Halkar Village

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 Location  Ecosystem Type    Conservation Type    Area(hectare)  Legal status 
 Uttar Kannada, Karnataka  Forest  Ecosystem Conservation  200  Village Forest

Case Study (2009)


Halkar village portrays a community-based conservation system formalised by the British colonial government as village forest panchayats (VFP) about 70 years ago. This is almost a pre-colonial relic of the system that prevailed in the coastal district of Uttara Kannada (formerly known as North Kanara). This is also a very good example of how government apathy, lack of support and negative intervention can gradually discourage and lead to the degeneration of a well-functioning community initiative.

Halkar village is situated towards the centre of the west coast of Uttara Kannada district (which lies between 13° 55’ and 15° 31’ north latitude and 74° 09’ and 75° 10’ east longitude) in Karnataka. The village is on the banks of the estuary of the Aghanashini River. Halkar lies on the outskirts of Kumta town, with an area of about 200 ha, of which about 60 ha are submerged in the backwaters. The lands all around the backwaters have rich plantations of coconut palms, mango, jackfruit, banana and areca nut. The forest landscape is of semi-stunted type. The total forest area is 89 ha. The forest trees seldom exceed 10 m in height. The number of trees was not more than 100 per ha before the 1990s. However, plantation of fast-growing exotics in the gaps, which the forest had in plenty, has considerably increased the tree population. The species planted are mostly Australian acacia and casuarina. Cashew trees have also been raised in small patches, expecting to bear the nuts in the near future. The village is able to meet its regular requirements of fuel, leaf manure and minor timber on a sustainable basis from the community forest.

Notable among the evergreen trees are two species of blackberries or neeilu, andamurugila, kokum, surugi, halchary and bokalu. Amongst the leaf-shedding trees there are kavala, gojjalu and honagalu. Several herbs and climbers are found in the forest, including notable medicinal plants like agnishikha and satavari. The few mangrove trees left in the gajni (estuarine rice lands) are uppati, ipati and kandale.

Among the fauna, jackals are common and their number has increased since the raising of the exotic trees. Other species that are found here are hyena, black-naped hare, Hanuman langur, wild boar and barking deer. Around 50 years ago, panthers occasionally used to come down from the Western Ghat forests into this forest. Of the many birds found in the forest are herons, kites, redwattled lapwing, jungle fowl, spotted dove, rose-ringed parakeet, oriole, cuckoo, kingfishers, treepie, coppersmith barbet, Indian peafowl, drongos, warblers, bee eaters, etc. Most of the estuarine birds like black-crowned night heron, ruddy shelduck, common teal, greater spotted eagle, grey plover, European golden plover, Kentish plover, lesser sand plover, whimbrel, redshank, marsh sandpiper, whiskered tern, pied avocet and rosy starling are found in the Aghanashini backwaters. The backwater marshes are excellent breeding grounds for fishes, prawns, bivalves, crabs and various crustaceans. The villagers here normally do not hunt. Some outsiders occasionally hunt for hares. The birds of this forest do not face any major threat.

According to the 1991 census, Halkar had a population of 1016, with 177 households. Halkar has a multi-caste Hindu society, who live in harmony despite their social hierarchy. Agriculture is one of the main occupations of the villagers. As a result of the abolition of landlordism, in the 1970s the patgars, who were traditional tenant farmers, became the owners of most of the rice fields, each of them owning approximately one hectare or less. The able-bodied people move out seasonally into the interiors of the district, after the planting of rice in the gajnis, 1 to work in the arecanut gardens of the havik brahmins2. However, nowadays many members of these agricultural families pursue other education-based professions like banking, teaching.

The gunagas or kumbhars are traditionally potters. They also officiate as priests for the folk deities of the village. Barring a few families, the rest of them have diversified into business, transportation and other vocations. The Madivals or traditional washermen have also diversified into other professions. There is an outflow of the younger generation towards urban centres for business activities. Earlier the Mukris were hunter-gatherers and agricultural labourers who yet continue to be on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.

Most villagers grow vegetables and various tubers for subsistence and some trade. Laterite bricks (which are quarried from the forest) and forest produce provide a major source of income to the village forest panchayats.

Sacred groves dedicated to folk deities were a characteristic of Halkar till recent times. The Mother Goddess of the village (Choudamma) was associated with a grove till about 25 years ago, which has now been replaced with a shrine.

Legally the forest of Halkar is under the jurisdiction of the forest department, but pursuant to the provisions of the Indian Forest Act of 1927, a village forest panchayats was constituted in Halkar in 1930. The village forest panchayat system gives virtual control over the forest to the village community, although the land is still legally under the forest department.

Prior to the British arrival, in the early 19th century, the forests of Uttara Kannada were mostly managed by the village communities.4 Most villages had large sacred groves of similar landscape, known as kans, covering several hectares in area. Tree cutting was a taboo inside the kans, but gathering of non-timber forest produce such as black pepper, fruits, seeds, palm toddy, etc. was not a violation. The kadu or ordinary forest was used by the people to meet their biomass needs such as fuel, leaf manure, poles, timber, etc. The hakkalu or kumri were shifting cultivation areas, where during the fallow period the forest would regenerate. The bena or grazing areas were maintained as grasslands by setting them on fire periodically to destroy woody growth.5

In 1805, during British rule, the new rulers laid claim over the forests of the Western Ghats, by classifying them as reserved exclusively for the state. By the end of the 19th century most of the sacred kans, secondary forests, shifting cultivation areas and even the savannaised areas in the vicinity of villages and towns had been notified as the state-reserved forests of Uttara Kannada. However, heeding the persistent demand for privileges in the forest by the villagers, especially for leaf manure, fuel and grazing of cattle, the British allotted the much-degraded forests or minor forests and savannas to meet peoples’ needs. The Bombay Government made a provision in its forest policy for the formal creation of village forest panchayat (VFP). This was done under the provisions of the Indian Forest Act, 1927. Under the provisions of this Act, panchayats or councils were mandated to elect representatives of the villagers. Subsequently, by 1930, nine VFPs were formed in the Kumta forest range, covering 11 villages, and a total area of 1814 ha. The Halkar VFP was one of them.6

The formal institutional structure and bye-laws were provided by the Government of Bombay. The VFP has a General Body (GB). Of the 206 households known to exist in Halkar today, 186 households are members, represented by individuals above 18 years who legally possess the rights to the property. The eligibility criteria for membership are that the family should have resided in the village for minimum of 10 years, should own cattle and actively participate in VFP activities.

The GB of the VFP has an elected managing body (MB) consisting of nine members. The MB representatives belong proportionately to the various caste groups, of which two members each are from the harikanta (fisherman), patgar (estuarine farmer) and gunaga (potter) castes, one each from the brahmins and harijans (a collective term for low-caste Hindus) and one member from a general category, by popular choice. Amongst these members one would be elected as chairman, and another as vice-chairman. A secretary is appointed to look after the daily administration of the VFP, whose services are on payment of a modest honorarium. A watchman is also appointed from among the villagers, whose services are also paid payment. The democratic element means that the VHP is accessible to all the villagers, irrespective of the caste to which they belong.

The elections of the MB of the VFP are conducted once in three years, under the supervision of the tahsildar. Each caste group elects its representatives separately and the general category representative is elected collectively by all villagers. There is no gender bias against women contesting and participating in the VFP, although there seem to have been no instances of women contestants so far. The MB meetings are held on every second Sunday of the month, while the GB meetings are held once in six months, and at any other time during any important contingencies. The accounts of the VFP are audited every year by the tahsildar.

Halkar has a democratic system of resource sharing, which includes the following features:

1. Each bonafide household is issued a ‘pass’ every year by the VFC for a fee of Rs 15.

2. Only one member from each pass-holding household is allowed to gather fallen leaves for manure and dry wood as fuel.

3. A pass-holder may collect not more than one headload of branches (dead and fallen or dead branches broken by hand) from the forest towards fuel purposes.

4. The fallen leaves for fuel or manure may be collected only during the dry season.

5. The quota for each household is limited to a headload of 25-30 kg a day.

6. Green twigs for manure purposes may be collected only from bushes during the rainy season.

7. Wild berries and medicinal plants for their own use may be freely collected.

As mentioned earlier, the villagers are provided laterite bricks quarried from the village at a concession. The dead trees are auctioned amongst the villagers only, and one family can bid for only one tree, creating a scope for participation of the poorer people. The plantation species like acacia and casuarina are cut by the VFC itself and sold to needy households at prices lower than the market rates. The village community is well aware of the limited resource provided to them under their control. Those in need of more than the required quotas of plant biomass go to other forests several kilometres away. Due to conservation efforts, the forest of Halkar is reasonably well stocked to meet the villagers demands for leaf manure and fuel, thereby eliminating any resource depletion of other forests.

Box 1

Traditional estuarine farming and sustainable system of fishing 

Most traditional agriculture in Halkar and other estuarine villages consisted of rice cultivation in the shallow parts of estuaries called gajnis. The process of rice cultivation in these gajnis was due to the collective efforts of a large number of farmers. The patgars took the leadership in the building and repairs of embankments, control of water flow, and all other agricultural operations. They showed concern and initiative in planting mangrove trees along these earthen dams. The entanglement of the aerial roots of the mangroves prevented erosion of the dams. The fishermen also believe that the presence of mangroves is a major factor for larger production of fish in the estuaries, as the mangroves increase nutrient supply. During the tides, saltwater finds a way in and out of the gajnis through a network of natural drainage channels called kodis. Rice cultivation in the estuarine rice fields does not require manuring or ploughing. On the other hand, manure obtained from cattle and leaves collected from the forest are added to the normal rice fields called gadde.

When earthen dams were made, the flow in the kodis was controlled through several sluice gates, which facilitated thorough drainage of the gajnis. During the pre-monsoon weeks, towards the end of May, the gates were closed after the saltwater was drained. Subsequent to the torrential rains of June and July, these gajnis would be refilled and the salt-tolerant kagga rice was raised. Following the harvest of rice, usually in November, free flow of tidal waters was permitted in the kodis through the sluice gates. This permitted fishing activities of fishermen of the village in these gajnis. Customarily, only 3–4 families would practice fishing in a kodi and by way of mutual understanding never violated the kodi borderlines. They fitted nets called gantivale towards the mouth of the kodi, to trap fish that would be going out of the gajni at low tide. They also used a kind of scooping net called gorubale to fish inside the kodis at any time of the year, since the kodis were not planted with rice due to their depth and strong currents of water. Two people held the gorubale and went against the flow. Since the net stood a few inches above the soil, the fishing exercise would not exhaust the fish stock. The villagers adopted a system of sustainable fishing.

Fishing was restricted to the fishermen except for patgars and mukris who occasionally caught fish for personal family consumption. Patgars made basket-like devices of bamboo strips that were used for fishing, unlike the harikantas, who lacked the expertise in making them. The Harikantas used nets, which had larger mesh than the ones used nowadays, thereby allowing smaller fish, especially juveniles, to escape. The local community management system of the estuary never encouraged exhaustive fishing. The practice of planting mangroves, upkeep of mangrove sacred groves, and earthen building (rather than stone and dykes as used today) minimised the human impact on the estuarine ecosystems, ensuring sustainable use.  

Halkar village is in Kumta, one of the 11 talukas of Uttara Kannada district. The head of the taluka is the tahsildar. The Deputy Commissioner is the highest official government rank in Uttara Kannada district. Halkar village is a part of Holanagadde Panchayat3, which is responsible for public works such as roads and supply of drinking water, in addition to running of schools, health care systems, etc.  

The Halkar village community regularly monitors the functioning of the VFP with regard to account maintenance and responsible performance by the office bearers. Being an officially constituted body, the government has a vital role to play in the matters of the VFP functioning that may exceed beyond its authority. A regular event is a tree-planting ceremony held on 15 August every year, when the entire village community assembles in the forest and each family plants one tree.

Changes perceived in the habitat

During the early 1970s, under the Kharland (gajni) Development Scheme of the Karnataka Government, a series of permanent dykes were built of stone, intended to protect the gajni fields from salt water inundation. Once the gajnis were being protected by permanent dykes, the farmers felt no need to plant mangroves, which were a prerequisite for protection of the earlier earthworks. As a result, the existing mangrove flora suffered substantially, impoverishing the estuarine ecosystem of the Aghanashini on the whole.

Although the dykes were built to protect the rice fields from saltwater inundation, very soon outside forces entered the backwaters of the Aghanashini with tumultuous effects on the ecosystem, economy and social harmony among the people. Soon after the building of dykes, under the persuasion of outside fishing contractors, the farmers started storing the tidal waters in the gajnis in the post-harvest period for growing fish, mainly prawns, which fetched good prices in the international market. The estuarine fishing community was victimized due to such a development. There were restrictions imposed on them for fishing in the gajnis, sometimes forcefully. The only time they could now fish unrestricted was during the first few weeks of monsoon rains, when the contract period for fishing expired. Harikanta fishermen, having lost their source of subsistence, started moving out to seek employment in the more organised and mechanised sea-fishing sector in places as far as Mangalore, Cochin, Ratnagiri and Goa. The plight of their womenfolk, who used to sell fish, became more serious. They were compelled to purchase fish from markets and sell them for a small profit in the villages. There was a marked change in the fishing techniques as well. The traditional nets (goruvale and gantivale) were replaced by hand-held trawl nets, with small meshes, made to scoop the water of the kodis flush with the bottom, giving no room for fish to escape. Even patgars, who earlier did not use fishing nets, started using these trawl nets.

Early in the 1990s, the forest department planted fast-growing exotics, mainly Australian acacia and casuarina in about 30 hectares on the banks under the Wasteland Development Scheme of the Government of India. In 1997-8, the department also planted about 10,000 saplings of cashew and about 1000 saplings of teak. This trend of plantations led to suppressed growth of many other species that were growing earlier. These fast-growing exotics have of late provided a quick solution to villagers requirements of fuel and leaf manure. 

Government interference

In case of any threat to the forest, the entire village is alerted and an emergency GB is convened. One such instance occurred in the early 1990s when the state government allotted about six hectares of the village forest to the Konkan Railway Corporation for laying down the west-coast railway line, without consulting the VFP. The villagers were helpless to resist this mega-project, but they unanimously opposed the entry of a private contractor for clearing the forest along the rail alignment. The Railway Department was forced to give in to the villagers’ protest and they handed over the clearance of the trees to the villagers by coupling it with paying service charges. This wood was then sold to the villagers at nominal rates by the VFP.

Another instance occurred in the 1970s. After the reserved forests under the control of the state government were degraded because of excessive extraction, the government gave permission for industrial logging in the Muroor Kallabe forest. This forest was one of the 9 well-established VFPs during that period. The protests from the villagers were countered by the Government Order to surrender control of all forest panchayats to the state, with which seven of the nine VFPs complied. It took a 10-year-long legal battle by Halkar & Muroor Kallabbe to receive justice. However, this legal battle demoralized the villagers to a great extent and the efficiency of the village management system went down significantly.

Administrative interference

Since then administrative interference has carried on in different forms. According to the provisions of the law, one of the tahsildar’s duties is to monitor the financial accounts of the VFP. For the last two years the tahsildar has ordered auditing of accounts by the government auditors. The conservation efforts by the villagers are based on informal mutual understandings. The procedure of government auditing has challenged the faith in the traditional system of the villagers. Moreover they feel that the audit fee being levied on the VFC is quite high. The villagers feel that there is no need for the government to conduct audits, since the VHP has not utilised any government money.

Changing aspirations

With the passage of time, economic perspectives matter more than the ecosystem. The rise in prawn culturing has led to the decline of the estuarine ecosystem, also affecting the total number of mangroves. Natural regeneration is suffering due to exotic trees being raised. The many sacred groves once embedded in the village forest have been demarcated and given away to temples and shrines.

The younger generation are not active participants towards conservation efforts, as they are unaware of the forest ecosystem functioning. The reasons may be the geographic isolation of Halkar forest, the denudation and watery environment around and the high density of population.

The VFP is finding it difficult to cope up with the exacting demands from the state bureaucracy, which needs legal knowledge and administrative skill of a formal type, which the villagers often lack. Earlier villagers were apprehensive about the plantations of fast-growing exotic trees. The availability of fuel, leaf manure and minor timber increased substantially, reducing the villagers’ apprehensions. No ecological consultation is easily available for the villagers. The ecosystem is weakening and the soil is impoverished and eroded. Additionally, the villagers are unable to protect the plants from the cattle and goats, which forage freely.

Another major drawback of the VFP is that there is no gender equity in its administration. In Halkar, most households are registered with the names of men as their heads. Therefore men have outnumbered women in the General Body of VFC as members. The prerequisite for women contestants for the MB is that they have to be the members of the General Body. Since most of the resource collectors are women and not men, the VFC needs to amend its bye-laws to give more gender equity in its affairs. During the last few years, however, several NGOs have visited Halkar to study the system of forest management. NGOs like OXFAM and Vikasat have rendered some help to Halkar villagers to overcome administrative crises, and also conducted short training programmes for VFP members.

• The VFC has to create a greater scope for women’s participation.

• The VFC should be assisted from time to time by the forest department and other relevant institutions with regard to the choice of species, especially indigenous ones.

• The species that are chosen should not only meet diverse kinds of biomass requirements of the people but should also render ecosystem services, such as water and soil conservation, and should also sustain wildlife.

• Since most of India lives in the villages, the government should pay greater attention to uplifting the village life. There can be small investments, which are but a fraction of the amount being spent to develop cities. Investments for forest improvement or mangrove vegetation are an effective source of providing long-term returns. 

  This case study has been written by M.D. Subhash Chandran in 2001

M.D. Subhash Chandran
Department of Botany,
A.V. Baliga College,
Kumta 581343,
Uttara Kannada, Karnataka, India
E-mail: [email protected]

1 Estuarine rice fields where the farmers grow kagga rice which is tolerant to salinity.

2 Panchayat is a system of local self-government for groups of villages consisting of elected representatives of the people.

3 F. Buchanan, Journey through the Northern Parts of Kanara (1801-2), vol.2 (Madras, Higginbothams, 1870).

4 M.D.S. Chandran and M. Gadgil, ‘State forestry and decline of food resources in the tropical forests of Uttara Kannada, southern India’, in: Hladik et al. (eds), Tropical Forests, People and Food: Biocultural Interactions and Applications to Development. MAB Series, vol. 15 (Paris, Parthenon, 1993), pp. 733-44.

5 Chandran and Gadgil. 1993. (As above).

This case study was part of the Directory on Community Conserved Areas (2009), published by Kalpavriksh. The directory can be downloaded here.

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