Van Panchayats (VP) are autonomous local institutions controlling forests in the state of Uttarakhand. They were introduced in 1921 by the (British) Forest Grievances Committee and brought into practice after 10 years through the Forest Panchayat Act of 1931. Over time, by virtue of various rules of 1931, 1976, 2001, 2005 and 2012, the institution of VP has become centralised in governance from being a decentralised institution. The control of power has been transferred to the state’s bureaucracy from the stakeholders of the village. There are mainly two reasons that can be broadly understood for this shift. First is the fact that the government itself is a centralised institution with power trickling down from the union to the smaller governing units. The government wants greater control over the resources at every level in order to ensure that they maximise their revenue and also to ensure that the institutions coming under lower levels in the hierarchy remain dependent upon the higher ones.
This ensures that the government plays a vital role in influencing the decision making process in the institutions at lower levels. Second as we see, in the villages, owing to gender selective outmigration, the women who are left behind are more hesitant to take up the administrative work such as that of Van Panchayats. This further gives an excuse to the government for taking up the work under their control. Today, the VPs are answerable to the government and not to the local people. The responsibility of VPs vests mainly with the Forest and Revenue Departments. The functions that can be easily performed by the officials at their desks are taken care of. The activities that require field work are usually avoided, unless and until there is specific pressure from the higher authorities. Out-migration is a serious concern for the hilly regions in Uttarakhand.
Most of the people who migrate out are men. People typically move to urban regions to do menial jobs. According to the report by Uttarakhand Palayan Ayog, over the last 10 years from 6338 villages in Uttarakhand, 1,18,961 people have migrated permanently, while 3,83,726 people have migrated provisionally in quest of better livelihood opportunities. Uttarakhand has 734 villages which have now become deserted ‘Ghost Villages’. Owing to men moving out of their villages, their female counterparts are bestowed with an increased responsibility for the household. Also, to some extent the decision making by female counterparts is hardly taken into consideration, though there are rare examples of female van panchayat sarpanches pertaining to their strong backing by their respective Mahila Mangal Dals (self-help groups). Most of the time the growing household responsibilities and related social factors hinder the participation of women in decision making.
Another factor is the loss of dependency on forest resources as most of the locals used to rear animals. Owing to decrease in availability of grazing lands, higher rearing costs and related feed, they found it difficult to continue with this practice. This has impacted the macro and micro flora of the forest regions as lack of large domestic livestock has lessened the fodder requirement. Stall feeding is a common practice today. The shift in decision making and effective erosion of the functioning of the forest institutions has caused the locals to abandon their villages. Wild animals are entering into human habitation in search of food and living space. This causes a serious threat to human lives. There have been incidents of skirmishes between animals and people. In 2020, more than 50 people lost their lives. This number is bound to go up if remedial actions are not taken.
The Chir Pine tree species that is found in Uttarakhand has resin rich needle leaves which are highly inflammable and prone to forest fire. About four lakh ton pine needles drop annually in the pine forests, which makes the forest prone to fire due to the rise in ambient temperature during summer. Though the Chir Pine was located in the Himalayas from time immemorial, its mass-scale regeneration was promoted for resin tapping in the British period. Its drought tolerance and fast growth promote its preponderance in arid areas where other broadleaf species such as oak do not grow. India ranks 6th among the top ten resin producing countries of the world. In Uttarakhand about 70-80 quintal of resin is collected every year valued at Rs. 6000-7000 per 100 kg. Resin yields turpentine on distillation, Nonvolatile resin is used in pharmaceutical preparations, perfume industry, disinfectants, insecticides, paper, rubber, soap, paint, varnish and shoe polish.
In India, according to a report by National Institute of Disaster Management, about 35 million hectares of forest area is lost to fires annually. During the period of November 2020 to June 2021, Uttarakhand reported 345,989 forest fires. This was the country’s highest for the said period. This figure is 28.3 times higher than between November 2019 to June 2020. A significant factor for this disheartening number is that the officials are not proactive in their approach. Currently, the officer’s approach is to ascertain the damage caused and to send the report to the higher authorities. Though they supposedly take preventive measures, the statistics reflect otherwise. Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, many people who had migrated in search of jobs returned to their villages because of loss of livelihood in metropolitan cities.
In an interview with DownToEarth magazine, the then Chief Minister of Uttarakhand stated that around 45 per cent of the population that had returned would stay back. There is now a great opportunity for the revival of VPs as people who have returned are in search of livelihood opportunities. They can easily be drawn into forest-related activities such as non-timber forest products and bio-resource utilization. The exclusion of villagers from the Van Panchayats has resulted in their decreased participation in effective forest management. Forest fires, outmigration, loss of flora and fauna, etc. are just obvious implications of this. The Van Panchayats should have performed as a ‘safety valve’ which they failed to do. The systematic increase of state’s control over VPs caused the locals to get detached from it. However, with the return of men, local institutions can help provide management-based livelihood generation for these individuals so they can sustainably conserve their forest resources and work proactively towards resource conservation. The locals possess a sense of belonging and their focus lies in preventing the damage to forests.