ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Uttarakhand : 'Lath' Panchayats:Fading Away

The institution of lath panchayats has successfully worked with the incorporation of long-held traditions of the people of Uttarakhand. However, such a system of collective village responsibility is now in danger of fading away as decision-making powers are centralised in the hands of a few bureaucrats, who are by and large unsympathetic to the immediate needs of the villagers, and their symbiotic relations with the forests.

Forests being the lifeline of the hill economy and soul of its society, people have been conserving and protecting them since centuries. Depending upon local culture and ethos, many traditional systems of forest management evolved in Uttarakhand, lath panchayat being one. This traditional system is little known outside the region and has not been studied much. In fact, unlike van panchayats, this system is pre-British in origin and is rooted in the village system of Uttarakhand.

This system is based on oral tradition carried on from generation to generation. How the name ‘lath’, meaning a stick, came to be associated with the movement has an interesting anecdote. The hill panches were famous for their community feeling and judicial acumen. Seeing this, a sage living in a village shrine showered his blessings on them and gave them a ‘lathi’ (stick) on the condition that the stick should be used for the benefit of all families in the village without actually dividing the stick. The stick was not to be used for private benefit for else its power would vanish and the village society would disintegrate. The elders thus devised a remarkable system. They fixed the boundary of the forest adjacent to the village and made each family responsible for the protection of the forest. As a symbol of power and authority, the holy stick would rotate from one family to another for the whole year. The family on whose door the stick was kept on a particular day, would, on that day, protect the forest. The institution, thus established this way, was christened as lath panchayat over the passage of time.

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