Degradation of the forests seriously impacted the villagers. People had to traverse long distances to collect fuelwood and timber. A variety of food items such as fruits, tubers and leafy vegetables that supplemented food, especially during the lean season, disappeared gradually. The impact of drought and crop failure became more acute in the absence of the life-sustaining food-flow from forests. Forest degradation had other implications too. The stream originating from Dhani started disappearing. Soil erosion in the upper reaches of the hills affected soil fertility in neighbouring fields. Out-migration of people in search of work intensified. Droughts became frequent, which brought in the feeling that forest degradation was one of the main reasons for such recurrence.
Villagers realised that forest degradation affected them the most, and hence the initiative to reverse the trend of forest degradation would have to come from them. Since the above-mentioned five villages shared traditional socio-cultural ties and were dependent on the forest, they decided to join forces to protect the forests. In successive combined meetings between these five villages (facilitated by some notable individuals) during 1985-7, a decision was taken for joint protection of the Dhani South Reserved Forest. A set of rules and regulations were framed to ensure smooth management of forest protection, the umbrella rule being that ‘the entire forest area is declared restricted and nothing is allowed free from the forest.’ Initially, a lot of effort had to be put to contain the pressure on forest from the other villages. Five persons from each village formed squads for patrolling the forest. As the pressure on the forest reduced, the number decreased to two persons per village.
Formalisation of forest protection and management happened on 10 September 1987 with the formation of a forest protection committee, named as Dhani Panch Mouja Jungle Surakshya Committee. The committee discussed extensively the various problems relating to forest, their causative factors, and ways to tackle these. The committee identified taila cultivation,2 rootstock extraction, heavy grazing and fuelwood extraction as sources of heavy pressure on the forests. A process of negotiation was initiated with the taila cultivators, and the committee gradually convinced them to stop cultivation. Similarly, notices were issued to all villages in the area intimating them about forest protection. Strict rules were laid down for dealing with the pressures. The committee apprehended the offenders and imposed fines on them. In the initial days of protection, conflicts were rather frequent. Even though there was significant external pressure prior to forest protection, the patrolling arrangements kept forest offences under check.
In 1991, there was a sudden rise in the number of offences. This coincided with the regeneration of the forests and the fact that the protection arrangements were beginning to become lax since the poor and landless sections found it difficult to spend the entire day in the forest at the cost of their daily wages. Other than the outsiders who were illegally accessing the forests, villagers of Panch Mouja were also getting restless and wanted some product flow from the forests. With the regeneration of the forests there was no corresponding change in the rules, and the initial expectation of people that forest protection would fulfil their needs was not met. This led residents of Panch Mouja to get involved in breaking rules and become offenders in their own forests.
Due to this pressure and the growing resentment of the villagers, the committee was forced to accede to changes in the forest rules. They modified the rules to include annual cleaning and thinning operations before the rainy season, thus ensuring a steady supply of fuelwood to the villagers. However, felling of green trees for fuelwood was not allowed. The cleaning material was to be shared equally among all the households of the five villages. Collection of dry and fallen twigs and branches, leaves, fruits, climbers, berries and tubers was allowed without any cost or permission. Tribals and Harijans were allowed to collect dry, fallen twigs and branches and siali (Bauhinia vahlii) leaves to earn their livelihood. Poles for household construction could be obtained with a nominal fee and permission from the committee. The villagers were allowed to take 100 poles of bamboo at Rs 30 for their needs. But this bamboo could not be sold or bartered outside. The villagers could take wood for cremation purposes free of cost and without prior permission of the committee. Similarly the neighbouring villages could get bamboo and timber from the forest only after seeking permission of the committee and paying a certain amount. Special concessions are made when the material is needed for community festivals if a particular village does not have any forests, and in case of individuals who require wood for repairing their houses after instances of fire or accidents. The committees also appointed two paid watchers on the condition that the villages would provide all the help possible. They were initially paid through household contributions, but with the increase in income through cashew harvesting rights, the system of household contributions was discontinued.
While dealing with offenders, the Panch Mouza Committee decided on appropriate action depending on the nature and gravity of the offence. During the initial years of forest protection, no major decision regarding forest offences could be taken by the committee. However, with the growing number of offences, imposition of fine became a standard penalty. The fine amounts varied depending on the value of timber species. Fines imposed on offences were highest during 1991. This also marked the beginning of referring cases to the forest department. It was noticed that with the increase in actions on offences the number of offences dropped in subsequent years.