India — Two teams of eight women each, headed by a sarpanch, also a woman, will soon take it upon themselves to look after the forests of Bhainskal and Rasiyabgarh, revenue villages that fall under the Munsiyari tehsil of Pithoragarh district. The two van (forest) panchayats will now be known as ‘mahila van panchayats’.
While the Bhainskal forest extends over 150 hectares, Rasiyabgarh has a forest area of about 80 hectares. The two teams were elected unopposed on Friday in Nachni. The polling was conducted under the supervision of the gram pradhan Chandrakala Danu and revenue inspector Madan Mohan Pant.
The village women work in fields and take care of cattle. Their main source of income is selling milk. The women graze their cows and buffaloes in the forests, which also serve as an important resource for fuel and timber. The women had decided that since they were the ones going into the forests, they were also best equipped to manage and conserve the area. Very few men go into the forests – most of the men, anyway, have left the village to seek employment in cities.
For the next five years, these teams of women will seek to prevent forest fires and illegal felling of trees. They will also act against poaching.
Forty-seven-year-old Tulsi Devi, elected sarpanch of the Rasyabgarh van panchayat, said her eight-member team would visit the forest each day to check if any illegal activity was happening, whether felling of trees or poaching.
“We will decide on a course of action after a meeting. We will also plant fruit trees, and trees with wide leaves that give shade,” Tulsi Devi said.
She said she would ensure that every six months, at least five trees are planted. “That way, we will have hundreds of trees protecting us and our animals,” Tulsi Devi said.
Lantana grass grows in about 15 hectares in both these forests. This variety of grass forms dense, impenetrable thickets, taking over bushland and pastures. It also provides good cover for leopards, which stray into villages and kill cows and buffaloes. The van panchayat will work on removing the lantana grass and planting fruit trees.
District forest officer IP Singh of Pithoragarh said, “The concept of van panchayat is old. Women have been coming together to preserve natural resources for the benefit of local communities.” The van panchayats serve to prevent encroachment, forest fire, illicit tree felling and smuggling of forest produce, and regulate grazing. They also keep vigil against the poaching of wild animals.
Uttarakhand has more than 13,000 van panchayats which together manage about 5,23,289 hectare of forests, about 14% of the state’s area. The total forest land in the state is 53,483 sq km.
The role of women in van panchayats was minimal for a long time. Former chief minister Vijay Bahuguna announced a 50% quota in the van panchayats for women, causing a spike in their participation in managing forest resources.