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Need to rewrite UP forest rules

Times of India News Service / Aditi Kapoor

October 18, 1999

PAURI: The state government and the World Bank would do well to learn the rules of forest conservation from the army of Mahila Mangal Dals (MMDs) – the informal village women’s groups – active in Doodhatoli range.

The World Bank-funded “new” joint forest management (JFM) programme initiated in the district is but a variation of the age-old village panchayat forests scheme. Few Van (forest) Panchayats have met with success. Two major reasons are multiplicity of controlling authorities and the failure to involve women, the main users of forest produce, in management committees. The JFM is poised to repeat history.

On the other hand, MMDs, have successfully nurtured their forests using a set of rules whose strength lies in their flexibility to suit ground realities – a far cry from the rigid decrees issued by the government. In doing so, the women have made a mockery of the state’s Panchayati Forest Rules, 1976, governing the Van Panchayats. Motivated by the Doodhatoli Lok Vikas Sansthan, a local group, the MMDs have also appropriated the powers of many an elected Van Panchayat and rendered it redundant.

In village Dulmoot, for instance, the MMD has nurtured and regulated the huge Panchayat forest for 15 years despite the presence of the Dulmoot Van Sarpanch. Women regulate grazing in the forest, apprehend violators, confiscate axes and sickles, slap and collect fines, and resolve inter-village disputes over the use of forest produce.

Unlike the limits set on fines under the notified rules, women vary the fine according to the nature of the offence with no questions asked by the deputy commissioner, who is the administrative authority for Van Panchayats. MMDs need no prior approval to appoint a watchman and efficiently resolve inter-village conflicts without the presence of state officials.

Elected Van Panchayats need government funds to build boundary walls or plant saplings; MMDs invoke the tradition of villagers collecting the seeds, raising nurseries on village land, and contributing shramdaan, or voluntary labour.

The Rules, like the JFM guidelines do not make membership of women mandatory in the forest management committee. The Rules state, “At least one-third of the adult residents… in the village… may apply to the sub-divisional magistrate for… managing a patch of forest.” These Rules were, ironically, notified in 1976, when the world was observing the United Nations Decade for Women (1975-85).

Obviously, bureaucrats who had framed these Rules were oblivious to the commitments made by their Central government colleagues at the UN. Section 12 of the Rules illustrates the silence on women’s participation. Under this section, the deputy commissioner has the discretionary power to nominate “any” resident to the Van Panchayat, ostensibly to ensure representation of all sections of the community.

The clause requires inclusion of a scheduled caste/tribe member but does not recognise the need to balance representation of both the sexes in the committee. The Sansthan has not made any attempt to revitalise Van Panchayats, or even the negligible number of Mahila Van Panchayats. These are headed by women but the members are mostly male. These Rules are a classic example of how gender blind laws of environmental governance are.

(This is part of the series of articles contributed by Aditi Kapoor based on her research project on Women and Environment funded by a fellowship grant from Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) International, New York. The series appears on alternate Mondays.)