This is not a sensational story, nor a story of revolution overnight, nor of a charismatic leader. Yet it is a powerful story, about very ordinary, poor peasants deciding to work towards the development and protection of common lands, their pastures and forests.
This is a story about rebuilding democracy and putting society before self, about three decades of painstaking work persuading people to cooperate for the collective good.
In a day and age marked by the scramble for personal growth and upward mobility, hundreds of villagers in Jhadol and Phalasia block of Udaipur district have vowed to protect their pasturelands and forests as common lands. Instead of opting for privatization, which is possible within the law and outside the law, more than 200 villages of Jhadol block led by a local organization, Van Utthan Sansthan, have decided not to let their commons be privatized either by outsiders or their fellow villagers. They know that privatization would deprive future generations of land that can sustain their lives and livelihoods.
Their act of sacrifice and wisdom will go a long way, not only in terms of environmental protection in their area, but also in answer to the larger problem of climate change. Sadly, their efforts are not being encouraged by the authorities.
Forest Rights: some background
In the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 there is a provision to provide Community Forest Rights (CFR) to tribal communities who have traditionally been protecting, managing and using the forestlands in the vicinity of their village or habitation. CFR has the potential to sustain both ecology and livelihoods through local public action. Seva Mandir’s work area has a high percentage of forestland, so the issue of CFR is extremely relevant to the region. But the government has largely focused on Individual Forest Rights (IFR) rather than CFR.
While there are some genuine cases where individual rights are necessary, it remains true that indiscriminate granting of individual rights will motivate more people to encroach, and detract from the common value of the forests. A pilot study carried out in 2012-13 in Jhadol block indicated that encroachments in forest areas had increased following the announcement of the FRA.
There is another option under the FRA: Joint Forest Management (JFM) allows the Forest Department to involve local communities in forest management, usually through local Forest Protection Committees, with or without the help of NGOs working as facilitating agencies.
Udaipur has not witnessed a single Joint Forest Management programme in the last decade and not a single Community Forest Right has been granted since the enactment of the FRA.
In most places, demands for community forest rights are minimal; the demand is overwhelmingly for individual rights. Against this tide, the villages of Jhadol block have been asking for community rights for the last 10 years. 76 applications for community rights have been going up and down different government offices for the last eight years and yet no right has been conferred. Realizing the importance of forests for future generations, even those villagers who were granted individual forest rights have given them up, expressing solidarity with the others.
Even though often discouraged by the lack of support from the state, the villagers decided not to give up their efforts but instead charted a new path of self-governance.
This new path began on 20 February 2018 in a small village, Amivada, in Jhadol block, Phalasia tehsil. Amivada village has been protecting a 16-hectare pastureland by growing bamboo since 2003. Once a degraded, rocky and barren space, it is now a forest of bamboos. This transformation from barren to green land is the result of 15 years of hard work and sacrifice on the part of the villagers. These bamboos have become mature for harvest and for use by the villagers. In 2016 the villagers of Amivada sought clarity from the government over who could harvest the bamboos and under whose supervision. No clarifications were received from any government official for two years. The village community in Amivada therefore decided to launch a Satyagraha by harvesting the bamboos.
The word ‘Satyagraha’ refers to ‘truth force’: non-violence is an essential part of this methodology. The objective of Satyagarha is justice; it does not hinge on loss or gain, for and against, but all sides coming together for better outcomes. The origins of Satyagraha are in Gandhiji’s work in South Africa, which aimed to correct discriminatory laws against Asians. The Champaran Satyagraha was the first Satyagraha in India, where Gandhi worked on abolishing the oppressive laws on indigo plantations.
To express solidarity with the village community of Amivada, 14 other villages took part in this Satyagraha initiative in Badgaon, Kamnor, Kherwara and Girwa tehsils. The panchayats at all these sites gave approval for the harvesting of bamboo since these communities have been working hard for the development of their pastures.
So on 20 February 2018, a Satyagraha was launched and bamboo harvesting was conducted in all these sites. On the same day, government clarification was also received for Amivada.
Village meetings were held to discuss the forthcoming march and bamboo cutting
The villagers stated that their objective in undertaking this Satyagraha was to protect their practice of self-governance in managing their common resources such as pastureland and forest. At the beginning of the Amivada Satyagraha, the Sarpanch (head of the panchayat) Tara Chand Garasia said, ‘This pastureland belongs to the villagers; the villagers have protected their pastureland in an efficient manner by preparing and protecting a forest of bamboo for the last 15 years in Amivada village.’ This initiative was well supported by the panchayat. The Amivada Village Development Committee president, Devilal, said, ‘It is thanks to the efforts of the villagers over the past 30 years that they have been able to reach this stage where they have bamboos worth INR 4 lakh (400,000) in Amivada’.
Since 2003 this pastureland had 15 private encroachments, of which 11 were by locals and four by outsiders. The villagers have struggled for many years to remove these private encroachments. On day of the Satyagraha, the president of Seva Mandir, Ajay Mehta, expressed his concern regarding official recognition for Community Forest Rights (CFR) under the Forest Rights Act. About 2,000 poor peasants across 14 villages pledged to protect their pasturelands and forests.
This Satyagraha was carried out under the leadership of local development platforms, Van Utthan Sansthan (a federation of forest protection committees), and the villagers. The vision of this initiative is that communities will protect their common resources collectively, democratically, peacefully, and will not allow privatization of these resources.
Before the first bamboo was cut a religious ceremony or puja was conducted
The villagers proudly display the first bamboos cut
The harvest initiated in February went on smoothly over the next few months. But selling the harvested bamboo seemed to necessitate another Satyagraha. It appeared that, although the government had given an agreement to cut the bamboo, a transportation permit (TP) was necessary to enable villagers to take it to the government auction house in the neighbouring district of Swaroopgunj. And once again there began a scramble to the different government offices in Jhadol and Udaipur. Amivada villagers, along with representatives of Van Utthan Sansthan and Seva Mandir, started applying for a TP in April and finally, after much toing and froing, the TP was received on 5 May, at the cost a few broken shoes and a handful of bamboos. The final sale of bamboos happened in June and at the time of writing an amount of INR 158,288 has been received by Amivada, with a further INR 128,612 awaited.
It is indeed an irony that a village has to sweat to protect its own pasture and reap benefits from it, while incentives for deforestation abound. It is sad that there are so few efforts to motivate citizens to protect their environment.
The Amivada story is not just about a bamboo harvest but it is the story of poor peasants, women and men, showing the way of self-governance and demonstrating the moral responsibility of protecting their common lands.
Priyanka Singh and Ruchinilo Kemp