|People's Participation in Managing Common Pool Natural Resources : Lessons of Success in India (IRMA, 1992, 26 p.)|
The Van Panchayats (VPs) in the Uttar Pradesh hills represent one of the oldest people's institutions in India formed for promoting co-management of natural forests by people and government. VPs were constituted by the government under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 in response to people's protests and agitations that followed the settlements and reservations of forests in the Uttar Pradesh hills at the turn of the last century. Till 1865, local people had unrestricted rights in the use of forest resources except as and when some forest produce was to be exported. The local people agitated against the extension of government control over the forests in the region. Consequently, the government agreed to allow people to form VPs to protect and manage the forests in areas where local demand was heavy. The VP rules were originally framed in 1931 and later revised in 1972 and 1976. As of 1985, some 4,058 VPs had been formed in the hills of Uttar Pradesh. Although the formation of VPs started in 1931, the process is still on (Ballabh and Singh, 1988a; 1988b).
The Parwara village falls within the administrative jurisdiction of Nainital district in the Uttar Pradesh hills and is situated about 50 km away from Nainital city on the Ramgarh-Nainital road. The nearest market place is Bhatelia, about 3 km away, and the main village settlement is about 2 km from the pucca road. With a total population of 650 in 1981, the village was smaller than the typical village in the Uttar Pradesh plains and the majority (93%) of the population belonged to a single caste group - the Kshatriyas. Generally villages in these hills are more homogeneous in terms of caste structure than those in the plains (Guha, 1985). The Parwara VP was established as the village had a relatively large area under the VP forest, 249 ha or nearly 2.30 ha per household. The VP forest had a fairly good vegetative cover though at many places denuded and vacant spaces were visible. There were no reserved forests in the vicinity of the village. Kharsu and oak were the two major tree species in the VP forest. In the opinion of the villagers and the Revenue Department officials associated with the VP, the VP forest was better maintained and managed than other VP forests in the area.
According to the 1976 VP rules, a village interested in forming a VP may pass a resolution with two-thirds of its adult members in its favour, demarcate the land for the purpose and send the resolution to the Sub-divisional Magistrate (SDM) who gets the land surveyed and a Khasra prepared. The approval is given by the District Magistrate (DM) and the final sanction granted by the Commissioner.
At the village level, a VP Committee headed by a Sarpanch (President) is the sole arbitrator for management of the VP forest. The members of the VP are elected by the village people every five years. The election is mostly informal, voting is done by raising hands and not by secret ballot. It is generally ensured that all parts and groups of the village are represented in the VP Committee. A village VP Committee can have 5 to 9 members. The elected members are called Panchas, and they elect their leader, the Sarpanch. The elections to the VP Committee are conducted under the supervision of an officer nominated by the DM (usually Forest Panchayat Inspector - FPI) or Patwari (village revenue clerk). Most often, in VP Committees, each caste is represented in proportion to the number of households in the village belonging to it. The present VP Committee was elected in 1982. In the sixties, for over a decade, the Sarpanch of the VP was a very honest and respected person. During his tenure, the VP forest was managed and protected very effectively. During 1980-82, the earlier Committee had been under suspension and the Patwari was entrusted to look after the management of the VP forest. The reason for suspension, as stated by the villagers, was dissatisfaction of the villagers with the then VP Sarpanch; we were told by the villagers that the Sarpanch, in collusion with a politician, made a lot of money by illicitly felling and selling trees from the VP forest.
1.According to the VP Niyamawali, 1976, the Panchayats have the following responsibilities:
2. To distribute its produce among the right holders in an equitable manner.
3. To demarcate its boundary by fixing boundary walls, pillars etc. and prevent encroachment in the forest land.
4. To enforce the regulations of the Panchayats.
5. To carry out the orders of the DM and SDM from time to time.
The Van Panchayats have the following powers:
1. The Panchayat can sell fallen twigs and grass for the bonafide domestic use of the right holders in the village.
2. An offence involving a sum of not more than Rs. 50 (later revised to Rs.500) can be compounded with the agreement of the offender.
3. Panchayats can forfeit the tools used for illicit lopping.
4. They can impound stray cattle.
5. Stolen timber and other produce, if seized, can be sold only with the prior approval of the DM.
6. Local sale of surplus forest produce from Panchayats to the right holders cannot be made without the prior approval of the DM and the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO).
The VP Committee has a right to make rules and regulations for the utilisation of forest resources and for their enforcement. These rules should, however, be within the purview of the Uttar Pradesh Van Panchayat rules. For tree felling and grazing, in Parwara, the total area under the VP forest has been divided into five compartments. Only one compartment is opened every year that too only for two months (normally January and February) when there are no alternative sources of fodder and fuel available for the villagers. No family can bring more than three head loads of green leaves on a single day. A fee of Rs. 4 per head load of green leaves is levied on each household for the entire period of two months. Monitoring and regulation of offtake of fodder and fuel from the VP forest is done by the members of the VP Committee, two paid watchmen and the villagers themselves. To ensure that none of the households or persons takes undue advantage during the period of lopping, the members of the VP Committee move around the forest. If any person is found violating the rules or lopping more than the prescribed share, his/her family members are not allowed to enter the forest; sometimes, the violators are fined also. The complaints made by the villagers about illicit felling and lopping are considered by the VP Committee. What the VP Committee is not able to regulate is the extent of lopping of a particular tree. For normal regeneration and growth, it is recommended that the upper one-third portion of the tree should not be lopped, but in practice most parts of the tree are lopped. In addition to green leaves, each household receives every year one tree for fuel purposes and 10-12 poles for house construction. Marking of the trees for these purposes is done by the Sarpanch of the VP with the prior approval of and in consultation with the Forest Department. For the villagers, grazing right is unrestricted. However, factors like self-restraint and religious taboos help in the regulation of use of the VP forest. For example, illicit felling in the VP forest is denounced in the village but it is not considered bad if it is done in the reserved forest area. Similarly, it was mentioned to us by the villagers that some 80-100 trees in the vicinity of a temple had never been lopped.
To prevent illicit felling of trees and lopping for fodder, the VP Committee has three options:
(i) It can fine within the limit of its powers.
(ii) It can lodge a complaint with the SDM, or
(iii) It can lodge a First Information Report with the local police.
In Parwara village, some 400 cases of illicit lopping and felling had been reported as of 1986. In 200 of the cases, the villagers were involved and in the remaining 200 outsiders. A total fine of Rs. 7,000 was imposed on the offenders out of which Rs. 2,000 had been recovered.
The VP is facing a number of problems these days in regulating the use of its forest. First, the legal proceedings are decided within the purview of the relevant section of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and this takes a very long time. Second, even if the VP imposes a fine, the recovery is almost impossible since there is no immediate instrument available with the VP to enforce it. There is a provision in the VP rules that dues of the VP could be collected along with land revenue, but most often collection of the VP's dues is deferred. Third, it was the opinion of most of the old villagers with whom we talked that the interest of the Sarpanch and the members of the VP Committee in protecting the forest has been gradually declining over time. When we asked the villagers the reasons for this, the answers usually were:
(i) when the human and livestock populations were low and consequently their requirements were less than the produce available, it was easy to enforce the regulations;
(ii) with the increase in outside contacts and with the access to outside markets, there is more temptation now for the villagers to resort to illicit felling; and
(iii) political activity has increased in the village which, according to them, is always detrimental to the growth and development of village forest. These forces, operating individually or together, dampen people's participation in social and community work (Ballabh and Singh, 1988b).
Our interviews with selected key informants revealed that people's participation in protecting and managing the VP forest was medium to high. In their opinion, people's participation in VP forest management emanates from the fact that the VP forest fulfills their basic needs of fuelwood, fodder, small wood, and minor forest produce and the people's perception that the forests are important for their survival. Two other important factors that facilitated people's continued participation in the manage-ment of VP forests in the Uttar Pradesh hills are: (i)cultural homogeneity of local people; and (ii)relatively egalitarian distribution of land holdings compared to the plains of Uttar Pradesh. These two factors have helped in preventing the benefits from VP forests being cornered by those who are socially and economically strong.
However, the impact of these factors would not have been as impressive, had the VPs not assured a fair and equitable distribution of the forest produce to all the right holders and if the right holders had not had a high stake in the forests. The VPs have adopted methods that have in-built mechanisms to distribute the produce fairly and equally. In addition to this, the violators of the rules and regulations are penalised by the VPs; although their capacity to enforce the penalties has been eroded over a period of time. To some extent, factionalism within the villages has also helped in proper forest management. This is because the group dominating the VP Committee wants to remain in power and, therefore, it tries to manage the VP forests well whereas the opposition group tries to highlight the short-comings, and loopholes in the forest management. In much of rural India, however, wide socio-cultural and economic inequa-lities exist, creating conflicts among the people who tend to polarise in small caste and class groups. But open discussions of the conflicts have advantages in that the conflicting interests of various groups could be reconciled amicably and disagreements minimised to ensure people's parti-cipation in developmental programmes on a large scale. Such discussions were facilitated by the open and informal elections to VP Committees in the Uttar Pradesh hills.
Partly on the basis of the foregoing discussion and analysis, and partly drawing upon the study done by Ballabh and Singh (1988a; 1988b), we could conclude that people's participation in forest protection and management could be secured easily when people have high stakes in the forest, constitute a relatively homogeneous group, are organised, have good and benevolent leadership, are certain that the benefits from their participation would be quite substantial and would be distributed among the legitimate claimants in a fair and equitable manner, and have a legal back up to enforce their rules and regulations (Table 2). The survival of VPs for such a long period is a testimony to the people's ability to manage their common property forests. There is a strong need to improve the proposed VP Niyamawali 1989 to make it more people-centered and less bureaucratic by giving more powers to the people to protect and manage the VP forests.