FOREST CONSERVATION AND WATER HARVESTING IN BHAONTA-KOLYALA VILLAGES, RAJASTHAN, INDIA


Swati Shresth1

Kalpavriksh



A remarkable transformation has been wrought in the arid region of Alwar district, Rajasthan, western India, over the last 15 years. Several hundred seriously drought hit villages have now become self-sufficient in water for irrigation and drinking, and many have initiated impressive forest conservation measures. Helping them in this transformation is the NGO Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), set up in the mid 1980s for rural development and environmental conservation work. Their activities include water and forest conservation, rural education and health and anti-mining operations in the district. In particular TBS has been active in promoting a community-based movement toward floral, faunal and water conservation in the region for the last 15 years. Conservation of natural resources in the region has evolved as a process of growing self-awareness, self-sufficiency and understanding of the natural world for resident communities and TBS.


Perhaps the best way of understanding this transformation would be to look at the villages of Bhaonta-Kolyala where the combined efforts of the village community and TBS has worked wonders for the people and ecology of the region. This effort is not only indicative of the potential of local institutions in protecting natural resources but also provides an example of the role NGOs can play in strengthening communities and conservation initiatives.


Bhaonta-Kolyala lie in the upper catchment of a recently revived rivulet, Arvari. There are 70 villages in the Arvari catchment and some 200 water harvesting structures have been built along its catchment over a period of 10 years, these structures have replenished ground water and increased the water table, enabling the Arvari to flow perenially again. The length of the river is 40 km.


The watershed of the Arvari river falls in Alwar district. Alwar was a princely state during the pre- Independence period. It merged with the Indian Union in 1949 with the formation of the state of Rajasthan. The area is at the northern edge of the Aravalli range that extends from South Rajasthan to Delhi.


THE COMMUNITY INITIATIVE


Origins

The livelihood strategy in this semi-arid region is a combination of intensive rainfed cultivation and animal husbandry. Water conservation in this area has traditionally involved trapping water during the short rainy months by constructing a series of small dams and tanks (johad). Johads require regular maintenance. It is also important that the slopes of the hills remain forested to avoid soil erosion from the hills silting the ponds. In the years following Independence, over dependence on the Indian state for irrigation caused the villagers to ignore repair and maintenance of the johads. At the same time excessive tree-felling in the hilly areas not only stripped the area of vegetative cover but also increased soil erosion and silting of johads.


The impetus for conservation in Bhaonta-Kolyala built up following an awareness march with the slogan `build johads, save forests' organised by TBS. During this campaign, the links between forests, soil and water were highlighted by TBS workers. A series of discussions amongst the villagers and with the organisation resulted in a decision by people of both the villages to collectively protect forests and construct johads.


Institutional arrangement

According to the villagers, while there had been a sense of collective solidarity in the village, there had been little collective organisation or action in the village. In order to carry out the agenda of forest and water conservation, a co-ordinating body, the gram sabha (village council) was formed.


There are three communities in the region- the Gujjar, the Balai and the Rajput. The Gujjars are numerically dominant. The gram sabha is an informal body that addresses the common needs and aspirations of the village community. It has an open membership with a 22 member decision making body that represents all the hamlets in the two villages. The gram sabha has the right to make changes in regulations and enforce penalties. The body however is not recognised by the state and has no formal legal authority.


Forest protection

In Bhaonta-Kolyala, the decision to protect the forest involved admitting past mistakes and a commitment toward regulated forest use. Rules were formed by the gram sabha keeping in mind the needs of the village community and sustainable use of the forest. Since overgrazing and tree felling were perceived to be the prime reasons for forest degradation, shepherds were asked not to cut any trees while their goats were grazing. The village community has also tried to lower the number of goats in the village. Extraction of wood that was dry or on the forest floor was allowed for fuel. Though the forest belongs to the Forest Department, de facto control rests with the village communities.


Water work

A total of 17 structures were built in the village. These include structures built on private lands. For the two dams on common lands, TBS provided technical help and 75% of the total cost. 25% of the cost of building was the villages' responsibility. The site of the dams was chosen by the village community and TBS members calculated the cost of construction. In a series of gram sabha meetings, the amount to be paid by each household as cash or labour (shram daan) was calculated. Over the years, meeting this 25% of the cost in the form of either labour or cash from each family was co-ordinated by the gram sabha.


Gram Kosh

The gram sabha felt that having a fund or a kosh for the village would strengthen the community. It was decided that each household would contribute 5 kilos of grains after the harvest. Some of the collection would be retained as a grain reserve for village needs and the rest could be sold to build up a monetary fund for common community concerns. The fund was established in 1993-94.


Declaration of Bhairon Dev Lok Van Abhayaranya

After 10 years of successful forest protection by Bhaonta-Kolyala, at TBS’s suggestion that the forest be held as an example of successful effort at conservation by local communities, it was declared a Bhairon Dev Lok Van Abhayaranya (Bhairon Dev Peoples’ Sanctuary) in October 1998. According to TBS workers, the declaration of the sanctuary represents an ideological alternative to the state-dominated conservation policy followed by the Forest Department.


IMPACTS OF COMMUNITY INITIATIVE


Habitat and wildlife

With the regeneration of forest, villagers report that a couple of leopards have started frequenting the forest. The have been lifting goats from the forest. As yet however there does not seem to be any ill-feeling among the villagers. The shepherds keep a sharp vigil while grazing their sheep. The elders claim that the disappearance of tigers and other predators from the forest was the reason behind depletion of forests. They maintain that the presence of predators will inhibit people from going into the forest unless absolutely necessary, and aid the conservation process.


Resource availability and livelihood opportunities.

According to the villagers the most visible change in the village is the presence of water as indicated by the recharged wells and greenery in the village. The villagers say that after 1990 there has been a rise in agricultural productivity and two crops can be easily taken in a year. The livestock has become more productive due to the increased availability and security of fodder. Out-migration has also decreased with an increase in agricultural and pastoral production.


CONSTRAINTS AND CHALLENGES


Inter-village Conflict

There has been an increase in the incidents of tree-felling by the neighbouring villages. Since the gram sabha of Bhaonta-Kolyala has no legal authority over the forests, they cannot enforce forest protection regulations on the other villages in the area. The increasing incidents of tree felling have been demoralising for the villages.


Intra-village relations

Though the initiative has the support of the village, the Balai community feels that their interests have been compromised due to conservation measures. They have been wanting some land in order to form another hamlet but the decision of the gram sabha has been to retain the unsettled land and use it in a manner that complements the conservation efforts. This could have a bearing on the initiative in the future.


LESSONS AND CONCLUSIONS


Several major lessons emerge from the experience of Bhaonta-Kolyala:


i. In the case of Bhaonta-Kolyala, involvement of local communities from the beginning of the conservation initiative helped instil a sense of pride and ownership in the initiative. It also resurrected the sense of collective and individual responsibility toward natural resources that is essential for the success of community-based conservation.


Perhaps one of reasons why people of Bhaonta-Kolyala were inspired toward forest protection could be the manner in which the linkages between forest, water and agriculture were highlighted by TBS. A holistic view, it places their needs and role within a larger ecological process. A perspective such as this, brings the concept of conservation closer to the people. The perception of ‘nature’ here is not that of a ‘wilderness’, but rather of a continuum of human-made and influenced ecosystems where non-human natural elements co-exist with, and relate intimately to, human ones. In the last few years, the villagers have seen the links between forests, agriculture, pastoralism, and livelihoods working to their advantage, with a little effort on their part. Forest protection is therefore a part of the larger livelihood strategy in the village, but also has, at least for some of the villagers, an ethical and moral component. Perhaps this could explain the overwhelming support for forest conservation in the village.


ii. It is important to keep in mind that the conservation initiative has been a process of empowerment for the village. It has not only meant construction of water harvesting structures and formulating forest regulations but also the evolution of a new sense of the ‘self’ based on their successes. The people of Bhaonta-Kolyala now feel confident to assert their rights to, and de facto ownership over, natural resources, even though there is no governmental recognition of this.


However, it is evident that de facto ownership or control is not adequate. In Bhaonta-Kolyala, the inability to prevent neighbouring villagers from felling trees has been demoralising. The absence of any formal authority has made the initiative vulnerable to questions of legitimacy. We feel that along with the will of the resident communities to save forests, there also needs to be support structure which has the authority and infrastructure to enforce that will. Since at present such authority rests only with the FD, it could perhaps be helpful to collaborate with the FD, but on terms which place the villagers at par.


The present sense of distrust between both the parties, precludes the possibility of such a collaboration in the near future. Initiating dialogue however may be a step in the right direction.


iii. The assertion of de facto control is not restricted to Bhaonta-Kolyala. In January 1999, a 3 day meeting was held to facilitate the formation of a 'parliament' that could help regulate resource use in the Arvari catchment. While attending the February session of the Arvari Sansad (Arvari Parliament), we felt that villagers from across the catchment shared this experience of empowerment and that a new collective identity was being formed in the process of discussions. This could help to overcome, to a certain extent, the occasional disempowerment that villagers of Bhaonta-Kolyala feel when dealing with neighbouring villagers, since legal authority is not vested in them.


iv. The emphasis on the formation of gram sabha as the decision making body has ensured that the community, to a large extent, retains the power and responsibility to take decisions. All activities concerning natural resource use have been kept within the decision making framework of the village.


v. The issue of whether one or more local institutions would be able to better manage natural resources is not possible to resolve in the case of Bhaonta-Kolyala. On the one hand, the fact that the right to take decisions on natural resources rests with one institution appears to have helped the conservation initiative by articulating and implementing the collective will of the people. On the other hand, the lack of an alternate representative structure may be an inhibiting factor in the ability of weaker sections like the Balai to voice their dissension.


vi. Though the village still looks to TBS as a support structure, over the years it has also evolved a second level of leadership. It comprises of individuals who work with TBS, are educated and can negotiate with relevant authorities like the FD. On the other hand, certain individuals have emerged as local leaders and play the important role of enthusing the village community to rally for a common cause. Emergence of a second level of leadership could play a positive role in sustainability of the initiative.


The model for conservation that has emerged from the efforts of Bhaonta- Kolyala indicates that conservation of natural resources need not always be in opposition to the livelihoods needs of resident communities. It holds promise as an alternative form of conservation that has relevance and is pragmatic in societies where the majority of the population is directly dependent on natural resources for their subsistence.



LEGAL IMPLICATIONS OF BHAONTA-KOLYALA


As part of the South Asian Review of Community Involvement in Wildlife Conservation (see end box), Sanjay Upadhyay of the Enviro-Legal Defence Firm has carried out a study of the legal implications of community-based conservation, with Bhaonta-Kolyala as a specific example. He notes that forest and wildlife related laws in the State of Rajasthan have very few statutory provisions that facilitate community participation. The central constitutional amendment on panchayats could provide direct involvement of local participation in management and preservation of natural resources, but the Rajasthan Panchayat Act which followed the central legislation, does not give much power to village institutions regarding local natural resources.


Several other possibilities exist. Central and state circulars on joint forest management need to be incorporated into law. One way of doing this would be to use Section 28 of the Indian Forest Act, which allows for the declaration of Village Forests. It would also be interesting to study how changes in tenurial patterns vis-à-vis the state, have implications for community based conservation. Also to be studied is the potential of laws such as the Rajasthan Gramdan Act, which allows considerable decision-making powers to villages that put aside a certain part of their common lands for community-oriented purposes.





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Contacts:

Tarun Bharat Sangh, Bhikampura-Kishori, via Thanagazi, District Alwar, Rajasthan.
Kalpavriksh - Delhi, B25 Defence Colony, New Delhi 110016 (mailing address only). Ph.: Swati Shresth: 91-11-6420313; 6292468.
Kalpavriksh - Pune, Aptmt. 5 Shree Dutta Krupa, 908 Deccan Gymkhana, Pune 411004. Ph/fax: 91-20-5654239; Email: kvriksh@pn3.vsnl.net.in

1 This article is based on several years of association that members of Kalpavriksh have had with TBS, as also on a year-long research project (1998-99) carried out by the author as a part of a South Asian survey of community involvement in wildlife conservation (see end box for references).