A Standoff- Shepherding and the Van Panchayats of Uttarakhand

By Harsh Mohan BhakunionDec. 28, 2023in Environment and Ecology

I spent my childhood in Sarmoli, a beautiful village amidst snowcapped mountains. I have a deep love for the animals, birds, butterflies, trees, plants, rivers and ponds of our forests and to be honest, I have never seen such beauty anywhere! It is said – ‘Sau Sansar Ek Munsiyar’ (A hundred worlds are equivalent to one Munsiari), but when I see the change that I have witnessed from childhood till today, it seems that many things have altered which have had a negative impact on our forests. 

For some time now I have been working on issues that concern Van Panchayats or the Forest Commons of the region. To deepen my understanding regarding our dependence on our forests and how to keep them healthy, I have created a video story which shows an important aspect of Van Panchayats in Uttarakhand. This story is about a couple- Khushal and Beena Nitwal, who are right-holders of the Shankhadhura Van Panchayat in Munsiari and highlights two seemingly opposing perspectives.

Photo: Beena and Khushal Nitwal

Khushal Nitwal rears sheep for his livelihood and Beena runs a homestay for tourists and works for an organization of local women– Maati. Alongside, Beena is also the Panch or the elected member of the Forest Management Council of the Shankhadhura Van Panchayat. There are 3 shepherds in this Van Panchayat and sheep herders from other villages also come here to graze their sheep, goats and cows. On one hand, Beena is involved in conservation activities of the forest panchayat with the panchayat committee, and on the other hand, the same forest is being damaged by sheep herds, including those of her husband Khushal.

Shepherding in the Himalay has followed a traditional annual migration cycle for centuries. But instead of migrating with their sheep like before, nowadays the shepherds have started living in their forest panchayat in the winter season and grazing their sheep. Because of a lack of grass on the ground in winter, shepherds have to cut and lop trees and shrubs to feed their herd. Many times, shepherds break the protective boundary wall of the Van Panchayat to allow sheep to enter the plots where new tree plantation has been done and the sheep graze on the tender trees and destroy them.

Photo: Sheep grazing in alpine meadows

Due to this loss, sheep herders are discouraged from staying in the village forest commons or the Van Panchayat throughout the year, despite having an entitlement. Beena confronts others in the village who rear sheep in the Van Panchayat and there has been a recurring debate on this in her own family too. Since both have adopted different livelihood options, there has often been a conflict between the two regarding this issue. In this standoff between securing a livelihood and the conservation of their forest commons, this story is a telling of the decision they come to, to maintain the health and wellbeing of their Van Panchayat. Of how limited sheep rearing can be done within their limited forest area. And that instead of the shepherds staying on in the Shankhdhura forest panchayat in the high Himalay for the winter season, seasonal migration down to the Bhabar plains around Haldwani should continue to be undertaken, so that excessive pressure and damage on the forest commons can be curtailed. While on one hand sheep rearing is a significant livelihood option for Himalayan communities, it is only viable through this practice of seasonal migration or transhumance, between high altitude grazing pastures and the grassland at the foothills of the Himalay. This is a necessary practice to maintain the health of the Van Panchayats.

The way out, as this story shows, lies in striking a balance.

First Published by Voices of Rural India on 23 September, 2023.

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