The Van Panchayat (village forest council) mechanism has been in practice in the Central Himalayan Region of India (now state of Uttarakhand) for over seventy years. It ‘lawfully’ empowered the village people to nurture, protect and conserve the neighbourhood/community forests and use their produce. However, the mechanism has not succeeded as much popularised due to the lack of proper government-financed support system and most importantly due to the villagers’ unwillingness to accept it wholeheartedly. The people’s indifference towards this mechanism was quite clear in the sense that they believed more in the organically evolved indigenous forest protection and conservation system that allowed them access to the forests in a self-disciplined and regulated manner.

In fact, most village people have never heard about the Van Panchayat Pranali or mechanism. For example, the subsistent farming community in my small village in Uttarakhand or the Central Himalayan Region never knew about it. All they knew was that the forest close to the village belonged to their community and that they had an uninterrupted and unhindered, but self-restrained, access to it for their all necessary needs of timber, fuelwood, fodder, herbs, medicines, etc. For sure, they would never either wanted to know what the Van Panchayat mechanism was all about. In other words, they would live without a Van Panchayat in their village and blissfully! Without being aware of the British mechanism, they continued to plant saplings during the rainy season and raise clusters of different tree-species on their own lands.

But this did not come overnight. It would have taken centuries after centuries to evolve a common culture of collective sharing and preserving the nature’s bounty, what we today term as natural resources unfortunately without any reference to the history of the acquired knowledge system. Of course, there have been instances of conflicts and tension arising out of the sharing of the forest produce. In the recent history, however, such incidents have increased partly due to faulty management of the Van Panchayats and partly due to degradation and depletion of what generally called the natural resources. The sustainable development, again a very anti-people construct of the multilateral agency-driven thinking, has only inflammed  the problem further because the rulers of the so-called popular governments have never decoded the people’s real needs and aspirations. What the planners and policymakers thought appropriate development policies, were actually the policies of destruction of Nature and in the long run for ruining the people. The only ‘achievement’ of all this is 12,089 Van Panchayats and 1,434 joint forest management committees (JFMCs) in Uttarakhand (The Tribune, August 2, 2009).

This clearly shows that the British ‘constructed’ the mechanism to pursue their exploitative colonial design in the name of people-friendly policies rather than make it a true example of government-citizen collective endeavour for managing the forests and their resources. Actually, the British understood the local people’s sentiments, thus they tried to get across the idea that the mechanism was being evolved to support them at the grassroots level and help them in the prevention of the forest fires, illegal felling of trees and poaching of wild animals even as allowing their ’empowered’ access to the forests for their needs.

In a broader sense, we would know that the mechanism has actually been an antithesis to the people’s inalienable rights or haq-huqooqs over their forests to use and manage the forest resources like fodder, timber, deadwood for kitchen fuel, herbs, medicinal plants, wild fruits-berries-vegetables, and so many other things and very clearly they saw the mechanism not only as an unwarranted modern construct but also as a foreign tool to master them!

Even today, several Van Panchayats have been re-organised without the knowledge of the people or without getting their support. Such attempts by the bureaucracy have only aggravated inter-village conflicts among the village people who traditionally governed themselves through self-evolved organic system!

In view of the above, does not it mean that the so-called reinforcement of the Van Panchayat mechanism has only resulted in the destruction and demolition of the traditional resource sharing?

In past, people depended heavily on their forests and they would not marry their daughters into the villages that did not have dependable forest closeby. So in other words, the whole life support system revolved around the village forest. Nobody would be comfortable in life without a forest in the neighbourhood of his/her village!

Frankly speaking, the system has not proved to be decentralised, democratic and autonomous. Neither we have been able to see it as one of the largest and most diverse experiments in the devolved common property management developed in collaboration with the State.

We need to examine the fact why the system has been facing challenges and threats ever since the mechanism was imposed by the State. These policies obviously include the State initiatives that are actually ‘demolition’ policies — ”the rapid formation of new Van Panchayats under direction of the revenue department, and introduction of the village joint forest management (JFM) by the forest department. The end-result has been the transfer still farther the authority to the State in the name of joint management. This has been done, without any argument, at the cost of the local village communities!

This booklet, “The Ruling Stick: Uttarakhand Panchayati Van Niyamavali, 2005 (Panchayat Forest Rules, 2005)” under the Sub-heading, Government’s Laws and Regulation versus People’s Rights, clearly points out that the 1976 Van Panchayat Rules gave the revenue and forest departments — two prominent players in the functioning and decision-making process — too much importance in the Van Panchayat issues. “With the entry of these two departments, the very objective of collective decision-making and decentralised forest governance behind the formation of the VPs got diluted,” rightly argues the booklet. It also points out that with the introduction of the Rules of 1976, the government strategically increased its administrative control over the Van Panchayats.

In another chapter on the “Van Panchayat Rules 2001 and VP Rules 2005: Extended chapters of JFM,” the booklet also points out states that section 28 of the Forest Act, 1927 was reintroduced in 2001, despite the fact that the Act was disapproved by the people even during the British Raj.

And to cap all this, the government in the new state of Uttarakhand that came into existence only in the year 2000, immediately amended the 1976 Rules and introduced a new set of rules framed under Section 28 of the Indian Forest Act, 1970. The Act that empowers the forest department to convent the reserved category forestland into the village forest, thus enabling the forest department to have administrative control over such a forest!

In a nutshell, this small booklet will give fresh insights into the whole sphere of the Van Panchayat mechanism existing for more than 70 years in one of the most volatile, sensitive and threatened ecological zones in the world!

— Suresh Nautiyal

Suresh Nautiyal, a senior bilingual journalist and political activist, is associated with several organisations committed to ecology, democracy and human rights issues at the local, national, regional and international levels.

Written in the year 2010.

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