Thapaliya - Mehragaon Village

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 Location Ecosystem Type   Conservation Type   Area(hectare) Legal status 
 Nainital, Uttarakhand Forest Ecosystem Conservation 385 Not Available

Case Study (2009)

Background

Thapaliya-Mehragaon Van Panchayat is just a kilometre away from Naukuchia Tal, a well-known lake, popular with tourists in Nainital district. The Tal is about 35 km from Kathgodam, and is well connected to this nearest railhead. There are regular bus services from Haldwani and Nainital to the Tal. The 1 km distance has to be covered on foot. The climate of the area is semi-temperate. Temperature during summer shoots up to 34°C, while in winter it remains slightly above the freezing point. It receives a good amount of rain during the monsoon months. The altitude varies from 1100-1400 m.

There are 97 households with a total population of 587 in the village. Most households are brahmins (about 75); 14 are rajputs and the rest dalits. Most people are engaged in agriculture, though there are a few (about four or five) who are doing petty jobs in nearby hotels and resorts. There is no artisan family in the village, though a few are masons. The cattle population is close to 700 heads. There are no goats in the village. In fact, Thapaliya-Mehargaon Van Panchayat comes under one gram sabha but is comprised of two revenue villages: Vohra Gaon and ThapaliyaMehragaon. The total area of the van panchayat is 385 ha. Wildlife is not significant. The animals most common in these forests include barking deer, leopard and monkeys. Before the initiative started, the number of wild boars was very high. After the removal of lantana their population has gone down. A few bird species such as red-billed blue magpie, pine bunting, blue robin, warbler, yellow-billed blue magpie and yellow-throated minivet also live in the forest.

Although the van panchayat came into existence way back in 1950, the condition of the forest under its control deteriorated by the 1980s. ‘The forest that was very dense and thick was slowly razed to the ground by people and contractors. People faced immense difficulty to meet their biomass requirements and fields became barren,’ says Mahendra Singh Varma, the ex-pradhan (village head). Meanwhile, an NGO called Central Himalayan Research Action Group (CHIRAG) started working in the area. The NGO was mainly carrying out land restoration and biodiversity conservation programmes. In 1988 Varma approached the organisation to take up his van panchayat under their project. The NGO agreed to take up one part of the forest and thus a unique effort of restoration involving people and workers began.

CHIRAG encouraged the villagers to establish a van suraksha samiti (VSS) to protect the forest and implement the restoration programme. There are eight members in the VSS, with four being women. This committee is independent of the existing van panchayat committee, although the members of the van panchayat can also join the VSS. There are two such persons who are members in both institutions. The sarpanch of the van panchayat is invited to attend the monthly meetings of the VSS, which are called on the first or second day of every calendar month. ‘The VSS takes care of the project area and we are responsible for the entire forest and both bodies have similar rules, so there is a lot of co-operation between us,’ says Rajendra Singh, sarpanch of the van panchayat. ‘Both institutions want to protect the forest, so there is no question of conflict between the two,’ Harag Singh Mahra, president of the VSS, echoes him. There is a third institution in the village as well. It is the women’s group, which is a self-help group (SHG). This 12-member group is engaged in saving and thrift activities. It was established in August 1999 and all four women members of the VSS are also the members of this body.

For the revival of the forest, the NGO along with the villagers adopted a policy on fresh plantations and natural regeneration. Also, reducing pressure on the forest was considered a must. For plantation, a meeting of the villagers was called. People suggested plantation of fodder and fruit species. Every family of the village was taught how to raise a nursery on its own land. Each family was initially given 10,000 saplings. Then they were given seeds. CHIRAG provided money to make saplings, dig pits and to transport them to the forest. After some time, the NGO helped open accounts in the name of women from these families in the nearest bank. The forest was kept totally shut for five years to allow natural regeneration and protect new saplings. However, care was taken to meet people’s biomass needs by providing them alternatives. First, they were convinced to sell unproductive animals, mostly goats and additional loans were given to buy milch cows. People, after some resistance, agreed. They were then provided gobar gas plants at subsidised rates. This also became popular in the village. This helped reduce pressure on the forest and became crucial in the success of the programme.

As already pointed out, the VSS meets every month to discuss plantation, protection and other issues such as imposing fines on offenders. Although, the successful protection of the forest has made people aware and they themselves protect forests, there are two chowkidars—one male and one female—appointed by the VSS. The woman is an old but extremely energetic and dedicated lady, Rewati Devi. It was a pleasure walking to the highest parts of the forest with this 65-yearold guard of the wild. ‘I usually go to the forest in the night and hide to see if someone is harming my trees,’ says an enthusiastic Devi. ‘She shouts at people and if they don’t respond, she starts throwing stones at them,’ says Ganga Joshi of CHIRAG. However, Rewati rues that she gets only Rs 400, too paltry a sum in these days. No grazing is allowed in the forest. Twice a year it is opened to cut grass, and passes are issued for Rs 5 per sickle to people for this purpose. If there is excess grass, people from neighbouring villages can also collect it for double the amount. For special functions members can apply for fuelwood and for Rs 25 a bundle of wood is given to them. Regulated lopping of trees for fuelwood is done under the supervision of chowkidars during the winter and Rs 15 per person is charged for that. No harvesting of leaves is done.

The VSS also has a number of punitive rules. If anyone is caught stealing grass, a fine of Rs 15 is charged for a small sickle and Rs 20 for a large sickle. Rs 100 is charged if a domestic animal is caught grazing inside the forest. The sickles caught are seized. The amount raised by realising these fines and from plantation—each individual has to deposit 5 per cent of his income with the VSS—was close to Rs 14,000 at the time of writing this case study. The salaries of the two chowkidars and meeting expenses are met from this amount.

In the absence of any ecological research and based on conversations with villagers, chowkidars, CHIRAG workers and personal observations, the following benefits of this effort were clear:

1. The workload of women has been reduced considerably, as there are fewer domestic animals to look after and one does not have to walk a long distance to collect fuelwood and fodder;

2. The hills around the village, which once looked nearly barren, are now covered with green.

3. People have an additional source of income, thanks to the money given to them for raising nurseries and labour income for plantation;

4. Increased agricultural output coupled with fruit production from the plantations. The villagers are able to market fruits in the nearby fruit market at Bhowali.

5. Increased availability of water, confirmed by CHIRAG workers who put up hand pumps near water sources.

 

The main reasons of the success of the project have been the cooperation of people and dedication of CHIRAG workers. ‘Initially some people, such as a few contractors and hotel owners, were against the project and we had a hard time convincing them, but a constant interaction with them got their support as well,’ says Raj Mahra, Co-ordinator CHIRAG project at Naukuchia Tal. Women also feared the non-availability of fodder. But later women gave their maximum support and they fast understood the benefits of forest protection. People like Rewati Devi proved to be an inspiring factor. However, even today, a handful of people, mostly from the neighbouring villages, remain a stumbling block. Today, the 12 van panchayats spread over 3500 ha around Naukuchia Tal are protecting their forests in one way or another despite strong pressure from the builders lobby, as this area is among the hot destinations for people from Delhi to own farm houses.

  This case study has been 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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