Simalgaon Village

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 Location Ecosystem Type   Conservation Type   Area(hectare) Legal status 
 Bageshwar, Uttarakhand Forest Ecosystem Conservation 30 Not Available

Case Study (2009)

Background

Simalgaon is located at a walking distance of 16 km form the district headquarters of Bageshwar. Alternatively, it can be reached from Kanda which is located at a distance of 24 km from Bageshwar, on the Berinag road. From Kanda, one has to walk 6 km to reach Simal Gaon. From Bageshwar regular buses and jeeps ply on this road. Direct buses are available from Almora, Pithoragarh and Delhi as well. The nearest railhead is Kathgodam, about 185 km away. The climate is semitemperate with the temperature climbing to 35°C during summer and remaining close to the freezing point during winter. It receives a good amount of rainfall during the monsoon months. The altitude varies from 1300-1600 metres above mean sea level.

There are 30 households in the village, with a total population of 178. Most households belong to the Rajput community, although a few are Dalits. Agriculture and animal husbandry are the main sources of livelihood of people. The cattle population is quite high, though it was difficult to arrive at an accurate estimate. It is said that centuries ago the ancestors of these villagers migrated from Rajasthan to settle in this remote part of Uttarakhand. There was a big forest here and people were afraid of wild animals, so the then village head had no problem giving them some land to settle down. The area of the forest is 30 ha. It is mostly banj oak. In fact, the thick oak grove is so famous in the entire area that the forest is called ‘Simal Gaon Ke Banj’. Even the village and the villagers are known by the same name. However, some other species such as rhododendrons, mahal bamboo and deodar also exist, though their percentage is low. These forests have a good wildlife population, as hunting is strictly prohibited. Some species are kakar (barking deer), leopard, Indian wild boar and ghurad. Birds such as red-billed blue magpie, pine bunting and chestnut bunting, munia, rufous wood pecker, long-tailed mountain thrush, and several flycatchers are also sighted.

The village has a traditional system of forest protection for generations, called the lath panchayat. In this system a stick rotates from one family to another for the whole year. The family at whose door the stick is kept by the previous family has to go for forest patrolling and protection on that day. However, in Simalgaon this system has been somewhat modified. All 30 households in this village are members of the lath panchayat. Functioning of the lath panchayat is very informal. Elders from each family usually take keen interest in protecting the forest. There is no formal rule for a periodic meeting, though, if a need arises, the heads of the households are called upon for a meeting. Meetings are usually held on some social occasion when all the families anyway gather at some place in the village. No system of any kind of election exists.

To protect the forest, two types of patrolling are practised. The first is voluntary patrolling. Anyone who has free time can patrol the forest; there are no rules about this. The second is the system of keeping a constant vigil. As the forest is adjacent to the village, people keep a constant vigil over it, and the moment they sight a thief or spot a fire they raise an alarm and people gather to do the needful. No formal punitive system exists and when an offender is caught, an on-the-spot decision is taken. Usually, outsiders have to pay double the fine that a villager would pay.

For the people of this village, the forest is open round the year to collect dry leaves, fallen twigs and branches and grass. Outsiders cannot collect any produce. Hunting is totally prohibited. Usually there is no dearth of fodder and, if the situation demands, a part of the forest is open to harvest oak leaves. ‘However, this is usually done only once in five years or so,’ says Ummed Singh, a village elder and ex-pradhan. This facility again is for the residents of this village only. The matter is decided in a meeting of all the households. A part of the forest is marked for harvesting and one person from each family goes to collect leaves. Everyone has to go together. There is no limit for an individual to cut fodder leaves, but no extra labour can be employed, nor can an outsider do this job. Even the ultimate size of the oak branch that is permissible to be cut is decided in the meeting. Anyone violating this rule is debarred from harvesting the leaves for the rest of the season. 

Oak is also used for making agricultural tools. To meet this requirement, each year some trees (two to five) are marked and each family is given an equal amount of wood. The villagers themselves do the job and the persons cutting trees are paid additional amount of wood in lieu of labour charges. The neighbouring villages are sold 3-4 trees each year. For fuel, the villagers have rights over the nearby reserved forest (RF) and most fuelwood comes from the pine forest.

Forest fires are the biggest threat to oak forests. ‘We try hard not to let fires rage through our forest as we are vigilant enough to control them on time,’ says Laxman Singh, an elderly farmer. Sometimes, even during the night, people fight fire to extinguish it. For regeneration, one part of the forest is shut for a period of 5-7 years and no grazing is allowed there. This way, two compartments of 4 ha each have been added to the forest during the last 17 years. There is a reserve forest of pine at the edge of the jungle and people have to take care that chir pine does not ingress into the oak forest.

The village earns some income from the forest, mostly by selling oak wood and dead and dried trees to the neighbouring villages and by imposition of fines. Though not very significant, this is usually spent for buying utensils, generator, tents, etc. and to organise social events. These common utility articles are given to the villagers on a nominal rent that goes to the kitty of the lath panchayat. No formal bank account has been opened for this. The money is kept with some responsible elder in the village.

 

This is a very old institution, protecting its oak forest for a very long time. So, it was not possible to compare the tangible results of protection. However, it can safely be said that people are getting enough biomass for all their needs from this forest, and the forest too remains in a very healthy condition.

The tradition of lath panchayats has worked in the hills of Kumaon for generations; however it is gradually dwindling now as more and more of these institutions are either getting formalised as van panchayats or youth are losing interest in such traditions. Felling of any tree in areas above the height of 1000 m, whether privately owned or government property is not allowed. In 1981, the Government of India imposed a ban on the felling of green trees above 1000 meters by contractors for the State Forest Department for pulpwood and timber, accepting one of the demands of the Chipko Movement in the late 1970s. To harvest one’s own trees, one has to take permission from the district magistrate, who is usually unsympathetic to the needs of the villagers. The permission is, therefore, almost never given. In these circumstances and other factors affecting the village, some people, mostly youth, are increasingly getting less enthusiastic about forest protection.

  Compiled from information sent by Rakesh Agrawal, an independent researcher, in 2001.  

Rakesh Agrawal,
90-A, (M.I.G. Ist Phase), Indira Puram
P.O. Majra, Dehra Dun-248 171

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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