Letters from India No 25

´Letters from India´ is a fortnightly brief written by Finnish exchange activists participating in the Lokayan – Kepa co-operation programme. The ´Letters´ are circulated primarily among the staff of the organisations and members of the groups responsible for the joint activities, i.e. Lokayan´s Global Responsibility Forum – Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam and Kepa´s India Group.
Fitria Agustina

Letters from India, vol 25
November 20th, 2002

Forests and Panchayat

Regards to all,

I wrote this letter after our trip to Uttarakhand and feeling better not tired anymore. Yes, Kob, Anastasia, and I, facilitated by Rajendra Dhasmana traveled for two weeks (Monday till Sunday, 11-17 November) in Uttarakhand State, which is in Himalayan. The scenery is gorgeous. Great mountains, rivers flowing down, zigzag road (that sometime make me tired of the shocking), and don't forget beautiful nights with bright moon and sparkling stars (I even saw snow for the first time). Only one thing that I can't hold: the cold temperature (the height is before 10,000 feet). That's why I always cover myself with sweater and scarf. And thank God, I'm in a good shape till now-not for Kob and Anastasia, they got sick at the end. Maybe the food caused it; they're having stomach ache.

This marvelous view completed by knowing lot of great persons. Even it's difficult for me to tell it in a good story right now. Most people we met are professors. So I got the feeling that if we meet someone new, he/she must be a professor-later, Kob and I make funny of ourselves by calling each other with 'professor'. One thing that really impressed me, besides get in touch with the academicians, is knowing persons who did "the real job", they who directly involved in people movements.

People we've met:

  1. Prof. L.M.S. Palini (mountain expert and environment development)
  2. Prof. Shekar Pathak (forest and geology expert in D.S.B. University, Naini Tal)
  3. Prof. Ajay S. Rawat (forest expert in D.S.B. University, Naini Tal)
  4. Sunderlal Bahaguna (one of the Chipko Movements Leader, writer)
  5. Dr. Himanshu Bourai (activist on women issue, General Secretary of People Union for Civil Liberty (PUCL), associate professor at Dept. Political
    Science, H.N.B. Garhwal University)
  6. Dr. Purohit, D.Phil. (folklore expert, Dept. English, Modern European and Other Foreign Languages, HNB Garhwal University)
  7. HESCO Institute (Himalayan Environment Studies and Conservation Organization)
  8. Dr. Yogesh Dhasmana and Dr. Haris Maikhuri (activist from Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan, Gopeshwar)
  9. Chandra Singh Rana (mountaineer who dedicated his life for environment)
  10. Chandra Prasad Bhatt (Chipko Movement initiator)
  11. And of course Rajendra Dhasmana himself, whose knowledge and involvement on Uttarakhand State development are admirable. He knows completely each mountain, river, forest, region, also the past and still going process of social-economy-politic situation-lot of key persons we met even ask him to tell things to us.

Now I'm little bit confused, how can I tell things I got from them to you? The information is too many and interesting. One thing, for information, we can say India is very dependant on its environment-which country that doesn't? - so every change on Himalayan land-such as deforestation, dam development, etc.- effects directly to whole India. Hence, lots of people movements are fighting for environment.

From Prof L.M.S. Palini, Prof. Shekar Pathak, and Prof. Ajay S. Rawat, I got more comprehensive and chronological view-of course from scientists' perspective-about condition and problems of Uttarakhand's forests. British colonialized this region in 1815 and divided it to Kumaun and Garhwal (then divided Garhwal to British Garhwal State and Tehri Garhwal State). The thing that invited British to come is 'Sal tree', which use for railway material (since 1850). In 1878, British declared the Forest Act. Then in 1898 British managed Uttarakhand's forest using "scientific forest" term, which actually is the same as "commercial forest" 'cause it was used for colonial purpose. Here, there's a dualism: 1) as the consequences of people growth, farming sector was developed, of course it's "agriculture based on forest"-because the place is formed by forests, and 2) British restricted people to access forest, made the forest as protected area. This problem raised conflict between people! and government (in this case British).

Then in 1916 at Kumaun, a first forum for discussing forest problem was being held by elite and local politician. In 1920, Gandhi with non-cooperation movement against the British, inspired people to burn the forest. The reason is "If people can't access the forest, so shall British". In Naini Tal-one of Uttarakhand's cities, which is extremely beautiful because of the mountains and lake-123,000-hectare forests was burnt. It's bad to hear that, but seems that at that time this was the strategy preferred most to against colonial government.

After colonialism, even government of India didn't well-manage the forest either-a common phenomena in underdevelopment countries, after World War II. Lot of problems raised in managing things. The forest being categorized to nature reserve, wildlife sanctuary, biosphere reserve-forgive me for haven't found the significant differences among them. In biosphere reserve there are Core Zone (CZ) and Buffer Zone (BZ). CZ is forbidden for people, maybe because there are some rare species (plants and/ animals). Then people, who already built village in those areas, have to be moved to BZ. BZ is a protected area too, but people could access it. Several problems that followed: 1) people aren't allowed to put hands on wild animals, 2) but wild animals often go out from CZ to BZ, and make mess on crop, 3) Forest Department doesn't give good compensation for people's loss because of the animals, 4) then people ignore the rules and kill the animals, they don't care whether the animal is !
rare or not.

The restriction rules for accessing forests-while government explore it continuously-caused apathy among people. People's awareness was getting poor for solving forest burn, compared when British and Indian government haven't done this miss-management.

One thing that is interesting about people's representation and democracy in villages is Panchayat. Panchayat is a committee which is-ideally-chosen once in 4 years by people; with-ideally-the quota is 32% for women. People meet Panchayat for problems they can't solve among them. Panchayat is more like a "judge" for civil problems (such as cattle trespassing crops), "advocate" for citizen's right (demanding legal base for civil arrestment), and they can advocate and demand to the government for people's needs (like they ask budget for village development). There are about 500,000 villages in India. Gandhi declared that democracy should grow from the grassroots. And Panchayat is the right form for it. If Panchayat's mechanism is well done in every village, then democracy shall remain in India.

Too bad, that reality shows the opposite. From Rakesh I knew that from 28 states of India, only some villages in 2-3 states that still doing Panchayat's election continuously. The others haven't been doing this for-like-last 10 years. And Dhasmana said that nowadays most Panchayats are just for formality. The government can easily ignore them. For example, Panchayat from a village, they demand fund for development, but then government can give just 25%. Getting worse, corruption reduces the fund badly-(sigh) corruption is everywhere!

Well, I think this is enough for Uttarakhand Part 1. I start to feel exhausted. Wait for the Part 2 and my next letters.

Take care. Keep in touch.
Warm regards from me that's still freezing,


Agustina is an Indonesian activist and journalist working for Wacana Magazine published by INSIST, an Indonesian partner organization of Kepa