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The Lata village van panchayat (vp or forest village council) in Uttaranchal is threatened by a hostile takeover. Only it is the state government playing the corporate raider in this case. And the stakeholders are the villagers whose rights over their forests have been usurped. The deftness of the manoeuvre could put many a business house to shame.
vps are unique to Uttaranchal. Created in 1931, to enable the people of the hill state to manage their natural resources, these village-level bodies were allotted the area lying outside reserved and protected forests.
Alive to the fact that forests are the cash cow of the state, the forest department (fd) has wrested control of vps in one fell swoop. All it needed to do was change the rules of the game (read: amend the law) to take de facto charge of the forest village councils.
In doing so, the government has deprived the villagers of the only forum that empowered them to manage their ecological wealth.
And now, as the people begin to realise the ramifications of the surreptitious move, the resentment brewing among them is threatening to snowball into a statewide agitation. An incensed Santoshi Devi, the head of the Lata village vp, vents her ire, "How can this government change the rules without any notice or discussion on the issue? The fd has appropriated the powers of vps and local administration. It wants to eat into what we have protected for so long." Incidentally, she is yet to be officially intimated about the new provisions by the fd.
The irony of the situation is that these very people had rejoiced when the fledgling state of Uttaranchal was born on November 8, 2000. They had exuded optimism that they would soon have control over jal, jungle, jamin (water, forest and land).
In 1879, when the Indian Forest Act was enacted, for the first time tracts of forestland were reserved. By 1897, all unmeasured wasteland was categorised as district protected forests, precluding the rights of the people over the usufructs from such land as well as the use of forests for grazing, felling of trees and extension of cultivation. The unrest in the region had begun by then. And when between 1911-17 the government reserved the remaining forests, it was the last straw. The people flew into a rage and burnt down more than 3,00,000 hectares of forest.
The Kumaon Forest Grievance Committee was formed as a damage control measure. It submitted its report in 1921 on the basis of which vps were first formed in the state in 1931 under the District Scheduled Act of 1874.
Though powers were delegated to vps merely to buy peace, the people began to exercise them in the right earnest. The villagers were vested with total control to manage the vp forests, even as the ownership continued to remain with the government.After a lull of over four decades, a controversy was sparked off in 1976 when the Uttar Pradesh government brought vps within the ambit of the Indian Forest Act and framed a set of rules to govern them. They greatly reduced the rights of vps to independently manage their forests and allowed the civil administration to intervene (see box: Evolution of van panchyat ). The people, however, reconciled to the new situation, making the most of what came their way.
In 1993, the talk of changing the rules began doing the rounds again. But nothing actually came of it.
The region was then bifurcated and the state of Uttaranchal came into being. With the new government came fresh expectations of greater rights of the people over their natural resources.
But the new dispensation had other plans. It replaced the earlier Panchayat Forest Rules, 1976, with 'The Uttaranchal Forest Rules, 2001'. This, in effect, gave the fd sweeping powers to control the van panchayat forests in a similar fashion to the pre-1931 era when the Britishers had first reserved forests. The state government also used the World Bank-sponsored joint forest management programme (jfm) to tighten its stranglehold over vps. jfm is a scheme introduced in 1988, under which villages get limited rights in return for working with the fd to conserve forests.
R S Bist, divisional forest officer (dfo) in Haldwani and one of the brains behind the new regulations, says, "Evidently, the civil administration had no time or interest to look after vps. The fd, on the other hand, has the technical capabilities as well as the desire to tend the forests. In that sense, the rules are a move in the right direction."
The director of the Haldwani-based Forestry and Van Panchayat Training Institute substantiates these claims with figures. "There are nearly 7,000 vps today. Under the previous rules, the district magistrate (dm) was authorised to spend 40 per cent of the vps' money on village development work. But more than Rs 90 lakh remains unutilised. There is clearly a case for the fd having a greater say in the managament of vps."
Tarun Joshi, a member of the Van Panchayat Bachao Abhiyan, an umbrella group of vp sarpanch and non-governmental organisations, disagrees: "No doubt vps have been hampered by corruption and the civil administration's insouciance. But handing over charge to the fd is not the solution to the problem. If the government really had the welfare of the people in mind, it would empower them again."
In fact, studies show that vp land was better managed (to a lesser extent, still is) than reserved forests, as the people felt a direct association with it.
Rajeshwari Devi, sarpanch of Sarna vp of Naintial, says, "The new rules are not meant to just give the fd the charge of vps. There is a larger game plan to further constrict forest village councils by bringing them under jfm."
"The 486-hectare vp of Sarna was brought under jfm. They made microplans and composite plans. Village involvement was, however, reduced to a farce. We were lured by the money but there were strings attached. Consequently, we have ended up paying for the grass we cut from what were our vp forests. Now the fd's writ runs large and we have to grovel before its officers for our rights," she laments.
Rajeshwari Devi's worst apprehensions seem to be corroborated by the fact that 80 per cent of the jfm programme villages are those where vps had been functioning earlier and, in most cases, doing a satisfactory job. The hills are replete with cases of vps that have failed to deliver once jfm is imposed. A senior bureaucrat in the state forest department says, "The government needs money and one way it can get it is in the name of forests.
"Another bureaucrat lambasts the state government's forest policy, saying, "The entire gamut of forest regulations in the state is skewed in favour of the fd. A number of vps have been broken up into smaller ones -- there is no ecological basis for this -- only as a window-dressing measure to garner funds." vps in villages like Anarpa, in Almora, have suffered the consequences of this blatant manipulation. Formed in 1945-47, the Anarpa vp was split into four forest village councils in 1999. This led to an uneven distribution of forest resources such as grass and firewood. As a result, altercations between villages have become the order of the day.
The same critic within the government explains, "The idea is to create more vps, include them in the jfm fold and tout them as successful cases to be presented at seminars and before funding agencies. At the same time, the authorities gain more control over the forests. They simply can't come to terms with the fact that they are guardians and not owners of the forests."
But senior officials dismiss such allegations. R S Tolia, principal secretary in the Uttaranchal government, says, "Only a handful of ngos want to make an issue out of it. That the government is now the caretaker and the people must learn to work with the fd are realities they don't want to face."
He refuses to acknowledge the incontrovertible evidence that points to rampant corruption in vps. Madhu Sarin, a forest policy analyst, besides others, has comprehensively shown the havoc the new forestry regime of Uttaranchal could create in the state.
The government also chooses to turn a blind eye to the protest rallies that pockmark the hills, spilling onto the streets and exhorting the people of Uttaranchal to fight till the government bows to their demands. Maybe the state government needs to take a peek into the past and repeal the rules to ensure that history doesn't repeat itself. There isn't too much forest left to be burnt this time around.
|Particulars||Van Panchayat (VP) rules under the 1931 enactment||Limited rights and powers of the VP after 1976 van
|Greater control of the FD after the 2001 amendment to the
van panchayat rules
|Formation||Two or more artisans could apply for formation of VP||At least one-third of the village residents apply and
|At least one-fifth of the the village residents should
apply and two-thirds agree to formation
|Area under VP||Civil forests were the only type of land allowed under VP||Reserved forests near impossible to convert to VP forests||Reserved forests remain outside the purview of the VP
forests for all practical purposes
|Management||VP cannot sell land. Can enjoy the usufructs of the
forests without interference
|Same as in 1931. Panchayat should close down 20 per cent
of the area to grazing
|The FD continues to have a central role in the management
of the VP with official plans dictating future action
|Management Planning||Planning is done by the VP||A Draft Working Plan for five years which
needs district magistrates approval
|Five-year Composite Management Plan and five annual micro
plans sanctioned by the DFO. Five annual implementation plans made by the forester,
approved by the Forest Ranger
|Distribution and bye-laws||VPs are free to make their bye-laws. They decide what is
equitable distribution of the forest produce and can make rules regarding
grazing and lopping
|VPs have to take permission from the deputy commissioner
of the region before rules become effective. Cannot give more than one tree to each family
without permission of the FD
|VPs can make bye-laws but these have to be
approved by the DFO, rendering the VP dependent on the FD
|Commercial sale of produce||No restriction on commercial sale of timber.
FD does the resin tapping for the VPs
|VPs do not have power to auction forest produce
power lies in the hands of the FD. Resin tapping is done by the FD. VPs have no
practical role to play
|The FDs writ continues to run large. It
earns 10 per cent of the sale proceeds of all usufruct of the VP as
|Use of surplus money from sale of usufructs||Entire income at the disposal of the VP. Money lies with
|Only 40 per cent of the income available to the VP, which
too is under the control of the magistrate Twenty per cent goes to the zila parishad and
40 per cent to the forest department
|Twenty per cent of the income of the VP goes
to the zila parishad. Though 80 per cent of the money is now to be used by the VP yet the
FD now has complete control over the money.
|Hiring staff||No restrictions on VP paying for labour or security
|No restrictions on VP paying for labour or
|Can only pay if the microplans permit for the
|Consultative and monitoring body||No provision||A consultative body with a representative from the civil
society and one nominated VP sarpanch, not elected
|The role of the civil society is put to an end and two VP
sarpanch are nominated by the magistrate, not elected to the body