A people's forest

By TheHindu on 19 Apr 2017 | read

In the 1980s, a teacher inspired by Chipko Andolan decided to regenerate forests in his region. The philosophy used to achieve this aim is something that all government afforestation schemes like the Joint Forest Management need to learn from. Sachidanand Bharti was an active participant in the Chipko Andolan during his days as a student in Gopeshwar, Uttarakhand. When he came back to his village Uffrain Khal after finishing studies, he was moved by the trouble women in the mountains had to take for basic needs like fuel wood and fodder and how a degenerated forest meant not just more hard work but embarrassment too.

This resulted in a community movement that has generated a forest on 700 hectares of mountain land and 20,000 ponds over the last 30 years. On November 1, Dudhatoli Lok Vikas Sansthan will be awarded the National Mahatma Gandhi Prize by the Madhya Pradesh government that carries a financial award of Rs.10 lakhs, the biggest monetary award in the country. The organisation, comprising a teacher (Bharti), a postman, a grocery store owner and an ayurvedic healer, owes its success to the community in the 136 villages of Dudhatoli region in Pauri Garhwal which is a 300 square kilometre forest. None of them depend on the organisation for their salary.

The real stakeholders

“The forest is actually there because of the thousands of women who took up the responsibility of their forest. It is natural that people who were most affected by the loss of forest came forward to protect it. When a village's forest was destroyed, women had to go to another village to collect fuel wood and fodder. If they were caught by that village's people, they were summoned before the Panchayat there. Besides paying fine for the ‘crime' of stealing from another village's forest, they also had to bear the public insult. Therefore, a good forest within their own boundary is a very important criterion for a village to be called self-sufficient,” says Bharti.

“One has to be in Uffrain Khal to see the forest. The humus is so thick one cannot walk on the land except for the designated pathways. There are trees with a height of more than 100 feet as well as a thick undergrowth. It is not a plantation as is seen on land planted on by the forest department but a full-fledged natural forest,” said Anupam Mishra, head of the environment unit of Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi.

In the late 1970s, when Dudhatoli was witnessing indiscriminate felling of silver fir trees for needs of industrialisation elsewhere, Bharti, along with his friends, went to nearby villages to talk about it. People talked to the officials and their point was taken. He then decided to take forward the movement and regenerate and conserve the depleted forest. “We created nurseries of walnut trees to begin with. With sale of these plants to villagers, we generated funds to grow more plants. Very soon, we had six lakh saplings of broad leaf plants in the nursery. Students came forward to plant them and women took over the responsibility to protect them,” says Bharti. The women here go about safeguarding the forest carrying a pole with bells tied on its top. Once done, they leave the pole in front of another woman's house which signifies that it's her turn next. This pattern has gone on for 30 years without fail and without any expectation of money.

Restoring old practices

In 1993, observing the problem of forest fires and droughts in the lower Himalyas, Bharti decided to construct small ponds or ‘Khal' and ‘Chal' in Dudhatoli. “The water would just flow down the slope and because of pine plantation done by government earlier, there were massive forest fires in summers. Chal and Khal were not new to us. They existed from our ancestors' times. We planted grass alongside these ponds and people began to see its value. So they themselves revived them,” said Bharti. “All these things took a long time to accomplish. Dudhatoli had five perennial rivers but they were dying because of deforestation. Now, there is water in them throughout the year and we have no forest fires,” he says.

In 1999, a World Bank team visited Dudhatoli. Impressed by their work, they offered them a loan of Rs. 100 crores for village needs apart from afforestation. “A lady named Wenda said that since we were doing such good work without any money, we could do so much more if we got some money. But we said thanks but no thanks. Money will destroy whatever little work we have done,” says Bharti. “Our work was based on people's hard work and a responsibility towards their forest. If money comes in, the feeling of responsibility would be lost. Anyway, people with more money cannot stay in small places like Uffrain Khal, they would need bungalows in Delhi,” he laughs.

NGOs from Himachal Pradesh came to see the work at Dudhatoli and tried to adapt it but it has been unsuccessful so far. “People forget that this is not a project. The BDO from Solan came here. Very few organisations are conscious of the fact that they have to work with people. Otherwise, work would end when the project money finishes,” says Bharti.