Rinku Gope’s hamlet Paharkol lying in Bankura district of West Bengal has become an attraction for outsiders. This Adivasi woman belonging to the Santhal tribe has helped revive a hillock believed to be the resting place of local deity Paharsene.

Once a bare hillock in the hamlet of 44 households, it is now a green haven with trees that attract birds and also lock in the soil, preventing erosion.

“Everyone here believes that our deity blesses us by bringing monsoon rainfall during the kharif season when farmers sow paddy,” Gope told Mongabay-India. “So, every year we offer worship during the winter harvest festival of Poush Sankranti celebrated in January by visiting the hilltop to appease him.”

While across Bengal the festival is celebrated in homes by making the traditional sweet pitha, in Paharkol, women climb atop the sacred hillock to sacrifice a hen followed by cooking delicacies as offerings to Paharsene.

Agriculture is the main occupation in Paharkol. Like most farmers in the hamlet, Gope has land measuring about two acres on which she cultivates paddy in summer, the dominant crop in the region, as well as tomatoes and mustard during winter.

Bankura district in the western part of Bengal and adjoining Purulia are barren, covered mostly with red soil. A good monsoon is the only hope for small farmers. Even though there is a dam in Paharkol lying within 100 metres on the Shilabati river, adequate rain is needed for the dam to be full of water. Gope says she is happy because the water level in the dam has increased after the hillock was revived.

Turning hillock green

The Paharkol hillock situated in Bankura’s Hirbandh block, up until three years ago, had no vegetation, resulting in surface water runoff carrying loose soil and pebbles to farmlands lying at its foot.

During the 2018 monsoon, work on restoring the hillock started, partly to protect farmers’ lands but also to make Paharsene’s resting place green once again. Following the model of social forestry, under a state government scheme, residents like Gope planted 14,400 saplings of sonajhuri (Acacia auriculiformis) trees by digging trenches.

The species was chosen as it requires less water to grow and is ideal for arid areas. “Tree plantation on the hillock has made the soil of the entire area moist thereby arresting erosion,” said Gope, who received training by an NGO, Pradan, that was implementing this project.

Now, birds like the Indian myna, spotted dove, Asian koel and eagles are seen more frequently in the hillock. Even cattle climb the hillock in search of food, Gope added.

Gope’s friend Basati Mandi narrated how once a fire broke out and everyone rushed up the hillock to control the blaze, indicating the community’s protective attitude towards the trees they carefully planted.

A view of the brown and bare hillock before the reforestation work of planting sonajhuri trees started in 2018 (left). An aerial photo showing the dense green hillock in Paharkol, a Santhal tribe hamlet in Bankura district of West Bengal. Photo courtesy: Pradan

Usharmukti scheme

In 2017, the West Bengal government launched the Usharmukti scheme for implementing the central government’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, a rural employment guarantee scheme. Under this, the aim was to treat barren lands and turn them into productive assets in the Jangalmahal (jungle estates) area which had been affected by Maoist insurgency.

Jangalmahal, spread across Bankura, Purulia, Birbhum and West Midnapore districts of West Bengal, has primarily tribal people living there. By focusing on land treatment or revival, the scheme aimed to create livelihood opportunities, which in turn would reduce migration of people out of the area, in search of jobs.

Grassroots non-profit Pradan is the technical partner for Usharmukti in Bengal. Working with the state government in Bankura, the organisation has helped treat 9.5 hectares of land in the hillock area. Himadri Das, who is in charge of the Paharkol reforestation project on behalf of Pradan, said the non-profit worked with communities through village-level meetings on watershed management.

Planning was carried out in the financial year 2017-’18 and implementation started in 2018-’19 for reviving the hillock. Apart from planting sonajhuri trees on the hillock, fallow lands surrounding it were also covered with horticulture species such as mango, to provide livelihood opportunities for locals.

Plantation work in the fallow lands happened to some extent in 2019-’20, 2020-’21 and 2021-’22. A bit of planning is also on for the 2022-’23 financial year. At present, 10 hectares is under mango orchard with 3,600 trees. Over 15,000 mango trees which were planted on 60 hectares of land previously, did not survive.

Pradan staff Niladri Giri, who works on livelihood, told Mongabay-India that people can derive economic benefits from sonajhuri trees in the form of timber and firewood within five to six years of plantation. Those who worked in the hillock restoration project received wages under MGNREGA.

Arresting soil erosion

Social forestry has many aims, the most important one being the protection of agricultural fields from wind as well as soil erosion. Other objectives are to provide recreational facilities and reduce people’s dependence on forest resources. India was one of the first countries to experiment with social forestry and it is a major component of the country’s forest policy. The term was first used in 1976 by the National Commission on Agriculture.

Hill reforestation attempts have been made in Telangana, Meghalaya and even outside India in Vietnam. But the case of Bankura is different as agriculture forms the backbone of the economy in Bengal, and in Paharkol, farmlands were being damaged by soil and gravel tumbling downwards due to erosion.

Farmers cultivating crops on their farms around the hillock. When the hillock had no vegetation, surface water runoff carrying loose soil and pebbles would enter these farms. Photo credit: Pradan

Paharkol falls under Guniada village in the Khatra sub-division of Bankura. Sub-divisional officer Maitri Chakraborty is happy that the Paharkol hill revival project has successfully arrested soil erosion in a tribal hamlet, thus benefitting poor marginal farmers. Many of them turn to cauliflowers to supplement their income during winters. In the entire Bankura, the water crisis makes farming a tough job. But the hill revival effort has turned around farmers’ fortunes by increasing the groundwater level.

“There were few trees earlier in the entire hamlet. About 170 men and women worked according to our plan and helped in covering not only the hillock but also drought-prone uplands with plantations,” Giri of Pradan, added.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.