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.