Mendha, in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, becomes the first village in the country to exercise the community forest rights guaranteed in the Forest Rights Act, 2006. But it is not all smooth sailing, says MEENA MENON.

When Mendha (Lekha) village in Gadchiroli district became the first in the country in April to get rights to issue transit passes for bamboo, it marked a turning point. The Forest Rights Act, 2006, granted this right to communities but it was translated into reality only now. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) had written to all states in March to include bamboo in the list of Minor Forest Produce (MFP) and to take steps to help communities sell it.

Mendha has been in the forefront of community forest management since many years and it is not surprising that it was the chosen village. Devaji Tofa, village leader, and social activist Mohan Hirabai Hiralal have been pushing for a silent revolution in consensual decision making, leading on to managing an 1,800 hectare forest to which Mendha was given community rights in 2009.

Tofa prefers to call himself a Koitur, which means human being and believes only outsiders use the word Gond to describe their tribe. There is a certain pride in his heritage and the traditional way of taking decisions. Anthropologist Milind Bokil, who has done a study ‘Governance by Consensus — The case of Village Mendha', says Mendha has experimented with consensus decision making and since 1988 has shown how participatory democracy is practised. All the decisions are made by the gram sabha which, after the 73rd amendment to the Constitution, is the supreme authority in the village.

Real democracy

This independence in decision making and planning for the village prompted a government official to ask Tofa once, “Do you want a separate country?” Tofa doesn't mince words when he says the British never really left. There is very little democracy and that's why people are against the police and the government. The gram sabha has instead taken some simple steps to provide local employment and education. There are eight self-help groups in the village and one of them has a honey processing unit, some make local bamboo crafts. Most of the 87 houses have bio-gas and the gram sabha office is computerised. Tofa estimates an earning annually of Rs. 80,000 upwards from the sale of bamboo which can be ploughed back into the village. An 11-member committee will keep accounts and look after the bamboo sales and issuing of passes. The transit pass is critical because that is what allows the buyer of bamboo to transport it out of the forest.

When Hiralal came to Mendha in the mid 1980s, his organisation, Vrikshamitra, studied people and forest linkages in 22 villages in Dhanora taluka, according to Bokil. Hiralal's work in Mendha with Tofa and others brought in Sarvodaya principles and also established Abhyas Mandals or study circles which debated all the issues concerning the village. However, Nitin Barsinge from Vedha, which works with forest communities, says that while Mendha and another village, Marda, were given community forest rights (CFR) unconditionally, at least 17 cases of CFR in Gadchiroli district have several pre-conditions. Barsinge says that according to the pre-conditions, any dispute will be settled by the Collector and not the gram sabha, and the working plan of the forests will have to be implemented. It was unclear if the villages would get the rights to issue transit passes, he fears.

Gadchiroli has a forest area of 5,564 sq km and Ballarpur Industries Limited (BILT) is allowed to extract bamboo up to 1.8 to two lakh tonnes annually, according to Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Maharashtra, A.K. Joshi. From Gadchiroli district alone, the forest department earns a revenue of Rs. 125 crore per annum from all the forest produce, mainly timber. Bamboo fetches about Rs. 10 to 30 crores out of this, he said. Every year 10 to 16 lakh long bamboos are harvested for personal use.

The forest department set off a controversy by writing a letter to the MOEF just before the official function to hand over the transit pass books at Mendha on April 27. Mr Joshi says that per se the forest department was not against giving people their rights but there was a poor understanding of community rights. The legal position on all this must be made very clear since it was not a question of giving transit passes in one village only. If the gram sabha was going to decide on the transit passes then the modalities must be perfected.

Right direction

Despite all this, HiralaI says a big step is that the government has recognised the primacy of the gram sabha. Nanda Duga, a gram panchayat member, feels selling bamboo could offer people some much needed employment and sustenance. In addition, bamboo crafts could be developed by the self-help groups in the village. Today it is Mendha which will benefit, tomorrow it could be others, she adds.

The move raises issues of conservation and forest protection as well. Ashish Kothari of Kalpavriksh says the move will be good if it signals to the forest department that it has to accept the gram sabha's prerogative to issue transit passes for bamboo. However it would obviously be of little use for other communities if it remains something happening only in Mendha. The gram sabha's rights have to be respected and this is not an issue restricted to bamboo, he points out.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012