(WFS) - The reservation of one-third seats for women in Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs) is generally being adopted as the norm for 'participatory committees' promoted by different government departments. This is meant to ensure at least some representation of women in community decision-making bodies; but when implemented insensitively, it can have the opposite effect.

Take the case of forest protection committees promoted by state forest departments for Joint Forest Management (JFM), where the community and the government are supposed to manage the forest jointly. The JFM concept was adopted in 1990, after the government recognised the forest departments' inability to protect forests on their own. During the 1990s, many innovative approaches for gender-sensitive community participation in JFM were developed in different states.

However, at the ground level, it's the whims and biases of individual forest officers or field staff (primarily male), which determine how active a role women play in managing their local forests.

In recent years, village women in many states have been taking over local management of natural resources that affect their daily lives most acutely. There are many reasons for this. In Uttaranchal's mountain areas, the trend of men migrating to cities for jobs or their shifting to local salaried employment has created such space for women. Empowered by movements like Chipko and through innovative programmes like Mahila Samakhya, all-women van panchayats (elected councils managing community forests) and informal women's forest committees have come up in scores of villages, particularly in the Garhwal region.

In Orissa, in many villages, men have gradually lost interest in sustaining community forest protection. Their efforts to do so have also collapsed due to group factionalism. At the same time, highly forest-dependent impoverished women have started challenging male supremacy in the state's extensive informal community forest protection groups. In all such cases, the process has often been slow and organic, based on prolonged negotiations/confrontation with existing power structures.

However, the superimposition of JFM programmes (funded by the World Bank and the government) in several such villages have often diminished women's role in looking after the forests. Claiming to promote women's participation, JFM committees, despite having one-third reservation for women, are actually damaging the good work of the already existing women's initiatives.

This is particularly so when substantial funds are available for JFM and have to be routed through a JFM committee account. This account is jointly operated by the forest guard and the committee president. Such an arrangement is required under the centrally-funded National Afforestation Programme of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Under the 10th Five Year Plan, Rs 10,250 million (1US$=Rs 46) has been allocated for this programme.

The argument for having the forest guard as the joint account holder is that he (it continues to be a man in most states!) will prevent 'misuse' of government funds by the villagers. It is, however, never asked how the guard and his associates up the ladder will be prevented from misusing the same funds as there is seldom any mechanism for the villagers to hold him accountable.

In the process, top down schemes (ostensibly meant to promote gender-sensitive community participation) transfer decision-making power and control back to the hands of unaccountable government staff and the local male elite.

In a village in Orissa, where an active mahila samiti (local women's group) was effectively protecting the local forest, the guard clearly didn't see good chances of siphoning some of the committee funds in cahoots with the woman president. So, he simply formed a new committee with a male president, jointly opening a JFM committee account with him. When the women leaders questioned this move, they were badly beaten by the 'president' and his cronies.

In another village in Orissa, a mahila samiti was similarly informally protecting its forest. While forming a committee for JFM, the guard insisted that the rules required that only one-third of the committee members could be women. By interpreting what is intended to be the minimum as the maximum permissible, an existing all-women group was converted into a largely male JFM group. Management of funds also got transferred to male hands.

In Jharkhand's Santhal Parganas, about 25 women's groups taking up forest protection on their own and seeking formal recognition under JFM faced the same problem. They were told by the forest department that the JFM rules did not permit women-only groups.

In Uttaranchal, where some of the legally constituted van panchayats (in contrast to the informal mahila samitis in Orissa) now have all-women councils, it is less easy to sideline the formally elected women. However, even in this state, as soon as funds are involved, forest staff often find innovative ways to marginalise the women.

The World Bank programme subtly transformed the women's status from rights-holders to 'beneficiaries'. Their decision-making authority was subject to the "supervision and concurrence" of the forest officer.
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In Pali village in Pauri Garhwal, a man was appointed the vice-president of the van panchayat even though there is no provision for such a post in the van panchayat or JFM rules. Funds for the JFM committee were routed through a joint account opened in his and the forest guard's names. The women, who were already effectively protecting their forest, were exhorted to 'participate' in JFM plantation activities; but they were provided little information about the budget or accounts and relegated to the status of wage labour from being decision-makers and managers.

An evaluation study of a recently completed forestry project, funded by the World Bank in Uttaranchal, found that despite the focus on women's participation, most of the women (and even men) knew little about the terms of the agreement they had supposedly signed with the forest department. Neither were they aware of the accounts for works undertaken in their villages.

Village women (and men) in Uttaranchal have substantial legal rights in their van panchayat forests. By bringing them within the fold of forest department-controlled JFM, the World Bank programme also subtly transformed their status from rights-holders to 'beneficiaries'. Their decision-making authority was made subject to the "supervision and concurrence" of the forest officer.

Similar stories can be found in practically every state. Until women are provided adequate access to information, both about their rights and available budgetary resources, JFM will only lead to more disempowerment of women. The tendency of most departments to form their own 'participatory' committees for implementing rigidly designed schemes like JFM needs to be stopped. Instead funds need to be devolved to PRIs where women's groups can demand greater transparency and accountability in gram sabha (village body) meetings.