Forest trails in Vidarbha

By Shivani Aggarwal

During my Ph.D. research, I spent many months working in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. This region has nine protected areas, but my research focused on studying the expanses of forest that lie outside these protected areas. How do forest patches fare in terms of biodiversity? What sort of forest management institutions do they have? How well do they connect the protected areas? To answer these questions, I had to meet Forest Department officials, NGOs and villagers across five districts: Nagpur, Bhandara, Gondia, Gadchiroli, and Chandrapur. During my travels, I had many memorable experiences.

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Initially, I based myself in a girls’ hostel in Nagpur and hired a driver and an interpreter to help me collect data from different districts. After two or three such trips, I realized that the driver and the interpreter were of little help to me. They treated my field work as just another road trip, playing Hindi and Marathi songs in the car. During my meetings with villagers, the interpreter would leave the discussion whenever he felt like listening to music. Fortunately, I could manage some Marathi and most villagers were able to speak Hindi.

One day, when no field work was planned, my interpreter invited for a ride around Nagpur city on a borrowed bike. I calmly declined though I was a bit shocked by the invitation. On our next field trip, he was upset with me and even less helpful than before. I counted the days till the field work would be over.

After returning to Bangalore, I looked for people to accompany me during the next field season. I posted a request on the "Young Ecologists Talk and Interact (YETI)" forum. Neha Mujumdar from Pune contacted me for the interpreter position. She asked me a thousand questions about how I was going to cover such a large area, where we would stay, and so on. Sensing her apprehension, I confidently told her that there was no need to worry as I had become familiar with the region. I assured her that I would take care of all the logistics though I wasn’t very sure how I was going to manage it. But I managed to convince Neha and she agreed to join me for the study.

The next task was to find a driver. In Nagpur, I had met a carpenter who was willing to work as a driver temporarily. His name was Rajkamal Patale, but he went by the name Pappu. He rented a car from his neighbor for us. Our team of three set out for the next round of field work.

This time I expected to spend five or six months in the field. I had to conduct interviews and measure trees in eight forest divisions. But this time, my experience was very different. Both my companions took immense interest in my work and helped me. I was pleasantly surprised when Pappu Bhaiyya came into the forest with us to measure tree girth and height. During village focus group discussions, he would sometimes ask his own very perceptive questions. Later, I would ask him “Pappu Bhaiya, did you prepare your questions?” He would just smile in response.

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As none of us were familiar with the landscape, we would take a few persons from the village to guide us into the forest and identify tree species. These people would be quite amused that we had come from such a great distance to study their village. They were invariably curious about my reasons for choosing to study this topic. As young women, Neha and I would be bombarded with personal questions about our age, marital status, what our parents thought about our work, whether we were afraid of traveling alone, how our parents allowed us to do so, and so on.

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As our road journey continued, each day, I had to plan our stay and food. I would try to book the guest house of different government departments: the Forest Department, Irrigation Department, or Public Works Department (PWD). One week, Neha and I slept in the house belonging to a relative of our driver. Another time, we spent a night in a bar (hotel with alcohol outlet) because we were asked to move out of the PWD guest house to make room for a visiting officer. Over five months, we changed residence more than 25 times.

As the days went on, I started sensing Pappu Bhaiya’s impatience with my never-ending (and not too profitable) work. One day he got angry because our contact person from the village arrived late to guide us into the forest. He had expected me to scold the person but I couldn’t afford to do so. What if the community stopped cooperating with me?
Eventually, he decided to leave because he could not be away from his family for such long stretches. He helped me find another driver, who was young and unmarried. While Pappu Bhaiyya was outspoken and good at discovering places to stay, this new driver was utterly uncommunicative and refused to even ask for directions. If we did not constantly navigate, he would lose his way. His single goal was to drive the vehicle and the destination was irrelevant to him.

After about a month, though he opened up. One day, he joined me in my work and even spent the whole day walking in the forest. At the end of the day, he confided that he used to think I was going into the forest just for fun. He now declared that he had figured out exactly what I was doing! He revealed that he was quiet because Pappu Bhaiya had warned him that I was very strict and did not like being spoken to.

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When I look back, I have many wonderful memories of my time in the field. I miss the long road trips in Vidarbha with vast stretches of forest on either side of the road. I also miss the car, which became my second home, loaded with all my worldly belongings: buckets, mugs, clotheslines, heating rods, lunch boxes and what not. Despite these mixed experiences, I learned a good deal and acquired management skills to last a lifetime.