Sukhomajri at the crossroads

  • 14/12/1998

Sukhomajri at the crossroads JETHU RAM looks jaded and tired. But at the ripe old age of 87, he is definitely not a man out of sync with the times. In fact he is far ahead of the times.Twenty-five years ago when his village Sukhomajri, in Haryana"s Punchkula district, had neither water nor trees he joined up with environmentalist P R Mishra and spread the message of regeneration and -conservation. Many years later, after Sukhomajri became a glowing example of how community forest management could make a village self-sufficient, his wrinkled face reflects a sense of pride.

The nearly 1,500 gujjar villagers of Sukhomajri have long since realised the truth in Jethu Ram"s and Mishra"s mantra. From the late 1970"s when Mishra convinced the villagers after much initial hostility and suspicion about the benefits of soil conservation and efficient use of forest wealth, the villagers have participated in the Chakriya Vikas Pranali, a method of sustainable development. Two decades of this programme had seen Sukhomajri become a self-sustaining village. There was enough grass for fodder after the villagers prevented their cattle from overgrazing, there was sufficient mungri or its full grown version bhabber to harvest and sell as raw iiiaterial for pulp, there was enough water after four earthen dams were built to collect monsoon water. Sukhomajri had set a rare example of conservation and social planning.

Twenty-five years later that green of hope and prosperity seems to be turning a jaded brown of despair. The reason: soon after the village found its own path to prosperity, government departments, lackadaisical and callous till then, decided to step in. In 1995 in what can be termed a brutal stroke, the forest department arbitrarily divided the 400hectare hill tract between Sukhomajri and its neighbour village Dhamala. Residents of Sukhomajri were no longer allowed to collect fodder from the area demarcated for Dhamala.

This division of land apart from ruining the resource management programme has also created social tension in the area.The Dhamala village consists of upper caste Jats who had influenced the forest department to divide the forest so that they could grab nearly 80 per cent of the grass which fell in their part of the forest. The Jats, apart from getting a lion"s share of the forest could also thus stymie the Gujjars who were the people who actually helped raise the quantity and quality of bhabber.

Till the forest department intervened in the smooth and silent revolution in Sukbomajri, forest produce was being shared by the two villages. With the demarcation the concept of social fencing (self restraint by villagers in using forest produce) showed signs of breaking down and the two villages became competitors for fodder instead of being collaborators. Both the villages used to share grazing and other rights in the same forest area. Sukhomajri"s residents have been protecting the forest from the beginning though the resulting profit from auctioning bhabber was shared equally among them. The division of the forest threatened this arrangement.

Despite such governmental interference the Sukhomajri experiment can be termed a success because it proved that with community planning, a bit of restraint and commitment, the economy of any village can be turned around. Sukhomajri also showed that from self-destruction to rejuvenation was only a short hop if only people are drawn into social programmes and given control of the resources. For instance in Sukhomajri the tree density in the village forest increased from 13 per hectare in 1976 to an amazing 1,272 per hectare in 1992. Moreover, soil from the hilltracts surrounding these villages was no longer silting Chandigarh"s Sukhna Lake.

By allowing the village community to become owners of the produce of their own land, a vested interest was created: the people had a stake in protecting and nurturing their environment. Sukhomajri also taught environmentalists and rural development mandarins that environmental regeneration has to start with water conservation and not with trees. Once a small water harvesting system has been built and an equities system has been developed to share the water the village community will immediately see the benefits of protecting the catchment of its water system through controlled grazing and planting trees and grasses. Once the people start managing the village ecosystem, basic problems of survival and growth are solved on its own.
How a people"s project is being killed Before the Hill Resource Management Society (HRMS, with each household represented) came into existence in Haryana, the forest department used to lease bhabber growing in forests to paper mill contractors directly at throw-away prices. The contractors in turn sold bhabber at a premium to villagers. The lease money for any forest land is determined by the average of the last three years"lease money. That amount for Sukhomajri was hovering around Rs 15,000-20,000 throughout the 1980s.

After the HRMS was formed the forest department agreed to lease the forest land with grass to the villagers who in turn leased it to the contractor after ensuring good profit. In return the villagers were duty-bound to protect the grass in the forest by not resorting to indiscriminate cutting and grazing. The production of bhabber went up by 200 per cent in four years. Since 1993, bhabber from the forest land between the two villages has been fetching more than Rs I lakh. In 1994, it fetched around Rs 2 lakh.

Every year an increase of 7.5 per cent is added to the lease amount in order to compensate for inflation. This is where the department actually played dirty and started taxing the villagers for no rhyme or reason (see table: Unfair taxes). According to the new arrangement ad;opted in 1997-98, after the villagers" need of bhabber is taken care of, the net profit has to be shared between the village society and the government. The net profit is arrived after deducting the lease money, income tax (15.3 per cent) and sales tax (8.8per cent) from the gross sale amount.

While 25 per cent of the net profit goes to the government as revenue, the rest 75 per cent is again shared between the village society and the forest department. One tenth of this 75 per cent share goes to the Kalyan Kosh (village welfare fund) which is deposited in a state-level account for spending on development of villages. According to forest officials till. now this money has not been spent as the modalities of spending it has not been charted out.

Thirty per cent goes to the "plough back account" managed jointly by the divisional forest office and the president of the village society. This amount will entirely be spent on forest development. The rest belongs to the society.

Going by this convoluted calculation the villagers are left with just about 45 per cent of what they earn. For instance, if the net profit is Rs 120, Rs 30 would remain with government as revenue. From the balance of Rs 90, Rs 9 would go to the Kalyan Kosh and Rs 30 to the plough back fund, leaving only Rs 51 with the village society. So the villagers have direct control only over Rs 51 (about 45 per cent). The rates imposed by the forest department are randomly drawn up and do not conform to any known rules.

For regenerated timber like khair (Accacia catechu), the value of which can be as much as Rs I crore a year on a sustainable basis, the sharing pattern would be 75 per cent for the government and a mere 25 per cent for the villagers. And this unequal division, too, is on net profits, not on gross profits. In other words, the forest department will first deduct its cost of logging the forest. The forest department is yet to declare how the timber would be valued and the net sale. The department is clearly squeezing money out of the villagers and acting like an extremely rapacious landlord.

Pangi Ram, president of the Sukhomajri HRMS, feels that Unfair taxes How the bhabber sale money is siphoned off the reasons for the sudden government interest in the village which they had even forgotten to acknowledge is due to the spiralling price of bhabber after a paper mill was set up in the area. Paper mills wanted larger quantities of bhabber or wild grass and started outbidding each other for the precious raw material to make pulp. In 1994-95, Ballarpur Paper Mill in PinjIore was offering Rs 1,050 per tonDe of bhabber. The competitor, Panwi paper Mill in Baddi, Himachal Pradesh, started offering Rs 2,800 per tonne. A contractor who had offered Rs 50,000 as lease amount for harvesting bhabber in the Dhamala area of the forest hiked his offer to Rs 1,50,000 for the next year. Wild grass was undergoing value-addition. Sukhomajri stood to gain immensely.

But the forest department had other plans. The effort at a clandestine take-over of the forest land was aimed at getting a major share of the new money that wild grass now commanded in the market. The HRMS that managed the environment of the village and provided a forum for villagers to discuss their problems was told that all its activities including the holding of elections would henceforth be monitored by the forestdepartment and the Tata Energy Research Institute (TERi) which was the facilitator of the joint forest management project in Haryana. The department refused to recognise Pangi Ram"s election as president of the village society for over six months on the pretext that .prior permission was not taken".

The role Of TERI in muddying the waters is also distressing. TERi prepared a report in 1994 on the cutting of bliabber which suggested that the practice of Sukhomajri villagers of cutting mungri (bhabber sprouts) decreased the yield considerably. "Even one dipping done in July depresses the final fibre from the November cutting by about 45 per cent. Harvesting of grass, including fodder grass should be avoided during their active period of growth, that is in July-August". This report also had the stamp of the forest department and in 1994 itself the government banned cutting of mungfi.

It affected the villagers of Sukhomajri the most. Mungri was crucial for them as due to their small landholdings they do not raise fodder in their fields during dry months and just before monsoon they have to depend on mungri. "Since centuries we have been cutting mungri as it is inevitable," says Pappu Ram, a Sukhomajri villager. Now as the villagers disobey the ban, Dhamala villagers are furious citing that they are loosing huge money due to less yield of bhabber as a result of cutting mungri.

"The report says that the yield of bhabber would reduce by 45 per cent if mungri is cut. Does not it affect their interest? Why is it that only Sukhomajri disobeys the ban order while another village obeys it? Cannot Sukbomajri afford buying grass for one month also?" says R P Dange, the divisional forest officer.

Sukhomajri and Dhamala are extremely different villages which is a major cause of the tension between them. Firstly, Sukhomajri is inhabited by low-caste Gujjars while Dhamala is made up of higher caste and more influential Jats. Secondly, Sukhomajri dwellers are largely animal herders while Dhamala Dwellers are mostly landowners. The few Gujjar animal herders of Dhamala are largely landless and have so say in village matters. Being animal herders, it is the people of Sukhomajri who had to protect the forest. Thirdly, being animal herders, people of Sukhomajri have a greater interest in using bhabber as fodder whereas people of Dhamala mainly have an interest in selling it to paper mills. It is in these inherent differences that the tensions between Sukhomajri and Dhamala lie and which are being stoked by outsiders.

Forest officials generally tend to support the TFRi report findings. S K Dhar who as the chief conservator of forest stamped the report, says, "I myself had done a study on the impact of mungri cutting on the ultimate yield of bhabber. It shows that the yield is reduced by 60 per cent. It is science and people should adopt it."

Most academics and scientists are however unwilling to accept this view. R C Barisal, senior scientist at the Chandigarh-based Central Soil and Water Conservation Research and Training Institute (CSWRTI) and who is closely associated with Sukhomajri since 1975, says. "It does not affect the yield and above all an experiment in a few square metres of land is not representative. My studies show that its impact is not as threatening as has been hyped," he says.

According to Barisal, as bhabber grows very fast during rain, any impact of mungri cutting could be nullified. "On this basis, while the cutting is traditional and also necessary, the report should not have been given official stamp which has caused conflict between the two villages," he adds. Forest officials based in Pinjore refused to comment on it saying that the state forest department has agreed to the findings and has banned mungri cutting.

Fodder clash
Now that Sukhomajri has ecological wealth, everybody is out to loot the villagers - from the forest department to the neighbouring villagers. Suddenly the price of bhabber which was the source of all the disputes, dipped from 1997 after the Ballarpur Paper Mill, which used to lift 80 per cent of the grass from the village, switched to wood-based pulp manufacturing in a clear instance of betrayal of the village which sustained the production of raw material all this while.(see box: All on paper).

Sukbomajri"s neighbour Dhamala also has its eyes on the newly regenerated forest wealth. In July 1995, the Sukhomajri"s villagers were informed that the Dhamala HRMS, which was all the while sharing the forest produce with them, had auctioned the bhabber lease for more than half the area for Rs 1.5 lakh, claiming, according to the new arrangement, that this was Dhamala"s share of the area.

The section of the forest land which was jointly allotted to the Dhamala and Sukhomajri villages in 1983 for the annual collection of bhabber is called C-4. It is part of the Haryana reserve forest. There was always going to be friction if the allotted land was to be divided between the two villages. Actually, the Sukhomajri villagers have more of a claim on the land since it was their effort that resulted in the regeneration of forest. The Dhamala part of the forest had much more saturation of wild grass and they would benefit without having done any hard work. The division of the C-4 section was a longstanding demand of the Dhamala village.

So the forest department simply took the map of the forest and put a line through it saying that from now on one side of the line belongs to one village and the other side belongs to the second village. This immediately led to squabbles. The villagers of Sukhomajri felt deeply cheated. Dhamala got that part of the forest where most of the grass grows. Often, unknowingly, people walk across the invisible line leading to fights among the residents of the two villages. "The forest department and TERI support team has created a division like the partition of the country," says Jethu Ram. Here again the Sukhomajri villagers suggested a solution: let each village harvest the forest for one year in turn. In this way each village could have got access to all the grass every year. That village could have decided on how to use the grass that year - for use as fodder or for sale as raw material for paper mills - and there would be no chance for people of one village to walk into the land of another village. But people"s wisdom was rudely brushed aside.

But these words mean nothing to the technocrats of the forest department who invariably behave like cowboys and have no idea of how to involve people in managing natural resources. Apart from preying on a resource that the people have built to enhance their revenues, they are not prepared to let the people of Dhamala and Sukhomajri sort out their differences acting only as facilitator in the process. No, they have to butt in like lords and masters and as a result destroy the finest people"s effort in forest regeneration in the country.

Unfair taxes

How the bhabber sale money is siphoned off

Lease money 22,985 21,630
Income tax (15.3 per cent) 3,534 3,326
Sale tax (8.8 per cent 2,023 1,904
Total expenses 28,542 26,860
Re-sale price 1,35,000 95,000
Net profit 1,064,58 68,140
Government share (25 per cent) 26,615 17,035
Balance (75 per cent) 79,843 51,105
Kalyan Kosh (10 per cent of the balance) 23,953 15,332ss
HRMS share (60 per cent of the balance) 47,906 30,663

The Sukhomajri model
Before P R Mishra launched the Chakriya Vikas Pranali in the mid-1970s Sukhomajri was almost a barren land. Mishra"s effort to promote soil conservation was first met with hostility. "We suspected it to be a ploy to snatch our land to save Chandigarh, the rich men"s paradise," recalls Hari Kishan a villager who was to become the president of the HRMS for one term.

For preventing soil erosion and to harvest water, the first step was to stop water in the village itself Mishra then dissuaded the villagers from uncontrolled grazing in their watershed. With the support of the villagers, Mishra built two earthern dams to hold back the monsoon rain. The villagers promised to manage the watershed. The forest department also took a daring step in allowing the people to manage the watershed. The villagers, in turn, banned grazing and levied a charge on every family collecting fodder. In return the government gave them high-yielding seeds and fertilisers.

Mishra persuaded the forest department to share with the villagers the increased forest wealth resulting from social fencing or the concept of self-restraint in exploiting forest wealth. The HRMS was constituted in 1980 to carry out equal distribution of water and to strengthen the concept of social fencing which was giving good results.

Today around 5,000 khair trees mature every year in the forest surrounding the village. At an average price of Rs 13000 per 100 kg of wood these trees are worth more than Rs 50 lakh in timber value alone

It was Mishra who developed the concept of the Chakriya Vikas Pranali and proved its effectiveness in the Haryana village. It can be defined as a cyclic system of development. "The cyclic system of development is a demonstration and extension based on the Sukhomajri system of growth which established that the forests can be the source of all energy that soci- ety needs. The system is called cyclic as the benefits from one investment cycle becomes capital for the next and thus goes on increasing rural employment and the village fund which finally makes the village self-reliant and the environment congenial to mankind," according to Mishra.

Under the system private property resources are pooled for better management. Decision on sharing pooled resources are collectively taken. Landless villagers can also join in with the people who have pooled their land in community management like providing labour, traditional knowledge, and the like.

In a selected village some land owners pool their marginal degraded and wastelands and convert them into community land and water resources which are managed by village societies. Households designated as "students" are part of the community management and decision making. A threetier formula for planting different types of plants was adopted. Vegetables and other crops are cultivated in the lower terrain, fruit fodder in the middle terrain, and timber fuel- wood, bamboo and such long-term plants occupy the third upper terrain.

But cloning the Sukhomajri model has not proved successful for the peculiar problems involved. Forest officials tend to play down the role of the "lagers in greening their environment and feel there is more hype than substance in the model, even though both the Punjab and Haryana forest departments have tried to spread the model to numerous villages in the Shivalik ranges.

The first effort to try out this model was in 1980 in Nada village two kilometres from Panchkula, in Haryana. It was a highly stratified, two caste village with the Harijan hamlet situated in a degraded watershed. In the Harijan hamlet the villagers were persuaded to stop grazing in the hills and both natural regeneration and afforestation followed. The villagers even sold their goats which destroyed saplings and replaced them with cows and buffaloes which do not normally destroy saplings but stick to grass. The benefits were soon there to see. Most visible was the dramatic increase in wheat production.

"Initial investment in the Harijan Nada was Rs 12 lakh in 1980-1981," says S P Mittal, head of CswRT1. The agency executing the project, the Haryana forest department controlled the expenditure. Later, the Ford Foundation agreed to provide a grant of us $18,750 to the department. Ironically that is where the seeds of failure were sown. "The project was initiated and sponsored by outsiders, we were not involved in it all," says Piara Singh, president, Harijan Nada HRMS. That indeed was the root of the problem.

While the conceptual problem that peo- ple"s involvement could have been worked out as the programme caught on, there were technical problems too. The dam meant to collect water was erected on loose rocky base and had no bonding with the soil there. The result was that water leaked and dam did not serve the purpose for which it was built.

Yet another hindrance was the village"s social division. The village itself was divided into Harijan and the higher caste Lavana section. The Harijans complied with what was required of them: to protect the 17 hectare forest. The Lavanas could not care less and defiantly continued to plunder the forest.

Yet another attempt at working out the cyclic system of pooled land and water resource management was started in 1987 in five villages of Palamau district in Bihar. This work was undertaken by P R Mishra himself after his retirement. Since the system picked up in the five villages of Bhusariya, Khura, Lanka, Chapri Kaimkhi and Chapri School, it spread to 30 other villages.

Kasia village under the Daltonganj block and Lahlahe Senuriya panchayat adopted the system in 1994. "The project was started in our village after we approached SHRMS in Daltonganj," says Subhodh Bhuiyan, secretary of the village samaj. SHRMS just gives the guidelines while the show is managed by the local people. "We had been watching the experiment in our neighbourhood village Senuriya and were very impressed," says Suresh Tiwari, president of the village samaj.

Interestingly no forest land is involved in the Kasia experiment. All land involved in the scheme belong to individuals under an agreement by which 30 per cent of the capital return will be given to the land owners. Kasia village benefited immensely from this project and the results were almost immediate since vegetables and fruit were soon available in plenty. Unemployed villagers soon found employment in the plantation project. "Before this project started we used to go to other villages or to Daltonganj for work. Now at least some of us get work here," says Premani Devi, a villager.

While the changes that have come about in Sukhomajri and other villages in Haryana, Punjab and Bihar are extraordi- nary by all costs, it is clear they will survive only if the government has a healthy attitude towards them.

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