The thing about forest trails is that they are never straight and they tend to disappear completely in the darkness of the night. So when a villager told Rajesh Yadav and me that getting out of the Baxwaha forest simply involved following a straight trail, I was a little sceptical.
It was around 7.30 on a warm July evening, deep inside the forest in Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh. I was reporting on a plan to clear more than 350 hectares of forest to build a diamond mine. Rajesh Yadav, a local social activist, was helping me understand the issues at stake.
Earlier that day, riding Rajesh’s Hero Splendor motorbike, we had started visiting villages that would be impacted by the mining operations. By the time we reached the last village, Sagoria, deep inside the forest, it was evening.
The residents of Sagoria poured their hearts out to us. They told us that no one had come to discuss the mine with them even though the largest area of forest to be chopped down for the mine was around Sagoria. Yadav and I got lost in the conversation, punctuated by chai, and time flew. By the time we decided to leave, the sun was setting.
“Just take this trail and go straight,” a villager told us. “First you’ll come across a temple, keep going starting. Then there will be a forest check-post, continue straight. Then you’ll come across a river, cross it and keep going straight. Then you’ll reach a village and after that is the black-top road that’ll take you to Buxwaha town.”
Barely had we left the village when the sun dipped behind a thick canopy of saal trees. The pale headlight of our Hero Splendor, whose intensity wavered with the irregular acceleration of the bike, wasn’t much help in the overwhelming blackness of the forest.
After 10 minutes or so, we reached the temple. That was a good sign. We plodded along in the dark, talking about the absence of health and educational facilities for the people in the region. By now, even the tiniest hint of blue had disappeared from the sky. Our bike was traversing a void, on what, we hoped, was the straight trail to Buxwaha town.
But soon, we realised we were going down a hill, riding on what seemed to be a bed of boulders. To keep from unbalancing, I got off and started walking in front of the bike, guiding Rajesh along with the faint light of my mobile phone.
Just as we were at the point that I assumed was midway through our descent, I heard a rustling in the bushes. I froze. Rajesh held the bike still – or at least tried to. My mind darted back to the biodiversity assessment report of the forest that I had been poring over since I left Delhi a week before. The rustling could have been anything from a chausinga, cheetal, chinkara or peacock to a leopard, jackal or even tiger. A few seconds later, a neelgai lumbered across. It was then that we realised we were lost inside the Buxwaha forest.
Somehow we managed to fully descend from the hill. As the canopy cleared, we could see light in the distance – civilisation! At the village, we realised that we’d taken a wrong turn and were just 3 km from where we’d started.
We asked for directions. “Do one thing, go straight and you’ll find a river,” said a helpful soul. “Cross it and keep going straight. Then you’ll come across a temple, keep going straight. Then you’ll hit a T-point. One side goes deeper into the forest and the other one towards a forest check-post. Take the road to the check-post and then you’ll reach a village after which is the black-top road that will take you to Buxwaha town.”
At the mention of “go straight”, I knew that our problems weren’t over. But ride straight we did. It was only the option. A little outside the village was the river. We got off the bike and pushed it across in the pitch dark. I was sure there were animals around. I could hear water sloshing – and it wasn’t just the sound of the bike cutting through the water.
Before we could reach any temple, we reached a T point. The path towards the right was darker, so that’s the one we took. As we moved forward on the rocky path, the pale headlight scanned the forest. That’s when we saw it – two bright eyes, all lit up.
I was sure that now we had come face-to-face with a predator – perhaps even a tiger. After all, the fact that the Buxwaha forest was home to tigers was one of the arguments against the mining project. “It can’t be a big animal, it looks smaller,” Rajesh managed to say. The air was suddenly filled with the stench of flesh and blood. A golden jackal, its snout covered in blood and its eyes glossy from the satisfaction of a meal, passed us by.
A loud diversion
By this time, Rajesh and I were petrified. If we were encountering carnivores, it was clear that we were not getting out of the forest but going deeper into it. I was too frightened to move. But Rajesh had the presence of mind to start talking at the top of his voice. Then he started laughing loudly for no reason. “Just keep making a noise, the animals won’t come near us then,” he said. I did as he told me. I told him about my work and my life in Delhi, all at top volume.
And then I saw a shadow. It seemed to be a menacing, muscular animal. But the headlight of our Splendor revealed an annoyed domestic pig, blinking at us. At last, a city-dweller. Soon enough brick houses emerged in the distance and we were on a black-top road, towards Buxwaha town.
While trying to find our way out of the forest, I realised how much I wished the trees had not been there so I could get back to the safety of my hotel room. I was looking at the forest from the gaze of a city-dweller, just like the policy makers who legislate on forests. I, just like all city-dwellers, no matter how good their intentions, view forests as ecosystems, biodiversity hotspots, carbon sinks, resources, catchment areas and what not. But never as home. If I had, I would never have attempted that ride through the forest and simply stayed the night in Sagoria.
Perhaps if policy makers also saw the forests as home, they would let the Buxwaha forest flourish and stop the mining project.