Fellow Since 2004
This description of Aman Singh's work was prepared when Aman Singh was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.
Aman Singh is improving the livelihoods of rural Indians by reviving a tradition of community-managed forests that both protects the access rights of the poor and safeguards the natural resources of the community.
The New Idea
Once considered the property of the gods, the Orans—meaning literally the place where land, water, and jungle peacefully cohabitate—were at the center of rural life, a land resource for all to share in equally, and for all to protect under a communally enforced code. Aman Singh is reviving this tradition of shared use and management of village land as a way to stem the tide of rural-urban migration and restore economic stability to livestock-dependant rural communities. Reestablishing the groves will significantly expand the resource base in these areas and give even the most marginalized a means of subsistence and long-term security. Starting in Rajasthan, where some 1,100 Orans cover 100,000 hectares. Aman and his organization, Krishi Avam Paristhitki Vikas Sansthan (KRAPAVIS), have been engaging villagers at the local level to restore their Orans and take over management of them, and developing an action plan to change legislation and policy at the state and national level to uphold their right to do so.
The steadily rising migration of rural Indians to urban areas is less an indication of better opportunities in the cities than of the desperate bid to survive by those who have seen their livelihoods become increasingly untenable. Severe degradation and loss of traditional grazing lands, shrinking water sources, and relentless deforestation have all eroded the economic base of rural communities that depend on their environment to sustain them. Over one million livestock-dependent people are struggling to survive, and as they make their way into the cities in search of work, their communities are being fractured and the social fabric of rural India gradually torn.Traditionally, village people depended on their Orans to support them. These forests varied from 10 to 400 hectares, and provided vital grazing land for livestock, water, fuel, medicinal plants, and green cover for the villages they served. In contrast with common lands owned by the village, and thus under control of local power holders, these groves were dedicated to a local deity, making them “god’s groves” whose use was governed by an unwritten but enforceable constitution that ensured every person equal access, and equal responsibility to preserve them. The system emerged in ancient times as an explicit acknowledgement of the vulnerability of the poor in a highly stratified society, and was a means of ensuring that they would be able to survive.Following independence from Britain, however, the Indian government launched a policy of co-opting the Orans. The Land Settlement Act of 1952 designated most of these areas either reserve forests or revenue forests. The reserve forests were “protected,” often as wildlife parks, and the revenue forests were open for exploitation by the government. In both cases, the people who had for generations nurtured and lived off these lands lost any rights to them. But despite its nominal ownership, the government was often unable to control access to the groves, and the villagers soon began plundering them. Denied their sense of ownership and responsibility, and faced with declining resources elsewhere, they took as much as they could get, regardless of the long-term consequences. The result has been rapid depletion.The poor have been particularly hard hit by the loss of the Orans. With the ancient constitution of equal access invalidated, the poor are faced not only with the loss of resources vital for subsistence, but also the absence of a mechanism that recognized their needs and rights. Their use of village-owned commons is severely limited, if allowed at all, and with no alternative to sustain their livelihoods, they are compelled to migrate to cities. Significantly, the most recent data shows that for the first time, urban India is recording more poor than rural areas.
In order to revive the dying concept of Orans in a way that would secure their critical role for the livestock-dependent poor, Aman knew he needed to work on three levels simultaneously: at the community level, he would need to engage the people’s interest in reviving the Orans and reestablish their inclusive, livelihood-promoting character; at the society level he would have to bring the issue into the national discourse around livelihood issues; and on the political level, he would have to advocate for policy change and legislation that recognized the community’s right to control and manage these resources.Aman and his group start with research and surveys to identify villages that once had an Oran, or still have one in a state of decline. Several village-level meetings follow, during which Aman helps people remember the tangible benefits of the groves for the whole community. A key part of his strategy is to create a space for the voices of village elders, many of whom experienced the positive results of the Oran in their lifetimes and can provide important data as well as an inspiring and convincing argument for their revival.Only when the entire community is convinced that the Oran will be a benefit, and is willing to take on the responsibility of reviving and maintaining it, does Aman proceed. Aman and the villagers assess the extent of the damage and repair work required, and the community contributes a third of the revival cost either in cash or in kind. This both promotes community ownership and emphasizes the democratic spirit of the Oran by not distinguishing between the rich and the poor: even those with the most limited resources participate in the re-creation of the Oran by contributing their labor or whatever resources they have.Although Orans were traditionally associated with deities, both Hindu and Muslim, Aman focuses only on the livelihood-for-all aspects of the Oran. His group helps out in all revival work connected with reforestation, desilting, etc., but never with rebuilding shrines. This studied avoidance of any religious connotations has ensured that the public perception of the Oran at the village level is primarily as a common resource base, and prevented Oran programs from being co-opted by fundamentalists for their own purposes, a significant concern in India today. It also allows KRAPAVIS to work with all communities, regardless of faith, without angering or alienating local religious groups.Once the people are committed and the work underway, Aman focuses on measures that will give permanence to the Orans. With the help of the village elders, Aman translates the age-old Oran constitution into written form, thereby giving it the power of a written record. A Van Samiti, or Forest Committee, is formed among the villagers with the responsibility of ensuring that the Oran is being used and maintained in accordance with the constitutional rules. Aman is careful to ensure that women and youth participate in the Oran revival efforts. Rural women tend to be more rooted and averse to migration than men, and are more invested in retaining land to protect their children’s futures. Getting their active buy-in for the project is vital to the long-term survival of Orans. Women are encouraged to participate both through the Van Samitis and the women-only Mahila Mandals (women’s groups) They also form “self-help groups” to develop related income-generating projects like plant nurseries. There are now 300 women working in different villages, and Aman is gradually training them, along with youth teams, to become changemakers, moving first to neighboring villages and then across the country, to educate people about Orans. Because the men are being involved at every step, they have not resisted women taking on this role. So far, KRAPAVIS has worked in 69 hamlets, reaching a population of 39,000 people, and there are 200 Van Samitis, women’s groups and self-help groups in place to ensure smooth public management of the Orans. Aman has also begun organizing annual fairs where thousands gather to rejuvenate their commitment.While developing his model for Oran revival on the community level, Aman has also been aggressively networking to raise awareness of the issue and win partners who will work with him to put it on the national agenda. There are no other groups working exclusively on sacred groves, as he is, but he has tapped into the networks of civil society organizations working on rural empowerment issues, and inserted the Oran into their agendas. As a result of these efforts, his model is already in the process of being adopted in other districts of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, and organizations in other states have expressed interest.Aman has also taken initial steps to get policy changes and legislation that would establish the people’s legal right to control and manage the Oran according to their traditional constitution. He is encouraging the formation of regional and state-level networks on the issue, working at the national level through the recently formed Indian Pastoralists Network, and lobbying India’s new National Bio Diversity Board for support. Aman is also creating important links with academic institutions and international organizations like WWF and UNESCO, and following new research in the field closely. He is able to offer the newly revived Orans as practical demonstrations of his model’s viability, and in 2003, he submitted a policy recommendation on Orans to the government of Rajasthan. For the first time in India, the government responded by allocating a special budget for redeveloping Orans and grazing lands in 10 districts.
Born into a farming family of Rajasthan, Aman Singh grew up in the village of Dola. His father had participated in various land reform and social justice movements in the 1960s and 1970s, and although he had had minimal schooling himself, he keenly appreciated the liberating potential of education and made sure that his children—including his two girls—completed their education. He named his baby boy after a warrior prince, but soon renamed him Aman, meaning peace. Perhaps he felt this was more appropriate for the quiet child who spent most of his spare time wandering in the Oran, watching the birds and animals and examining the trees and plants.It was his close relationship with their local Oran that taught Aman how closely linked these forests were to the community, and how much the people depended on them. As he grew he noted with dismay their relentless destruction, and recognized impact this was having on his village. Studying science in college helped him to understand the processes at work, and after completing his masters in science, he went on to the Centre for Environmental Education in Ahmedabad, where he worked on a project to popularize indigenous species of trees, many of which were found in the Orans.During this time, he was invited by his brother Rajendra Singh, who was widely known in the field of water conservation, to participate in a number of conservation campaigns. It was after a particularly difficult campaign against illegal mining in the Sariska area that Aman made up his mind to start Krishi Avam Paristhitki Vikas Sansthan (KRAPAVIS) as a means of documenting the scope of redeveloping Orans. The survey proved a revelation and launched Aman and KRAPAVIS into the forefront of the Oran revival movement.Although he has received enticing offers to work as an environmental specialist at foreign universities, he has turned them down to continue towards his dream of seeing the Oran revived and villagers once more working in unison to preserve the natural wealth of their environment.Aman lives in Alwar with his wife, who is also involved in KRAPAVIS, and his daughter.