Community led Gram Sabhas demonstrate way for decentralised governance

FES-Foundation of Ecological Security- has been working in completely denuded common land in 49 villages of Agar district in MP over the last 30 years. There was a severe water shortage due to drought and massive felling of trees from the common forest. FES worked with the villagers to demonstrate ways of community management of commons. The area has now rich bio-diversity, plenty of water, surplus fodder and agricultural produce.

Mr Jalam Singh about 80 years old witnessed the changes in the villages over the years. Watershed approach resulted in gradual increase in retention of water which improved ground water table. Systematic plantation of local trees developed rich bio-diversity where trees variety like sandalwood has naturally grown in an unfamiliar climate and soil. Supply of fodder is more than the demand in the area. Net sown area for wheat has grown manifolds and also wheat production. Jalam Singh recall that in one of the drought years recently, each of the village member had enough water for survival and village refused money allocated for construction of additional ponds by the Government as they had already built ponds having sufficient water in peak summer. There was no distress migration which was rampant earlier.

Community processes have been strong to build associations to protect commons. Initially, sufficient energy was invested in analysing the problems with the people and later shaping up membership based People’s Organisation (PO) known as village tree growers’ association. Every adult was asked to be the member of the PO with a membership fee of Rs 11 per annum. Monthly meetings were the platforms to discuss and develop norms of governance. Each village level PO has a different set of rules of governance which emerged from the local needs and requirements. There are more than 36 different type of rules in Nipaniya Baijnath village to protect and use of the resources of the commons. There is no use of axe in the forest and it was one of the effective method to prevent tree felling.
The elders played role of strategic thinkers and the younger people took role of implementation of the rules. As rules were determined though consensus and were locally evolved, therefore those were followed by everyone. Jalam Singh drew parlance of accountability mechanisms of POs like a bus, where the driver runs the bus on the instructions/whistle of the conductor.

It was decided that small structures will be taken up in those areas where the poor peoples’ land exist as the rich farmers already have access to water. The common forest was divided in three parts, one for the common use or Nistar, the other for protection and third for rejuvenation. After couple of years, the protected portion is opened for use and used forest is considered for rejuvenation. The protected and rejuvenated parts of the forest were watched by the families in rotation on 24 hours basis. Over the years, POs realised that indigenous seeds of plants are more successful than those imported from the other regions. Therefore, local seed development was started and rate of survival of the plants increased substantially.
Use of water was also controlled that no one can install a pump for agriculture. Gradually, surface water retained in ponds and trenches, resulted in rise in water table in wells that was used for agriculture. Over the years, use of organic manure has been promoted as number of cattle’s has gone up in the area. One of the village Raipuriya is fully saturated with gobar gas plants for fuel and manure.

Peoples’ Organisations are still strong and younger generation has taken over the leadership role. Each village has many old natural leaders, who nurture the young leadership by demonstrating through actions. POs are aware that the Gram Sabha of the village has powers and provide a public platform, therefore, most of the decisions are taken in Gram Sabha.

The PO leaders openly mentioned that the village panchayats with the leadership of those who were active in POs are sucked into the corrupt administrative system of the Panchayati Raj. Community led Gram Sabha is strong yet the constitutionally mandated official Gram Sabha is notional. The moot question for the PO is “ how can the community led Gram Sabha take over the official or constitutionally defined Gram Sabha in a top down model of decentralised governance?”

The POs and FES also need to look at the issues of equity and inclusion from close quarters now. Is it true that the landless and small farmers got larger benefits than the big farmers? Are the women also got empowered enough in the process to have say in the decision making in the family matters and the community issues? What are the key process that resulted in conflicts with the power centres and what were the mechanisms applied to resolve such conflicts and tensions? How would FES like to upscale the initiative in many more village of India through policy advocacy and replication strategies?

Yogesh Kumar

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