Defied the Forest Act Ã”Ã‡Ã³ Every resident contributes part of annual income for community works Ã”Ã‡Ã³ If somebody bribes a government official, the same amount to be given to the gram sabha
A Republican Paradise: Mendha (Gadchirolli, Maharashtra)
Heaven: miles and miles of forest without any forest-guards Hell: miles and miles of forest without any mahua trees.
— Leaves From The Jungle, British anthropologist Verrier Elwin’s conversation with a Gond member in 1936
Gonds in Mendha fought for ‘heaven’ to avoid the ‘hell’. With India’s Independence started Mendha’s freedom struggle. A village with 80 per cent of its area covered with dense forest, it was a prize catch for the forest department when in 1950 its officials armed with the Indian Forest Act, 1927, took control of it. So many believe that the forest act gave birth to the republic of Mendha. The forest act is still powerful but the forest department accepts Mendha as a model forest management practice.
It became the first village in India to get well grown forest to manage under JFM, which otherwise gives degraded forest for joint protection. Mendha has composed the new anthem of India’s numerous village republics by practice: “Mawa Nate mate Raj, Dilli-Mumbai mawa Raj (in our village we are the government, in Delhi and Mumbai it is our government)”.
Former governor of Maharashtra, P C Alexander, had to seek permission from the gram sabha in December 2000 to visit Mendha, a virtual acknowledgement of the village’s sovereignty.
Mendha probably became the first village in India, where every community work is an individual’s work and hence everybody has to contribute time and resources to it. The village constitution makes it mandatory for its citizens to contribute 10 per cent of his/her total annual earning to implement the gram sabha decisions. As the village has decided not to accept donation or any government programme but to treat them as loans, the contributions compensate. Any work that is started in the village’s 1,600-hectare (ha) area, permission of the gram sabha is mandatory. “This makes the village a true republic and an effective participatory democracy,” says Mohanbhai Hiralal, convener of Vrikshamitra, an NGO working in Mendha. More so if anybody bribes a government official for work to be done, he/she has to give the same amount of money to the gram sabha also.
At a time when nobody was bothered about the existence of the forest act, Mendha led the nation in exposing the act as another colonial instrument. In 1950, government took over the village’s forest by declaring it protected forest under the act.
In its first fight against the act under the gram sabha it decided to revive the traditional system of Ghotul in the village. “Ghotul made of wood is a home for young boys and girls where they were taught the traditions and values of tribal culture,” explains Shivram Dugga. Villagers constructed a ghotul of teak wood, proscribed by government from felling, in the village.
“The forest department came with a large armed contingent and broke our ghotul as they we had violated law,” says Dugga. This move by the forest department enraged the villagers and they called a mahasabha (grand assembly) of 32 villages in the area. The grand assembly endorsed Mendha’s fight and vowed to fight over the forest. “Twelve villages constructed ghotuls in their villages and the forest department had to eventually retreat,” says Hirabhai. It was a moment of reckoning for the village and its new governance system.
In 1992, the village started its decisive fight over the forest when about 80 per cent of its forest was declared reserve forest. The gram sabha decided to challenge the move of the government, and appointed a van suraksha samiti to take control and to manage the forest. The gram sabha took up extensive watershed management inside the forest and constructed 1000 gully plugs in the forest stream. “The effort has increased the productivity of the soil,” says Shiva Ram. Finally the forest department allowed the village to manage the 1,600 ha forest in 1996.
The ultimate victory came to the republic of Mendha when the state cabinet decided to give back all its traditional rights over forest recently.
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