|Ecosystem Type||Forest, Grasslands, Wetlands and rivers, Others → Mountain Ecosystem|
|Number of households||350|
|Number of people||1500|
The Van Panchayat is located on the first rise of the Greater Himalaya and lies at an altitude of 2330 m within the Gori river basin in the border district of Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand. The Van Panchayat with an area of 34 hectares comprises broad leaved forests of Oaks, Rhododendron, as well as Maples and small stands of conifers like Cypress and Cedar. There are patches of grasslands maintained on south facing slopes. There is a forest water body that holds cultural significance and serves as a water source for several villages downstream.
The general health of the ecosystem is presently good because of the active protection, plantation and conservation work, despite a small setback in the past decade.
1. The Gori River valley basin is around 2200 sq m. The upper third of the valley is called Malla Johar, characterised by the summer alpine settlements of the once transhumant communities that traded with Tibet. Trade with Tibet ceased after the Sino-Indian war of 1962, and led to a more settled life.
2. Sarmoli and Jainti villages, located close to the Block headquarters of Munsiari, is inhabited by a combined 60% Bhotias or Scheduled Tribes, 23% Scheduled caste and 17% general caste people.
3. The Bhotias were traditionally a transhumant community of traders, sheep herders and woolworkers. Woolwork remains an important occupation for the women, and while some in the community have used reservation to get government jobs, majority depend on subsistence agriculture, livestock, manual labour and some shopkeeping.
With increased road connectivity and market access, there has been a proportional decrease in the dependence on the forests for basic survival needs like fuelwood and fodder
|Year of Formation||1948|
|Motivations||Livelihood, Ecological functions, Self empowerment, Religious/cultural sentiments, Wild biodiversity conservation, Agricultural and livestock diversity conservation, Response to external threat, nature based tourism|
It is important to understand the historical significance of the Van Panchayats in Uttarakhand as Community Conserved Areas.
Van Panchayats were traditional institutions over a hundred years old and were referred to as Lath Panchayats. These forest commons were appropriated by the colonial state at the end of the 19th Century, and had to be reinstated in 1931 as Van Panchayats in its current avatar after prolonged community struggle and resistance. The Van Panchayats are now governed by the Uttarakhand Panchayati Van Niyamawali (or Rules) of 2005 and are under the Forest Department. Land records and elections remain within the jurisdiction of the Revenue Department. Of the total of 12089 Van Panchayats in the state of Uttarakhand, those that were formed prior the formation of the state in 2000 are largely functional, with the level of engagement proportionate to the level of dependence on natural resource-based livelihoods within the right holder communities.
Age old traditional practises of managing forest commons persist in remote Van Panchayats, and many have seen a revival through community initiatives, but continue to be challenged by increased Forest Department interventions. These interventions have increased since the first set of Rules formulated in 1931, with each successive revision in 1976, 2000 and 2005 (with amendments in 2016) where owners of the these community forests have been progressively reduced in their role to mere managers and now beneficiaries through projectization and infusion of external multilateral funding from the World Bank (through the Joint Forest Management Project 2 decades ago) and now through CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Management). This has also led to sporadic resistance to this modern form of dismantling of the Commons arrangement.
Till 1962, the Bhotia community traded with Tibet and were sheepherders, while the general caste communities engaged in subsistence agriculture. Once trade ceased, a more settled agriculture and cattle rearing lifestyle took root. Until 1972, hunting was legal and natural resource-based livelihoods were a way of life, which made forest commons or Van Panchayats essential. 68% of the Gori valley is currently under Van Panchayats.
1960s- In the initial years the sarpanches often were also contractors who made coal from trees in the Van Panchayat
1970s- History to be documented
1980s- History to be documented
1990s- History to be documented
2000- Women’s active participation as elected panches
2003- 20 August- First woman sarpanch elected. In December, the initiation of shramdaan or voluntary labour for the rejuvenation of the water body, Mesar kund
2004- Diversification into nature based and community-based tourism by linking conservation to livelihoods.
May ’04- Support from Foundation for Ecological Security towards Mesar Kund rejuvenation and wall construction (Rs.139658)
2005- Initiated in November 2005, under a joint project with the World Pheasant Association and funded by the MoEFF- “Creating a community-based constituency for the conservation of Pheasants, Partridges and Quails within the Van Panchayat”
2006- May- First Mesar Forest Festival to celebrate the rejuvenation of Mesar Kund
Support from the Pithoragarh Forest Department for building a Nature Interpretation Centre and for creating durable assets for nature-based tourism within the Van Panchayat
2008- Resistance by Van Panchayat Sangathan to Hydropower Projects, particularly NTPC Rupsiyabagad-Khasiabara Project.
First Lok Prakriti Puruskar awarded 3 individuals from distant Van Panchayats who have engaged in a lifetime of conservation work in their respective regions
2009- Campaign against NTPC HEP Project intensifies
2010- Botched election, supported by the contractor lobby and the state administration
2015- First Himal Kalasutra
2018- Re-election of woman sarpanch
2019- 21- Support extended by Himal Prakriti towards conservation and protection work
2021- First woman President of the Munsiari Regional Van Panchayat Advisory Committee
2022- Prakriti Kendra construction resumed with Support extended by Himal Prakriti
The Van Panchayat has been the resource-base for sustaining subsistence agriculture through the transfer of nutrients mediated by cattle (leaflitter and fodder from the forest ends up becoming farmyard manure that replenishes the soil nutrients), for fuelwood that is a renewable source of energy for cooking and heating of homes in a mountainous climate.
With the increased integration with the market because of its’ proximity to the Munsiari Bazaar, the significance of the Van Panchayat as a source for meeting survival needs has moved more towards providing larger ecosystem services- like secure water source for residents of 3 Gram Panchayats, for providing slope stability and for its cultural significance and for nature based tourism.
|Collective of CCAs||-|
|Decision Making Body||Others → Van Panchayat|
|Rules and Regulations||Formal|
|Community activities through the year||Fire Management, Regulation of harvest, Patrolling, watch and ward, Plantations and restoration activities, Soil and water conservation, Fencing, cultural activities|
While the Sarmoli- Jainti Van Panchayat has right holders from 2 revenue villages of Sarmoli ( and its hamlet Nansem) and Jainti, it is part of 2 larger groupings-
The Van Panchayat Sangathan of the Munsiari Range- a voluntary forum of Van Panchayats
The Regional Paramarshdatri/ Advisory Committee constituted under the Uttaranchal Panchayati Forest Rules 2005
1. All permanent residents that reside in the villages of the Van Panchayat are legally considered right holders. However, just by virtue of having a right does not necessitate active stewardship of the Forest Commons. All right holders are expected to contribute a small annual sum (of Rs.100) for conservation work, though at the best of times just about 2/3rds of them make this contribution. The elected council of 9 members, headed by the Sarpanch are expected to ensure the regulated use and active conservation of the Forest area. Eventually, it is the initiative of the Sarpanch that determines how effectively these tasks are undertaken as well as ensuring the level of democratic function by keeping the general body as the prime decision maker.
2. Women heads of households have been recognized as co-right holders in the Sarmoli-Jainti Van Panchayat since the past 2 decades. This has ensured that they have a say in all decision making as their active participation is sought in not just volunteer labour work, but in all meetings where decisions are taken. In addition, all women who are permanent residents of the village, regardless of their marital status (unmarried, widowed, single) are recognized as right holders.
There is also a stipulated number of women and men from the Scheduled Caste and Tribe communities in the elected council (minimum of 4) that ensures their representation.
3. With the current emphasis on forest plantation work, the Block Office has in the past decade supported monsoon plantation works in the Van Panchayat under MNREGA. The district Forest Department also supports similar plantation drives. The Van Panchayat has collaborated with a local civil society organization Himal Prakriti, in various projects that involve ecosystem restoration.
1. Our Van Panchayat has a 9 member elected Panch Mandali, (referred to as the Management Committee in the Rules of 2005) for a term of 5 years. These council members represent the Wards within the 2 revenue villages to ensure representation from the entire geographical spread. When most active, the Panch Mandali meets every month or whenever decisions regarding the management of the Forest Commons are required to be taken. A General Body meeting has to be organized at least twice a year. In the case of this Van Panchayat, on an average 4 meetings were organized annually. All decisions and proceedings are recorded in a Resolutions Register along with the signatures of those who have participated in the proceedings. Besides these formal meetings, the active women right holders meet informally and organize collective action based on decisions taken at the General Body meetings.
2. Conflict resolution is one of the responsibilities of the Panch Mandali. Conflicts range from encroachment on the Forest Commons land, damage caused by illegal grazing and stealing of fuelwood and grass for fodder. A fine is imposed and collected by defaulters and free riders.
formal- The rules and regulations are codified in The Uttaranchal Panchayati Forest Rules 2005 that encompass governance, planning and management issues, elections, powers and duties, revenue and expenditure and the use of forest produce. The Van Panchayat has the power to frame it’s own bye laws under the 5 yearly Microplan.
informal- While there are codified rules and regulations, there remain many practises that follow informal community practises, particularly those that pertain to sites of cultural significance like the water body, Mesar Kund and trees being given to right holders for auspicious occasions and community events.
1. The right holders, through the elected Forest council members/ panch madali determining the dates for granting permission to collect leaf litter, granting of rights to collect fuelwood, determining the fine to be levied for those who damage or steal, seasonal seeding and plantation work in the forest area, appointing a person for ward and watch, building and repairing boundary walls and fences, water conservation works, collecting the annual conservation fund contribution from each right holder family.
2. A fine is decided for each violation. For instance, cows belonging to a right holder found grazing in the forest area are fined Rs.100/animal, stealing of firewood Rs.100/load, and stealing of green wood Rs.1000/. The fine collected goes into the conservation fund and is used to pay for the watchperson employed seasonally to protect grass plots. These grass plots are auctioned in the fall to right holders for winter fodder.
Violations are a common phenomena as villagers look to the forest for their fuelwood needs. Those who keep livestock need both grass fodder and leaf litter. There are always free riders within the community that have to be kept in check, else the forest will become open access.
MANAGEMENT AND RESOURCE USE
1. All right holders are part of the decision-making process with regards to accessing the resources that they can avail of from the Van Panchayat. These include dry fuelwood from the trees, leaf litter, fodder grass through an auctioning system, paid work on conservation sites- through the Van Panchayat’s own resources or through developmental funds from the local administration or civil society organizations. All right holders are represented by elected panches/ council members from their particular ward. There are 4 Panches from Jainti, 3 from Nansem (a hamlet of Sarmoli) and 2 from Sarmoli. Currently there are 7 women Panches (as opposed to the stipulated 4), 3 from the ST and 3 from the SC communities. These Panches are expected to represent the interests and grievances of the right holders they represent.
2. Public announcements are made at the General Assembly of opening access to resources. For example, each year in October, the grass plots are auctioned to right holders. Though each of the 8 designated grass plots go to the highest bidder , the price is kept affordable and priority is given to those bidders who own relatively less private land from which they can access winter fodder for their cattle. On the 17th of November each year, the forest is opened to right holders to collect leaf litter for their cattle. Likewise, for any paid work that comes to the Van Panchayat, like forest tree sapling plantation work, seed collection or the rejuvenation of the water body Mesar kund, right holders from each of the 3 areas of Jainti, Nansem and Sarmoli are assigned work on a rotational basis.
NO TAKE- NO GO AREAS
Southern and SE slopes within the Van Panchayat are maintained as grasslands and are regularly cleared of thorny bushes and burning of the same each winter. These are then designated as No-take areas to allow the grasses to grow through the monsoons to be auctioned for cutting and storing of winter fodder. Anyone caught cutting grass in these 9 months is fined. These plots would represent about a fourth of the entire area of the Van Panchayat.
In 2006 a conservation research project- “Creating a community-based constituency for the conservation of Pheasants, Partridges and Quails within the Van Panchayat” was initiated in collaboration with the World Pheasant Association and funded by the MoEFF. The habitat health and the presence-absence of 10 Galliformes species of Pheasants, Partridges and Quails was studied by the right holders of the Van Panchayat. Hunting of these bird species was banned for a 3 year period. Specific sections like shrubbery and moist gullies of the Van Panchayat forest that were identified as their habitat were enriched through plantation work, ensuring that there were corridors that connected these micro-habitats. Lopping of trees that were identified as roosting sites was prohibited. By the end of the project period, there was a noticeable increase in awareness regarding the natural heritage and richness of bird species in the Van Panchayat area and a desire to conserve the same, especially among the youth and those who had once been hunters.
|Legal Status||Others → Van Panchayat|
|Community Forest Resource Rights (CFR)||CFR claim not filed|
|Date of filing CFR claim||-|
|Level of CFR claim||-|
|Date of recognition of CFR claim||-|
|Management plan status||-|
|Land Ownership||Government owned → Revenue Department, Community Owned|
|Other Recognised Status||Important Bird Area, Kailash sacred landscape|
There is a lack of awareness of the applicability of filing CFR claims within Uttarakhand. The State and District administration has not conducted any awareness campaigns on the FRA 2006. It has come to light recently that one of the Panches was on the Sub Division Level Committee (SDLC) 7 years ago and was not even informed of the same.
There is also a sense of complacency within the community that since they have had in place the long standing and familiar Van Panchayat system, there is no need to press for fresh claims. Most of all, the State Forest Department is averse to any suggestion of an attempt to claim rights under the FRA 2006, stating that rights have already been granted through the Van Panchayats in 11 mountainous districts of the total of 13 districts of the state.
|Impact on Livelihoods and Subsistence||Cut fodder, Grazing, Firewood, Non-timber forest produce, Timber, Tourism- A successful nature based and community owned tourism enterprise has been in operations since 2004 wherein right holders engage in collectively earning an alternative livelihood by running Home Stays (currently 15 homes) and working as Nature and Adventure Guides (another 15 families)|
|Social Impacts||Community empowerment, Empowerment of women/youth/disadvantaged sections, Assured land ownership or access, Revival or continuation of cultural/religious associations, Mitigation of external threat|
|Ecological Impact||Natural habitat preservation, Good diversity of crops, livestock, fish, Improved/sustained ecological services, Restoration of habitat for local wildlife- the Galliformes and other bird species, the Barking Deer and other smaller mammals.|
|Internal Threats and Challenges||Internal differences and inequities, Conflict with other communities, Changing socio-cultural practices and aspirations|
|External Threats and Challenges||Restrictive laws and policies , Climate change impacts|
A review of the last 2 decades reveals that whenever there has been a strong and engaged Forest Council headed by a committed Sarpanch, the health of the natural habitat has witnessed a marked improvement. The water body, Mesar Kund has been rejuvenated, the springs and seepages that feed it and other streams have been enriched with plantation of native species. Mesar Kund now holds water year-round, ensuring that the marshes and seepages downstream stay alive and ensure water security for the 12 odd villages that depend on it for their water supply.
Most of all, protection from open access for grazing, lopping, collection of fuelwood and timber was stopped and access to resources was regulated.
In an intervening period from 2010 to 2017, the elected Sarpanch and Panches were not invested in the Van Panchayat and this led to the overall degradation of the forest area.
1. The region is now recognised as an important birding area in Uttarakhand and draws naturalists and birders each year. Birding Festivals have been conducted now for a decade and so are Butterfly and Moth workshops.
2. Nature based tourism has become a viable alternative livelihood source for the right holders. The Nature guides of this village are now trainers for other communities across Uttarakhand. Sarmoli village has been recognized as the first HomeStay village of the state. These Home Stays were initiated in 2004 through the Sarmoli Jainti Van Panchayat. Community owned and nature-based tourism being run in this village now serves as a model for not just the state but for the country.
Partnering with civil society organizations that are committed to community driven conservation projects like Himal Prakriti, the MoEF supported Pheasant conservation projects, with the Forest Department that extended financial support for community-based tourism to the Van panchayat.
With easier access to wage employment and to gas as a fuel, there is a growing alienation from the traditional occupations like farming and livestock rearing. This in turn has led to an increased indifference towards the health and well-being of the forest commons.
There is also unresolved boundary disputes with neighbouring Van Panchayats, stealing of fuelwood and grazing by those who are tenants or do not have their own Van Panchayat.
As witnessed through the growing control exercised by the Forest Department on aspects of the management of the affairs of the Van Panchayat. For instance, the Forest Guard is a joint account holder of the Van Panchayat Bank account and has to be invited to every meeting.
Also, on the one hand there is a progressive change in livelihood patterns driven by market forces and away from natural resource-based livelihoods and farming. On the other hand, there is the pressure of working as contractors to the state machinery and an increased projectization of conservation works by the Block Development Office and the Forest Department.
Munsiari Block is currently a rural block. There have been several attempt in the past decade to declare Munsiari as a Nagar Panchayat including the 2 revenue villages of Sarmoli and Jainti in it’s ambit. Despite two concerted attempts by the local administration and by the political class at the state level, this has been resisted and has not been implemented on the ground. One of the primary reasons for the resistance has been the fate and future of the Van Panchayats when included within the Nagar Panchayat, and if the right holders will continue to have ownership and access to their respective commons. As no clarity on the matter has been provided by the administration, the resistance continues.
There is a need for the community of right holders to gain better control over the forest commons, for a clear demarcation of the boundary, resolution of the conflicts regarding the same and a security of tenure by having all documentary evidence like proper maps, land records, the Microplan in place to be able to deal with the Forest and Revenue Departments in the interest of the needs of the community.
There is also a need to study and create awareness regarding the need to use the Forest Rights Act to regain the autonomy of Van Panchayats, to increase the area of the forest commons such that it is viable and proportional to the population of people and livestock dependent on it. Today, 350 households depend on a meagre 34 hectares of forest land.
There is a need to build solidarity among Van Panchayats in the region to be able to represent and advocate collectively for common issues.
To bring back a greater connection between communities and the natural landscape- the forest and the fields that sustain life in this Himalayan ecosystem. This would be made possible by working towards and regaining the status of owners of the Van Panchayats from having being progressively reduced to managers and beneficiaries, at the mercy of state handouts and benevolence.
Towards this end, the plan is to work towards claiming Community Forest Rights and Community Forest Resource Rights under the FRA 2006.
|Data Source||By community member/s|
|Year of Study||2022|