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Van panchayats script a success story

Aug 25, 2009

Van panchayats in India’s hilly state of Uttarakhand present a perfect example of government and citizens coming together for the management of natural resources. These autonomous local institutions have helped in preventing forest fires, illegal felling of trees and poaching, without compromising on the community's needs for timber and fodder.

Dehradun, Uttarakhand: Van panchayats have maintained and guarded Uttarakhand’s forests efficiently and continue to play a crucial role in protecting the state’s natural resources.

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There are total of 113,049 Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs), including the van panchayats of Uttarakhand, in the country. The state has 12,089 van panchayats and 1,434 JFMCs and stands second to Madhya Pradesh, which has a total of 14,428 such committees.

Maharashtra has 12,473 JFMCs, Jharkhand 10,903, Orissa 10,647, Andhra Pradesh 8,498, Chhattisgarh 7,887, West Bengal 4,192 and Rajasthan 4,882.

Constituted with an aim to involve local villagers for protection and management of forests, the JFMCs have an important role in enriching the forests by preventing encroachment, forest fires, illicit cutting, smuggling of forest produce, poaching of wild animals and regulating grazing.

Accordingly, village micro-plans are prepared and JFMCs are entrusted the work of protection, management and development of jointly managed forests.

A resounding success

The importance of JFMC programme can be gauged from the fact that these committees have raised plantations in about 1.58 million hectares in the country. Committee members have been able to meet their requirements for fodder, fuel-wood, small timber and minor forest products.

In forest-predominant Uttarakhand, van panchyats outnumber JFMC due to state’s hilly topography. They owe their inception to forest protection efforts and the locals’ rights over forests. These were created out of civil (protected) forests under the jurisdiction of the Revenue Department.

The state has over 6,000 van panchayats managing 405,426 hectares of forests covering approximately 13.63% of forest area in the state.

Describing these efforts as a resounding success, Prof NP Todaria, head of the Forestry Department at HNB Garhwal University, said that van panchayats’ role in protecting and enriching Uttarakhand forests certainly stands unparalleled.

He, however, admitted that they do face challenges because of dependence on the state forest department for carrying out most of their works.

“The forest department still holds supremacy over these local bodies and the participation of villagers certainly has its limitations,” argues Todaria, who has been closely associated with Makkumath Van Panchayat in the Chamoli region of Garhwal that comprises one of the biggest van panchayats of the state.

State forest authorities too keep high hopes from the panchyats have been critical in countering forest fires, an ever-growing problem in Uttarakhand forests.

“The van panchayats’ contribution in protecting community forests in the state has been immense and the department is firm on providing adequate support to them,” said Uttarakhand Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Dr RBS Rawat.

Low women participation

But most of these panchayats have failed to ensure enthusiastic participation of women in their committees.

Authors Neelam Pant and Nidhi Pandey in “Introducing JFM to rural women of Kumaon hills: A case study” published in Indian Forester (2007) describe the participation of women in JFM committees as grossly inadequate.

The study was conducted in Suryagaon, Salri, Soangaon, Pandeygaon and Alchauna villages of Nainital District. The villages were surveyed for basic information and socioeconomic aspects.

The study argued that while women were regular visitors to forests they had little say in village committees. It also found that women are closely associated with the proper growing of multipurpose trees in their homestead which are likely to be more beneficial in meeting immediate family needs, whereas men emphasise cash-oriented trees.

Participatory development process may take a more positive role if heartfelt participation of women is enforced. As per central guidelines, at least 50% members of the JFM body should be women and their presence to an extent of at least 50% is a pre-requisite for holding the general body meeting of the JFM. The study calls for ensuring better representation to women in JFMC.

Source : The Tribune
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