Forest Rights

Women are the guardians of the forest. So why does India ignore them in its policies?

It is important that forest policies are formulated through a gender-sensitive lens and that women are included in the conversation.

A few weeks ago, when Google India marked the 45th anniversary of the Chipko movement with a doodle, it was a refreshing flashback to forest communities sacrificing their lives to protect trees from being felled for timber use.

One of the first such recorded community protests was at Khejarli village in present-day Rajasthan. In this village, around the year 1730, about 300 Bishnois led by Amrita Devi are said to have sacrificed their lives to protect Khejri trees. The Bishnois, particularly the women in the community, considered Khejri trees (Prosopis cineraria) sacred because of their multi-use benefits. Amrita Devi, before she was beheaded with an axe bought inside the forest to cut trees, said: “Sar sāntey rūkh rahe to bhī sasto jān.” If a tree is saved even at the cost of one’s head, it’s worth it.

Two centuries later, in the 1970s, the Chipko movement across Uttar Pradesh shaped community forest management in India. Women were at the forefront of this movement too, as they hugged trees to protect them from felling by the timber industry.

The reality has not changed much, as is evident from the case of Kabiben Kalara, a member of the Bhil tribe from Rajasthan. In 2016, she was uprooted from her family farmland –which she was claiming under the Forest Rights Act – because of a road widening and upgrading project in Bagidora tehsil of Banswara district. “How many women have to be killed or displaced with their families and face violence before the government realises that forests and water should be protected?” she asked.

Karbi women forage for wild edible forest resources. Photo credit: Aakash Doshi
Karbi women forage for wild edible forest resources. Photo credit: Aakash Doshi

‘Wood is good’

A search for the words women and gender in the Draft National Forest Policy, 2018 – which governs the formulation of all laws and schemes related to forestry – returns zero results. While terms like wood, economic or timber appear all over the 10-page draft policy released by the Indian government in March.

“Why do women’s rights to forests…remain a secondary issue?” asked Sarita Katkar, a young Katkari Adivasi from Maharashtra. She belongs to particularly vulnerable tribal groups and believes that for the Forest Department, forests are all about wood. It fails to see the non-timber products which support the livelihoods of over 100 million people in India.

Indeed, in 2017, the ministry launched a “Wood is Good” campaign to promote timber for industrial or commercial use. It collected over Rs 50,000 crore through a Central Compensatory Afforestation Fund, which should have then been used for afforestation. Instead, the fund is being directed mainly towards building timber plantations in forests and private properties, often without the consent of households and gram sabhas.

Brinda Karat, a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), voiced her concern. “[Typically] indigenous trees should be planted. And who knows best about that? Obviously it is tribal communities. But what is happening in all these [forest] areas is, plantations after plantations are being planted according to commercial interest. If you go to any of these new plantation areas, you will see Eucalyptus trees and trees that are useful for paper industries. The Compensatory Afforestation Fund is (a) giving the private corporate a say, (b) destroying the rights of tribal peoples under various legislations, and (c) destroying the conservation and biodiversity of the environment.”

A woman collects dry fuelwood. Photo: Purabi Bose
A woman collects dry fuelwood. Photo: Purabi Bose

“Many Adivasi women in our village cannot read and write, but they hold indigenous knowledge about every single tree – its use for household consumption, medicinal value, for livestock and for biodiversity,” said Sunita Kanko, a 30-year-old Munda Adivasi schoolteacher in a forested village in Jharkhand. “How can we comment on the draft policy if it is written in English just like in the days of British India? There is no effort by the environment ministry to translate it in other Indian languages. Our forest connects us culturally and spiritually with our ancestors, while policymakers and private companies think of wood as economic gain.”

Uday Mengal, a volunteer helping tribal communities claim their collective forest land rights, agreed. “We were one of the first countries to introduce historic legislation recognising the rights of indigenous peoples and traditional communities through the Forest Rights Act, 2006,” he said. “Ten years later, India has not yet fully implemented this legislation. Such failure has resulted in social movements like the farmer’s march we saw in Maharashtra.”

While India is debating the role of indigenous peoples in forest governance, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos made an unprecedented move a few weeks ago by announcing that the country intended to add 8 million hectares to its protected land, and grant indigenous communities the ability and autonomy to govern their territories.

Women as guardians

“Women are always at the forefront of the fight for environmental rights, but when it comes to rewards, they are always left out,” said Indavi Tulpule of Shramik Mukti Sanghatana, a non-profit that works in Maharashtra’s Thane district. “Forest Department officials often forget the important role women play in forest protection. Every year we have forest food exhibition in tribal villages, and women share information about each of non-timber forest products that is used for food, medicine and preservation of biodiversity. They are the guardians of the forests.”

Sunanda Kewar, the head of a women’s self-help group in the Rajanandgaon district of Chhattisgarh, said, “We go out to collect firewood, collect non-timber forest produce and even to patrol the forest in group of two just like our men in the village because we are equal. But outsiders bring women-insensitive policies that change our relatively equitable world for worse.”

Sarhul festival. Photo credit: Purabi Bose.
Sarhul festival. Photo credit: Purabi Bose.

Every year, Adivasis in Jharkhand celebrate the festival Sarhul, by paying respects to prakriti, that is, the gifts of nature, such as fruits, leaves, water, trees. It is a practice followed by forest-dependent communities around the world. Like Jharkhand’s Adivasis, many indigenous communities in the Andean region of Latin America pay respect to the Mother Earth or Pachamama. For them, Pacha forms the central notion of life. In 2010, Bolivia’s Law of Mother Earth (Ley de Derechos de La Madre Tierra) recognised the land as sacred and as a living system with rights to be protected from exploitation. India, instead of following this example, has taken steps backward through this draft National Forest Policy. The worst-affected groups when the rights of nature and of indigenous communities are not recognised are women and children.

The environment ministry had invited feedback from the public on the draft National Forest Policy, which received criticism for promoting privatisation of forests. To fix it, there is a need for gender mainstreaming and women’s involvement in the making of the policy. Some ways to do this are:

  • The Section 3.5 suggests afforestation will be intensified to cater to the needs of fuel wood, and that liquid petroleum gas will be promoted. A majority of indigenous women collect dried firewood from forest, saving cost and maintaining forest biodiversity. The idea of intensification should be backed by impact assessment studies on fuel wood energy consumption in India.
  • Section 3.6 blindly proposes to improve the income from non-timber forest produce such as seeds, wild edible foods, bamboo, grass, etc., but fails to acknowledge their cultural value, indigenous women’s role in their management and their importance for a tribal household. Economic benefit is secondary and management of this produce has to involve women in every step of the value chain.
  • Overall, the draft policy fails to address the fact that India’s grassland and ‘wasteland’ is the richest source of fodder for livestock of smallholders. Its collection is often the responsibility of indigenous women and youth.

The first step to overcome the challenge is for the environment ministry to acknowledge that the draft policy fails to discuss gender integration and women’s issues in the management of forests, trees, agroforestry and afforestation. The next step will have to be to open up the dialogue for social and gender inclusion, and to ensure that environmental defenders, including women, are protected through India’s forest policy. With these measures in place, perhaps there would be a chance of saving India’s forests and the communities who depend on them.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Why do our clothes fade, tear and lose their sheen?

From purchase to the back of the wardrobe – the life-cycle of a piece of clothing.

It’s an oft repeated story - shiny new dresses and smart blazers are bought with much enthusiasm, only to end up at the back of the wardrobe, frayed, faded or misshapen. From the moment of purchase, clothes are subject to wear and tear caused by nature, manmade chemicals and....human mishandling.

Just the act of wearing clothes is enough for gradual erosion. Some bodily functions aren’t too kind on certain fabrics. Sweat - made of trace amounts of minerals, lactic acid and urea - may seem harmless. But when combined with bacteria, it can weaken and discolour clothes over time. And if you think this is something you can remedy with an antiperspirant, you’ll just make matters worse. The chemical cocktail in deodorants and antiperspirants leads to those stubborn yellowish stains that don’t yield to multiple wash cycles or scrubbing sessions. Linen, rayon, cotton and synthetic blends are especially vulnerable.

Add to that, sun exposure. Though a reliable dryer and disinfectant, the UV radiation from the sun causes clothes to fade. You needn’t even dry your clothes out in the sun; walking outside on a sunny day is enough for your clothes to gradually fade.

And then there’s what we do to our clothes when we’re not wearing them - ignoring labels, forgetting to segregate while washing and maintaining improper storage habits. You think you know how to hang a sweater? Not if you hang it just like all your shirts - gravity stretches out the neck and shoulders of heavier clothing. Shielding your clothes by leaving them in the dry-cleaning bag? You just trapped them in humidity and foul odour. Fabrics need to breathe, so they shouldn’t be languishing in plastic bags. Tossing workout clothes into the laundry bag first thing after returning home? It’s why the odour stays. Excessive moisture boosts fungal growth, so these clothes need to be hung out to dry first. Every day, a whole host of such actions unleash immense wear and tear on our clothes.

Clothes encounter maximum resistance in the wash; it’s the biggest factor behind premature degeneration of clothes. Wash sessions that don’t adhere to the rules of fabric care have a harsh impact on clothes. For starters, extra effort often backfires. Using more detergent than is indicated may seem reasonable for a tub full of soiled clothes, but it actually adds to their erosion. Aggressive scrubbing, too, is counterproductive as it worsens stains. And most clothes can be worn a few times before being put in the wash, unless of course they are sweat-soaked gym clothes. Daily washing of regulars exposes them to too much friction, hastening their wear and tear.

Different fabrics react differently to these abrasive agents. Natural fabrics include cotton, wool, silk and linen and each has distinct care requirements. Synthetic fabrics, on the other hand, are sensitive to heat and oil.

A little bit of conscious effort will help your clothes survive for longer. You can start by lessening the forces acting on the clothes while washing. Sort your clothes by fabric instead of colour while loading them in the washing machine. This helps save lighter fabrics from the friction of rubbing against heavier ones. It’s best to wash denim materials separately as they are quite coarse. For the same reason, clothes should be unzipped and buttoned before being tossed in the washing machine. Turning jeans, printed clothes and shirts inside out while loading will also ensure any abrasion is limited to the inner layers only. Avoid overloading the washing machine to reduce friction between the clothes.

Your choice of washing tools also makes a huge difference. Invest in a gentler detergent, devoid of excessive dyes, perfumes and other unnecessary chemicals. If you prefer a washing machine for its convenience, you needn’t worry anymore. The latest washing machines are far gentler, and even equipped to handle delicate clothing with minimal wear and tear.

Bosch’s range of top loading washing machines, for example, care for your everyday wear to ensure they look as good as new over time. The machines make use of the PowerWave Wash System to retain the quality of the fabrics. The WaveDrum movement adds a top-down motion to the regular round action for a thorough cleaning, while the dynamic water flow reduces the friction and pulling forces on the clothes.


The intelligent system also creates water displacement for better movement of clothes, resulting in lesser tangles and clothes that retain their shape for longer. These wash cycles are also noiseless and more energy efficient as the motor is directly attached to the tub to reduce overall friction. Bosch’s top loading washing machines take the guesswork away from setting of controls by automatically choosing the right wash program based on the load. All that’s needed is a one-touch start for a wash cycle that’s free of human errors. Read more about the range here. You can also follow Bosch on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Bosch and not by the Scroll editorial team.