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.