The Van Panchayats (VP) are autonomous local institutions that control the forests in the state of Uttarakhand. They were introduced in 1921 by the (British) Forest Complaints Committee and came into effect after 10 years through the Forest Panchayat Act 1931. Over time, under various rules of 1931, 1976, 2001, 2005 and 2012, the VP institution has been centralized in the governance of being a decentralized institution. Control of power has been transferred to the state bureaucracy from the village shareholders. There are mainly two reasons that can be widely understood for this change. First, the fact that the government itself is a centralized institution with power trickling down from the union to smaller government units. The government wants more control over resources at all levels to ensure that they maximize their revenue and also to ensure that institutions at lower levels of the hierarchy remain dependent on higher ones.
This ensures that the government plays a vital role in influencing the decision-making process in institutions at lower levels. Second, as we see, in the villages, due to gender selective emigration, women who stay behind are more hesitant to take on administrative work like Van Panchayats. This further gives the government an excuse to take over the work under its control. Today, the vice presidents are accountable to the government and not to the local population. Responsibility for the Vice Presidents rests primarily with the Forestry and Revenue Departments. Functions that officials can easily perform at their desks are taken care of. Activities that require field work are generally avoided, unless and until there is specific pressure from higher authorities. Out-migration is a serious concern for the mountainous regions of Uttarakhand.
Most of the people who emigrate are men. People normally move to urban regions to do menial jobs. According to the Uttarakhand Palayan Ayog report, during the last 10 years out of 6,338 villages in Uttarakhand, 118,961 people have migrated permanently, while 383,726 people have temporarily migrated in search of better livelihood opportunities. Uttarakhand has 734 villages which have now become deserted ‘Ghost Villages’. Because men move out of their villages, their female counterparts are given more responsibility in the home. Also, to a certain extent, the decision-making of female counterparts is hardly taken into account, although there are rare examples of female sarpanches van panchayat related to the strong backing of their respective Mahila Mangal Dals (self-help groups). More often than not, increasing household responsibilities and related social factors make it difficult for women to participate in decision-making.
Another factor is the loss of dependency on forest resources as most of the villagers used to raise animals. Due to decreased availability of grazing land, higher costs of raising and related feeding, it was difficult for them to continue this practice. This has impacted the macro and micro flora of the forest regions as the lack of large domestic livestock has decreased the forage requirement. Stall feeding is a common practice today. The change in decision-making and the effective erosion of the functioning of forestry institutions has caused the villagers to leave their villages. Wild animals are entering human habitation in search of food and space to live. This causes a serious threat to human life. There have been incidents of skirmishes between animals and people. In 2020, more than 50 people lost their lives. This number is sure to increase if corrective action is not taken.
The Chir Pine tree species found in Uttarakhand has resin-rich needle leaves that are highly flammable and prone to wildfires. Approximately four lakh tons of pine needles fall annually in the pine forests, making the forest prone to fires due to rising ambient temperatures during summer. Although the Chir pine has been located in the Himalayas since time immemorial, its large-scale regeneration was promoted for resin extraction in the British period. Its tolerance to drought and its rapid growth promote its preponderance in arid areas where other broadleaf species such as oak do not grow. India ranks sixth among the world’s top ten resin producing countries. In Uttarakhand about 70-80 quintals of resin are collected each year valued at Rs. 6000-7000 per 100kg. The resin produces turpentine on distillation. The nonvolatile resin is used in pharmaceutical preparations, the perfume industry, disinfectants, insecticides, paper, rubber, soap, paint, varnish, and shoe polish.
In India, according to a report by the National Institute of Disaster Management, around 35 million hectares of forest area are lost annually to fire. During the period from November 2020 to June 2021, Uttarakhand reported 345,989 forest fires. This was the highest in the country for that period. This figure is 28.3 times higher than between November 2019 and June 2020. A major factor in this discouraging number is that officials are not proactive in their approach. Currently, the officer’s focus is to learn about the damage caused and submit the report to higher authorities. Although they supposedly take preventive measures, the statistics reflect the opposite. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many people who had migrated in search of work returned to their villages due to the loss of livelihoods in metropolitan cities.
In an interview with DownToEarth magazine, the then Chief Minister of Uttarakhand said that around 45 per cent of the population that had returned would be left behind. Now there is a great opportunity for the VP revival as the people who have come back are looking for opportunities to make a living. They can be easily attracted to forest-related activities such as non-timber forest products and utilization of biological resources. The exclusion of villagers from the Van Panchayats has resulted in a decline in their participation in effective forest management. Forest fires, emigration, loss of flora and fauna, etc. are just obvious implications of this. The Van Panchayats should have acted as a “safety valve” and they did not. The systematic increase in state control over the VPs caused the locals to disassociate themselves from it. However, with the return of men, local institutions can help generate management-based livelihoods for these people, so that they can sustainably conserve their forest resources and work proactively for forest conservation. the resources. The locals have a sense of belonging and their focus is on preventing damage to the forests.