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Special Report

A quiet Revolution

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Mar 31, 2000 | From the print edition
Six years ago, the Andhra Pradesh government decided to manage forests jointly with the people. This effort is breaking new ground in Naxalite-infested areas of the state

-- (Credit: PHOTOGRAPHS: RICHARD MAHAPATRA)THE reds are being forced to turn green in the Nizamabad, Adilabad and Warangal districts of the Telangana region where the people have embraced the Andhra Pradesh government's joint forest management (JFM) programme in a big way. What is unusual is that forest officials move around freely in the remote villages where every government programme is boycotted by the villagers under threat from the extreme leftist outfit, the People's War Group (PWG). Since decades there has been no direct contact between the government and the people in this region.

The Naxalite movement - which started as a revolt against the inequitable distribution of land and water - encouraged the local people to clear the forest for agriculture purposes. The people joined forces with the Naxalites in the hope that it would alleviate poverty. But things are changing now. The people seem to have realised that the JFM programme offers all that the Naxalites had promised: an end to poverty, water and regenerated forests. Villagers are giving away forest land they had encroached upon for forestry activities under the JFM. According to the forest department, around 24,000 hectares (ha) of encroached land has been brought under JFM in the state. All these areas are now under farm forestry.

The programme, which started in 1994, gives degraded forests to the villagers on the fringe areas for protection and regeneration. The villagers manage the forest by forming a users' group called the Vana Suraksha Samiti (VSS) or the forest protection committee. The programme is unique in many ways. Whatever income is generated - from non-timber forest produce to regenerated timber and bamboo - is given back to the people. "This is for the first time in the country that under the JFM we
are giving everything in the forest to the villagers," says D K Mukherjee, the state's principal chief conservator of forest (PCCF).

The word in spreading fast to many villages. More and more villagers throng the forest offices to protect degraded forests in the vicinity of their villages. It is not difficult to see why the villagers are taking an active interest. A survey conducted by the forest department, just before the JFM was launched, showed that around 60-70 per cent villagers used to migrate after the monsoon season. "In the last two years nobody has migrated from the village. Now we get money by protecting the forest and after 2-3 years, the forest will give us more earning," says Jai Ram Chander, a member of a VSS of Kothapally village in Adilabad district.

Fight over forests
But this change has not come without a stiff resistance from the Naxalites. Even now, forest officials admit that they need 'permission' from the Naxalites to work in these villages. In fact, the forest department even decided to stop the programme in the Naxalite-infested areas like Adilabad and Warangal. In the Adilabad district, some 20 VSS were dissolved due to threats from extremists. However, in recent years villagers have been putting pressure on the Naxalites to allow JFM. For instance, people in Kothapally village of the district are protecting 282 ha of forest. They also built 35 water conservation structures for groundwater recharge and formed their VSS in November, 1995. As an entry point activity, the forest department dug a borewell with the villagers providing 50 per cent of the cost.

The instant availability of water made the project popular in the neighbouring villages. In 1996, sensing its popularity in other villages, the PWG asked the villagers to dissolve the VSS and stop working with the forest department. In a rare show of solidarity, villagers defied the order saying it solved their single most important problem: water. Although, they had to dissolve their VSS after their president was abducted and assaulted, the programme was later resumed after a series of meetings with the PWG.

Again in 1997, the Naxalites started a campaign that the forest department would grab the tribals' land under the guise of JFM. This resulted in the felling of 36,000 trees in Medura village of Visakhapatnam district. The villagers have now formed a VSS to regenerate the forest and have defied subsequent threats from the PWG. Interestingly, the Naxalite-dominated areas now host more than 40 per cent of the VSS in the state.

"If it benefits the villagers nobody can destabilise it," says Chander. The real change in the attitude of the Naxalites came only after the forest officials changed their stance towards the local people. "This fear of the Naxalites was a testing point for our sincerity. It also emphasised the fact that the programme had to be transparent," says P Raghuveer, conservator of forest in charge of assimilating information.

"They (Naxalites) still dictate the forest officials, but the JFM has got acceptance as the villagers are going for it," says Ratnakar Jauhari, a divisional forest officer. Says another forest official, "the threat from the Naxalites has worked as extra-constitutional audit of the JFM."

Initially, the programme was opposed by the forest officials too. When the forest department called a state-level meeting of the forest officers in 1993 as a preparatory strategy for the JFM programme, 90 per cent of the officials spoke against it. "The forest department is not tuned or trained for working with the people," says Mukherjee, "so naturally there was apprehension about the project not being successful in transferring power and benefits to the people."

Built on water

Water conservation has been accorded the status of core activity under this programme. Forest conservation is undertaken along with watershed activities, unlike the usual practice of protecting a demarcated patch of forest. So wherever the VSS is protecting the forest, water harvesting structures are being built and watershed development activities are also being taken up. "Our guiding principle is: once you catch water, the forest would grow automatically," says K Subba Rao, additional PCCF.

As watershed activities become the priority of this programme, the state government is also funding the programme under watershed development activities. It is also channelling funds from the employment assurance scheme (EAS) and other Union government-sponsored schemes like the integrated watershed development programmes for this programme. In fact, spending money from development programmes like the EAS on forestry has got approval of the Planning Commission which has now issued guidelines to all states to earmark funds for forestry projects under the EAS and Jawahar Rojgar Yojana. The Ninth Plan also stresses this point.

The programme adopts a three-point strategy: villagers are paid wages for forestry activities in the degraded forest to stop migration and to involve people more closely with the regeneration activities. While wage earning becomes the immediate benefit and ensures that the people stay in the villages, the regenerating forest provides the mid-term benefits like constant supply of fodder and fuel. The third benefit is the rise in the water table, thanks to the watershed activities. Now the state has 6,575 VSS who are managing 1.6 million ha of degraded forest with 1.3 million villagers at the helm of affairs, half of whom are tribals. Out of this, 0.5 million ha forest is already under watershed development and regeneration activities.

The forest department feels that by the time the forest reaches the harvesting stage, the VSS would have become self-sufficient with the money earned from timber and bamboo. "Poverty was caused by environmental degradation. So we made poverty alleviation our primary target through environmental regeneration," says Rao. A large number of poor people in Andhra Pradesh live on the periphery of these forests. From a forest protection project, the JFM has transformed into an integrated rural development programme. Apart from taking up forest protection activities, the programme also supports community needs like drinking water and education. Moreover, under the JFM programme the forest department is also implementing the activities of agencies like the tribal development department.

A mid-project evaluation by the World Bank, which is funding the programme, observed that the programme has attained more overall rural development than forest development. "It got the people's support as it is linked to poverty alleviation. Earlier it was only forestry development in isolation that kept the community away from government programmes," says Subba Rao.

The regenerating wealth

Many VSS have witnessed increased availability of water and fuel and fodder within two years of taking up forest protection combined with watershed development activities. The VSS members of Chengicherla village in Rangareddy district got a revenue of Rs 2,26,000 from the sale of grass in the last six years. Earlier, the government used to get only Rs 5,000 per year from selling grass to the villagers. Harvesting of teak trees in Behrunguda VSS of Adilabad district has fetched the VSS members an amount of Rs 3,60,000, while in Pandiriloddi
village of the same district, teak trees earned them Rs 1,60,000. "We never thought the forest could give us so much income," says Munavath Devla, a senior resident of Manikbander village in Nizamabad district.

"While the employment generated from forestry activity will sustain the villagers in the initial years, the regenerated forest will take care of them in the future," says Laxmi Bai, president of Kalada VSS in Adilabad district.

In Bommena village in the same district, the smuggling of timber led to widespread deforestation. Says K Arjun, a member of the VSS, "In 1997 we reached the point of no return. There was no timber, no firewood and no grass for the livestock." So the villagers approached the forest department to protect the adjoining degraded forest. Earlier, in districts such as Visakhapatnam and Adilabad, podu cultivation (slash and burn) was being practiced. "After villagers started to manage the forests, timber smuggling and podu cultivation have stopped," says K D R Jayakumar, the forest conservator from Visakhapatnam. Incidences of smuggling, fire and grazing have also become very few. The people are also helping the forest department to curb the powerful inter-state timber smuggling mafia. Recently, members of Belgaon and Doderna villages in Adilabad districts helped the forest department in busting a major timber racket.

An evaluation of the JFM programme by a Bangalore-based environmental consultant group called Om Consultants says that the JFM programme has created an average 102 person days of employment per year per household. "JFM has worked as a safety valve for controlling tree felling and encroachment," says Kallol Biswas, a forest officer from Narsipatnam.

The improvement in the forest cover is monitored through satellite images. A preliminary report based on the comparative assessment of photographs of 1996 and 1998 shows that in some districts, the forest cover has increased by around 20 per cent and in others, by around 10 per cent.

At the crossroads

Today, the question of sustainability haunts the participants of the JFM programme since World Bank funding for the project is due to end in September, 2000. Whether the programme will be able to sustain itself thereafter, is the big question. Meanwhile, the forest department has already begun to explore the possibilities for funding the project.

The state government recently embarked on a statewide debate on the JFM project to get the feedback from the people. The participants represented a wide spectrum of society - villagers, social activists, politicians and forest experts. The medium of debate was incredible: village-level meetings, regional workshops, state-level discussions and interactive programmes through internet. Altogether it was carried out in 295 locations spread over a year and involving around 35,000 people. "While serving the programme's basic principle of transparency, it also involved the community in charting out the future of the programme," says P Raghuveer. One of the recommendations was that the programme should be planned for 10 years to make it sustainable (the plan at present covers only five years). The recommendations also suggested that the government support should be withdrawn in a phased way, depending on the local socio-economic situation and forest productivity. "Forests would take at least five to six years to give sustainable earning. Till that time the government has to sustain the project," says Rao.

However, some forest officials say the programme has been designed to attain some degree of sustainability. The government's order to plough back 50 per cent of the revenue from the timber and bamboo to the VSS would help in making the institutions self-sustaining. Over a period of time, the government plans to give more share from the income generated from the forests. For example, the VSS now gets 50 per cent of the revenue from the collection of beedi leaves from the VSS areas. Says Raghuveer: "The in-built mechanisms in the programme will make the institutions sustainable, but it would be risky to withdraw funding immediately."

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