Tribal activist Yogo Purti’s face lights up every time he walks up Satanpur Hill, located behind his modest home in Jaipal Nagar in Sector 12 of Bokaro. The 47-year-old man, who runs the Asas school which offers free lessons to the poorest, has fought threats from the land mafia, the mistrust of the villagers and the official inertia of Jharkhand to restore greenery to what was just a bare landscape in his teens.
Purti’s environmental activism took shape in 2000, when he successfully mobilized the youth of the Satanpur panchayat for a sapling planting campaign on the hills of Satanpur and Bandhgora, adjacent to the district’s Chas block, known for its steelworks. Over time, the villagers began to monitor the encroachments channeled by the real estate and land mafias and passed on the information gathered to the district administration and the forest and police departments.
The system worked well to stop encroachments in their tracks, and with it sakhua, khair, jamun, palash and other varieties of trees flourished and spread in the shade. The water level rose and much of the wildlife and birds that hadn’t been seen here since the 80’s once again thrived.
Together with Ramkumar Manjhi, Ramdayal Singh, Shyam Lal Bauri, Ruplal Manjhi and Shrinath Marandi, Purti and the other villagers have thus transformed the hills into a buffer zone to protect their habitat from the onslaught of urbanization.
“Many low-lying hills around this place have been leveled and sold. These two only survived because of our dedication and vigilance,” he told 101Reporters. “We used to organize van mahotsavs to plant saplings at the foot of the hills. Sometimes rallies have been held to raise awareness about tree conservation. We also bonded over a freshly made khichdi served on occasion.
Prakash Mishra, a local journalist involved in the campaign, recalls that the hills were no more than tree stumps when industrialization triggered deforestation in Bokaro.
“Alarmed by the extent of the environmental damage, we called a meeting with the villagers and decided that enough was enough. Thanks to our sustained care, the stumps have grown back. We have also planted more saplings at the foot of the hills,” he added.
Local residents here understand that a prosperous hill means a prosperous life. They have witnessed the migration of thousands of villages in the state due to the rampant mining of ore in the region.
The real breakthrough, however, came in 2006, when the Dhanbad Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Sanjeev Kumar, organized a meeting with the villagers of Satanpur. He played a central role in setting up forest defense committees, which then had to monitor encroachments and inform the services concerned so that they could act quickly. Simultaneously, Purti received support from an NGO, Sahyogini, for the planting campaign.
The lands around the hills – the Garga, a tributary of the Damodar River, flows beside it – were originally occupied by peasants. They were part of the windrows acquired and transferred to Bokaro Steel Limited (BSL) for the construction of the plant. Additionally, forest land was given to BSL – first incorporated as a limited liability company, then merged with the Steel Authority of India – to carry out a massive reforestation campaign. However, BSL did not use the land as it should and encroachments exploded.
The friction points
Over the years, several settlements have emerged around the hills of Satanpur and Bandhgora. Purti and his team alleged that the adjacent plots fell into the wrong hands, who then fabricated documents posing as peasants. The invaders later sold them to builders. During his tour of the region, this correspondent also noticed the rapid construction and leveling of the land.
Activists say the presence of the settlements has increased the risk of encroachment on the hills. They cited an incident in August 2014, in which the Forest Department hired four members of the office of the Adarsh Cooperative Society, one of the many builders in the area, for clearing two acres on Satanpur Hill. .
A forestry officer who retired from Bokaro division last year said, on condition of anonymity, that the hill was given to BSL decades ago.
“Our department had made repeated correspondence with the public sector company during my tenure to reclaim the land, but to no avail,” he added.
On the matter, BSL’s communications officer, Manikant Dhan, claimed that he was ‘not aware that the lands of Satanpur hill were under the control of BSL’. However, he admitted that many settlements had sprung up in the area.
Forestry officer Niranjan Tiwari said only DFO could provide information on the subject. When this correspondent managed to reach Bokaro DFO AK Singh after several attempts, he was formally asked to file a Right to Information Request (RTI) along with his queries.
On the other hand, the ownership status of Bandhgora is as clear as possible. A few years ago, Purti filed an RTI application with the Bokaro Departmental Forestry Office in this regard. The response clarified that the forest department fully owns the hill, citing the plot number and details of the entire forest area in the township.
The activist added that the administration has intervened several times on the complaints of local residents, but that it must still constantly write to the departments concerned, file RTI pleas and raise awareness to save the hills. After writing once to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change, the latter ordered the Principal Chief Conservator of Jharkhand Forests (PCCF) in August 2015 to stop the felling of trees and illegal encroachments.
Environmentalists take comfort in the fact that part of Satanpur’s greenery is protected by the presence of the Jharkhand Armed Police Firing Range. Installed almost 15 years ago at the foot of the hill, it has considerably contributed to curbing encroachments on this side, in addition to preventing the extraction of murram earth used for backfilling during construction works.
“We saved the two hills by preventing erosion and forest encroachment, but our forest defense committees have been inactive for four to five years,” lamented Ramkumar Manjhi, a member of Purti Green Brigade from Santaldih. “The real estate and land mafias incite locals to clear forests in their name, which is harder for us to stop because it leads to fights in the village and creates personal enmity.”
Ramdayal Singh, who contested the recent election as head of the Satanpur panchayat, nodded in approval: “These local agents are hindering our work.
Purti and Manjhi claimed that the committees became inactive mainly due to the problem of local agents. Neglect at departmental level has also affected them, especially since forest officers play a key role in their formation and operation.
Sanjeev Kumar, who is still remembered by the villagers for his unwavering support for their campaign, is now the additional PCCF of the forest department’s CAMPA project.
“When I called the meeting to form Forest Advocacy Committees, we made a commitment that it would not disappear as a one-time program. Instead, he should serve as an example to others,” Kumar told 101Reporters.
Unfortunately, only the group led by Purti and his team is currently active – essentially on their own terms – and the land mafias are not satisfied. Yet they yearn to persist in keeping villages green and sustainable.
(The author is a freelance journalist based in Jharkhand and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of local journalists.)
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