Kalyan Singh is the current head of the p raja mandal (peoples’ forum) and was earlier the chief of the Sural gram panchayat in Pangi Valley for four terms. So keen is his commitment to the environment that when the labour he had hired attempted to illegally fell a few trees unknowingly, he did not think twice and imposed a ₹5,000 fine on himself.

That is the kind of decorum followed by the prajamandals when it comes to the conservation of their forests in this snow-bound region of Chamba district, Himachal Pradesh.

The praja mandals have laid down rules not just on protecting the forest wealth but have over the years also evolved a loose system of social norms. One member of every household is represented in these groupings.

Valuable forest produce

Conservation of forests is crucial for the people of this tribal belt as they are dependent on forest produce for their livelihood. The produce includes valuable medicinal plants which fetch a high price in the market. The praja mandal ensures that no outsider accesses medicinal herbs grown locally. These include plants such as the patish, kudu, wild garlic and panja . For illegal felling or digging out these herbal roots beyond what is decided by the praja mandal, the fine can be as high ₹25,000 and, worse, a social boycott could be imposed on the guilty if the praja mandal committee suggests it.

It is not easy for anyone in these parts to ignore the praja mandal and live in isolation as one requires the support of other villagers in an area known for its difficult terrain, poor connectivity, and severe winters.

This system may seem as a parallel justice system to the outside world but is one that is veritably part of the tribal tradition meant for self-preservation.

Citing a recent example, Neema Thakur, the current chief of the Sural panchayat, says that it was after a lot of haggling and negotiations that a villager who had attempted to illegally fell trees was let off with a hefty fine and not a social boycott which the villagers fear. At some places in Pangi Valley as in other tribal belts, it is the members of the mahila mandals (women’s groups) who are more active in protecting the forest wealth in terms of herbs, illegal felling of trees and even preventing ecological disasters. Folklore here says that if wood is extracted from these forests, it can result in avalanches during winters.

According to Bhag Singh, deputy pradhan of the Sechu gram panchayat,. “in the case of medicinal plants, while no outsider is allowed to extract these from the forest area near the village, there is limit set even for the villagers so that these high value herbs are conserved and preserved,” says Singh.

Plant conservation

To ensure sufficient time for plants that provide cattle fodder to re-grow, locals in the village adopt rotational grazing as well. It falls on the members of the mahila mandals to keep a strict vigil. The member on duty puts up a flag in the forest area that she is responsible for. A few months back two men in Chaska Bhatori were found to have extracted medicinal plants beyond the quota and were fined ₹10,000.

According to the Tribal Advisory Council member of Pangi Valley, Tarup Chand, hunting of wild animals is now a thing of the past but still the praja mandals make sure that everyone adheres to the self-imposed ban not to kill wild animals.

The officiating range officer of the forest department in Pangi Valley, Manikaran, who himself belongs to the region, says that the steps taken by the praja mandals and the mahila mandals have helped immensely in conservation efforts and checking illegal felling of trees.

The villagers living in the area know exactly where the medicinal plants grow and so they can effectively check the illegal extraction as well as felling of trees, he says.

He adds that the forest department provides the villagers with the instruments and equipment required for extracting from medicinal plants and educates them on how and when to go about it without damaging the plants. This helps in the regrowth and conservation of these high value plants.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi.