Sudarshna Devi has changed. “Changed for good,” the 72-year-old says, in Punjabi, with a chuckle. Until 2003, the Class 8 dropout used to cover her face in ghoonghat and would barely step out of her home without a male company. Cooking, fetching water, raising children, rearing the cattle, her time was spent performing these household chores.
But today, Sudarshna walks with an air of confidence — minus the ghoonghat and an entourage of men. She owes this confidence to the scrub forest in her ‘backyard’ in Dhar Kalan block of Punjab’s Pathankot district, where she stays. She collects medicinal plants from the forest and sells them to local traders. “Last year, I made Rs 1.5 lakh,” she tells us proudly.
Like Sudarshna, the lives of close to 300 women in this block have transformed since they started making a livelihood from agro-forestry. The forest stands on the border of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh and falls in the Lower Shivaliks range of hills. It is 10 to 15 minutes of walk from most of the 31 villages that fall under the Dhar Kalan block. But despite the proximity, the residents could not make a living from this forest for close to a century.
This stems from the complicated history of this forest land. Dhar Kalan block is governed under The Punjab Land Preservation Act, which the British had introduced in 1905. Called PLPA in short, the Act banned all commercial and livelihood activities to arrest soil erosion and flash floods. Villagers could collect firewood and timber for personal use with the permission of forest officials but they could not plough this land.
Dhar Kalan has some parcel of panchayat land for farming but the majority is PLPA forest land, spread across 15,771 hectares. As a result, most men in Dhar Kalan work as daily-wage labourers while women manage homes. It was only in 2010 when the Punjab government started withdrawing the land under PLPA so as to relax a few restrictions earlier imposed by the forest department and make it eligible for common use. This step opened up livelihood opportunities for the communities living close to the forest.
As a result, 8,599.72 hectares of forest land in Dhar Kalan was withdrawn. This patch is now jointly managed by the villagers and the forest department.