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Aparna Pallavi travels to Gadchiroli district to find out why villages relinquished forest rights
In Maharashtra’s tribal district of Gadchiroli, naxalism appears to have a status akin to Voldemort’s (the evil wizard in Harry Potter books). The word must not be said by anyone, including government officials. Naxalites are referred to as “those people”, “inside people” or “bhai log” (big brothers) in the region.
Gadchiroli deputy conservator of forests (DCF) Ramanujam told me that Padyaljog village was under pressure from “those people” to give their bamboo felling rights to the country’s largest paper manufacturer Ballarpur Industries for a year (see ‘Bamboo under siege’, March 16-31, 2012). “What are you going to do about it?” I asked. “I can’t do anything till the residents of Padyaljog give it to me in writing,” he replied, adding: “They only spoke to me in a weekly market.”
I was incensed at his answer. My informant had informed that a letter by Padyaljog gram sabha was sent to the DCF, asking the forest department to stop the mill’s felling activities in their forest. Gathering my wits, I asked Ramanujam another question: “Is the mill still felling bamboo in Padyaljog’s forest granted to the residents under community forest rights (CFR)?” Ramanujam signaled to the local range forest officer (RFO), who said: “No sir. The mill has not felled any bamboo. The residents felled all of them.”
I turned to the RFO and showed him a copy of Padyaljog gram sabha’s letter. He panicked and started muttering about letters and phone calls. Amid the grumbling, all I could understand that the mill has been repeatedly calling him to make a recommendation based on the very letter that the DCF says does not exist. I turn to the DCF. “O yeh? (Oh! This?)” he says, adding: “I did not know there was a letter.”
No point in asking the DCF what he intends to do now. While I am about to leave the room, he tells me, “I told the villagers not to fall prey to contractors. You must do it like Mendha Lekha, I told them.” I reminded him that Mendha Lekha is selling bamboo to a contractor. We part in mutual incomprehension.
Towards the end of 2011, Gadchiroli was abuzz with excitement over the prospect of villages felling their own bamboo under CFR. But since Padyaljog’s dramatic turnaround in February, there is only silence. Visiting villages to talk about bamboo felling has become a futile exercise. It is also dangerous – especially for my contact, who is putting himself at serious risk by moving around with a journalist asking “bamboo-related questions”.
Towards the afternoon of my third day in the district, we reached a small village well off the main road. Conversation is brisk, and bonhomie in the air, till the subject turns to bamboo. Smiles vanish and uncomfortable silence reigns. The conversation goes pointlessly round and round with sickening familiarity. “Wasn’t the village planning to fell its own bamboo?” I ask. “Yes. But there is no unity in the village over the issue. So it has been decided to leave it alone this year,” the residents reply.
I: So who is felling the bamboo?
They: The mill, of course.
I: How much money does the village stand to lose from a year’s bamboo crop?
I: Yes, we know. A contractor was here, he offered Rs 13 for a bamboo, same as Mendha Lekha.
They: No. Rs 13 is just the wage. The cost of a bamboo is Rs 33. But we decided, let it be this year.
I: But why?
They: No unity.
I: Does that mean some residents are against the gram sabha felling and selling their own bamboo?
They: No. It is not like that.
They: There is just ….no unity.
I: So what is the point of contention?
They: People just feel…. We will see next year.
I: Do they feel pressured by what happened in Padyaljog?
At that, as in every other village, people turn to my contact and ask him to reply. Making a wry face, he recites exactly the same, carefully evasive story he has had to tell me in every village.
We leave the village with the feeling of having time and putting the people at risk. In the car, I ask my contact about this refrain about “no unity” that every village is repeating. “How much unity does it take to call one gram sabha meeting?” I ask. With a mysterious smile, he produces a computer print out. It states that
the village (no address) cannot fell its bamboo because there is no unity, and has decided to give felling rights to the paper mill. “This is the draft letter that was given to Padyaljog to submit,” he says. “The villagers were very brave to have dared to change it.” A copy of this draft has been circulated to every village, he adds. Circulated by whom? The ‘inside people’, of course. “I am told they are planning to take me inside too, once,” he says with a nervous laugh.
The tiny but gritty Devaji Tofa is perhaps the only person in Gadchiroli who uses the word “Naxals”. “All villages are in panic. Since Padyaljog, there are Naxal meetings in the forest nearly every day, and no village can say no. Paper mill supervisors are snooping around everywhere. Everyone is afraid to talk bamboo now.” What about Mendha Lekha? “We too were ordered to attend a Naxal meeting a month back,” he says, adding: “We sent back a message saying our cause was the same as theirs, and that if they want to communicate us, they must come and do it in the gram sabha. They never replied.”
One can see why Mendha Lekha has been able to hold its own against the combined pressure from the forest department, the paper mill and the Naxals for so
long. “All three are now working overtime, because they know that if bamboo and tendu pass into gram sabha hands, they will lose their stakes,” says Tofa. Forest officials are going to villages and trying to get them pass gram sabha resolutions. “The resolutions will say that they want to fell through joint forest management committees and not the gram sabha. One village has already passed such a resolution,” he adds.
While parting, Tofa remarks grimly, “Implementation of the Forest Rights Act will ruffle many feathers around here. The going will not be easy for people in times to come.”
Read also: Bamboo under siege