In Uttarakhand, women take the lead role in reviving and maintaining civil forests under Van Panchayats even in the face of several obstacles 

Munni Adhikari, a resident of Dhaura Gram Sabha in Lamgara block of Uttarakhand’s Almora district, lives in an idyllic setting: green slopes covered with tall pine and oak trees, wild flowers in full bloom, neat little terrace farms... While this natural splendour can instantly captivate any visitor, there is a hard-hitting reality that comes with the territory. Just making one’s way towards Munni’s home, located in Cheda Dhaura, a small tok (locality) in the village is an exercise that involves negotiating treacherous bends in an unpaved dirt track that seems to go on forever. Now imagine having to haul buckets of drinking water from the local naula (natural spring) or carry huge bales of grass or traverse long distances to graze cattle twice every day — that’s the punishing routine women here follow.  

Munni is no exception. Although her four daughters-in-law help out, she believes hill women have no peace. “We have to see to the cattle, look after children, work in the fields and most importantly take care of the forest. We have to strike the right balance between the home and the forest,” she says. 

Truly, no one is as connected with the forests as the women here are. From the crack of dawn until last light, women in the far reaches of Uttarakhand make several trips into the jungles to ensure the sustenance of families and livestock. Twigs and wood shards are collected for fuel, timber is used to build or repair homes, leaves and grass are picked for livestock, while the naulas of the forest provide drinking water. 

Today, however, their lives are undergoing a transformation triggered by climate change, a phenomenon they may not be able to name but can certainly describe in terms of seasonal variability and how it affects their existence and livelihood. Little wonder then that they are fiercely protective of their “natural lifeline”, making them ideal leaders for the Van Panchayats (VPs, forest councils), which are responsible for reviving and nurturing civil forests. 

Van Panchayats have been central to participatory forest management in Uttarakhand from the late-19th Century. In the beginning, they operated under the Forest Panchayat Act (Forest Councils Act) of 1931. Over the last 80-odd years, there have been three major changes — in 1976, 2001 and 2005. Now there are reservations for women on this council and its members have to make the rules for the day-to-day management of their forest after consulting villagers. 

Munni is a spirited woman Sarpanch of Dhaura Van Panchayat, which was constituted in 1932. It has been nearly a decade since she has been associated with the VP and four years ago she got elected as Sarpanch. The leader is convinced that only women’s presence on the nine-member council can help in real conservation. “Women understand the urgency to stop the felling of trees. No trees means no fuel wood in the future, no water, no supply of green leaves for the cattle. More that 80 per cent of hill women are dependent on forests, so having women in Van Panchayats can only strengthen their working,” she observes. 

Pankaj Tiwari of the Central Himalayan Environment Agency (CHEA), an organisation that is working with 15 VPs, including Dhaura, agrees, “Climate change and forests are linked and so preventing their degradation can be crucial to mitigating the impacts of global warming. In this effort, VPs are ready community-based bodies that can aid locals in tackling the challenges they face because of climate change. Our experience tells us that because women stand to be affected the most by this transition, they are motivated to take the lead in improving the forests.” 

Of course, the ground reality is that there are still gaps in women’s participation in the VPs and at the core of this is a lack of awareness about the rules as well as policy inadequacies. In a bid to analyse government policies that can help communities, and especially women, adapt to climate change, Alternative Futures (AF), a New Delhi-based development, research and communication group, has collaborated with CHEA. Says Aditi Kapoor, director of AF, “We are trying to look at climate change and what it means for women who work with natural resources. The whole idea is to see what is it that the government can do to help women adapt to climate change as there is a National Action Plan on Climate Change as well as State Action Plans in place.” 

Among the key recommendations that AF has made, with inputs from CHEA and other grassroots organisations, to the Uttarakhand Department of Forest in the context of the State Action Plan on Climate Change, is the need for women’s reservation in the quorum for the meetings where decisions related to VP’s work are taken. Aditi elaborates, “While there is reservation for women on the council, it does not help if they cannot assert themselves. Often, it’s the male members who end up taking all key decisions although it’s the women who implement them. We have suggested that there should be a third or 50 per cent female presence in the quorum to ensure they have a definite say in decision making. This doesn’t require the sanction of the State Assembly or Parliament; the government only needs to issue a gazette so that even the District Collector can give the orders.” 

Clearly, for women, providing effective leadership is fraught with challenges. Vijay Adhikari, project manager at CHEA, who has been working with Lamgara VPs, says: “There are difficulties at two levels — firstly, there is a lack of awareness about the rules of the VPs and secondly, there are tough administrative hurdles. VPs don’t have any real powers. Under the Van Panchayat Regulation, 2005, the control of management of panchayat forests is solely under the Forest Department and so they have to approach various officers for everything from deciding a work agenda to getting money sanctioned for activities in their area which, in turn, affects their income generation capacity.” 

Excessive responsibilities thrust on the Sarpanch have proven to be a major disincentive for people to take up the position. Hema Phartiyal, Sarpanch of the Bijarkhiya VP that comes under the Jageshwar Range, rues, “As the Sarpanch I am responsible for protecting the forest, preventing theft and forest fires. But I don’t get any assistance to do this. Moreover, I have to chase officials, whether at the Forest Department or the block level, to get work proposals passed, regarding fencing, building of check dams or plantation. And I have to do this on my own time and money.” 

Yet she and others like her continue to forge on. Another CHEA initiative has introduced some of them to the concept of carbon sequestration, one of the goals of the National Mission on Green India. In Guna village, Sudha Gunwant, who recently stepped down as the VP Sarpanch, has only to hear the word ‘carbon’ when a knowing nod confirms she know what one is asking. She says, “We know that if our forest sequesters carbon in greater amounts this will not only be beneficial to the community but the entire region. For this we need to protect the trees and also renew forests. I think planting broad leaf trees like bhimal will help in absorbing carbon and increasing oxygen levels.” 

Earlier this year, parts of Uttarakhand saw the worst possible tragedy on account of climate change and indiscriminate deforestation. The selfless VP women of Kumaon can be crucial to the survival of the already endangered Himalayan habitat. Hema puts it this way, “I may not get any monetary incentive or recognition for my work but when I look towards the forest, I feel this pull. This is my forest — I have to save it for future generations.” 

(Women’s Feature Service)