There is an air of expectation among the people of Kanda village as a project aimed at improving livelihood prospects and sustainable management of forest resources gets under way in their area.
Kanda falls in the Shamlaghat gram panchayat in Mashobra block of Shimla district and is among hundreds of villages in six districts of Himachal Pradesh that are to be covered under the ₹800-crore JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) assisted project. Villages are selected according to their forest resources and the extent of community dependence on them.
Role of VFDS
Village Forest Development societies (VFDS) were formed in the selected wards during the preparatory phase of the project that began in 2018. The VFDS are actively involved in preparing micro plans in collaboration with the forest department of the State, which is the implementing agency of the project that has a timeline of 10 years. The activities undertaken include plantations, developing nurseries and involving the community in livelihood options best suited to the geography.
The first activity taken up in Kanda at the beginning of the year was a plantation drive to make the villagers direct stake holders in the project. “We worked overtime to plant 8,000 saplings of reetha (a soap berry), beul trees, and darru (pomegranate), given to us by the forest department, in just a fortnight in an area spread over 10 hectare of forest land,” says Ravinder Singh, the ward facilitator whose job is to coordinate efforts between the VFDS and the forest department. The onus is on the villagers to protect and take care of the plantations as they are the direct beneficiaries.
Shankar Lal, one of the villagers in Kanda, has offered space for growing hydroponic fodder. A user group will be selected to see how the consumption of the fodder grown in this manner helps in increasing the yield of milk. On an average the 100 families in Kanda own five cattle each.
Perhaps to win over the community and seek their involvement certain requirements of the community are also included under the project at the entry level. The executive committee of Kanda VFDS, led by its president Harpal Thakur, has presented a long list of demands to be included in the micro plan for village development. These include a lift irrigation project, streetlights, and construction of link roads for three unconnected villages. The villagers also want a solution to get rid of a wild weed that is threatening fodder growth in the area.
The project also involves the formation of self-help groups to take up activities that will help the women earn a livelihood and link them to banks. As the area is abundant in pine needles, the Pushplata SHG formed under the project is asking for women to be trained in making handicraft products from pine needles. Poonam Verma who leads Rashmi SHG suggests training in tailoring and computers that could help young girls of the village.
The Kanda community not only collects fuel wood and fodder from the forests, but also guchhis (sponge mushroom), banafsha (sweet violet), kafal (Himalayan wild berry), and anjeer (figs), which the villagers sell. Champa, a SHG member, says she collected over 200 guchhis in March and April this year, but the price she got for them was extremely low. It was less than half the market rate.
This, in fact, is true for most herbs and medicinal plants as the middlemen get the largest share of the profit. Also, the villagers tend to go about cultivating the medicinal plants in an unscientific and unplanned manner. Under the project, a jaddi booti (medicinal plants) cell has been created. It will help in cluster formation for sustainable harvesting and marketing of medicinal plants and provide technical knowhow to the villagers. This will include teaching the first level value addition that will increase the prices of the product manifold, says a project official.
Preserving traditional and indigenous knowledge, skill-based training and financial training will help in better commercial output as well as increase the income of villagers.
There are number of livelihood options being taken up under the project, depending on which one suits a particular area.
Handloom weaving, bee keeping, and mushroom production are some of them. The idea is to create a sustainable business model for the village community and help to run it. The idea is to ensure that the business units are sustainable and continue to work even after the project tenure is over.
The project also endeavours to work on preserving the local biodiversity. For this rapid response teams will be strengthened to address emergency cases of human-wildlife conflict, forest fires, illicit felling and encroachments among others. A pilot project to form a biodiversity corridor is also on the anvil.
The Japanese concept
In wildlife areas the Satoyama Japanese concept of community-based landscaping or resource-based management will be encouraged. This essentially means building an atmosphere where nature and people can exist in harmony.
Hence, this will include setting up eco-tourism ventures, heritage sites, homestay schemes in the region involving the 400 village forest development societies, 60 biodiversity management sub-committees, 920 self-help groups and other common interest groups in all the six districts of Bilaspur, Shimla, Mandi, Kullu, Kinnaur, and Lahaul andSpiti. Eighty per cent of the cost of the project is to be covered by the Japanese ODA loan, which hopes to reduce the dependence of villagers on the forests and helps in streamlining management of its resources.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi)