The van panchayats of the Uttar Pradesh hills were created to restore the vital link between villagers and their forests. Today, they are prime takeover targets of the forest and revenue departments, whose main aim is to exploit the forests. KOSHY CHERAIL went to Almora, RIMJHIM JAIN to Nainital and RAHUL SHRIVASTAVA to Lucknow to see at first hand the manoeuvres of the departments
IN THE tranquil village of Kunya Khali in Uttar Pradesh's Almora district, sarpanch Sunder Singh patiently waits for the monsoon. The village is one of many in Almora, Nainital, Pithoragarh and Chamoli areas that has nurtured a panchayati forest. Unknown to Sunder Singh, however, the monsoon may be accompanied by a wind of change: the forest department in Lucknow is stealthily trying to regain control of the potentially wealthy panchayati forests, which are under the aegis of the revenue department.
If the forest department manages to return to the driving seat, there will be further erosion in the degree of control the people have over the van panchayats, which were created 63 years ago to sustain the mutually beneficial dependence of the people on the forests. All through, the revenue department has had administrative control over the van panchayats and the forest department's role has been restricted to providing advice on technical matters.
Over the past year, however, the tug-of-war for the control of the van panchayats has been hotting up. And the state government appears to be working at scrambling its own brains by supporting both sides at once.
Last August, the state government issued a draft notification to amend the Van Panchayat Rules of 1976 to give the district magistrate (DM) powers over the forest department's technical advisory role.
This galvanised the forest department into action. It appointed Forestry Consultants, a private firm comprising retired department officials, to assess the performance of the van panchayats. The firm came to the conclusion that van panchayats needed technical expertise to conserve the forests.
The forest department also responded to a request to all states by the Union ministry of environment and forests for suggestions to amend the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (IFA). The department proposed speedy amendments in the clauses on conservation strategy, people's involvement and punitive action against violators, all of which are aimed at controlling the van panchayats.
UP forest minister Bhagwati Singh says in a tone of finality: "We are waiting for Union government's consent for the amendments we have proposed. If it materialises, then we intend to change the rules governing the 4,580 van panchayats nestled in the UP hills and bring them under the umbrella of the forest department."
The forest department's official justification is that van panchayats have been inefficient and have mismanaged forest resources. It says that it wants to implement joint forest management (JFM), which involves stepped-up people's participation in forestry. Says B K Sinha, state forest conservator (planning), "The Union government has been pressing the UP government to implement JFM. The World Bank, which is actively involved in afforestation programmes in the areas, attaches the conditionality of increased public participation."
But without waiting for the proposed amendments to materialise, the forest department is going ahead with its plans. Its officials are already evaluating the state of van panchayat forests and training inspectors who liaise between the district administration and the van panchayats.
L P Khare, state forest conservator (evaluation), justifies this, saying, "The department is simply giving shape to the recommendations made in 1992 by a committee constituted by the government in 1985. The committee had clearly hinted at edging out representatives of the revenue department and putting a forest official as the panchayat development officer in charge of the van panchayats in each block. The committee contended that neither the revenue department nor the van panchayats had the technical expertise to properly manage the forests, which, coupled with corruption, was leading to their continuous degradation." The recommendations of the committee hung fire until the August draft notification.
If the forest department takes over, Khare says, "The van panchayat development officer, who will have the powers of a forest department official, will prepare a scientific working plan for the panchayats. The revenue from the sale of forest produce will be used for developmental work in the villages and to improve the forest cover."
But the forest department is not purely on a green mission: it has monetary considerations, too. The forest minister confesses, "By gaining control of the panchayat land and even expanding it, the forest department will have funds to step up the afforestation drive. This way, we intend to scale over the fiscal crunch the department is reeling under."
The thrust of the forest department's campaign is that only it has the technical expertise to maintain the forests. "Neither the villagers nor the van panchayat inspectors appointed by the revenue department have the scientific knowledge or experience to maintain forests," says B C Joshi, chairperson of the Nainital-based Central Himalayan Environment Association (CHEA) and a retired conservator of forests.
The revenue department has been accused of being indifferent to afforestation and people's participation. Forest officials say that corruption among the ranks of the revenue department has led to degraded forests. Recently, a local newspaper in Kumaon claimed that the DM of Almora had siphoned Rs 78,000 from 3 van panchayat accounts to pay the subdivisional magistrate's office furniture bills.
I D Pandey, director of the Forest Training Institute in Haldwani where van panchayat inspectors are being trained, says, "Van panchayats have become an almost defunct institution under the administration of the revenue department. The Van Panchayat Rules of 1976, which centralise power with the district administration, are also largely responsible for this state of affairs."
An angry Joshi says, "District administrations throughout the region have criminally neglected the van panchayats. They have not bothered to invest their revenue in developmental work for the villages."
As of October last year, the revenue of the van panchayats,which is deposited in accounts maintained by DMs, was more than Rs 2.5 crore. But the amount has merely been invested in savings schemes instead of being utilised for van panchayat development programmes.
Joshi claims also that a provision allowing the DM to allot up to 40 sq metres of van panchayat land for non-forestry purposes is frequently misused. Says Lalit Pande of the Uttarakhand Seva Nidhi in Almora, "The van panchayat is everybody's concubine but nobody's wife. There is a lot of land under them but the DMs cannot look after it."
The forest department also contends that some members of the van panchayats are responsible for the present state of affairs. Says Pandey, "There are instances of corrupt sarpanches giving away van panchayat land for unauthorised purposes or colluding with timber traders to cut down trees." Other sarpanches are in the dark about their powers and the revenue officials have done nothing to educate them.
The villagers, however, dislike both the departments, which have subverted the role of the panchayats over the years. Dalip Singh Bisht, former pradhan of Dogradolmar panchayat, complains, "The inspector of the district never has time to visit our panchayat." Kosi Chand, another villager, says, "Even a working plan for our panchayat has not been prepared."
The principal grouse is that proposals for utilisation of van panchayat funds are stalled by the revenue department. Gopal Singh, sarpanch of Pokhari, says, "I've had to visit the district headquarters repeatedly to ensure the administration does not keep sitting on our proposals." Besides, several van panchayats are unable to employ chowkidars without the DM's permission, which is cited as the main reason for encroachments on van panchayat land.
Rajesh Kumar Singh, DM of Almora, confirms the shift in the philosophy on van panchayats which were originally carved out to supply the villagers with fuel and fodder. They are now fast becoming commercial ventures. "Attention is now being given to improving the state of the van panchayats. Even tea plantation has been planned in order to generate higher income," he says.
Villagers aren't very happy with forest officials, who are seen as disregarding the needs of the villagers. Laxmi Singh, sarpanch of Dogradolmar, is disgusted. "They (the officials) plant foreign species which yield timber or resin, but are not useful for fodder or fuelwood, catch fire easily and use up a lot of water. When timber has to be valued, they can't be found. We (the van panchayats) keep sending them proposals, which are ignored till the wood rots," he says.
The villagers of Rusi, which is a part of the Bilwakhan van panchayat, point towards piles of wood, saying, "Despite repeated reminders, forest officials have not bothered to auction the wood. Soon the rains will come and flash floods may sweep away the wood. Each year we lose a lot of revenue this way because of the forest department's non-cooperation."
Explains Laxmi Singh, "The forest department set up a nursery here, but we thought they wanted to use it so we never looked after it and the plants died. A nursery recently set up by the forest department on Dogradolmar's panchayat land grows species such as pine and siraj, which are of no use to us because they do not yield either fuelwood or fodder. We would rather have a nursery of our own to grow local species," points out the sarpanch. The general opinion is that the forest department is interested only in commercialising the van panchayats.
The Dogradolmar van panchayat land, on which useful species like sal, poplar and banj are grown, is badly degraded. Fallen branches and wood, which can be used as fuelwood, are inadequate and the villagers are forced to raid nearby reserved forests.
Despite accusations of corrupt sarpanches and van panchayats being dysfunctional, poorly managed and overexploited, many of them have been successful. Instances include the Chawda, Mikila-Kalpatta, Jhoni, Harkot and Lilli van panchayats in the Hawalbagh block of Almora district.
Not only do these forests provide for a village's needs, they also cater to the needs of neighbouring villages lower down in the valley without van panchayats. Chawda village, for instance, has enforced social fencing in its forests and has regulated grazing. Villagers from nearby Sudig have worked out an agreement to obtain their fuel and fodder from the Chawda forest.
Certain factors have separated the successful van panchayats from the degraded ones. Van panchayats dominated by some communities, like the Bhutiya tribals, tend to be successful because they are supplemented by strong, traditional community-based forest management systems. The dependence of the Bhuityas on forests is more intense: as an artisanal community, they not only require fuel and fodder but also raw material for their craft.
Discipline is another factor, as exemplified in Kunya Khali and Lasna. Sunder Singh of Kunya Khali enforces strict rules about grazing, extraction of resins and gathering of fuel and fodder. According to CHEA secretary S L Shah, "It is apparent that the leadership quality of the sarpanch, his motivation, the time given for supervision and his ability to deal with the bureaucracy is a very crucial indicator of a successful van panchayat."
But such discipline is scarce. Explains Nain Singh, sarpanch of Panua Naula in Almora district, "It was easier for us to impose discipline in the earlier days. Now, we have to depend on the district administration to punish the violators."
The success of van panchayats sometimes hinges on the participation of women, who expend most of their time and energy in collecting fuel and fodder. Mahila Mangal Dal member Srimati Umadevi of Rekholi says, "Seats should be reserved for women in the van panchayat committee to encourage their participation."
According to Madhava Ashish, an environmental activist based in Panua Naula, "Single-village panchayats do much better than multi-village panchayats. Villages with highly fragmented holdings and attendant land disputes tend to mismanage their van panchayats and are unable to obtain a consensus on any issue."
However, the prime reason for faltering van panchayats is lack of autonomy. As Shah says, "There is a high level of centralisation of powers under the divisional commissioner." Says Nain Singh, "The response from higher officials to our proposals or complaints are greatly delayed."
Nonetheless, there is a growing awareness about the self-management of resources and the villagers are lobbying for more autonomy. At a sarpanch sammelan held in Haldwani last December, about 50 sarpanches called for greater autonomy (see box). Asks Lalit Pande, "But who is really willing to share power and let the people manage their forests? The government presumes that all villagers are corrupt and cannot be trusted."
NGOs, too, have voiced concern that the proposed changes will adversely affect the villagers' needs and the ecological balance. Bipin Tripaty of the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal suggests, "Degraded areas of reserve forests and civil forests should be transferred to van panchayats for regeneration."
The Garhwal and Kumaon regions have a history of defiantly resisting moves to subvert their traditions and attachment to forests. The British averted an uprising in the 1920s only by restoring functional freedom to the panchayats over their forests. But history is seemingly being ignored as the economy becomes an overbearing compulsion.
Already, voices of discontent have started echoing in the hills. Warns Pradeep Gupta, the general secretary (hill region) of the Uttar Pradesh Congress committee, "The van panchayat issue can at any time fan the fires for the Uttarakhand movement, which till now has remained limited to certain regions of the state."
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