Written & Photographed by Vaishnavi Rathore
Gajinder is standing on a cliff. Ahead of him, in the flat land below lies the Marwar region of Rajasthan, a part of the Thar Desert. The hill that he is on is part of the Aravallis in Gogunda, Udaipur, part of the Mewar Region. He looks around at the contrasting view; ahead of him, the dry desert starts to make an appearance, and behind him, green forests and trees laden with custard apples. The Aravallis that he is standing on are a barrier to the desert; they prevent the sands of Thar from entering Mewar and further.
Gajinder belongs to Jhadol, Gogunda’s neighbouring block, and is on his way to meet Hansa Ram, the first Sarpanch of the village Karech, Gogunda. He crosses a green pastureland. “This used to earlier be dry and barely anything grew here,” he says. This pastureland is only a few hectares of the 359 hectares of land that has been restored by the community of Karech.
Hansa Ram’s house is in the middle of fields of recently harvested maize. His is one of the 600 agricultural households in Karech, a large part of who are engaged in agriculture of soya beans, wheat, and mustard amongst others. On Hansa Ram’s terrace, Amla and red chillies dry out in the sun. “These are from our homes only, but a lot of this grows in the commons that we have restored,” he says. A majority of the households in the village depend upon these common property resources for fruits, fodder, leaves and timber. Hansa Ram is also the leader of Van Suraksha aur Prabandhan Samiti (Forest Protection and Management Committee), which was formed with assistance from the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), a not-for-profit working across 7 states, including Rajasthan. Gajinder is also associated with FES.
Almost 17 years ago, Hansa Ram and a couple of residents of Karech started observing a reduction in the village’s tree cover and by default, lesser pasturelands for the cattle. Concerned, they organised themselves into the Samiti in 2002. “Initially, people used to get irritated at the fact that a series of meetings would take place, but no work was beginning,” Hansa Ram says. “But it was these initial meetings that got us streamlined into a common thinking process.”
To initiate any work, the Samiti required funds, and for funds, they needed to open a bank account. Since a minimum amount of money was required to open the account, each household contributed around ₹3, until a total of ₹500 was collected. Now, the work could begin.
Working in sync with Joint Forest Management — an initiative by the government to involve local communities in managing degraded forest lands under government control — the communities began restoration processes. Plans were discussed and made at the village level, which incorporated aspects like zoning of the area, water requirement for the saplings, and the species of saplings to be planted. “Today, the forest is so dense that it is difficult for two people to walk together, side by side,” says Hansa Ram.
After the initial plantation efforts, the focus turned to management, which led to the formation and implementation of strict rules. For instance, during the period where saplings were young, the common grounds would remain closed. Today, of the total 359 hectares of land restored, 9 hectares remain open throughout the year for grazing and collection of produce. The rest of the area is kept protected for most of the year, and opened during the months of April and May. When the communities do enter to gather fodder for their cattle, another rule is followed — ek ghar se ek datli or only one member of each household can collect fodder to prevent overuse.
One challenge that emerged during the management of the commons over the years has been that of maintenance and vigilance; “We have had instances where families were caught cutting trees to build their houses,” says Hansa Ram. “This is despite the rule that only dry, deadwood can be collected and not green, alive trees. Those families were then charged heavy fines.” Further, if a villager is found grazing their cattle during the months that the pastureland remains closed, they are fined based upon which animals are brought to graze; a fine of ₹ 50 for goats, and ₹10 for cows and buffaloes.
So how have the communities managed to keep a continuous eye on the protected commons? One system that was in place for about 4 years was a lathi system. This was a system that ensured that responsibility was taken up by each household on a rotational basis. But soon the system weakened, with people prioritising other work. With that, the samiti collectively decided to employ a guard for the purpose, which costs each household an amount of ₹ 750 per year.
Over the years, the community even built a boundary wall along their restored lands through funds diverted under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Discussions are now on to plant more trees of custard apple, bamboo and more along the wall for a long-term, permanent ‘wall’ which would also bear fruit to be used by the community.
A report which was tabled at the 14th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) uncovers that worldwide, over 1.3 billion people are already living on degraded agricultural land. Moreover, the most vulnerable populations tend to lack secure access to land as well as control over land’s resources. The community efforts by the village of Karech in Gogunda come as a pleasant relief; it’s a sign that the vulnerable are willing to battle the current situations.
“If you look at it, these efforts by the communities are contributing towards preventing climate change,” says Chetan Dubey, of FES. “The heavy definitions and terms of climate change may not fit into their dictionary, but this collective effort at micro levels is combating climate change.”
The same report also recommends prioritising land restoration and sustainable management measures in the most fragile areas and for communities affected by desertification, land degradation and droughts, to reduce the risk of forced migration. Hansa Ram and others have been doing this for years now. In the face of threats like mining, construction, encroachment, and waste disposal that the Aravallis are facing, community efforts like this may change the tide.
You may also like: “It has Become Acid”: Aravallis Battle Against Garbage Disposal and More
Chetan, Gajinder and Hansa Ram now head towards a village meeting where about 25 people have gathered. Here, residents will discuss the possibilities of creating a co-operative for selling custard apples. That would help them get better prices for the produce and reduce middlemen in the process. In Karech, whether it is land degradation or improving livelihoods, people have a unique weapon in the face of adversity — collective decision making.