Nitin Desai: People power for development

The severe drought that has hit many parts of India has reminded us about the vulnerability of rural areas to environmental stress. For over 50 years now we have had a variety of programmes which have sought to address land, water and forest management in rural areas. Yet the results are far from adequate. Most of the well funded flagship schemes in this area have been designed and promoted by the central government with the responsibility for implementation resting with the states, and more recently direct devolution of resources to panchayats. What is still missing is planning capabilities at the local level and effective mobilisation of local people.

A recent field visit to some villages supported by the Foundation for Ecological Security, an NGO that works on livelihood-centred eco-conservation protection and management of common lands, brought home the importance of involving local people right from the planning stage. (Disclosure: I am a member of the governing board of this NGO.)

The first stop was at a group of villages involved in forest management near the Kumbalgarh protected area about 60 km from Udaipur. The forest department which was charged with the implementation of joint forest management decided to work with the village closest to the forest because the forest was shown in the land record as part of this village. But in practice four villages at four corners of the forest were dependent on products from the same forest and any joint management plan that excluded them would fail. With the help of FES volunteers the villagers joined together and persuaded the forest department to work with all the four villages.

The effectiveness of this arrangement depended a lot on the dedication of one Mansa Ram, who, judging by the state of his house, was clearly a poor man and had made significant economic sacrifices to play this role. Should one consider some sort of stipend for this type of voluntary work by local villagers?

The forest management programme worked well and the villagers were able to enforce self discipline in the use of the forest. But here, as in many other parts of India, the forest department is reluctant to recognise community rights, though individual rights are being recognised formally.

An interesting feature of the presentation by the villagers was that it focussed attention mainly on the impact of conservation of forests in the catchment on water resources. A couple of local youngsters had prepared a chart showing graphics about the increase in the duration of the water flow in a local stream. They claimed that while in the past water was not available a month or so after Diwali, with the improvement in the forest cover over a decade, the water lasted much longer. They believe that their efforts are successful when the water in the streams lasts till the rains of the following year. Their goal looks attainable as when I visited this village in April, I could see water in the streams, enough for their daily needs and for their cattle.

The second visit was to Amartya village, near Mandalgarh on the road to Bhilwara. Here too one saw how local villagers, this time under the leadership of a spirited woman, Sarju Bai, organised themselves firstly to regenerate the forests on the hills and then around fair water use. Their major concern was about bore wells depleting groundwater and drying up their traditional open wells sooner in the dry season. There is no legal bar to the drilling of bore wells and the villagers resorted to the use of people power to gherao the drilling teams when they came there and inviting the police to stop the drilling on the ground that it would create a public disturbance!

But one must also note the insensitivity of an administration that built a multi-lane highway through the village separating the habitations from the school and grazing grounds. The heavy vehicle traffic on this road has already killed some children and many animals.

The third visit was to Barundini village, also near Mandalgarh in Bhilwara district where we met representatives of 146 local committees who had come together to discuss action points for claiming rights on community lands. The representatives were participating in a meeting hosted by the Paryavaran Premi Samaj - an environmental umbrella organisation of 70 village committees of Mandalgarh block. This organisation, led by a former local MLA, had undertaken conservation works on 3,300 hectares on which they had recognised rights and another 11,000 hectares on which they undertook conservation work, even though they did not have formally recognised rights. Here too the emphasis was clearly on water conservation. One also saw the rural-urban competition in their expressed concerns about water extraction in their area for meeting the needs of Bhilwara town.

At all three places the people we met, men and women, were well aware of their rights under MGNREGA, including the wages to which they were entitled. The villagers spoke about a "Pura kam, pura daam (full pay for full work)" movement. Most of them also had Aadhaar cards. The big takeaway from these field visits is that even in relatively poor tribal areas local leadership is available and people power can deliver, particularly if some NGO is ready to provide technical and organisational help. One also sees that this leads to better resolution of competing claims, and more effective implementation.

The villagers saw "jal, jangal aur jameen", water, forest and land management, in an interconnected way. But they are handled by different government departments with their own rivalries. The professional competences in these departments should be combined in Primary Environmental Care units at local level to monitor the local environment and provide technical support to panchayats and other formal and informal local bodies.

Rural India has changed. The people there are well-informed and able to combine for cooperative action. There are educated youngsters who can liaise with government functionaries and NGOs. We must unleash this people power to restore our rural ecosystems and accelerate development.

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