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14 Oct 2022 | RMS

Forest commons for multiple benefits: Restoration of degraded land and revival of springs in Uttarakhand, India

Dinesh Prasad Raturi, Santosh Paudel & Erica Udas

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The lush green forest of Manar Van Panchayat almost two decades since the first restoration activities started. Photo: Kuldeep Saratkar

Manar is a village located in Champawat, a district in the state of Uttarakhand in India. Here, over the past one and a half decades, a women-led group, the Manar Van Panchayat, has restored 11.6 hectares of degraded forest land.

By promoting climate-resilient agriculture and silvopasture – a land use practice that integrates the conservation of trees with grazing management, the group’s efforts have rejuvenated the forest and increased biodiversity. Consequently, these efforts have enhanced groundwater recharge and spring water flow for benefits that extend beyond Manar.

Manar’s Van Panchayat members are part of the legacy of the women-led ‘Chipko movement’,  which started in rural Uttarakhand in the 1970s.

In 2004 and 2005, when the Van Panchayat first started its forest restoration activities, the group used tree branches to fence the forest. The branches were obtained by clearing and lopping off existing trees to regulate open grazing. Later, the Van Panchayat members planted pandans (Pandanus amaryllifolius) and wild roses (Rosa acicularis), which have grown into thriving protective hedges that guard seedlings, saplings, and grasses from grazing by domestic animals.

 They also removed weeds and invasive species like Lantana camara from the forest to create space for Napier grass (Pennisetum purpureum), ryegrass (Lolium perenne), and broom grass (Thysanolaena latifolia) to grow. Importantly, the removal of invasive species has allowed native fodder trees, including species such as baanj (Quercus leucotrichophora), kharsu (Quercus semecarpifolia), and kadam (Neolamarckia cadamba) to flourish. Other community members were trained to prepare forest nurseries to encourage growth of indigenous and native tree species. As a forest management practice, villagers also regularly followed silvocultural practices such as weeding, pruning, manuring, and thinning of trees.

The restored 11.6-hectare forest in Manar now fulfils the locals’ grass and fodder needs. The forest management committee determines the time and duration of periodic harvesting for the users. The committee collects INR 10 from each family for their use of a forest resource. The amount collected is pooled to cover all forest management activities. A salaried local forest guard, paid for by the community forest members themselves, checks for any unauthorised entry into the forest.

Contour and terrace farming for resilient agriculture are practiced close to the forest vicinity to minimise soil erosion; water recharge ponds and small pits along the contour ridges, which were constructed upon the forest group’s initiation, reduce rainwater runoff and foster groundwater recharge for springs revival. Over the years, these integrated management approach have transformed the barren land into lush forest, with increased flow of ecosystem services.


Upstream–downstream linkages and the question of incentives for resource managers

These efforts and the resultant reforesting have also increased water supply. Over the past five years, (i.e., from 2017 to 2021), spring discharge (across the three springs in Manar – Seem, Sitrani Khola, and Gungkhani) has been increased from an average of 2.8 litres/minute to 4 litres/minute, increasing the water security of around 130 households living in the downstream villages of Dingdwalgaon, Khetikhan, and Jankandey.

While this increased flow of ecosystem services represents a win, there is a need to address concerns regarding ‘opportunity costs’ and ‘free riding’. There are no mechanisms in place to ensure that those receiving benefits also contribute to their production, and that there are compensations for the efforts of those who are producing the benefits.

Our study to investigate the willingness of downstream communities to pay for the enhanced water services they are obtaining from the efforts of the Manar Van Panchayat shows that there are no binding institutional mechanisms that would require downstream community members to engage in upstream springshed management activities. However, downstream locals say that they are willing to contribute to springshed management upstream, and that they would like to do so in terms of labour contribution rather than cash payment given the fact that communities in the mountain regions are generally cash poor.

Downstream community members are willing to contribute an average of nine working days per household per year in the efforts to forest management in the upstream. When we monetised the labour contribution in relation to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) programme’s average wage rate, the labour contribution was equal to INR. 2768.74 per household per year. This adds up to INR 249,186.60 in total payment from households downstream of Manar (calculated for 1,170 days of labour contribution annually).

There is scope and space for local and state governments to prioritise community initiatives for the conservation and management of natural resources to ensure the flow of ecosystem services. Possible policy mechanisms could seek to establish links to existing MGNREGA programmes with the government financing labour contributions towards payment for ecosystem services.


Resources for everyone

In Manar, where the village settlement is on a mountain top, villagers continued to collect water for drinking and other purposes from downhill springs until 2021. While their continued forest restoration work had led to increased spring water discharge benefiting downstream communities, hardships associated with their own access to water persist until a solar water lifting system was installed.

The 2HP capacity system – installed by BAIF Development Research Foundation, India and supported by an Adaptation Fund Board–National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development project on climate-smart actions and strategies in the North Western Himalayan Region for sustainable livelihoods of agriculture-dependent hill communities – enables Manar locals to access water at close distances from their dwellings. The reservoir tank near the spring stores up to 6,000 litres of water, which is then lifted up to the distance of 250 meters to 340 meters for storage into a distribution tank. The distribution tank at the upstream has a capacity of 5,200 litres. From here, 11 piped channels carry the stored water to the supply outlets so that villagers can fetch water from the nearest outlets to their homes.


Reduced drudgery for women

As those tasked with the responsibility of collecting water, the women and girls of Manar have been the direct beneficiaries of this solar uplift piped water supply system. With reduced drudgery has come the luxury of ‘surplus time’.

Geeta Devi tells us of how the availability of water means as she’s able to grow seasonal vegetables in her homestead garden. There is a sense of pride in being able to feed her family fresh, home-grown vegetables and share surplus produce with neighbours.

water lifting solar panel
Geeta Devi pictured next to the water lifting solar panel that has proven a blessing to the villagers of Manar, particularly its women. (Photo: Erica Udas/ICIMOD)



“There’s no need to walk long distances to fetch water anymore,” they say. Smiling, they add, “We save a lot of time now, and in that spare time, we read books and watch TV.”
– Younger girls, Bhavana Bishwokarma, a bachelor-level student, and Maya Bishwokarma, a tenth grader, also express joy at having piped water supply near their homes.

Bhavana Bishwokarma and Maya Bishwokarma
Bhavana Bishwokarma and Maya Bishwokarma pictured fetching water from a tap near their home. (Photo: Erica Udas/ICIMOD)


Commons for the common good

The case of Manar is further evidence that forests as ‘commons’ can be effectively managed by ensuring local participation. The Van Panchayat has helped villagers redefine their relationship with their forest – from resource consumers to resource managers.

Moving forward, strong networking and coordination with relevant partners and governments can ensure continuation of conservation and management activities as well as strengthen the linkage between the upstream and downstream communities with a locally designed incentive mechanism to take benefits from sustainable management of common goods and services.

Raturi is associated with the BAIF Development Research Foundation, India; Paudel and Udas are both with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, headquartered in Kathmandu, Nepal.


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