Working with a rights-based approach entails that important political issues are at stake. A rights-based approach implies that the transfer of rights to the target groups from duty bearers, most often the government, both is the aim in itself and the mean with which the well being of a target group is improved. In doing so, political power is also transferred between different compartments of society.
When asking several of the villagers we meet in meetings in the Narainbagar development block in Chamoli district what they think would be the greatest benefit of obtaining forest rights, we most often get the answer “not being dependent upon the government anymore” in response. It is thus more of a political issue at stake here than a material one. But it is not a question of gaining an autonomous position from the state. Gaining full rights to their forests would rather levelling the playing field of bargaining power between the local forest dwellers and the government.
Today, villagers need to ask the local forest department for permission when in need of timber for building houses, often in exchange of a small “commission” to the forest officer, as witnessed by many of the villagers we speak to. This is a typical example of patronage – the patron (government) keeps their clients (citizens) dependent upon him by arbitrarily delivering goods and services which the government have monopoly over thereby limiting the possibility of holding government accountable. When informing the villagers on this, the UYRDC field workers often use the metaphor of how parents give their children a lollipop in order to keep them satisfied, and how the kid need to behave (stay loyal in the case of the citizens) in order to get the candy. Obtaining full forest rights would do away with such a skewed relationship, at least based on forest resources.
In developing an approach for a forthcoming review of this forest rights project, we have tried to identify what the villagers themselves think is the greatest achievement of the project this far. An overwhelming majority answers “awareness” and “knowledge” about “our right to our forest and about the forest rights act”. In addition to this, the women also state that they today are more confident when talking about their opinions on how the forest should be managed. The inclusion of women in forest management decisions is vital, both for the condition of the forests and as a democratic right in itself.
These two achievements both indicate that the villagers have been empowered in their role as citizens where they now are expected to play a more active role in local political participation. The empowerment of the villagers thus contributes to one of the important objectives of the forest rights project: to strengthen the decision-making procedures of the local communities.
Whatever the efforts of the central government to dilute the forest right act, the strengthened awareness of the villagers of the Narainbagar area will have substantial positive consequences both for local democracy as well as for the management of the forests.