Pappu is the latest member of our team in Janwaar, and he definitely is a true rural changemaker. 13 months ago, he quit his job as a bartender at Ken River Lodge. He had no idea where his next meals would come from. Today, he is working hard to design a playground and restore a house. He has plenty of things to work with: tyres, ropes, bamboo and the trunk of a broken tree. Almost every day he goes to the lakeside in Janwaar and thinks what can be made out of the locally available materials. And it’s beautiful, what he is building there. An open creative space.
Since his childhood, Pappu is living in Cheneni, a small village in the buffer zone of Panna National Park. He remembers the days when he was 14 years old. He then used to jump into the nearby natural creek high up from the trees. Even at the age of 30, he could catch a 5 kg fish from there. Now he’s 40, and he says: “Times have changed. One cannot find even a 100 gm fish in this river anymore.”
He had asked me a very simple question that has left me pondering night and day. “Why is the government hell-bent on building such big dams and diverting rivers? Why not just clean the little streams and creeks and let water flow freely down its natural course?” Inside the forest, in the shade of trees, water can last much longer and easily reach the villages that settled around it long ago. While he was telling his idea, I pictured elvish towns from Lord of the Rings. I was dreaming of an elfish village Cheneni with beautiful ponds and clean natural creeks. I was dreaming with open eyes!
Life in the village is very chaotic one may say. At the same time, it’s very entrepreneurial. It’s a tough game sometimes. Some people take it as a chance, others are threatened. Rajni, Pappu’s wife, had tears in her eyes while she was telling her story. In contrast Pappu experiences parts of his life as tough times they’d survived and he laughed every now and then when he was telling his story.
Pappu’s story started with a tractor. In 2006 he rented a tractor from his uncle for one year for 35000 rupees. The uncle had no use of it, and Pappu thought why not make some money out of it. He started to grow chicken pea and rented 10-acre land for 4.5 quintal wheat (this is how payments and costs are set in rural areas). Using the tractor just for farming would not be enough to make a living, Pappu thought. So, he rented a trolley for an additional 4000 rupees a month – using it for transporting things, picking stuff and dropping it.
The chicken pea was bought and sowed, some jobs with the trolley jobs were on the way. The tractor was pretty old thus it broke every now and then. It became tricky when it broke down when absolutely needed – crops don’t wait until a tractor is repaired. The crop has to be tended at the right time. So in addition to the repair costs, Pappu had to rent someone else’s tractor and pay this rent as well. In 2005, a major flood devastated the entire region. The following year there was a drought and the crop harvest failed. By this time Pappu and Rajni were 24000 rupees in debt and had no crops left. He says he couldn’t even buy a pack of beedis.
As if this wasn’t enough – the next bomb exploded. Pappu’s uncle hadn’t paid the interest for the tractor. So people from the bank came and subducted the tractor. Now they were in 24000 rupees in debt, crops lost and tractor gone.
Rajni had tears in her eyes at this point. Pappu consoled her. He said, these were really tough times and both of them put in everything they had and did everything they could to survive. Rajni felt desperate. What would they do…? How would they survive…?
Pappu trusted Mother Earth. He said: “Mother Earth has taken everything, she will give it back!” He decided to take the same land next year and he cultivated it again. This time tili and dal. Rajni started to smile again. “What a harvest we’ve had!” she said. 1800 kg of tili and quite some dal. They got out of debt that very year! And even had some money left 🙂
He continued farming one another year before he went back to his former job – working at the tree house. The first treehouse in Panna was built by a foreign national along with a person everyone addressed as “Major”. This was back when Pappu was in his 20s. “Their tree house was magnificent. The new tree house at Ken River Lodge looks like a cheap copy in comparison,” he says. The Major was a good-hearted man and used to give the village kids (including Pappu) a lift to school, just like Ulrike does in Janwaar. The Major really trusted Pappu and offered him a job where Pappu made 300 rupees a day. This was after the 1992 floods when the first tree house was washed away and Major employed a few people to dug out whatever was buried in the mud. Pappu found a very expensive rifle that the Major thought was washed away in the river.
It was at the new tree house where Pappu met Ulrike. And like Ulrike, there were many more guests who never forgot him. Everyone trusted him. “Whatever you need, just call Pappu, he’ll know, he’ll get it,” – this was what everyone heard. Pappu always took really good care of his guests – they were family for him. Not, because this was his job, no, he did it because he felt it was his responsibility. Paired with his kindness he gained a lot of respect. People who returned to the tree house sometimes even found their way to his home to meet him.
During this time Pappu and Rajni built their new mud home. Every night they would go deep into the forest to get the right wood. They dug almost a 5-meter deep hole, they say, to get the mud for the house. The hole was so deep, that the forest rangers thought they were digging a well. They laughed. Late at night, after a hard day work, Rajni would ask Pappu to get something … This indication was enough for Pappu. They would sit in the coolness of the deep hole, Pappu would get out his ceramic chillam, and both of them would smoke in peace. That was the last time Rajni smoked, she said while watching Pappu taking a hit of his new stone chillam which a friend, a local mason, had given to him as a gift.
Farming and Pappu’s job aren’t their only source of income. They also have a few seasonal jobs. During Mahua season, when the Mahua seeds are ripe, they go and pick them. They go into the forest at night with dogs and bedding. They aim to be the first ones in the morning to pick the Mahua seeds. Even though the forest is full of wild animals, “with dogs, there is no tension”, Rajni says. She and Pappu really trust their five dogs. Mahua adds up to 20000 rupees to their income. Taking care of goats is another job that works well where they live. The forest provides the perfect food for the goats. Rajni has made at least 30000 rupees with taking good care of goats.
During the Tendu season, when the Tendu leaves start falling, Rajni goes into the forest and picks the leaves. Madhya Pradesh is the largest distributor of Tendu leaves. “Picking Tendu leaves is good for the forest. It keeps it fresh and gives space for new growth,” Pappu remarks. Many times he has expressed this: the people who live in the forest don’t ever think of destroying it. All their chores cultivates the forest, takes care of it.
Recently Pappu and Rajni – like all the other villagers in Cheneni – have received a compensation. Their village will be relocated. The government pays the villagers to move. Now they’ve to leave their village. Every single villager has broken the roof of his/her house and now everyone is slowly starting to leave. Cheneni is a ghost village now. It cannot be expressed in words how the people feel.
Pappu keeps the sorrow aside. He is clearly focussing on the next step: moving to Janwaar. He will soon move into Villa Janwaar and give living in Janwaar a try. Around Janwaar there is also a lot of forest land. A cozy home feeling. And most of all, he will be close to his work. Ever since Pappu has started working in Janwaar, he has changed a lot – he is open for change at his very own pace and takes action when the time has come. Moving out of Cheneni opens a new chapter in his life and I curiously await to know what will happen next.