Nainital, Uttarakhand: Seventy-seven-year-old Chandan Singh Bisht awaited us in his front yard on a sunny morning in June. He lives in Meora village in Uttarakhand's Nainital district. His house overlooks a vast tract of forest, which is the Van (forest) Panchayat land of his village.

Between 2000 and 2013, Chandan Singh served as the sarpanch (head) of the Van Panchayat land, measuring around 20 hectares, that 52 households of village Meora manage under a forest management system that was institutionalised in 1931 in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.

Chandan Singh noticed, during his term as sarpanch and even afterwards, that Van Panchayat meetings, which were once regular and active in deciding the rules and regulations by which these common resources would be managed, were becoming increasingly infrequent. And when they do happen, merely five to 10 people attend, if that.

The Van Panchayat system was created as a response to the people's movement against the British reserving forests at the beginning of the 20th century. Under the system, the villagers could elect a council of five to nine members with a sarpanch at the head. This Van Panchayat was empowered to regulate grazing, cutting of branches, collection of fuel and distribution of forest produce.

However, a series of amendments in 1972 (revised in 1976), 2001, 2005 and 2012, diluted the powers of Van Panchayats and passed control of the decision-making process into the hands of forest and revenue department officials. The result is that they have been rendered dysfunctional in almost half of the 12,092 Van Panchayats of Uttarakhand. A Uttarakhand Forest Resource Management Project states the number of active Van Panchayats as around 6,000, managing around 405,000 hectares of forest, at present.

Chandan Singh Bisht, 77, former Sarpanch of Meora village. To the right, the Van Panchayat land that is visible from his house in Nainital district.

"The Van Panchayat system, that was created in 1931 to manage and protect forests, was way more advanced for its time than the Forest Rights Act of 2006," said Tarun Joshi, convenor of the Van Panchayat Sangharsh Morcha, an Uttarakhand-based organisation working with forest-dwelling communities for the recognition of their forest rights and Van Panchayat governance.

"But over the years, their working has been disrupted by rules instituted by the forest department, which is why the villagers now want community forest rights, that recognise a community's right to use, manage and conserve forest resources, under the Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA 2006), which gives them more rights and empowers them more than the Van Panchayat system."

The Van Panchayat is a unit "independent" from the forest department, said T.R. Bijulal, earlier the Divisional Forest Officer of Nainital, and now of the state's capital Dehradun, when asked about the bureaucratic interference from the department in the affairs of Van Panchayats. "We are involved in allocating budgets, such as under CAMPA [Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority] and monitoring their implementation. And we have seen positive work done by Van Panchayats under this."

"It is the duty of the range officer and his team to facilitate the Van Panchayat's working and monitoring."

We have also reached out to the forest department of Uttarakhand on August 2nd. We will update their response.

History of Van Panchayats

In the last week of May 2022, a small fire broke out in the Van Panchayat land of Meora, close to Chandan Singh's house. Villagers who were in the forest collecting firewood at the time ran to douse the fire.

In the scorching heat of summer, says Chandan Singh, wildfires are common in the forests of Uttarakhand. Between October 2020 and April 2021, forest fires broke out at 989 locations across Uttarakhand.

The state has lost almost 1297 hectares of recorded forest area due to these fires, which have gotten more ferocious as climate change drives temperatures higher with each passing year. But in the Van Panchayat land, villagers serve as frontline defenders against the ravages of forest fires.

Fire broke out in the Van Panchayat land of Meora village in the last week of May. Forest fires are common across Uttarakhand in summers.

When India was under British rule, the forest that belonged to the people was demarcated from village land, and was meant to be used for commercial purposes. This is evident in the series of rules the British passed, such as the Indian Forest Act of 1878 which overturned centuries of viewing forests as state property and put them under the reserved or protected forest category.

This led to a mass movement, around the time of World War I, wherein local people demanded their rights. The spiking demand for timber during war time was one of the triggers of the movement. In 1931, the British passed the Van Panchayat Niyamavali (Forest Council Rules) under the the Scheduled District Act of 1874, which instituted the concept of community forests, and placed them under the control of the Van Panchayat, totally divorced from the areas under the control of the forest department.

Studies have called it "one of the largest and most diverse experiments in common property resource management in the state."

"Traditionally, the Van Panchayats have aimed at granting people the decision-making power to use and manage forest resources," said Vasundhara's president Madhu Sarin. Vasundhara is an Odisha-based NGO that works on forest tenure reform in India.

In 1972, the Van Panchayat rules were brought under the Indian Forest Act of 1927 which designated forests into the categories of reserve, panchayat and private. These rules were modified with the Uttaranchal Panchayati Forest Rules of 2001, and again in 2005 after the formation of the new state of Uttarakhand.

"The Van Panchayat system showed what a decentralised form of forest governance looked like," said Ghazala Shahabuddin, an ecologist and an expert researching people-biodiversity relationships, wildlife policy and applied ornithology in Western Himalayas and Aravallis. "Research has shown that decentralised resource management can be more sustainable than purely state-sponsored top-down efforts."

Declining Van Panchayats

Govind Singh Bisht, 67, carries a tattered file bulging with over 100 sheets of paper every time he meets with someone seeking information on Van Panchayats. The papers date back to the late 1990s and include complaints, First Information Reports (FIRs) to the police, court letters--a "repository of information that proves how the Van Panchayat of our village functions", he said.

Govind Singh is from Garhgaon village, and has neither been a Van Panchayat member nor a sarpanch. He was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organisation, since 1975, and has unsuccessfully contested local elections twice. Defeats notwithstanding, he remains involved in local affairs, particularly the status of Van Panchayats. "But," he said, "no one takes me seriously."

Over the last two decades, Govind Singh has written regular letters to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate, as also to local representatives in the state government and to local representatives in New Delhi. His letters ask for the government to identify the Van Panchayat lands belonging to his village. "Much of the land, which is on paper, is encroached in reality," he says. "Villagers are not ready to believe, because they cannot identify what is Van Panchayat land and what is the village agricultural and residential land."

Govind Singh Bisht, 67, from Ghargaon village, with his file that includes complaint letters and documents from the 1990s about Van Panchayats.

Govind Singh Bisht, 67, from Ghargaon village, with his file that includes complaint letters and documents from the 1990s about Van Panchayats.

During our travels in the region, we noticed that this is a prevalent trend. On paper, land is neatly divided into state-owned reserved forests, commons and private forests. In practice, however, these categories are ambiguous, overlapping and intersecting in several ways, with villagers using these categories interchangeably.

Chandan Singh, the former sarpanch from Meora, says that the sarpanch plays a major role in the functioning of the Van Panchayat. This came about because of a change in the rules in 2005, which laid out the powers and duties of the panchayat and its members. As per the 2005 rules, the responsibilities of the sarpanch range from convening meetings and maintaining accounts and files to launching prosecutions on behalf of the Van Panchayat.

But "the lack of salary for the sarpanch is a major deterrent", said Kamlesh Singh Bisht, 37, the current sarpanch of Meora. "If the sarpanch is to carry out his responsibilities effectively, it becomes a full-time commitment."

The major functions of the council include the power to impose fines on violators and to seize intruding cattle. It is responsible for the sale of grass and wood for fuel, and is allowed to auction trees up to the value of Rs 5,000 with the permission of district authorities.

Until a few years ago, both Meora and Ghargaon had forest guards. Forest guards in Ghargaon were discontinued about 10 years ago, Tikam Singh Kholiya, a member of Ghargaon's Van Panchayat samiti said. "This was because they could not generate financial resources to support the forest guard." Wages for forest guards are either generated from the revenues from the sale of forest produce, or from fines collected for illegal logging.

In the absence of forest guards, Chandan Singh said, the entire responsibility of identifying illegal activities falls on the sarpanch, which is an unreasonable burden on a single individual. Chandan Singh could not however quantify whether the lack of forest guards has led to an increase in illegal activities.

Studies have linked the decreasing relevance of enforcement regulations to the increase in encroachment activities on Van Panchayat land. The only institutional recourse the panchayat has is to report encroachers to the revenue department. However, though Govind Singh from Ghargaon has written multiple letters to the authorities about encroaching activities, neither revenue department officials nor the sub-divisional magistrate has paid any heed, he says.

Joshi of the Van Panchayat Sangharsh Samiti says that the functioning of the Van Panchayat was disrupted in the year 1997 when the Indian government introduced the concept of Joint Forest Management (JFM). This model required the forest departments and local communities to work together to manage and protect forests.

It was met with protests by Van Panchayats across Uttarakhand, as they were opposed to the idea of the forest department 'meddling' in their affairs, Joshi said. Forest department officials were given economic and administrative rights in the Van Panchayats, which the panchayats did not approve of. As a result, the JFM system was discontinued in 2003, and the Van Panchayat rules were reinstated. "However, the Van Panchayats are still not completely free of interference from either the forest department or the revenue department."

Kamlesh Singh, the current sarpanch of Meora, says that there is a lot of overlap between the forest and revenue departments. The revenue department is responsible for overseeing elections and administering the councils while the forest department is responsible for forest governance, preparing working plans, granting permission for extraction of non-timber produce, investigating theft of forest produce and illegal logging, etc. "But there is a lack of clarity among the department officials," Kamlesh Singh says.

To make matters worse, panchayat elections in several of the villages have been delayed beyond defined terms. Chandan Singh, who was supposed to serve two terms of five years each, went on to serve for 13 years because the revenue department did not conduct elections on time.

Complaint letters filed by Govind Singh Bisht, resident of Ghargaon village. Several of these complaints are about encroachment over Van Panchayat land of his village.
Photo credit: Flavia Lopes/IndiaSpend

Diminishing relevance in everyday life

Twenty-five-year-old Pawan Singh Bisht from Ghargaon village does not know the purpose of Van Panchayats, or when the last sarpanch was elected, even though he is aware that they exist and function at some level.

"The Van Panchayat is linked to people's livelihoods, such as gathering firewood, but there is also a degree of environmentalism or conservation of environment as an idea attached to Van Panchayats," said Manish Kumar, who works at the intersection of climate, forests and water in the Himalayan region.

Jeevan Singh Bisht, of Ghargaon village, said that the Van Panchayat was created because the government understood that a lot of damage had been done to the environment. "So, it is an official body for the purpose of not only allowing villagers to use firewood but also to protect the jungle." However, he says, this duality of purpose is lost on most of the younger generation.

Tikam Singh Kholiya, one of the members of the Ghargaon Van Panchayat, does not attend meetings. All decisions, he says, are taken by the sarpanch, and the other members of the panchayat rarely participate. In Ghargaon, the position of the sarpanch is held by one family--the husband and wife have shared the role for the last three terms--and the rest of the people are rarely involved in making decisions, several residents told us.

Village meetings, which are basic to the panchayat form of governance, are mostly absent in both Ghargaon and Meora. Kholiya says that Ghargaon received funds from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) in 2020 to plant trees, build check dams and make boundaries on Van Panchayat land. But, he says, he has no idea what happened to the funds.

When IndiaSpend reached out to Champa Devi, the current sarpanch of Ghargaon, her husband picked the phone up and said that the sarpanch does not know about this, and refused to give the phone to her. Her husband, Jagdish Chandra Arya, was the former sarpanch, and said "kaam ho gaya," (the work was done), without elaborating or taking any other questions, and cut the call.

Bijulal, DFO at the state head office in Dehradun and earlier DFO, Nainital, said that during his term, nearly 30 Van Panchayats received funds under the CAMPA and the state government for various works.

"When I try to tell people about shady activities, they always tell me, 'why do you bother, what do you have to lose?'" said Govind Singh. "I am at a loss. Van Panchayat land is my land too."

Demand for community forest rights under FRA 2006

In June, the Van Panchayat Sangharsh Samiti conducted a meeting in Bhowali, Nainital with several Van Panchayat Sarpanch on their demand for the implementation of community forest rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

"The implementation of the Forest Rights Act in general and the provision of community forest rights in particular have been very slow in the state of Uttarakhand," said Joshi, of the Van Panchayat Sangharsh Samiti.

A 2019 fact-finding report by Community Forest Rights Learning and Advocacy Process (CFR-LA), that works on Community Forest Rights (CFR), stated that not a single Individual Forest Right or Community Rights title has been issued in Uttarakhand, whereas more than 3,000 Community Rights claims and more than 3,500 Individual Forest Rights claims have been filed in the state.

"In the absence of a strong Van Panchayat system," Joshi said, "the implementation of community forest rights has been our only hope to protect Uttarakhand's forests and claim customary rights."

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