How should tribal owners profit from forest wealth?
The gross tribal produce of Bastar is in excess of Rs 1,000 crore a year. Tribals, 'owners' of the minor forest produce -- in terms of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 -- receive around 20 per cent of the value of their produce. 80 per cent passes on to the moneylender-middlemen-trader nexus. Van Dhan, or 'wealth of the forests', was a program conceived to make this predatory trade more equitable to the tribals.
There are two possible approaches to tackling rural poverty: (a) increase the income of the poor, and (b) plug the holes of the sieve in which they toil to gather nectar. Almost all government poverty alleviation programs relate to approach (a). It is perhaps assumed that not much can be achieved through (b), because income losses of the poor are bound to be negligible. Van Dhan focused on (b), and called the lie in this regard. If rural commerce can be made reasonably fair and the loss of income effectively checked, the government will probably need no other poverty-alleviation program. The cag report for Madhya Pradesh states an investment of Rs 1,083.98 crore was made during 1992-1999 by 10 departments of the state government in Bastar. The report elsewhere remarks, "The tribals were deprived of Rs 510 crore annually due to exploitation of middlemen...". These figures speak for themselves. Multiply them by the number of tribal districts in India, and a national-level truth emerges to boggle the mind!
The program evolved, first as Imli Andolan and later as Van Dhan. Our advice was simple: boycott the kochiya, the foxy agent, and start trading yourself. The mantra was 'self-help in the group mode,' because a group provides confidence and strength. Self-help Groups (shgs) of tribal-villagers were formed. The Tribal Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (trifed) was mobilised to buy produce from the shgs. trifed also extended working capital, and gave a nominal trade-commission to shgs for their labor. The entire affair was guided and coordinated by an apex committee the district collector headed. It met every Saturday and, among other functions, fixed the price for procurement of various produces based on trends in the local mandi.
Workshops were organised, focussing on the specifics of how tribals were looted -- a huge tripod scale used to weigh small head-loads facilitates the margin of error (always in favor of the kochiya); computation of amount payable was viciously fudged, like 5 x 5 = 15; a round 1 kilogram was deducted against a basket weighing 250 grams. The net effect of such sharp practices aggregated to almost 50 per cent! Likewise, the sahukar (mostly the local kirana shop-keeper) granted loans in cash or in provisions during lean months, and later appropriated against his 'interest-free' loan enormous quantities of mahua or tora. The effective interest in such cases was as high as 500 per cent per annum! This was a new zamindari; we termed it jungledari!
Success stories soon became common. But Van Dhan also tripped up traders and politicians. A writ petition filed by these injured interests was dismissed by the High Court. Then the division of the state in November 2000 changed the picture. Strings were pulled at the Centre, which had direct control over trifed. The new gm ignored timely sales of whatever trifed procured. Unscrupulous politicians in Delhi were reportedly eyeing the stock-pile of trifed in Jagdalpur. The plan was to get this stock sold to their own kin for a song; and later to make good trifed's loss through a budgetary grant obtained "in tribal interests".
A bumper crop of tamarind made matters worse. In March 2001, trifed announced that it had run out of funds. The timing was terrible: at the peak of the tamarind season, with the new government of Chhattisgarh still trying to find its feet. The shgs were on their own.
Van Dhan had a brief life. The Parliamentary Committee on Labor in its report has lauded Van Dhan and recommended that it should 'be extended to all tribals areas in the country.' It certainly should be. But before doing that, it would be good to deliberate dispassionately on the merits and demerits of the program to arrive at an improved, sustainable model.
K S Ram was Secretary, Van Dhan Mission, and is director of TieUp, a small voluntary organisation in Bastar