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Patalkot in hell's way
There is a reason why Patalkot, which means a village from hell, is named after the netherworld. The valley that is home to around 2, 000 Gonds and Bharias is camouflaged under thick forest cover and lies almost buried in Chhindwara's Satpura ranges. Very few knew about it, and those who did never ventured out of the dark zone to the world outside.
Till not very long ago, Patalkot managed to live up to its name. The tribals produced their own food, treated the sick with indigenous medicines and were largely left untouched by 'civilisation'. Then something happened. And rather rapidly. Suddenly it found itself without its shelter of unique natural engineering. Urbanisation was taking it all away.
The area is today fast losing its green cover due to rampant tree felling, worrying environmentalists and NGOs. Earlier, tribals axed trees only for firewood;now they see the big money that can be made in the illegal timber trade and are readily giving in to temptation. The local administration, of course, denies all this. "We have often taken up afforestation drives, " says collector Pawan Kumar Sharma, a claim that is immediately rubbished by Dr Deepak Acharya, a 37-year-old microbiologist born in neighbouring Balaghat. "I have been visiting Patalkot at least thrice a year since the '90s and have not seen anyone planting trees there, " he says.
The biggest blow to the village is the depletion of its rich crop of medicinal plants, something it was widely known for. Acharya, who is now the director of an Ahmedabad-based company that produces herbal medicines, has been writing about the herbs and indigenous medicines found in Patalkot. In fact, he believes this botanical wealth is so rich and varied that only 40-60 per cent of it has so far been identified.
Acharya was very young when he was healed, quite miraculously, by a tribal healer. "At the end of a tiring walk, my friends and I were approaching Rathed village where we were greeted by a tribal. Seeing us battling severe exhaustion, he gave us a twig to chew on and juice to drink. I was almost immediately refreshed. I was later told that this man was a bhumka (tribal doctor), " recalls Acharya. That incident sparked in him a deep interest in roots and herbs, and the indigenous medicinal system practiced by bhumkas. But increasing deforestation may just kill this tradition. "Today a tribal doctor gets all he needs in the forest. Tomorrow, there will be no herbs and no bhumkas, " he says.
More worryingly, Acharya says an active forest mafia is aiding the destruction of Patalkot. Before 1995, he maintains, the Gonds and Bharias would think twice before cutting any more trees than what was needed for fuel. "Then the outsiders taught them the value of money, " he says.
It is an allegation conservator of forests (CF) P Singh refutes. Insisting that Patalkot's magical forest cover remains untouched, he says, "There are about 8, 000 hectares of land, the ownership of which is equally split between the forest department and the tribals. Our forest guards are continuously on rounds to ensure that no illegal tree-cutting takes place. "
But many say valuable trees have already been felled and spirited away. They allege that the guards themselves have turned predators. "What does one do when the forest guards are at the root of the problem?" asks Sayeram, a Chhindi villager. Sayeram says the tribals need to be educated about forest resources their children might lose. "They need money and selling wood is one of the means of livelihood, " he explains. Sayeram also alleges that many doctors - both serious practitioners and quacks - have exploited the tribals' medicinal knowledge. "People walk down here and walk away with medicinal shrubs. "
The tribal medicine system here, says Acharya, was quite evolved;the tribals could deal with illnesses like measles, cholera, hypertension, diabetes and snake bites. "The veterans here know which plants have medicinal value and which can be eaten. This information chain, which has been passed down over generations, might just die with afforestation and migration. "
So, how can Patalkot's medicinal herbs and forest cover be saved? Interpretation centres, suggests Acharya. "The government has to conduct drives to educate the current generation of Gonds and Bharias about the value of the assets that they have inherited, " he says. If that doesn't happen soon enough, India might just lose one of the most mysterious, rich and wellguarded green patches it ever had.
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