Jharkhand has always found itself on the crossroads of development and conservation. The dense sal forest surrounding Maturkham village in Purbi Singhbhum district is an example of this strife. It was mercilessly plundered for almost two decades by the forest mafia for its precious timber and rare fauna. Then, in the 1980s, Naxalites set up base in the forests. What ensued was a long-drawn battle between the two, resulting in a lot of bloodshed.
But amid all this, nobody paid any attention to loss of the precious flora and fauna. Enter Jamuna Tudu. From Odisha originally, Tudu came to Jharkhand in 1998 after her marriage. A lover of nature, she noticed the harm being inflicted on the forest and decided to do something about it. After a lot of coaxing and discussion, she got the support of the village women. “We would go out to recce the forest three times a day to make sure there was no illegal felling of trees,” the 37-year-old says.
But the men of the village weren’t convinced. “They would ridicule us and undermine our work,” she says. This didn’t impede her though and she went on to form the Van Suraksha Samiti with a group of five women in 1998. Today, the group, which consists of 50 active foot soldiers, has successfully saved and conserved around 50 hectares of forest land.
But in a region infested with Naxalites, how difficult is it to pursue their cause? “They have never interfered in our work. In fact, they fear us,” says Tudu, who runs awareness campaigns through various forest committees in Kolhan division, Jharkhand. Around 150 committees formed by Tudu, comprising more than 6,000 members, have joined her movement to save the forests.
Her efforts in a region as volatile as Jharkhand speak volumes about her deep love for nature. It all started, she says, when she was a child. “There was a vast expanse of vacant land surrounding our house in Odisha. My father would plant saplings of trees and other plants, and teach us about their importance. That’s when I fell in love with nature,” says Tudu, who is also working actively for the development of the people of the region, inspiring young Naxalites to give up arms. “A lot of young Naxalites have surrendered. We told them of the opportunities they could avail… they are now pursuing jobs,” says Tudu, adding, “Some have left the region in search of jobs, while others have been employed as private security personnel.”
She has also been instrumental in getting schools built for women and even getting a proper road constructed for better connectivity to the nearest town. Tudu, however, says she finds herself most at peace when she is with nature, something that has earned her the sobriquet of ‘Lady Tarzan’.