Whether it is introducing a new policy or revamping an old one, there is always one or two sections of the society whose lives; if not devastated, gets affected in a negative way. One such department who has the delicate onus of balancing such elements with the interests of tribal communities are forest officers. Beyond the mandate of nature conservation, they have to ensure that the tribal community is not exploited, for during the British period, the sole purpose of forest management became to redistribute economic gains in favour of the colonial empire. The whole enfolding of policy was built on economic concepts favouring higher efficiency, increased control over the people and the resource, and centralisation of power. This was achieved by commercialisation of timber, restriction of the rights of local people, and large-scale deforestation. In layman terms, the the tribal communities i.e. those who lived off the forest were exploited for forestry work and deprived of even basic amenities.

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However, India’s record in this regard has not been great in post-independence era either. As a matter of fact, it has only worsen, particularly in the post-liberalisation era which has seen massive deforestation in its own right, the trouble of finding a balance between forest conservation and the rights of tribal communities to consume natural resources has become harder.

Now, the question that no one wanted to address was whether to provide more control of the forests to these tribal communities or give them an alternative source of livelihood.

However, seeing the gravity of the situation, it was SS Rawat, former Divisional Forest Officer, and now Chief Conservator of the Khandwa Circle, who addressed this concern and helped facilitate the creation of the Skill Development Centre (SDC) at Amwalia for tribal youth in 2010 in the dry teak forests of Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh, surrounded by the enchanting Satpura hills, where Gond, Korku, Bhil, Baiga and Sahariya tribal communities reside

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With contributions from the Centre, the SDC was set up with the objective of offering vocational training to the local tribal youth, utilising funds from tribal sub-plan of the Madhya Pradesh government. Sanctioned in 2005-06, SDC is state-driven endeavour, that works in collaboration with a non-profit called the Self Employment Education Society (SEES), which imparts vocational training to the tribal youth across various professions.

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SS Rawat believes in assisting people from tribal communities. He says, ‘Their livelihood depends on the forest. However, beyond living off the forests, why not offer them skills that could help them find work outside their villages as well. This is just to offer them an alternative source of livelihood, while they continue to life off the forest. In these forest villages, we train those who want to learn driving, who are then employed by the forest department for the delivery of rural services in the adjoining villages, and help them get a driver’s licence. We would train the educated men to become security guards who are then deployed in the forest itself or sent out elsewhere.  There is also a government scheme which helps them finance the purchases of light motor vehicles that they can use to start their own businesses and as far as women are concerned, we train them in tailoring, stitching and hairdressing, we gave them training.’

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Like they say if an initiative is taken to do good for others, it always pays off and so is the case with the initiative taken by SS Rawat. Out of the 450 trained girls, 176 are working at a textile company in Bengaluru and others have taken up independent work in nearby places. One of the girls, who had come home from Bengaluru for Holi, was present with her baby and now they are provided safe accommodation, dining, crèche facilities and a good salary of more than Rs 8,500 during their initial appointment. In a nutshell, the implementation of such modules sends out a larger message to our planners to reshape developmental programmes by interlinking conservation of forests with income-generation and growth of primary sector activities through infusion of technology. Emphasis of forest management should be on conserving the forests,  making people less dependent on forests through such activities that ultimately not only lead to better livelihood but can help in climate change mitigation as well.

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