Environment minister warns of legal action if forest officials refuse transit passes
A large crowd gathered at Mendha Lekha village in Maharashtra's Gadchiroli district in the morning on April 27 to witness a historic event. The state forest department handed over a transit passbook to the village community leader Devaji Tofa, signifying the village gram sabha would henceforth exercise the power to issue transit passes for selling bamboo harvested from the nearby forests.
The passes are needed to take bamboo out of the village and sell it in the market. The forest department had been refusing to issue these passes to the residents for the past one-and-a-half years. Mendha Lekha was one of the two villages in the country to win community rights over their forests in December 2009 under the Forest Rights Act of 2006. The Act gives tribal and forest people the right to gather and sell minor forest produce (MFP), including bamboo, in the market. The village residents have been fighting for control over bamboo since then.
Over 3,000 people gathered to witness handing over of the right to issue transit passes. Those present included Union minister of state for environment Jairam Ramesh, Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan and state home minister R R Patil.
As soon as he received the passbook, Tofa issued two transit passes. Its recipients were area MLA Namdev Usendi and Sunita Narain of Delhi non-profit Centre for Science and Environment; they had purchased bamboo poles from the village on February 15 when Mendha Lekha organised a symbolic bamboo sale to protest the forest department's intransigence. At that time, Usendi and Narain had applied for transit passes so that they could take the bamboo back with them. Speaking on the occasion, Usendi demanded that people should also be given the right to sell other MFPs like mahua and tendu leaves (used for rolling beedis) in the open market.
Tofa called for automatic recognition of right to MFP in all villages across India.
Political leaders gathered at Mendha Lekha were in a generous mood unlike the forest department officials who have been unwilling to let go of control over MFPs. Ramesh called for minimum support price for 12 MFPs, including bamboo, tendu leaves, mahua and sal seeds.
Chief minister Chavan was not to be left behind. He called for transit passes for tendu leaves in addition to bamboo. The leaves are another major source of income for forest departments. Chavan said giving forest rights to people is the only way to save forests. Patil, too, called for community rights over tendu leaves, saying it would help increase incomes in the tribal and rural belts. He remarked that people in Gadchiroli district comprise the poorest in the state though it has the highest forest cover in the state at 78 per cent.
The forest department's refusal to issue transit passes for bamboo was criticised by one and all. Ramesh pulled up the state forest department and minister for their anti-people mindset. “If transit passes are not given, legal action would be taken against officials,” he warned. He emphasised that the power to issue transit passes for bamboo must be retained by the gram sabha.
The principal chief conservator of forests of Maharashtra responded by saying bamboo will be included under Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas ) Act (PESA) (See 'How government is subverting Forest Rights Act).
Usendi criticised the forest department for not knowing the provisions of the Forest Rights Act when uneducated and poor people of Mendha Lekha know it. This made struggle for bamboo necessary, he said.
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