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“Bamboo is liberated”

Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh holds a transit pass for bamboo along with Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment and Devaji Tofa from the Mendha Lekha village on Wednesday. — Photo: Meena Menon

Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh holds a transit pass for bamboo along with Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment and Devaji Tofa from the Mendha Lekha village on Wednesday. — Photo: Meena Menon  

Gram Sabhas given equal say in Forest Rights Act

“Today, bamboo is liberated,” proclaimed Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh at a function here on Wednesday, where he handed over to Mendha's community leader Devaji Tofa a transit pass that would allow the sale and transportation of bamboo within the community.

Ever since bamboo was given the status of a minor forest produce (MFP) in the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (Scheduled Tribes and Traditional Forest Dwellers [Recognition of Forest Rights] Act), there has been a campaign for its selling rights — something which the Forest Department has jealously guarded. The Act, which seeks to redress a historical injustice to Adivasis, apart from entitling them to land ownership, also gives communities rights to collect, use and sell bamboo as an MFP.

The Ministry had written to all States in March, asking them to include bamboo in the list of MFP and to take steps to help communities sell it.

Speaking at the meeting, Mr. Ramesh asked the State Forest Department to respect the Forest Rights Act; the department has not taken kindly to the idea that the power to issue transit passes for the transportation of sold bamboo rests with Gram Sabhas.

Mr. Ramesh said the recognition of the right of the Gram Sabha to sell and issue transport passes for bamboo within their community was a historic step. This means the villagers can sell the bamboo in their community forest area and issue passes so the material can be legally transported. Although the Forest Department feels that it is losing control and that giving rights to the Gram Sabha could be disastrous, Mr. Ramesh clarified that there was no need to change any rules to give rights to the Gram Sabha. All the villages which have community forest rights had a right to sell bamboo. If the Forest Department did not allow this, then people could file cases, he said.

When the Forest Department charged Rs.100 per slip in the transit books at the function, the villagers questioned why they should be made to pay for passes that would allow them to produce that which was within their jurisdiction to produce.

The villagers paid up Rs.10,000 for 100 sheets.

Mr. Ramesh said forest officers alone could not protect forest areas; local participation was essential. “About 25 crore people live off the forests, we cannot keep them out.” He also called for a change in the mental attitude towards adivasis and forest-dwellers.The adivasi is not the enemy of the forests, he said.

Mr. Ramesh commended Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan for taking the brave step of vesting power with Gram Sabhas. Of the 2,800 claims for community forest rights made in the country, 691 were approved for villagers in Maharashtra. He advocated a minimum support price for minor forest produce and said at least 12 items, including bamboo, mahua, tendu, and lac, could be considered for this.

A special case would be made for the Gadchiroli and Gondia districts and local development work for school, health sub-centres, government buildings — which involved five hectares of forest area — could be taken up without clearance from the Centre. It also decided that Section 68 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, would be amended so that no cases could be filed against adivasis without the approval of the Gram Sabha.

Apart from Mr. Ramesh and Mr. Chavan, Home Minister R.R. Patil, Forest Minister Patangrao Kadam and top Forest officials were present at the function. Earlier, they visited Mendha village to inspect the honey collection centre, biogas units that were present in most houses and interacted with the villagers.

After getting community forest protection rights in 2009, Mendha like some other villages, had men and women patrolling the 1,800-hectare area.

Bamboo, however, had been a thorny issue. Last month, in an attempt to defy the Forest Department, Mendha villagers harvested and sold some bamboo. The buyers included Namdeo Usendi, MLA, and Sunita Narain, Director, Centre for Science and Environment, who had cases filed against them for breaking the law. Ms Narain too received her transit pass on Wednesday.

Mr. Ramesh denied any rift between the MoEF and the Forest Department and insisted that the forest officials only needed to get accustomed to the Forest Rights Act. He hoped that the Forest Department and villagers would become equal partners in sustainable forest management.

State Principal Chief Conservator of Forests A.K. Joshi, who was in the eye of a storm after having sent a letter to the government that virtually ignored the existence of the Act, said there was 5,500 sq. km. of forest areas in the district which had bamboo, most of which went for paper pulp industries.

Critical of the department's refusal to allow sale of bamboo, Mr. Usendi said that if the village had the rights to issue the transit passes, the money would come to the people.

The Gram Sabha is the soul of the village and the 2006 Act gives it a very clear mandate, Devaji Tofa from Mendha village, who had led the fight for forest rights, pointed out.

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