Junawani and Ulnar Villages

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 Location  Ecosystem Type    Conservation Type    Area(hectare)  Legal status 
Bastar, Chattisgarh  Forest  Ecosystem Conservation  2400 Joint Forest Management (JFM)

Case Study (2009)


The villages of Ulnar and Junawani situated in Bastar district of Chhattisgarh follow a traditional system of forest protection. In Bastar cosmology, villages were founded on the basis of land given to the founding members by the Earth, which has therefore to be propitiated at all agricultural festivals. It is believed that the Earth includes the spirits of the river, the forest and the mountain, to each of whom separate offerings are made.

The appropriation and reservation of forests by the forest department (FD) in the 1950s1 meant that the forests were officially taken out of village boundaries. However, these forests often continued to be part of the village for ritualistic purposes. There has continued to be a strong tradition of managing the forests within the traditional village boundaries till quite recently, involving a system of charging residents of other villages a small fee (known variously as devsari, dand, man or saribodi) in exchange for use of one’s forest resources. In some villages in north Bastar, the fee was charged according to the amount of timber taken, and it usually took the form of some liquor or meat. Some villages charged only for good timber and not for dry or fallen wood, and other villages charged only if the wood was stolen. Similarly, in some villages, they expected man for grazing, while others allowed grazing free. In south Bastar, villages that used the forest of another village made collective contributions to the Earth of that village at festival times by way of offerings. This was not necessarily a system of forest protection as it is understood today, but it managed to regulate excessive felling and enabled a supervisory eye on what was happening. Invariably there were cases where this system did not work. The residents of Chitrakote, for example, complained that while paying this fee or offering, other villages had cleaned out their forests, and now they in turn had to pay another village to use its forests. However, by and large, in terms of forest protection it seems to have been fairly successful.

Two examples where this traditional system has worked till not so long ago are Ulnar and Junawani villages. Ulnar is a large village in central Bastar, comprising seven hamlets. In addition it is the head village of 12 villages: Bajawand, Peethapur, Nalpawand, Sargipal, Dasapal, Devda, Masigaon, Peelapadar-Karitgon, Talnar, Baniagaon, Belgaon and Tarapur.2 Ulnar had a nistari3 sal forest of about 6000 acres (according to one villager) that was distributed among the villages with Ulnar keeping the largest share.

The system had an exchange system for forest use. In return for the use of the forest, the other villages each contributed some money, rice and a goat (as saribodi) to the Earth festival in December and to the Chornia Mandai , another festival, in April. Each village had their own jungle (forest) sarpanch or headman and also engaged watchmen to look after their forests. On the last day of the Chornia Mandai festival, a meeting would be conducted whereby all the jungle sarpanches met. They would discuss the state of the forests and protection efforts, and warn villages that engaged in excessive tree felling.

In 1937 this system of traditional forest protection was discovered by the Chief Forest Officer in charge of Bastar while he was on tour. Subsequently, a formal working plan was drawn out, according to which the forest was divided into 7 or 8 felling series. Each felling series was assigned to a set of villages, which were then responsible for its management and the payment of the watchers. The felling series were further divided into forty coupes, one of which was opened every year for tree felling, the produce being distributed among the relevant villages. Certain trees, such as mahua, tamarind, harra, mango and trees forming the sacred grove around the local deity’s shrine, were not to be cut.

In addition to the contributions at festival time, the sarpanches collected 1.5–2 kg of paddy per rupee of land revenue, which was stored in a central depot that was utilized towards paying the watchman, buying uniforms, axes, the construction and repair of the grain depot, etc. The watchmen were paid 30–60 kg paddy per year and exempted from corvee (crop tax). Apart from meeting at festivals, the jungle sarpanches met weekly (called the council by the then British Administration) at the bazaar (market place) in Bajawand. The council had to be approved and confirmed by the administration, which also had powers to revise the council’s judgment if necessary. The council was vested with powers to impose a fine (upto Rs 25) for offences connected with illicit felling or excessive removal of timber, fuel, grass, and non-timber forest products (NTFP). The money went into ‘the furtherance of the Ulnar forest conservancy’.

Although this official systematization of the unofficial system seems to have been disbanded around 1952, following the nationalization of the nistari forests and their conversion into protected forests (PF),4 it has carried on informally in some form or the other.

In the neighbouring village of Junawani, the villagers have been protecting their forests since at least the 1930s, when they contributed approximately 10–15 kg of paddy per household to hire three watchmen. Additional money (e.g., for festivals) was raised by selling wood to neighbouring villages which lacked forests of their own. Villages which used the Junawani forests on a regular basis contributed grain for the watchmen, 100–150 kg of paddy and one pig at festival time (first sowing). Timber for house construction or for a funeral was given on application to the jungle sarpanch who would consult with the other villagers. Those who took wood without permission were fined, or would have their tools and bullock carts confiscated and auctioned at the first sowing. The position of the jungle sarpanch would rotate.

The forest department has recently started forest protection committee (FPCs) in some of the villages (including Bajawand and Ulnar) under the government-sponsored JFM programme. This has apparently led to some tension and distrust between the forest department’s nominee for jungle sarpanch and other residents. For example, earlier if someone wanted timber to build a house, the jungle sarpanch had the powers to assign trees on his own, but now meetings have to be called for everything because of the breakdown in trust. Villagers are charged a fee of Rs 2000–3000 depending on what they cut, but the handling of this money is not always transparent. Despite all these problems, it still seems to be a fairly effective system. For instance, in 1999, Ulnar fined Tarapur Rs 5000 and a goat for stealing 30 logs of sal from Ulnar’s portion of the forest.

In Junawani, villagers claimed that while the other villages continued to use the Junawani forest, they have now stopped contributing towards it. The villagers justify so by saying that “We don’t say anything since people have become educated and tell us that it is not our jungle but belongs to the government.” The turning point came in 1983-84, when villagers from Devda tried to steal timber at night, and beat up the Junawani villagers who tried to stop them. The dispute is still in the court. Junawani then stopped asking any of the other villages for contributions, and forest protection by the villagers became lax.

Around 1995–6, the forest department staff held a meeting at Junawani and villagers were told about the FD’s plans to create a 50 ha plantation which would be handed over to the village after five years. This plantation took over some of the encroachments on lands under the jurisdiction of the revenue department of the state government. This land was being used to grow pulses and oilseeds to supplement paddy. Since a trench was dug around it, further encroachment has been stopped. A watchman was appointed to look after the plantation and paid from the VFC (village forest committee) funds. However, instead of planting mahua, tamarind, cashew (Anacardium occidentale) and so on, as was promised to the villagers, the FD has planted mahua, bamboo sp., eucalyptus sp. and acacia (Acacia melanoxylon). Once the FD money began to come in, villagers stopped contributing towards the payment of the watchman. According to them, their sense of ownership dipped even further, and they felt that if the FD was giving money, it would ultimately cut the forests.

On the other hand, protection seems to have improved over the past decade, despite all disputes and the lessening of enthusiasm of Junawani villagers. The presence of the FD as a third party has helped when offenders challenged the authority of the guards.

Traditionally these villages have unanimously followed the rules of forest protection bound by rituals and with due respect to the village body that decides those. However there is a reduction in enthusiasm along with internal village disputes over timber smuggling. Despite these constraints, this case study highlights the importance of community management as well as authoritative legislation for forest protection. This case indicates that despite the emphasis by NGOs on complete community management, it is important not to forget that the presence of the state as the ultimate authority has been internalized by villagers over a century or more. Therefore, if used imaginatively, situations like this can become a perfect example of how the government can enhance traditional conservation practices towards forest conservation rather than subverting them.

  This case study has been compiled from Sundar, Nandini. 2000. Is Devolution Democratisation? New Delhi, Institute of Economic Growth.

Nandini Sundar
Institute of Economic Growth
New Delhi-110007
Email: [email protected]

1 See state chapter on Chhattisgarh in this volume for more details.

2 The information on the Ulnar nistari jungle is based on conversations with villagers in Talnar and Ulnar (1999), in Peethapur (1996).

3 Patches of forests assigned to village communities for fulfillment of their customary rights, under the Lland Revenue Code of the Central Provinces.

4 Category of forests declared under Indian Forests Act, 1927.

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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