THREE YEARS after the National Wasteland Development Board (NWDB) launched the "Greening the Himalaya" project in the Jadhera panchayat of Himachal Pradesh, the balding hills of the panchayat are turning green once more.
But this achievement is not so much due to the NWDB as because of the villagers of Jadhera and their gram pradhan, Ratan Chand. Under his leadership, the villagers have made the project more successful than the parallel plantation programme of the state forest department in the same village.
The villagers have planted trees in 11 of the 39 panchayats covered by the NWDB and have grown broad-leaved species of trees, thus proving the forest department officials wrong. The survival ratio of these species has been high because the villagers have carefully tended the plantations. The fences are well-maintained and the panchayat penalises anybody whose cattle graze inside the plantations.
Among the fruit and fodder tree species that have been planted in the region are walnut, plum, wild apricot and wild chestnut. Cacti are planted around the plantations to keep away straying animals. On an average, the villagers spend only Rs 3,000 per ha, the forest department spends Rs 5,800 per ha.
Slightly built and bearded, Ratan Chand's keyword is community involvement. Over the years, he has held several camps to make people aware of their relationship with the environment. He patiently explains to villagers the need to protect the environment and undertakes any action only after they have assured him of their total cooperation. The emphasis is on participation by everybody because, as he says, the cattle of even one wayward farmer can ruin all the afforestation efforts.
It is because of his cautious approach that he has not yet been able to utilise all the money granted to him. Till now, he has successfully motivated members of only three other panchayats beside Jadhera -- Baror, Padoli and Bath. In some villages where the panchayats have not been supportive, as in Sundo village, he has preferred to directly organise the villagers.
All decisions regarding afforestation are taken collectively by the villagers and this has helped them solve some tricky problems. For instance, when 200 sheep of a wandering Gaddi shepherd devastated a 10-ha plantation, the people of Jadhera decided that 20 of the flock, which had been captured by the village watchman, would be confiscated. A forest guard, faced with the same situation, would have "settled the issue" with an odd goat or two.
Chand has attempted to improve the lives of the poor in his panchayat in other ways too. He has built a panchayat house and compiled a well-stocked library with panchayat funds. He has also launched a multi-purpose cooperative, which includes a veterinary centre and a ration shop as well as apiaries and fisheries.
One problem Chand finds difficult to solve is that of reconciling the conflicting needs of the Gujjars (nomads) and the settled farmers. Gujjars, who constitute almost half the local population, customarily graze their cattle in the forests and occasionally clear wooded areas or burn the undergrowth to encourage new grass growth, leading inevitably to clashes.
It is these cattle which increase the pressure on the forests. Gujjars, says Chand, keep buffaloes and stall-feed them as their animals cannot climb the steep hills.
But Chand also feels that the idea of Gujjars being anti-forests is not totally baseless. Traditionally a nomadic community, they are yet to adapt to settled agriculture and tend to over-exploit the forests. This is why he feels it is important to educate them in sustainable resource use patterns and to involve them in the afforestation efforts.
What led Chand to take up this mission? Increasing deforestation and corrupt petty officials in these remote hill areas, he answers. His crusade began some years ago when he failed in his protest against a public works department junior engineer, who distributed the timber from trees felled during road construction as favours. He lost that encounter, but found a cause to espouse.
The exploitation of the Chamba forests began in 1864. That was when they were leased to the British by the local king for Rs 20,000 a year. Initially, commercial logging was limited to the Ravi valley, but with new roads and improved logging techniques, inner valleys also got affected.
The fuel, fodder and timber requirements of the growing population increased the pressure on the forests. Fodder, especially, is an extremely important commodity in the Chamba hills, since the entire community owns livestock.
Chand admits that he feels sometimes that he is fighting a losing battle to green the hills and change the minds of the people, who are cynical of the "paryavaran ka natak" (environment drama) of the forest department. He reiterates that the people must be given charge of the local afforestation projects. Why doesn't the government give panchayats the power to look after their own resources and to penalise corrupt people, when it overlooks the corrupt practices of "responsible" ministers? he asks.
Chand is also sceptical of political parties which are fast making inroads into panchayat politics. Even though he is influenced by Sunderlal Bahuguna, Chand does not identify with any political party or ideology. "The mission in my life is my work," he says.
Despite his many successes, Chand is a sad man today because, he feels, the villagers are more interested in making money in cities than regenerating their own land. But whatever they may do, they obviously respect his ideas as is evidenced in the fact that this year, he won a second term as gram pradhan, much against his wishes.