Reviving the Panchayat (in Almora)

How a programme to revitalise moribund village panchayats has achieved success in a corner of the Uttar Pradesh hills. The key was to let the villagers themselves take active charge of setting priorities and implementing projects.

Bhetuli is a small hill village in Almora District, Uttar Pradesh. I recently attended a village meeting in which most of the village people and youth took active part. The meeting was called to decide on the control and management of the community's forests.

As the group gathered, Jamar Singh, the sarpanch (headman) of the forest panchayat, explained that the village had 55 acres of community forest land given to it by the state government. However, some portions of it had been encroached upon by villagers. Immediately, there was a heated exchange in which some emphasised the need to end the encroachment while others spoke of the urgent need to grow trees on land that had become barren. But the most important question was that of leadership. Before you knew it, the people had decided that Jamar Singh was incapable of managing the common resource of the village. Shankar Singh, a much younger man, was chosen as the new sarpanch, with authority to frame new policies and to implement them in order to protect the forests.

The vitality of the Bhetuli meeting showed that a campaign launched by an Uttar Pradesh non-governmental group to reactivate defunct village panchayats was bearing fruit. In some of its hill districts, the Uttar Pradesh government had allotted community forests known as "van panchayats". A constituent body of villagers, the panchayat, was empowered to manage this common resource. When it was drafted, the Van Panchayat law was a novel attempt to help the villages, but in actual practice, many panchayats became lifeless bodies dominated by powerful villagers who actively took part in or colluded in the encroachment of common forest lands.

In order to revive the village panchayats, the Paryavaran Jan Jagran Samiti (PJJS), a non-governmental group, launched a campaign in Almora. It has helped raise awareness among local youths on the need to take charge of their common resources. In fact, in many villages such as Bhetuli, the young people have taken over the van panchayats from the leadership. In doing so, they have had to face strong challenges from elite groups who would rather use the village lands for private gain.

In order to build community assets, PJJS typically initiates a series of discussions among the 22 villages of Almora it has focused on. Its approach has been to help the people decide. The actual decision on the priorities relating to development projects are left to the villagers. Most active in these discussions have been the Yuva Mangal Dals (youth clubs) and Mahila Mangal Dals (women' clubs).

The work undertaken by the villagers have not been over-ambitious. Typically, they take up schemes concerning drinking water, afforestation of barren land, the building of schoolhouses, maintenance of stream banks, and so on. The villagers calculate the costs of these schemes and put forth part of the total monetary needs for the projects.

The PJJS helps the villagers in preparing the schemes. The Indian Government's Department of Environment came forward with the funds. Initially, a grant was released to cover the work of the 22 villages. The management of the funds and execution of the work was the responsibility of the villagers. Local leadership emerged to implement its own plan for development. It took keen interest in the work and managed the monetary aspects themselves. Many villages decided to change priorities according to local needs. Because decision-making and management of finance were decentralised, local leadership was able to emerge.

The unprecedented success of its programme at the local level has led to the next step. PAS is thinking of establishing cottage industries and fruit processing industries. It considers generating employment and supplemental cash revenue as a priority in these hill villages of Almora.

The following are the characteristics of the successful experiments in Almora, which might be replicable elsewhere in the Himalaya, especially in Nepal, where new possibilities are emerging for grassroots involvement: the local people themselves decide on the priorities and it is they who implement and manage development schemes. There is no "target group" to provide benefits or services to. Neither are there specific one-point programmes like health, or agriculture or forestry. PJJS's programme is holistic in its approach and the villagers themselves identify the beneficiaries. Due to these characteristics, the programme has enhanced rather than eroded community feeling.

In conclusion, the PUS 's programme has all the qualities of decentralised planning, local participation and sustainable strategy that make it more successful than the top-down model of hill development used by the National Planning Commission or the various eco-development plans being implemented in the Uttar Pradesh hills.

P.Hegde is with the Environment Conservation Centre in Sirsi, Karnataka.

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Himal Southasian