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Deccan Herald » Spectrum » Detailed Story
Love thy neighbourhood
The Foundation for Ecological Security is working with the panchayat system to help introduce environmental conservation into its planning process. Keya Acharya reports.

At first glance, the arid landscape is a dead give-away to the inner workings of rural life in the area. It is the dry season, but nevertheless, denudation speaks for more than seasonal changes in this fairly remote, interior area of Mudimadagalu taluk bordering Andhra Pradesh, one of Kolar district’s eleven taluks. The surrounding Rayalpad State Forest, part of the discontinuous eastern ghats, has sparsely interspersed scrub bushes; there are not many trees around.

Historical ‘tanks’ are dry; some have their beds dug out with villagers carting the fertile soil away as topsoil for their agricultural plots. Every now and then, a lush plot of sugarcane or of water-intensive maize and onions clashes against the dryness, being irrigated by borewells dug willy-nilly in the region by rich farmers. At first glance, it seemed as though the villagers, in an unusual mindset, had forgotten how to maintain their ecological landscape.

Just then, when I ruminate on what is happening in rural India, 34-year-old M S Venkatesh, gram panchayat leader from Maramakindapalli village, comes up with a surprising, but hopeful, assertion. 
“All the barrenness that you see in these surrounding forest lands is due to a big fire that happened about five years ago,” he says, and then adds, “It is also due to villagers cutting off the branches and trees for their own use.”

“We (the gram panchayat) are planning to protect these forests this year,” continues Venkatesh. “We will bar villages from lopping or grazing inside the forest area and we will co-ordinate with the Forest Department to have checkposts to control tree-smuggling,” he says.

When I ask him why the panchayat is planning to protect an area that falls under the Forest Department’s purview anyway, Venkatesh says the forest guard today is derelict in his duties. “In my grandfather’s time, no one from the village dared enter these forests, everyone was scared of the ranger.”

“Now that the fear is gone, there is rampant cutting and because of this water-retention has fallen. But what you see around is far, far better than what it was 5 years ago,” he says.

Venkatesh’s environmental turn of mind comes due to an intervention by the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), a national organisation originally founded by the successful National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) in Anand, Gujarat, now sponsored by several government and international institutions, including the UNDP, Canadian Agency for International Development (CIDA), the British High Commission in Delhi and the Swedish International Agency (SIDA).

The Gujarat-based FES works on grassroots ecological conservation in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Karnataka. But Karnataka is the only State where FES is working with the panchayat system to help introduce environmental conservation into its planning process.

“We chose Karnataka for this exercise because the panchayati system works well here,” says FES project officer Jojo John. Kolar’s degraded lands and depleted water tables proved a good place to start.

Working with the panchayats these last 7 years, FES has so far impacted nearly 70 villages with a population of 20,000 in 6,000 hectares of the Papagni river basin, spread over 3 panchayats of Kolar. 

“This (working with the panchayats) is a gomal land issue,” says FES project co-ordinator in Karnataka, Vijay Kumar. “These lands, very critical to the village marginalised, are on their last legs through neglect, throughout India.” Tenurial rights over common lands are still fairly clear within the panchayat system, another reason why Karnataka is being tried as a primary model.

FES used section 61 A of the Panchayati Raj Act of Karnataka 1993, which allows sub-committees to be set up by the panchayat for specific purposes, to set up a Natural Resource Management (NRM) subcommittee. The NRM committee has 6 panchayat members, 50 per cent of whom are women, selected by the gram sabhas of particular villages. One Ward Sabha individual is ex-officio member.

In Mudimadagu panchayat, FES field co-ordinator Krishnappa shows meticulous maps, in pictures, marked with a system of dots and crosses, that outline all activities of the villages. There are maps showing types of housing, the seasonality of work, locations of gomal lands, the number of trees and their uses for fuel or fodder, including whether birds use them! Problem areas in each of these are then discussed, in a series of village discussions, and used to prioritise what to conserve and how best to do it.

In Maramakindapalli village, Venkatesh shows a cattle-pond built in 2002 as its first effort: it took 140 people, working in shifts, ten days to dig a pond ten feet in length and width each.

When I comment that the construction sounded slower than other NGO watershed interventions, Jojo’s response was realistic.

“This is more long-lasting than NGO interventions, because it deals with the mental as well as physical incorporation of environmental conservation into the gram panchayat. It is a part of administration,” says Jojo.
Indeed, the challenge is huge. The panchayats lack training and funds for such activities are further weakened by numerous rural schemes that function without engaging them, such as the Joint Forest Management, Sujala watershed scheme or even the school development management committees. In Kerala, by contrast, even the local school teacher is responsible to the gram panchayat, thus bringing in accountability and efficiency into the decentralisation process.

“Work through the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) programme,” says Professor Abdul Aziz of ISEC (Institute for Socio Economic Change) to FES. The NREG, mandating 100 days of employment to every rural household, was inaugurated in April 2008.

In Karnataka, the government appears to be a step ahead of Professor Aziz, in that it has already prioritised soil and water conservation work as one of its foremost activities under NREG.

The CEO of Chikballapur Zilla Panchayat, under whose purview the FES panchayats fall, Mr H G Srivara says he is forming a federation of credible NGOs who can help in the NREG process, saying the FES working on conservation through NREG looks ‘quite promising’.

“We are happy to have extra hands that can help without burdening the existing system,” says Srivara.

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