval and recognition of their CFR titles, the village committees, with Urmila’s help, are drafting their CFR management plans in a more informed manner.
On the occasion of the International Day of the World's Indigenous People, celebrated on August 9th 2022, Urmila represented her indigenous community from Odisha at an event organised by the Indian Institute of Social Research and Development (IISRD) in Kolkata. Indigenous groups and representatives of 14 states were attending the event to discuss and dialogue on the theme of ‘Role of indigenous in the preservation and transfer of indigenous knowledge.
Urmila, along with three other Panchayat representatives from the state, made a presentation about the process of CFR management where she outlined some of the ways that the communities are working to build and preserve forest resources.
With youth like Urmila becoming active champions of community-based natural resource management, there is an increasing momentum towards the protection, management and sustainable use of commons at the grassroots, which is starting to generate positive outcomes for local ecology and economies.