The meaning and mechanics of sanctification
The merging of sacred and secular in mythology and practice, and the conscious use of the sacred in secular concerns is nothing new in rural societies. Sanctification of panchayat forests represents one such conscious effort of ascribing to the supernatural in forest management concerns. Here villagers appear to have resorted to the supernatural due to the lack of a secular solution to the problem of encroachment in these panchayat forests. The nature of sanctification in this case however straddles between the customary means of resolving conflicts and seeking of justice against violators of forest rules reflected in the spatial dimensions of sanctification on the one hand, and a renewed attempt at forest management suggested in the temporal limits of sanctification on the other.
A total of 25-30 van panchayats in this region have sanctified their forests for the purposes of conservation. Sanctification in each of these cases is limited primarily to the oak zone, although not all van panchayats in the region lying within the oak zone have sanctified their panchayat forests. The research presented here encompasses interviews conducted in villages of ten van panchayats, eight of which had sanctified their forests and two that had continued management through secular means. Five van panchayats that had sanctified their forests formed the focus of this study. The first van panchayat was sanctified in 1992. Villages incorporated in all these van panchayats lie adjacent to each other, with the respective forests sharing its boundaries.
The process and logistics of sanctification is similar for all the van panchayats. Each of these van panchayats sanctified its forests for a period of five years. Each van panchayat also sanctified its entire panchayat forest, accept those panchayats that had under their jurisdiction pine forests. In addition, the basic rules of forest use under the forest-guard system of management remain the same as under sanctification. Neither of the systems allows the removal of live (biotic) resources from village forests, although both systems do allow for livestock grazing in these forests. Entrusting the forests to the deity has however resulted in slight variation between the two types of management, and therefore variation in forest use. Two of the main differences between rules of forest use under the guard system versus the rules of sanctification are: opening of forests on specific days during the winter months for the collection of fodder leaves, and the removal of understorey, especially thorny shrubs for use as fuelwood, both allowed under the forest guard system. With management of the forests accorded entirely to the deity, forests are no longer opened for green leaf collection, nor is the removal of understorey allowed. Only dry wood (branches) may be lopped or collected from the forest floor to be used as fuelwood. Despite the fact that rules of forest use under the two systems remain for the most part unchanged, the actual use of panchayat forests has changed significantly in most of these villages.
Political dimensions of sanctification
Given that any decision-making is inherently political, sanctification of forests also remains a political process. Interviews, especially in the first few villages that sanctified their forests in the region, leaves little doubt that the decision on sanctification came primarily from the elite. Sanctification in this case was not motivated by the elite asserting control over the forest; however, it is political in the level of democracy involved in the decision-making. In villages where the decision-making process was more or less democratic, the process remains political on who voices the decision, on what areas are sanctified, and on the time period of sanctification. With these specificities of sanctification left to the elite, concerns of those who are not in the positions of decision-making, which include the poor and the women, are neglected. Apart from the process of decision-making involved, there has also been differential impact of sanctification on the various classes of village society, the impact being greater on the poorer households with less access to alternative resources.
The experience of forest sanctification has been considerably different among the various villages studied. As noted above, while in some villages sanctification resulted out of a decision of the village elite, in others the decision was arrived at collectively through relatively democratic means, where the poor themselves recommended sanctification. This variation in the decision-making can partly be explained by local politics within these villages, but it is better explained by the community-based ‘chain reaction’ or catalytic effect that took place upon the sanctification of forest by the first van panchayat in the region. The first few villages to sanctify their forests, share their forest boundaries. Thus, sanctification of forests by one van panchayat created problems for the adjoining van panchayats. In other words, villages that had collectively decided to sanctify their forests were responding to the new problem of encroachment from neighboring villages of the sanctified panchayat forests. This chain effect was combined with a lack of foresight on the part of the villagers, including the decision-makers, on the unexpected ecological changes and the changes in resource use patterns that were to take place in these villages. The problem may have been exacerbated due to the lack of involvement of the women in the decision-making, leaving a gap between intent of the decision-makers, primarily men, and practice of the forest users, primarily women.
On a second visit to these areas in May 1999, it was found that several of the sanctified panchayat forests had been desanctified upon completion of the five years. While one van panchayat had joined the Joint Forest Management (JFM), another had reinstated the guard system on a temporary basis. Only one village had creatively adapted the system of sanctification to continue for another fiveyears. This van panchayat sanctified a portion of the forest for three years, and upon desanctifying this section, it aimed to sanctify the remaining portion of the forest for two years.
While this study focuses on the Dharamghar region, it appears that other van panchayats in Askot, Kapkot, and Koteshwar areas may have sanctified their forests as well. In addition, examples from Tehri Garhwal noted in Neeru Nanda’s (1999) book Forests for Whom? Destruction and Restoration in the U.P. Himalayas suggest that sanctification of panchayat forests may not be as localized as might appear from the Dharamghar cases.