Half-way to autonomy

Decisions by Maharashtra’s top forest official can empower gram sabhas prepare plans to revive their forests, but a policy is awaited

By Aparna Pallavi
Published: Tuesday 15 May 2012

Half-way to autonomy

bambooThe tiny 16-house village of Kuppaner in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district is bustling with activity. A few days ago, its gram sabha started felling bamboo in areas where it has community forest rights (CFR). Kuppaner is among the 400 villages in the district that have been granted CFR under the Forest Rights Act.

“Once the money from bamboo sales is received, the gram sabha can use it for watershed work. It will enhance production of bamboo and other forest produce. Our forests will become healthier and we will earn more,” says Somu Pada, a resident. But Pada’s plans can become a reality only if gram sabhas are given the crucial right to protect, regenerate, conserve and manage community forest resources. CFR allows these, but till now the forest department has obstructed its implementation (see ‘Forest department’s cheat act’, Down To Earth, August 15, 2011).

At a meeting with gram sabha representatives and civil society members on March 9, Maharashtra’s principal secretary of forests agreed to allow gram sabhas to initiate working plans for community-owned forests in coordination with the forest department. The decision could be a shot in the arm for the CFR process in Maharashtra and also set a precedent for the country. It was also decided at the meeting to give gram sabhas the right to print transit passes, which give owners the power to sell and transport bamboo and other forest produce. At present, grams sabhas pay a fee to the forest department for transit passes.

This year, when a large number of villages were preparing to fell bamboo in Gadchiroli, the CFR process received a big blow. Residents found that the forest department had already given the right to Ballarpur Industries, the country’s largest paper manufacturer (see ‘Bamboo under siege’, Down To Earth, March 31, 2012). The decision taken at the meeting to free CFR land of all prior contracts has given relief to people of Gadchiroli. All agreements for mining and industrial projects will also stand cancelled.

“If properly implemented, these decisions could go a long way in reviving the health of forests and forest-based economies,” says Devaji Tofa, veteran forest rights activist of Mendha Lekha village in the district. The village is the first in the country to have exercised its community right to harvest bamboo.

At present, the working plan of the forest department comprises only felling and regeneration of timber. A holistic approach involving gram sabhas would include crucial works like soil and water conservation and regeneration of flora that yield minor forest produce (MFP) and biodiversity. This will improve forest health and ensure long-term livelihood security, says Tofa. However, no step has been initiated yet on ground level.

Action pending

At the March 9 meeting, Praveen Pardeshi, Maharashtra’s principal secretary of forests, had promised immediate implementation of all the decisions taken. A format was to be designed for transit passes. But gram sabhas are still using passes issued by the forest department, complains Mohan Hirabai Hiralal, veteran forest rights activist. Till date, no order has been issued to cancel Ballarpur paper mill’s lease in CFR areas. Felling stopped in some villages after the mill was verbally asked to do so, says Keshav Gurnule of the non-profit Srushti based in Kurkheda tehsil. But people cannot object without written orders.

MGNREGA for better implementation
In a major boost to the implementation of community forest rights (CFR) process, Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, on March 25, accepted the demand made by Mendha Lekha village to start a Rs 12-lakh pilot project under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). For the first time MGNREGAÔÇêwill become effective in forest areas. The project will be led by the gram sabha instead of the panchayat.
Routing MGNREGA fund through the gram sabha will enable the village body to take pivotal role in decision-making and planning, says Subodh Kulkarni of Gyan Prabodhini, a non-profit. “Projects can be undertaken to build natural resources as community assets,” he says.
Mendha Lekha will use the fund for post-felling treatment of bamboo for better regeneration, trenching to conserve soil and water besides deepening and strengthening its forest tanks and other water harvesting structures, says Devaji Tofa, forest rights activist.
“The work was left undone last year. Now, we will train educated young people from the village so that we are self-sufficient,” he says. The minister has promised to extend the project to other villages if the pilot project is a success, he adds.

It is also unclear if the forest department has ordered the paper mill to stop felling bamboo in all CFR villages. “Despite protests the department has not prepared a list of villages where both the gram sabha and the paper mill have been issued transit passes,” says Subodh Kulkarni of Gyan Prabodhini, a non-profit. At the March 9 meeting, D S K Reddy, chief conservator of forests, had said the overlap was limited to 10 to 15 villages. But civil society representatives say the situation is true in most of the villages that have been granted CFR. This is because 85 per cent of all the bamboo coupes in the district are leased to the mill, they say. District collector Abhishek Krishna and deputy conservator of forests Mallikarjuna of Gadchiroli division claim action cannot be taken on the decisions till the government finalises them as a policy. This, Hiralal says, will cause unpredictable delay in reaching CFR’s benefits to people. It also means loss of one season.

A lot of hand-holding

To ensure successful implementation of CFR, a complex combination of an autonomous gram sabha and capacity-building support are essential.

Devaji Pada, resident of Kondewahi village and activist with the Bharat Jan Andolan, says people need to be trained in watershed work. Traditional watershed structures have become dysfunctional and need to be upgraded. There is high rate of soil erosion in the district. “Residents wish to undertake watershed work. But they need training to prepare blueprints because traditional skills in these areas are lost,” says Pada.

Training is also required to maximise production of tendu leaves without setting fire to forests, says Devlu Boga, headman of Godalwahi village. “We know how to trim seedlings for better flush, but when contractors burn the forest we cannot resist because it means higher wages,” he says. It is believed that if the forest is burnt, the number of shoots and leaves is higher. The village has low literacy level, and therefore, training in record keeping and marketing is a must, he adds.

In some areas, forest officials fell trees that yield MFP like chaar (Buchanania lanzan) and beheda (Belleric myroblan) for timber. “This is a great loss. We need more autonomy to decide which trees can be felled,” he says.

Most gram sabha members need basic training in marketing work like bill-making and record-keeping. They also need basic documents like PAN cards, says V K Anand, a contractor who purchased bamboo from six villages this year. “The scale at which training is required can be undertaken only by the government,” he says.

In 1996-97, following the enactment of Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, gram sabhas in Maharashtra were given the ownership rights over MFP. A year later the rights were taken back on the plea that village bodies are incapable of managing MFP. To prevent CFR from ending in a similar fiasco, it is vital to set up a support mechanism, says Hiralal.

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