It is important to recognise the role and knowledge of indigenous communities and make them active partners in drafting and implementing India’s water policies.
Since 2019 the Government of India has begun a process of formulating a new water policy for the country. The current policy, in force since 2012, is dated. As far as information in the public domain goes, the committee tasked with formulating the new water policy is supposed to have submitted the draft document to the government but it is yet to be notified by the government without which the new policy cannot be termed as ‘in force’. Articles by and interviews of the committee members point at the indications of the new policy giving more importance to community conservation and ecosystem restoration efforts, going beyond the ‘control’ approach where grey infrastructure dominates the management of water resources. Another important thing that has come to be known – from informal discussions with some of the committee members – is the need for facilitating better convergence between different sectors. Water cannot be looked at in isolation from the local natural forests and the communities who live in and with these common property resources for time immemorial.
Communities that enjoy rights to local natural resources (as we will see later in this article), including rivers that flow by their habitations, have made pioneering contributions to conservation of natural resources. Bringing them on board river conservation plans therefore is vital. However, there is no river conservation policy in place at the moment. All the policies and plans that have provisions to protect rivers and other freshwater ecosystems deal with these resources in bits and pieces. Also the rights of communities, one of the key enabling factors to the conservation of rivers, have been a grey area in conservation planning and management. Moreover, the linkage of river conservation with other resources, most importantly the local natural biodiversity rich forests, has not been recognised in practice.
There is growing global recognition that forest conservation efforts – most importantly the local, natural and biodiversity rich forests – provide better water, food and nutrition security by tackling “development and climate induced” disasters in various ways. The Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Forest and Water Programme argues that approximately 75 per cent of the world’s accessible freshwater for agricultural, domestic, urban, industrial and environmental uses comes from forests. Forests and trees are essential to maintaining resilient production systems, communities and ecosystems. They are vital to our water supply, providing high quality water resources. They intercept atmospheric moisture, contribute to cloud and rain formation, reduce erosion and recharge groundwater. However, changes in climate and land-use are contributing to altered groundwater and base flows locally, and precipitation regionally. With approximately 80 per cent of the world population facing water insecurity, the management of forests for water is increasingly important. The relationship between forest and water resources needs to be addressed through integrated management and policies, supported by scientific understanding.
Forests in river basin catchments are, therefore, essential for rivers to have a healthy flow. And for forests to be properly conserved and managed, rights over these resources to local forest communities is also essential. It has often been seen in India that communities are much better managers of the local forest resources than anyone else. Globally, as the Rights and Resources Initiatives points out, legally recognised and secure land and resource rights are fundamental to the advancement of global peace, prosperity and sustainability. Governments, however, have so far been slow to recognise and secure the collective land and resource rights of rural communities. As a result, even though indigenous peoples and local communities customarily claim and manage over 50 per cent of the world’s lands, they legally own just 10 per cent of it. Land here includes forest lands as well.
Climate goals and rights of indigenous communities
Degradation of natural forests and growing water crisis are the two challenges India has been confronted with. While the development pathway that we have chosen is primarily responsible for both these problems, climate change impacts are accelerating the pace of the decay. The latest India State of Forest Report (2021) claims a marginal increase of 0.22 per cent in the country’s forest cover. That’s a net increase of 1,540 square kilometres (sq km) from the 2019 assessment. However, a closer analysis of the report finds that the quality of India’s forest cover has deteriorated across 15,183 sq km area[i]. As per the Global Drought Risk and Water Stress map (2019), major parts of India, particularly west, central and parts of peninsular India, are highly water stressed and experience water scarcity[ii]. More than 600 million people in India are already facing acute water shortage[iii]. Climate change, deforestation, industrialisation, overexploitation of groundwater, unsustainable agricultural practices, growing urban areas and the relative depletion of wetlands can be termed as some of the key drivers of the growing water crisis India faces now. Of the many solutions that one can see to the growing water crisis, the community conservation of local natural resources such as forests is one. These communities are actually helping the country fight both water scarcity and climate change.
To fulfil the Paris Agreement Goals, as reflected in the country’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), India has set ambitious mitigation strategies. These strategies include increasing the forest and tree cover by five million hectares and improving the quality of forest cover in another five million hectares of forest land. India has also been a part of the Bonn Challenge, a global effort to bring 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020, which was later scaled up to aim for a total of 350 million hectares by 2030. The Government of India has made a Bonn Challenge pledge to restore 13 million hectares of degraded land by 2020 and an additional eight million hectares by 2030[iv]. These ambitious goals cannot be achieved without involving the local and indigenous communities who have been living in/ with and protecting India’s biodiversity-rich forests for thousands of years, with a vast repository of lived and traditional knowledge about forest ecosystems. To involve the communities, it is essential to ensure their rights over the resources under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act – commonly known as Forests Rights Act (FRA). Securing the unrecognised land rights of indigenous peoples and communities in India alone could secure the livelihoods of at least 200 million people and protect and restore over 34 million hectares of forest.[v]
The rights over these resources need to be vested in the communities for the benefits of conservation to be really inclusive. In fact, conservation of these forest resources that these communities are doing for generations does not only ensure achieving climate goals for the nation but brings up many local benefits such as food, water, nutritional security through enriching the biodiversity in these ecosystems. I have seen that in villages that I have covered in this article.
Forest as water commons
Of benefits that local natural forests give, water is one and among the primary ecosystem services in the villages I have covered in this article. We have looked into evidences – through people’s testimonies – of increased water availability due to forest conservation efforts by the people. Before coming to that let’s discuss a bit about the forest-water nexus.
Healthy standing forests, as against plantations that are often cut down for commercial purposes, have the advantage in interacting more directly and closely with the climate and helping in rainfall. A concept called ‘rainbow water’ explains it better. It is a term used to describe the moisture – received from the water the trees use to cool themselves and the surroundings – which these forests release into the atmosphere. In an important but understudied aspect of the world’s water cycle, this invisible moisture comes back as rainfall nearby and very far from forests, depending on the location on the globe[vi].
Another important aspect of forest-water nexus in the Indian context is the ‘riparian buffers’. These are vital ecosystems that support rivers and streams in many ways. These buffers are ecosystems unto themselves, with grasses, flowers, shrubs and trees that have adapted, over their evolution, to withstand seasonal flooding and strong currents[vii]. Local species are very important in such buffers that not only house a rich biodiversity but also help in nurturing and moderating the flow of the rivers, provide other services such as food, fodder and fencing materials for the communities.
Conserved forests as water reservoirs
For this article, I focussed on three villages in Odisha where the indigenous communities such as Kondh, Santhal, Kolha and Tharua-Bindhani have been involved in protecting their local natural forests in a disciplined manner for decades. The Dengajhari village in Nayagarh district is inhabited by just 176 people, most of who belong to the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, but have been protecting since early 1980s about 700 hectares of forests both inside the Patharaganda reserve forest of Panchida forest range and the forests in the village revenue land. In fact, their efforts have turned 50 acres of the village revenue land into a forest. Another village, Bhagirathipur in the periphery areas of Similipal Biosphere Reserve in Mayurbhanj district, has also been protecting a patch of about 555 hectares of the local forest. The village is inhabited by about 235 people all of whom belong to the Scheduled Tribes. In Kandhamal district, the people of tribal dominated Budanpippal village – with a population of 351 people – have been protecting about 155 hectares of local natural forests for about one and a half decades now.
In each of these cases, the protection efforts started after natural forests – on which the communities had been traditionally dependent for their lives, livelihoods, socio-cultural practices and health – were destroyed by outside interference. While in some cases, the timber mafia from far off places came to cut the trees, in other cases the nearby villagers were regularly flocking these forests to cut the trees. The villagers resolved to protect the forests and in all three villages, women have been at the forefront of the conservation efforts. Let’s take the case of Dengajhari, where Sashi Pradhan, now in her 70s, started the movement in the 1970s when she was young. Responding to a situation when the hills surrounding her village and hosting the forests went barren due to rampant felling of tree by timber mafia from cities, she along with other women of the village formed the “Maa Maninaga Jangala Surakshya Samiti” (a forest protection committee named after the presiding deity of the forests). Pradhan and other women were especially worried because the denuded forests led to vanishing wildlife, drying up of the four streams that originated from the forests resulting in droughts in the farmland. She is still active and the protection is being led by women. In the rest of the two villages also, women have been taking leadership of the conservation efforts.
The villagers have formed forest protection committees besides constituting committees required under the FRA. They guard the forests with certain rules that they themselves have formed. These rules give each villager a role in forest protection; they patrol the forests with a ‘thenga’ (stick) in hand. This is popularly known as the ‘thenga pali’ (patrolling by turns with sticks in hands) system in Odisha. The rules also prescribe specific management principles, grazing rules, plucking rules, rules for collecting non-timber forest produce and fuelwood. These rules further prescribe penalties for people who defy the standards set by the forest protection committee. Each of the three villages has active protection committees where women participate in large numbers. They sit regularly – once or twice in a month – and maintain their records.
These villagers consider their forests as their ancestors – a feeling of being from the same family and being guided by the ancestors in their daily lives – and have taken onto them the responsibility of protecting them. They derive a range of benefits from the forests that they consume as well as sell. All these three villagers depend on the forests for their food, nutrition and health. They also depend on the forests for sustaining their livelihoods. Even though they are known as farmers, these are almost 50 per cent foresters by their profession; they farm as well as protect forests. Then comes the earnings from daily wage work. The villagers say that forests save them from farm droughts. All these villagers had not much of a trouble in meeting their food requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic as the forests helped them sustain and survive. Their timber needs are limited to repairing the houses, preparing agricultural equipment and making tree houses for guarding their fields from animals. Beyond that, they normally don’t use timbers and their management rules have prescriptions for all kinds of wood uses. Forest conservation efforts by the villagers have helped recharge the local water resources.
After 15 years of conservation, the villagers of Bhagirathipur noticed improvement in the flowing pattern of the streams. The change was significant and visible by 2017. According to them, with each passing year, as the forest cover became denser, the water level of the village increased. The small springs reappeared and fed two streams –Dhanakacha and Kareighati Nala. They resumed agriculture and the harvest was good. As the Dhanakacha started flowing, a small dam was built on the stream with the initiative of the forest committee to conserve water for use on dry days. It contributed to bumper harvest of paddy, vegetables, pulses and other crops in the village. There is no more shortage of water, which remains in the dam from June till February. Around the first week of March, as summer approaches, water from the upper catchment area settles down in the lower part ensuring availability of water throughout the year.
When the forest was denuded in Dengajhari, it was known as a drought-prone village. This is one of the major reasons which prompted the women to start the protection efforts. Currently, after the continuous protection effort, all the streams including the Bhalukunda Jhara, Tingei Jhara, Amba Jhara, Kadali Jhara and Tumbei Jhara have been recharged.[viii] The recharge of these streams and regeneration of the forests complemented each other and helped the villagers in a number of ways. It ensured water availability and irrigation throughout the year, enriched their forest-based livelihoods and ensured their food security.
In Budanpippal village, as the forest regenerated, the water table also moved upwards. Six streams – Dengerma, Kuturk, Dodojhargi, Harinpika, Sugamahar and Katarmahar – originated from the forests surrounding their village. Some of these streams, which had completely disappeared, reappeared and those, which used to get dry immediately after the rainy season, started flowing till late-winter. These streams boosted agriculture and villagers said that they had not experienced a drought year ever since they protected their forest. Out of these six streams, only the Dengerma flows through the village and the others flow through the neighbouring villages. Thus, the forest protection initiatives by Budanpippal village benefitted their neighbouring villages too.
These forest protecting people – mostly indigenous communities and mostly women – are among the primary stakeholders in building local water and climate resilience. They are also playing a huge role in helping the country meet its climate goals. They are protecting the local biodiversity rich forests and enriching water resources besides finding local solutions to poverty and drought. It is important to recognise their role and knowledge and make them active partners in drafting and implementing India’s water policies because without their great efforts, many cities would not be getting the water supply from the rivers. Time has come for the city dwellers to support these communities in their conservation efforts and in their struggles to get rights over the local forest commons.
These protectors of forests and water face several challenges: Regular onslaught by timber mafia and poachers, lack of support from the local forest department and the women’s daily struggles as homemakers that makes their engagement with the protection a tough task always. However, what is a matter of concern is, the youth population of the villages are slowly getting disengaged – except in the case of Bhagirathipur– from the conservation efforts. This would mean these great conservation traditions might suffer a setback and that’s not good for our water bodies, rivers and local biodiversity. That would also affect our efforts towards achieving the ambitious climate goals. What’s needed is a special effort to engage with these youths and increase their connection with the local natural heritage so that they can continue with the conservation traditions besides fulfilling their own aspirations, be it at local level or elsewhere.
[viii] Streams that come out of forests are known as jhara and nala by villagers.