Interestingly, it was a conflict between Suruguda and the neighbouring village of Jhariapali that led to forest protection. It happened when the villagers of Jhariapali did not allow the harijan community of Suruguda village to purchase rice from their market any longer. To teach the Jhariapalis a lesson, it was decided to prevent Jhariapalli villagers from entering the forests that they accessed for their firewood and fencing-material needs. Initially the decision to protect the forests was taken by two padas in the village: harijan pada and bhuiyan pada. A forest protection committee was formed and a letter was sent to the forest department to seek permission for protecting a part of reserved forest. A few months later the entire village joined in and a village meeting was called. In this meeting an executive forest protection committee was formed with representation from each hamlet (pada). Though the incident with Jhariapalli was the immediate trigger for forest protection, the other concerns that influenced the decision were acute scarcity of fuelwood and wood for house construction, agricultural implements, etc. Soon the villagers were protecting 80 ha of reserved forest and 40 ha of revenue (khesra) forests.
The first informal forest protection committee (FPC) was formed in 1985. FPC members were selected from within the general body with representatives of all caste groups. The people who had taken the initiative for protection were included in the committee. At this stage there was a dominance of the scheduled caste communities. However, changes in the committee came when it was formalized later, first as the van forest protection committee (VFPC) in 1989 and then as the van samrakshyan samiti (VSS) in 1994 under the forest department’s joint forest management programme. The initial effort was informal and the leadership was more committed to forest protection, whereas in the more formal set-up the leadership is more for power and resources.
For the protection of the forests, initially thengapalli1 was practiced. After a couple of years, as the pressures on the forests reduced, the number of people going for patrolling was reduced from six to two. The nearby villagers gradually became aware of the protected status of these forests and the penalties to be paid by offenders. The committee members regularly monitored the protection arrangement and rectified its faults. A strict set of rules was formulated, which evolved over a period of time, depending on the changing circumstances. An informal set of rules started in 1985, with a complete ban on entering the protected forests. In the initial periods, night patrolling was also done, which subsequently stopped with the reduction in the number of offences. In 1988, different rates of penalties were introduced for different kinds of offences. In 1990, the amounts were further increased to put greater pressure on the offenders. In 1994, because of JFM the forest committee was formalized and a formal set of rules and regulations were worked out.
There are specified rules for regular thinning of the forests under the FD-promoted silvicultural practice. The thinning operations are performed with the objective of promoting the growth of valuable species. The other rules for protection include:
• Wood-cutting instruments are prohibited from being taken into the forests.
• A differential penalty for different kinds of offences has been worked out.
• With the permission of the committee, free collection of firewood is allowed on Sundays.
• Bamboo-shoot collection is prohibited.
• Strong restriction on cutting sal, mahua and bija.
• Entry of cattle to the forests is allowed only in the pre-monsoon season. For the rest of the period a patch of grazing land has been specified.
• Entry of neighbouring villages is restricted.
• Strict penalty against those who fail in patrolling duty.
• Individuals helping the committee in catching the offenders shall get 50 per cent of the seized produce.
In addition to setting up these rules and regulations, the villagers also strictly monitored the spread of fires for the first few years and took measures to put out fires quickly.
The rules, frequency and dates of thinning, efficacy of management, offences, etc. are all discussed in the meetings of the committee. The periodicity of meetings is not strictly fixed. In the initial period, meetings of the executive body took place once a week. Gradually the frequency decreased to once a month. Whenever required and or whenever an offender is caught, meetings are immediately called. The committee appoints a person from the village itself for intimating committee members and the villagers. The person who gives the message is called a katuala. While executive committee meetings are restricted to executive committee members, in the general body meeting participation of at least one person per family is mandatory. Mostly men attend these meetings. In the executive committee as well as general body, there are women members; however, they only attend the meeting if it is being called by the FD or some visitors have come to the village.
For forest protection, each household contributes voluntary labour for patrolling, irrespective of the family’s financial condition and other constraints. Keeping in mind the economic conditions of the NTFP gatherers, the committee has not put any restrictions on NTFP gatherers from nearby villages.
The initial problems were to find ways to deal with the pressure from forest-dependent villages. A lot of effort had to be put in to convince the villagers to protect the forest for their livelihood and the future generations.