Community Forest Management in India: The Van Panchayats of Uttranchal

Pampa Mukherjee[1]


South Asia, more than any other region in the world, is a pot pourri of contradicting realities. It is a region with a common culture of collective sharing and management of common resources, both man-made and natural. However, there have also been instances of conflict and tension in society arising out of resource sharing. This has been particularly so because the majority of the rural poor in the region are dependent for their survival and livelihood on natural resources. In recent years, with the degradation and depletion of natural resources including forests, this situation has become even more problematic. According to social scientists and policy analysts, this has been due to inappropriate development policies and in the name of ‘sustainable development’ they have tended to push the main actors - i.e. the ‘people’ - to the periphery. This has its implications in the production process and the social structure of the village economy and consequently on the ecosystem. However there are also innumerable examples in the region of community-based institutional innovations for use and management of resources.

This paper attempts to examine one such democratic and autonomous local institution, which has been existence for 70 years, and has successfully managed legally demarcated village forests - the ‘Van Panchayats’ or Forest Councils in Uttranchal, India. The Van Panchayats represent one of the largest and most diverse experiments in devolved common property management ever developed in collaboration with the State (Arnold and Stewart, 1991). In fact they form one of the earliest examples anywhere in the world of decentralized resource management through formal state community partnerships. Interestingly, the region where these forest councils exist provides extensive examples of unique combinations of both officially constituted and informal community forest management systems. However, in the last few years even these kinds of institutional innovation are facing new challenges and threats in the form of policies imposed from above. The paper attempts to look at such emerging issues.

I - Uttranchal: A brief profile

The region lies in the Central Himalayan zone of the Hindukush Himalayan Range and extending from the Gangetic Plain, it rises to around 2,500 meters. Despite the limited availability of arable land in the region, agriculture is the main occupation as majority of the population (78.30%) is in the rural areas. It is subsistence oriented typified by low productivity and based on course grains cultivated under rainfed conditions.

The society is primarily a traditional Hindu society with a distinct ‘pahari’culture. Although socio-economic differentiation has increased, village communities are relatively homogenous compared to high social stratification in the plains. Land distribution is relatively equal with rare cases of land holdings of over 2 hectares, and landlessness is low. The area’s agro-pastoral economy is still pre-dominantly subsistence based with about 50% of rural households, including the rural elite, having high dependence on village commons and forest lands. High male out-migration in search of employment makes the women left behind effective managers of the rural household economy.

Forests in region are a source of livelihood for rural residents and provide resources such as fodder, fuelwood, green manure, and construction timber. These resources are critical to the household economy. In their absence, effective household incomes would decline substantially. In such a context, determining how forests can be collectively and appropriately managed is vitally important.

II - Van Panchayats

Van Panchayats in Uttaranchal were born out of conflicts and compromises that followed the settlements and reservations of forests in the hills at turn of the last century. The first government approved Van Panchayat was thus formed in 1921. According to recent estimates, there are 6,069 Van Panchayats managing 405,426 hectares of forests (13.63% of total forest area) in the state. Most of these have been carved out of civil (protected) forests under the jurisdiction of the Revenue Department. The area under each Van Panchayat ranges from a fraction of a hectare up to over 2,000 hectares.

It may be mentioned here that Community forests managed in accordance with Van Panchayat Act is a hybrid of state ownership and community responsibility. In its efforts to mange and control community forest use Forest committees are guided by Revenue Department rules and by the technical advice of the Forest Department. In contrast to civil forests, community forests or Panchayati forests as they are popularly known are not ‘open’ forests. Access and use of forests is guided by rules elaborately designed and implemented by the communities. In fact four identifiable working rules exist relating to Use, Monitor, Sanctions and Arbitration. Though only notionally or nominally owned by the communities, community forests are in a very real sense common property with an identifiable user group, have finite subtractive benefits and are susceptible to degradation when used beyond a sustainable limit. However what is more important is that the local users consider them as their collective property and in real sense they are not actually divisible. These forests though are not completely immune from misuse and the condition of the forests varies from poor to very good.

Forest Council Act

The Forest Council Act prescribes how Panchayats (Councils) can be formed and impose duties on village Panchayats. The objective is to protect the forest areas and ensure that the forest products are being distributed among the right holders in an equitable manner. Kumaun Panchayat forest Rules enacted under the section 28 (2) of the Indian Forest Act 1927 provides broad guidelines for the supervision and management of forests under the control of Van Panchayats. These Forest Council rules lay down the broad parameters of management practices to be followed by the Van Panchayats.

The main function of Van panchayats are as follows:

a) To develop and protect forests by preventing indiscriminate felling of trees and to fell only those which are marked for by the forest deptt. and are useful from the point of view of silviculture.

b) To ensure that there is no encroachment on Van Panchayati land and that no rules are being violated that are being enacted under Kumaon and Sodic Land Act of 1948 and that no land should be encroached without prior permission for agricultural practices.

c) To construct and fix boundary pillars and to maintain them 18(c).

d) To carry out the directives of the Sub-Divisional Magistrate in developing and protecting forests. 18(a)

e) To distribute its produce amongst right holders in an equitable manner. 18 (e)

f) 20% of the area of the forest must be closed for grazing every year.

The Punitive Powers

a) They can levy fines upto Rs. 50 with the prior approval of the Deputy Commissioner (later revised upto Rs. 500).

b) They can seize intruding cattles and impound them under the cattle trespass act of 1871.

c) They can forfeit the weapons of the offender.

The Administrative and financial powers

a) They can sell grass, fallen twigs and stone slates to local people.

b) They can auction trees upto the value of Rs.5000 with the approval of the District Magistrate and Divisional Forest Officer. Auction above Rs. 5000/- is done by the Forest Department.

(c) The income realised from resin, timber and fees is distributed as follows. i) Zilla Parishad is given 20% for creating and maintaining infrastructure ii) Gaon sabha is given 40% for local development schemes if approved by Block development committee iii) the remaining is to be ploughed back by the forest department for maintenance and development of Panchayat rules.

The villagers however feel that through the Act, the bureaucracy exercises excessive control over Forest Panchayats. Bureaucrats on the other hand believe that in the absence of central control, villagers would clear fell the entire forest (Pers. Comm. 1994). Nonetheless in analyzing the rules it is quite clear that these rules, while making the Panchayats responsible for proper management of the forests, deny to it necessary authorities which seem to be vested with the revenue and forest officials. For instance in section 17 of 1976 Act it is stated that before a watchman or any other paid staff is kept by the Panchayat, previous approval of the Deputy Commissioner (DC) is necessary. An offence involving a sum of Rs. 50/- can be compounded only with the previous approval of the Deputy commissioner. Similarly permission is required if the seized property (stolen timber etc.) is proposed to be sold. Thus the administrative control over the Panchayat is still with the Deputy Commissioner, whereas the technical control has been given to the forest department.

New Van Panchayats

Though the Van Panchayats managed to survive these multiple obstacles and challenges to their authority in many villages,they are faced two additional threats in the recent years which may further weaken or bring about their demise as relatively democratic and self-governing forest management institutions. Ironically, these new threats have been state initiatives that are presented as ‘devolution’ policies: the rapid formation of new Van Panchayats under the direction of the Revenue Department; and the introduction of ‘Village Forest Joint Management’ by the Forest Department. Their practical effect has been to transfer still further authority to the state at the expense of communities.

In the recent years there has been an increase in the demarcation of remaining civil lands as village forests and this has converted the demand driven process into a supply driven one. Instead of the villagers collectively applying for a village forest, the administration have imposed their decisions, irrespective of the fact whether panchayats are required or not as well as ignoring other aspects like ongoing boundary disputes, existing community management arrangements etc. For example in Nainital district itself there were only 61 Van Panchayats at the time of independence which increased to 495 by 1999.

Further some multi-village Van Panchayats have been re-organised without consulting the villagers, in ways that exacerbated inter-village conflicts, Traditionally, villagers had developed an effective multi-village governance system that was both democratic and equitable. Reorganization of Van Panchayats have in fact destroyed the traditional culture of resource sharing. Moreover with the division of forest councils neither the forest area nor the species composition could be evenly distributed among the villages, some are now left with small forest patches with only Chir pine, while others have all the fodder bearing areas. It has also failed to address any of the major problems plaguing the existing Van Panchayats - the lack of effective and easily accessible dispute resolution mechanisms, inter-village inequity in availability of forest areas, erosion of panchayat authority and limited control over forest based livelihoods and income. The rapid formation of Van Panchayats, rather than expanding space for local forest management, seems to be reducing it still further. It is too early to predict the effects of state-driven Van Panchayat formation might have on local livelihoods, social relations and forest management practices. The process of their formation, however, gives reason for concern

Village Forest Joint Management (VFJM)

VFJM, implemented by the Forest Department, in 1997 is even more problematic for villagers. Whereas JFM in other states enables villagers to participate in the management of forest lands under the Forest Department’s jurisdiction, in Uttaranchal, the VFJM Rules enables the department to become the dominant partner in the management of Van Panchayat and civil forest lands. The land being brought under VFJM falls under the Van Panchayats or the Revenue and not the Forest Department’s jurisdiction. The latter is managed in collaboration with Gram Sabhas, the democratic institutions of local self-government at the lowest level.

The VFJM Rules also provide for forming Village Forest Committees (VFCs) where there is no Van Panchayats. This is an effort to link VFJM with local self-government through Gram Sabhas. These forest committees are expected to be representative of key local interests, with one seat each designated for women, scheduled castes/tribes, backward castes, and for persons with a particular interest in forests. The Parthian (head) of the Gram Sabha is to is the President of the forest committee and the forest guard its member secretary, the two also jointly holding the committee’s account. As many Gram Sabhas in the hills cover more than one village, neither the president nor the secretary of the Village Forest Committees may be residents of the village whose forest management institution they head. Whereas linking community forest management institutions with those of local government is highly desirable, the order for constituting Village Forest Committees is a top down, mechanical prescription. It says nothing about strengthening participatory governance by the Gram Sabhas and forest committees or their respective roles and responsibilities within the local governance structure. Simply prescribing the Gram Sabha Head to also be the forest committee’s President vests further power and responsibilities in one elected individual, an institutional norm which has already weakened collective decision making within Van Panchayats. Making a Forest Department functionary the member secretary of a local government committee similarly violates the objective of democratic decentralization of governance by vesting power and authority in a non-elected representative of the bureaucracy.

Notification of the VFJM rules, together with the issuing of other orders for ‘participatory’ forestry, was a condition of the World Bank $65 million loan for the Uttar Pradesh Forestry Project over the period 1998-2002. JFM is to receive priority under the project, accounting for about 30% of the total budget. The Bank’s appraisal document does not provide any analysis supporting the introduction of village forest joint management instead of strengthening autonomous functioning of existing Van Panchayats in the unique historical context of Uttarakhand. Neither does it specify any process ensuring multiple stakeholder participation in framing the ‘participatory’ orders. In the event, the responsibility for framing them rests with the Forest Department with no history or experience of working with Van Panchayats. Exclusion of long standing Van Panchayats from any role in the matter is conspicuous by its absence. Van Panchayats and other community institutions are treated as the objects of attention, not active participants in redefining their future destiny. The World Bank project simply assumes the desirability of importing the standard JFM model from other states into Uttarakhand, with all its shortcomings, instead of exporting a strengthened Van Panchayat framework to them.

The impact of VJFM on communities in Uttaranchal

Though, it is too early to see the impacts of VJFM on forest based livelihoods and forest quality, the content of the VFJM Rules, however, suggests a loss of decision-making space for local villagers. Despite claims to empower local forest users, the rules do much to achieve the opposite. Collective control over decision-making

Prioritization and selection of villages for VFJM is done by the Forest Department in accordance with several selection criteria, making it a supply, rather than a demand driven process. ‘Spearhead teams’ communicate with and develop microplans for selected villages. These teams consist of: one ACF; one ranger or deputy ranger; one forester or forest guard; and two NGO ‘social motivators’, at least one of whom should be a woman. The social motivators are recruited under contract with NGOs and the teams imparted 3 weeks training. Experienced Van Panchayats leaders with decades of experience of community forest management have no role as facilitators and technical advisors. Instead they are being motivated to protect forests. The agreement to be signed by the participating villagers refers to them as beneficiaries rather than as equal partners.

In Uttarakhand, NGOs and civil society groups have historically played a strong advocacy role. Chipko, for example, was triggered by protests led by the NGO, Dasholi Gram Swaraj Mandal. Today, the NGO movement is split into different camps and factions. The vast majority have been co-opted to work as ‘private service providers’ for the several donor funded projects in the region, including the forestry project. Once they have accepted working on project terms, they effectively lose their critical and questioning voice. The overall impact is that today the NGO and civil society movements have been considerably weakened with hardly any concerted public action for protecting people’s forest rights.

The World Bank funded forestry project has provided an average of Rupees 20 to 15 lakhs for implementing a microplan in each village brought under VFJM. Besides promoting inequity between neighboring villages, the sudden offer of large sums of money to selected villages with high unemployment and limited opportunities for cash incomes, however, had led to the eruption of major conflicts to gain control over the funds. Even where existing Van Panchayats were functioning well, small groups of elite men, with the least dependence on the forest, had often made alliances with Forest Department field staff to pervert the requirement of obtaining general body resolutions accepting VFJM. The majority of the genuinely forest dependent women and men were neither aware of the content of the VFJM Rules nor of the fact that the Van Panchayat Rules had become inapplicable. Their main involvement had been reduced to that as wage labourers.


Despite being an excellent example of state-people partnership which has been relatively successful in managing forest resources in the region, the institutions are facing challenges from unrealistic and target driven policies which would affect its democratic functioning. There is a need to replicate such institutions in other areas rather than interfering with the existing ones. Moreover Non governmental Organisations need to play more active role in keeping these institutions alive by bringing the communities to the centre stage of decision making. In order to strengthen such community oriented institutions, one needs to identify such similar institutions and undertake comparative studies on the same so that anomalies if any can be removed.


Arnold and Stewart, 1991: Common Property Resource Management in India, Tropical

ForestryPapers 24, Oxford forestry Institute.

Bandopadhyay and Shiva, 1988: Political economy of ecological movement. Economic and Political Weekly June 11:1223-1332.

Guha, Ramchandra, 1989: The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Poffenberger, Mark and B. Mcgean (eds.) 1996 Village Voices and Forest Choices, Joint Forest Management in India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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