In the early 1980s, the people of Sukhomajri
village in Shivalik range of the Himalaya in Haryana's Ambala district
earned nation-wide acclaim for the way in which they had utilised
their forests and water to their benefit. An estimated 5,000 khair
trees had matured in the 400 ha Sukhomajri forest. At an average
price of Rs 1,000 per quintal of heartwood, these trees could reap
more than Rs 50 lakh in timber alone. One quintal of khair heartwood
yields upto 6 kg of katha - an extract used in medicine,
pan and natural dyes - that sells at Rs 500 per kg, adding upto
Rs 1 crore to the nation's kitty. About 5,000 trees would mature
in the forest every year.
It was the result of a joint forest management programme introduced
in 1976 that Sukhomajri prospered. For the rest of the country, Sukhomajri
became a model of community participatory management. The project
began in the mid-1970s out of concern for the silting-up Sukhna lake
near Chandigarh, which had lost nearly 70 per cent of its water storage.
P R Mishra chose Sukhomajri, which is in the lake's catchment
area, and constructed four check dams and planted trees.
Initially, Mishra's attempts at regenerating the local environment
failed because the villagers had little regard for Chandigarh's
water concerns. A change in attitude occurred after 1977 when four
tanks built successively created an increased storage capacity and
increased crop yield rates from 6.83 quintals per ha in 1977 to
14.32 in 1986. "Water acted as the catalyst in the transformation.
In return for water, the villagers were ready to protect the watershed,"
says Mishra. The income that began to come from cutting bhabbar
grass and harvesting mungri or forage grass started to change
the face of the village.
Prosperity became a by-word. The 80 households in the village replaced
their thatch-and-mud dwellings with brick-and-cement houses and
about 40 of them owned television sets. With growing prosperity,
Sukhomajri villagers were becoming increasingly conscious of economic
self-reliance in the creation of community assets. They stopped
auctioning bhabbar grass, which their Hill Resource Management
Society (HRMS), set up in 1980, leased from the forest department,
Just about five years after the setting up of the HRMS in 1980,
the annual household income increased to Rs 3,000.
Sukhomajri was one of the few villages to be taxed on income from
natural regeneration. A 1989 amendment in the Income Tax Act brought
registered societies such as HRMS within its purview. HRMS was liable
to pay 15 per cent income tax, but it took the initiative to have
such societies exempted the same year. However, the society continued
to pay 10 per cent sales tax on bhabbar, which was imposed
in 1993 with retrospective effect from 1991. They also had to pay
a toll on bhabbar taken to the paper mills in Himachal Pradesh
at the rate of Rs 100 per carriage.
However, bhabbar turned out to be a point of conflict in
later years. In 1995, the forest department arbitrarily divided
the 400 ha hill tract between Sukhomajri and Dhamala, a neigbouring
village, disrupting a unique resource management programme. Till
the forest department intervened, the two villages used to share
forest produce on the basis of social fencing (self-restraint in
produce use). They shared grazing rights in the same forest area.
Thus, the two villages began to compete for fodder. The division
of the forest also threatened social co-existence. Dhamala village,
consisiting of upper caste Jats, were given a portion more saturated
with bhabbar, the division placing them in a position to
reap most of the bhabbar bonanza. Sukhomajri villagers, consisting
of lower caste Gujjars, were no longer allowed to collect fodder
from the Dhamala section. This led to tensions and a worsening conflict.