A draft amendment to the rules for trading in forest produce in Maharashtra, proposed by the state forest department, has come under severe criticism from forest rights groups across the country. The amendment gives government the power to appoint gram sabha as an agent in tendu trade.
The amendment to the rules of Maharashtra Forest Produce (Regulation in Trade) Act of 1969, for which a notification was issued on March 12, allows for the gram sabha to be an appointed agent without competitive bidding process on forest areas assigned to villages under joint forest management (JFM).
Earlier, the forest department had announced that 81 gram sabhas in Gadchiroli and Gondia districts had been given the right to collect 19,000 bags of tendu leaves during the current tendu season.
Forest rights groups say the amendment is unnecessary given the fact that the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act) of 2006, which supersedes all other pieces of legislation, already grants gram sabhas ownership rights on all minor forest produce, including tendu. Also, the amendment creates a deliberate ambiguity between the gram sabha and the JFM committee by stating that the areas to be granted for harvesting will be JFM areas. “We have learnt that department is put pressure on gram sabhas to issue resolutions vesting the responsibility of running tendu trade on the JFM committees,” says Mohan Hirabai Hiralal, veteran forest rights activist, “The department is obviously trying to deflect attention from the ownership rights granted under FRA and push its own agenda of controlling trade through JFM.” A similar effort was made by the department in bamboo in 2010, he adds .
Sharad Lele, forest rights researcher and activist from Bengaluru-based non-profit Atree who has studied the tendu trade in Madhya Pradesh extensively, points out that government is merely proposing to appoint gram sabha as agent without providing any wage or bonus, or even providing a buy-back guarantee. “If gram sabhas are to carry out trade on their own they will need working capital for the crucial process of pruning, and access to government godowns, whereas department is not providing any such support,” he says. “Pruning is critical to production of leaves, but the department is not willing to invest in pruning. Instead, it wants to penalize the contractors or buyers in case of fires.” He adds that villages will only be able to carry out proper pruning and prevent fires if they are provided enough working capital. “This move has been opposed by the established contractors who have repeatedly boycotted department auctions.”
“Without the requisite support,” says Satish Gogulwar of Gadchiroli-based non-profit Amhi Amchya Arogyasathi which works on forest rights and health, “such a move could be a trap for the gram sabhas. The nexus of tendu contractors is too strong, and gram sabhas have no contacts through which to work,” he adds. Lele and Hiralal say the move on the part of the department is a deliberate attempt to retain control by putting the gram sabhas in a no-win situation. “This has happened earlier in the case of MFP rights granted under PESA,” says Hiralal.