Tendu contractors and gram panchayats to be responsible for prevention and extinguishing of fires
Maharashtra has become the first state in the country to ban collection and sale of tendu leaves in areas where forest fires occur. The state forest department’s latest tender notice for tendu collection contracts issued on January 17 features a clause that tendu contractors and gram panchayats will be responsible for preventing and extinguishing of fires in tendu units (areas where tendu grows) from January 15 to June 15 every year.
It further says that if a fire covering one hectare or more occurs in a tendu unit between January 15 and the date of auction, the unit will be withdrawn from auction without compensation. If fire takes place after a unit has been auctioned, the contract will be cancelled without compensation and the security deposit of the contractor withheld.
The document also acknowledges that a large number of fires in tendu areas are started deliberately by contractors to get better growth of young tendu plants, which are more commercially valuable.
The new regulations have not gone down well with the state association of tendu leaf contractors the Gondia Bidi Leaf Contractors’ Association. They boycotted the tendering process held at the forest department’s office on January 30. Jayesh Patel, president of the association, denies that the tendu contractors deliberately start fire and says the responsibility for preventing fires should rest with the forest dwelling communities. He adds that one of the leading causes of forest fire, the department’s own fire-lines going out of control—a safety measure undertaken to prevent spread of fire by burning dry vegetation—has never been acknowledged by it. “By introducing the clause, the department is putting in danger wages worth Rs 600 crore of the 4.5 lakh tendu collection labourers every year,” he says.
The forest department is firm in its stand. Tendu is not a revenue source for the department as the entire amount earned is passed on to tendu collectors as bonus, says Ramanuj Chaudhary, assistant principal chief conservator of forests. He adds that if contractors do not respond positively, tendu units will be passed on for collection to the gram sabhas and gram panchayats.
Mohan Hirabai Hiralal, veteran forest rights activist, says that while the department’s move will not be sufficient in preventing forest fires, it is a positive step. “This is the first time the department has officially admitted what is common knowledge that tendu contractors are responsible for deliberately starting forest fires. Before this, the department has always blamed forest dwellers, saying fires happen due to carelessness or for the purpose of mahua collection.”