Maharashtra traders boycott tendu leaf auction over forest fire conditions
An unseemly battle between tendu leaf contractors and the Maharashtra forest department could jeopardize the leaf collection in the state with over 400 traders from all over the country boycotting the tendering process this season. However, in a move which could cause more friction, official sources said that even if the contractors boycotted the bids, the government was all set to give the collection rights to the gram sabhas.
The forest department has been upset with the contractors who deliberately encourage workers to set fire to the forest in the hope of fresh green leaves that grow later, which are good for beedis, Pravin Pardeshi, principal secretary, forests, told The Hindu. The important point is that the benefits from these fresh tendu leaves are much less compared to the huge loss if the forest burns, he said.
New conditions introduced by the Maharashtra forest department have upset the traders who met Pardeshi on Saturday. Though the meeting was positive, the boycott stands till the conditions are modified. Jayesh Patel of the Gondia Beedi Leaves Contractors Association told The Hindu that if the boycott continued, it could result in a loss of Rs 450 crore in wages for the adivasis who collect the leaves mainly in Chandrapur and Gadchiroli districts of the state.
The tender notice for this year issued on January 17 by the revenue and forest department inviting offers for permission to collect and remove tendu leaves for the 2012 season, has introduced new conditions on forest fires. Condition number 12 says that if a fire breaks out and its spread is beyond one hectare in a tendu unit during the period between January 1 to the date of auction, that is, before tendu leaves are auctioned and sold to a particular licensee, the auction of such tendu units in which the forest area falls, shall be withdrawn.
In addition, the gram panchayats or the gram sabha and tendu leaf collectors, who were likely to benefit from the auction of such units, shall not be entitled for compensation for the loss caused to them due to cancellation of the auction or sale of tendu units.
Mr Patel said traders had protested these new conditions on January 30 and have demanded the removal of these conditions. In 2011, the total bids for tendu leaves collection came to around Rs 225 crores, a percentage of which goes back to the leaf collectors as an incentive. There are some ten lakh adivasis who collect tendu leaves in Maharashtra, Mr Patel pointed out.
The tender conditions also says that if there is a fire and its spread is beyond one hectare in the area of a tendu unit or group of units which has been auctioned, the auction shall be cancelled with immediate effect and no compensation shall be paid to the licensee for the loss or damage caused by the cancellation. The earnest money deposit and security deposit, if any, shall also be forfeited in such cases.
By way of explanation, the forest department said that in several cases fires are kindled in tendu units during January onwards with the expectation of a fresh flush of leaves. Due to such fires almost the entire forest area in tendu units or in the vicinity, burns every year and irreversible damage is done to natural regeneration, fallen seeds, nests and habitats of micro fauna, wild life and the biodiversity of the area.
In order to prevent fires due to the tendu trade, strict measures were considered essential, the department said.
However, Mr Patel said there were many reasons for forest fires and it was not deliberately done as suggested by the forest department. After the meeting Mr Pardeshi said the contractors would have to take all necessary precautions to ensure there is no fire. A due diligence check will be conducted by the forest department and in cases where there are genuine attempts to prevent fires, contracts will not be cancelled. There could be special incentives for preventing fires as well, he said.
The conditions will remain, however, even if the government decides to give the collection licenses to the gram sabhas. The forest department could consider extending the last date for bidding.