Leaving Udaipur, the wall paintings on homes and temples alongside the road imply that I’m traveling outside of a city and into the wilderness, as the paintings’ themes evolve from courtly scenes to wild animals and mountains. The landscape changes as our car approaches Kumbhalgarh National Forest. The lakes disappear, the hills become steeper and the vegetation becomes denser. Kumbhalgarh is about an hour’s drive (at terrifying speeds) from Udaipur, and our car wove in and out of buses, trucks and pedestrians and braked quickly for livestock idly crossing four-lane traffic.
Forests in Rajasthan are colloquially known as “jungles.” The word “jungle” is derived from the Sanskrit (the holy language of Hinduism) word jangala, meaning “wilderness,” and it originally referred to untamed arid landscapes, such as in Rajasthan. The jungle of Kumbhalgarh is home to a diversity of wildlife including peacocks, wolves, antelope and sloth bears. An unashamed “cat lady,” I plan to return to the wildlife sanctuary part of the Kumbhalgarh jungle in hopes of glimpsing an Indian leopard or jungle cat.
Although I saw a mischievous-looking Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (mongoose) dart across the road, the Kumbhalgarh jungle is far from Rudyard Kipling’s romanticized imperialistic representation of the Indian jungle in “The Jungle Book.” For centuries, the jungle has played an important role in Rajasthani cultures and livelihoods. During British Colonial India, under several “Indian Forest Acts,” Indian communities were banned from entering the forest as the British colonial government controlled the trade of timber and other forest produce. Decades after Independence, in 2006, the Indian government passed the “The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act,” recognizing the rights of Scheduled Tribal (ST) communities to forest resources.
In terms of economic valuation, communal jungles contribute more than six billion USD$ to the incomes of Indian households. In the town of Haila, families depend on the forest for additional sources of food, such as mangos. According to the World Resources Institute, 85 percent of rural Indian households rely on firewood for cooking, which is often gathered from communal forests. In addition, the same households use communal forest spaces to graze their livestock.
In Haila—and throughout many communities in the world—collecting firewood is a women’s chore. When interviewing women in Haila, we asked them to construct an activity map, illustrating their daily routines by the hour. We found that some women in Haila spend more than three hours a day collecting firewood and cooking meals for their families. In addition to a loss of time and opportunity, women are more likely to suffer from the adverse health effects resulting from cooking indoors with firewood, such as respiratory disease.
The 2006 Act has been criticized by environmental and conservation organizations as they believe the Act will lead to forest destruction. Human rights organizations support the Act, claiming that it atones for the decades of historical injustices committed against indigenous communities. The Scheduled Tribal (ST) communities of India are not monolithic, and communities and individuals have different opinions on how to govern communal forest resources. In Haila, we met two feuding farming families of the same caste and land holding status with opposing viewpoints of how the communal forest should be managed and monitored. It is easy for us to recognize the importance of forest conservation in Kumbhalgarh, because we have the privilege of not having to worry or think about how we’re going to survive today. For many families in Haila, meeting their daily food requirements is a challenge, and conceptualizing forest conservation for future use and recreational enjoyment is difficult.