HISTORY is an open book that generations of bureaucrats have steadfastly ignored. Civil servants have repeatedly tried to deny people -- especially tribals and hill people -- access to natural resources on which their very survival depends and in the process, invariably alienated them and caused the degradation of forest resources.
Such isolation and its accompanying tensions forced the British administration to establish van (forest) panchayats in the hill districts of Uttar Pradesh in 1931. The van panchayats enabled the people to regain control of the forests adjoining their villages and access to fuel, timber and fodder. Additionally, the villagers were allowed to sell forest produce.
It has since been well established that forests in which people have a direct interest and control are far better conserved than those in which people have access but little control. But the Indian government's forest policies have consistently eroded the traditional rights of the people in favour of state and private interests. The recent developments in Uttar Pradesh are in the same vein. The amendments proposed in the Van Panchayat Rules and the Indian Forest Act of 1927 are aimed at wresting the little power left with the van panchayats.
On the one hand, van panchayats have become battle grounds in the age-old feud between the forest department and the revenue department, which dominates the hill districts where more than 65 per cent of the land is deemed forest land. The wrangling has only eroded further the little control the local people had over these resources.
On the other hand, in response to national and international pressure to involve people in the management of forests, the UP forest department is trying to supplant the existing model of van panchayats with a joint forest management model in which the forest department retains control and the people are offered only a small share of the resources generated in return for protecting the forests.
If the so-called custodians of the country's forests only look back into the country's history, they will realise that if forest resources have to be utilised sustainably, it is imperative that control of these resources be returned to those who have a direct survival stake in protecting them.
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