The Panchayats Meant to Protect Uttarakhand's Forests Are Under Threat

Dilution of powers and a lack of funds have contributed to the current crisis plaguing the system of community forest management.

Van panchayats or village forest councils, once known as powerful and effective bodies for managing and protecting forest areas – including from forest fires – in Uttarakhand, are under serious threat today.

They were constituted during the colonial period. The British officials declared all the useful forest area as the state’s property, which restricted its use by local inhabitants and resulted in protests across the hill regions in Uttarakhand. This led to the appointment of the Kumaon Forest Grievances Committee which made 30 recommendations in its report.

History of van panchayats

On the basis of these recommendations, the British officials recognised the role of communities in the management of forests, and in 1931, the Forest Panchayat Act was enacted under Section 28(2) of the Indian Forest Act, 1927. The Act resulted in the formation of village forest councils with powers to design and implement the rules for accessing and distributing forest resources, monitoring them, imposing penalties on violators, and generating and judiciously using income for forest welfare.

Over the last eight decades, the number of van panchayats in Uttarakhand has increased multifold. Nearly 71% of the state’s total geographical area is covered under different classes of forest – 45.4% is classified as reserve forest, 8.92% as civil and soyam forest, 0.18% as protected forest, 13.41% as panchayati forest and 0.29% as private forest. Van panchayat areas are carved out of civil and soyam forests. While the official record suggests that at present there are 12,167 van panchayats engaged in the management of 7,32,688.9 hectares of forest area, the ground reality gives a bleak picture.

Forest areas under the jurisdiction of van panchayats in hectares. Credit: Author provided

What’s behind the current crisis?

Recent discussions with government officials and members of van panchayats in several villages in Uttarakhand reveal that these bodies are no longer the ones framing the rules and regulations over the use, access and management of forest resources under their jurisdiction. The current state of van panchayats has not reached the nadir all of a sudden, the decline of their powers was a long process and goes back to the 1970s. The current crisis is largely due to the manner in which the forest and revenue departments exercise their powers and a lack of coordination between them.

The post-independence period has witnessed a series of amendments to the Van Panchayat Act in 1976, 2001, 2005 and 2012, and each amendment diluted the powers of van panchayats and bureaucratised and centralised the decision-making power in the hands of forest and revenue department officials. For example, in the initial Act of 1931, no officer was to intervene in the decision-making power of a van panchayat. However, under the 1976 amendment, one special officer was appointed which rose to five officials in 2001 and then numerous officials in 2005 who now supervise the working of van panchayats.

Dilution of power

While the 1931 Act empowered the van panchayats to design their micro plan, under the amendment of 2005, the traditional rights were subjected to the micro plan of the forest department. Collection of forest resources is to be done within the prescribed limit of the micro plan. The district forest officer is now given power to prepare a composite plan of all van panchayats in her jurisdiction.

The forest councils have been further weakened as most of their powers have been usurped by the administration that they earlier enjoyed. For example, earlier the sarpanch (head of van panchayat) enjoyed the power to sanction trees for household use to the members of the council. This was limited to one tree in 1976. Similarly, the other crucial powers of van panchayats, like imposing a fine up to Rs 500 for the violation of rules, selling forest produce in the local market and appointing a forest guard, now require permission from the district forest officer.

Lack of funds

Additionally, the grants under different schemes are transferred to the bank account jointly held by the sarpanch and the secretary who is the employee of the forest department or civil and soyam department. Financial support to van panchayats has also declined significantly. For example, funds allocated to the councils for afforestation and other activities by forest department has been reduced to Rs 4.26 crore in 2016-17 from Rs 11 crore in 2015-16 and Rs 15.61 crore in 2014-15.

Vacant posts and overlapping authority

Information obtained from the Uttarakhand Forest Department also suggests that there is huge vacancy of forest guards across the state as 33.4% of the posts are lying vacant. Due to this, each forest guard is under tremendous pressure to patrol more than a thousand acres of forest land in several areas.

The year 2017 witnessed 790 incidents of forest fire – 490 in the reserve forest area and 300 in the civil and soyam/van panchayat forest area, affecting 1,228.04 hectares. In the absence of financial support and autonomy to manage forests, villagers are not motivated to prevent forest fires.

The lack of coordination and overlapping authority and control between the revenue and forest department has further contributed to the current decline of the forest councils. While the revenue department exercises its authority in the administration of the councils and conducting elections, the forest department/civil and soyam department is concerned with the preparation of working plans, tapping resin, marking trees for auction and granting permission for extracting non-timber forest produce and diversion of forests for non-forest purposes.

Information from the forest department office suggests that elections have not been conducted for about 5,824 van panchayats – 48% – in the last eight years. The following graph shows percentage-wise number of van panchayats, areas under their jurisdiction and absence of elections since 2011 across different districts of Uttarakhand.

In addition to increasing bureaucratisation, lack of financial support, dilution of decision-making powers of van panchayats and the growing agrarian crisis in the hill regions has forced thousands of households to migrate to plain areas and other states who at some point were dependent on forests. The state of Uttarakhand has also not implemented Forest Rights Act effectively. Till date, not a single community forest right has been recognised for van panchayat villagers in Uttarakhand who have been living and dependent on forest resources for three generations prior to December 13, 2005.

There is an urgent need to address the current crisis, which includes financial and administrative powers of van panchayats, implementation of the Forest Rights Act and resolving the overlapping and lack of coordination between revenue and forest department. The achievements of the forest councils till the point they began declining should encourage the administration to empower them and provide technical and resource support to ensure both the livelihood requirements of people and protection of forests in a sustainable manner.

Isha Naaz is a PhD scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Geetanjoy Sahu teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.