Legislation was passed in India in 1992 imparting constitutional status on Panchayati Raj (village-level local government) institutions. This study attempts to assess the success and sustainability of such local institutions (particularly Village Forest Committees) in their attempts to rehabilitate common lands in the Aravalli hills in Haryana State, and to enact a transition from an ‘open access’ system to a community controlled regulated access system for governing the use of these lands. It uses data from a household survey in ten project villages. Its findings include that:
in all but two of the villages, members of scheduled castes and other backward castes were represented proportionately in the village committee
in six of the villages, less than three of the nine to thirteen committee members were women
members from disadvantaged sections of society and women attended Committee meetings but contributed little to the decision making process
women extension workers, whose role was to raise awareness and participation of women in the project, were only working in five of the ten villages; self-help groups for women were constituted only in the same five villages
only one of the Comittees levied fines in cases of violation of rules regarding use of common lands; others were reluctant to do so because of the fear of becoming unpopular and the close-knit nature of the village community
villagers reported that they were largely satisfied with the system of joint management of common lands in the Aravalli Project and 96 per cent said they would be willing to invest at least a quarter of their income from felling trees in the Project
it was felt, especially by those from socially and economically disadvantaged groups, that the Committee and Government jointly, rather than either party individually, would be best equipped to look after the common resources.
The paper concludes by proposing changes to the legislation surrounding the Village Forest Committees. It suggests that at least 50 per cent of Committee membership should be reserved for women, in order to promote women’s participation; and that at least two thirds of the members of the Committee should be common land users, in order to prevent powerful non-user groups influencing decisions.