Forest titles only on paper
Mendha lekha in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra was one of the first two villages in India to claim community ownership over its forests last December. Six months after they got their forest titles, the tribal villagers find bureaucratic hurdles are hampering their powers under the Forest Rights Act of 2006.
The main dispute between the villagers and the forest department is over collecting bamboo. When the village gram sabha approached the forest department for transit passes to allow them to cart bamboo out of the forest, the officials refused. Devaji Tofa, Mendha’s community leader, said the revenue department had given them transit passes to cart stone chips from their mine so there was no reason why the forest department could not issue passes. As an alternative, the villagers suggested the department buy the bamboo from them and deposit funds it gets for bamboo harvest with the gram sabha. There was no reply. Villagers said they are now harvesting bamboo only for personal use and making utility items for sale (passes are not needed for carting finished bamboo products).
|“Forest officials said they would get us arrested if we cart bamboo out of the forest.”
—Devaji Tofa, Mendha Lekha's community leader
Villagers said the department is trying to misguide them. “Since the time we got our rights, the department has been telling us it is nothing but confirmation of our nistaar rights (right to collect non-timber forest produce for personal use),” said Dukku Madawi, a resident. “Nistaar has never been a problem. What we have got is management rights which the department says do not exist,” said Madawi.
The area deputy conservator of forests, C M Dharankar, said transit passes cannot be issued as villagers are not ready to follow the department’s working plan on felling activities. He added there was no legal provision under which the department could provide funds to the village. When reminded that villagers need not follow the department’s plans under the new law, Dharankar said villagers could prepare their own regulations and the department would issue passes. Villagers said the department was just making excuses and had threatened them with arrests.
Manda Madawi, another community leader, said the villagers want to enrich the forests through a watershed plan and provide year-round employment to the residents. “But all our efforts are hampered by the department’s belligerent attitude,” she said.