Traders continue their protest against Maharashtra proposing a fine in case of fire breaking out in tendu forests

In a move aimed at curbing forest fires, the Maharashtra Forest Department in 2012 decided to impose strict conditions for tendu leaf auctions, and proposed fines of 60 per cent of the bid for each unit, in the event of a fire.

Tendu leaves are used mainly for making beedis and are a major source of livelihood for the tribals in Gadchiroli and Gondia districts in the Vidarbha region. There are over 4.5 lakh adivasi card holders in Maharashtra, of which in Gadchiroli, there are 1.45 lakh. The workers also get a bonus every year on the leaf collection.

The Forest Department has been besieged with complaints that fires were deliberately lit during the plucking season for a fresh flush of tender leaves which were ideal. Predictably there was a storm of protest from contractors and traders who felt they were being unfairly held responsible for the fires and last year there was a boycott of the auction. However, the Forest Department relented somewhat later.

This year, too, due to the stringent conditions, the traders have boycotted five rounds of auctions since January. Faced with this situation, the government has responded in the only way it knows — by constituting a committee on March 1 which will dilute the norms.

Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Ramanuj Choudhary, told The Hindu that the conditions imposed on tendu traders for bidding for the leaves have not yet been relaxed.

However, Mr. Choudhary said despite the protests last year, the government earned Rs. 140 crore, more than the Rs. 100 crore earned the year before. He added that last year, the auction had gone on till April 4 and this year, too, there was a likelihood of that.

The State government had also agreed in principle to allow 74 gram sabhas in Gadchiroli district and 16 gram sabhas in Gondia district, which have community forest rights, to collect, use, sell, store and process tendu leaves from this season. However, gram sabhas have to pass a resolution saying they were willing to do so.

A Forest Department official pointed out that in December, a private contractor had floated tenders for tendu leaves, stating he was authorised by the tender committee on behalf of gram sabhas to accept bid documents.

Jayesh Patel of the Gondia Beedi Leaves Contractors Association said these things were happening because the Forest Department trying to do away with traders and give the rights to gram sabhas which had no expertise with auctions.

Last year, the traders went to the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court to oppose the fire conditions and the matter is still pending. “Such strict fire conditions are not there in any other State. How can we be held responsible for the fires in the tendu units?” asked Mr. Patel.

The Forest Department stands by these conditions though saying that fires were deliberately lit and the aim was to protect forests from burning down.

The four member committee headed by Mr. Choudhary has no specified time limit but time is really running out. It has to speak to traders and decide on some parameters for relaxing the norms and also ensure transparency at the same time in decision making. It has to make sure the economic interests of the government are not compromised while at the same time ensuring the auction happens.

The traders questioned the need for such a committee and wondered why the impasse could not be resolved last year itself. Mr. Patel said every year Rs. 450 crore are distributed in wages to the tribals who collect tendu leaves and it was vital for the local economy.

Meanwhile the government is also planning to e-tender the tendu leaf auctions. It is proposing to rope in the Metal Scrap Trading Corporation, a Government of India undertaking, for the contract.

It is proposed that MSTC will get a rather exorbitant one per cent of the revenue earned by the government in tendu leaf auctions. States like Chhattisgarh have been conducting e-tendering for tendu leaf auction at much lower rates, the traders pointed out.