It is early in the morning when photographer Nishikant Gamre and I set out for our destination. We are travelling from Nagpur to the village of Mendha Lekha, 205 km away, in adjoining Gadchiroli district, one of the hotbeds of Maoist activity in the state.
To get into the village, we have to walk through a bamboo entrance, a pointer to rich growth of bamboo in this region. Then you notice a large board that reads: "At the centre, there is Delhi government. At the state, there is Mumbai government, but here we are our own government."
What does this mean? It is a pointer to the pride the 450-odd people, mostly Gond tribals, living in this isolated corner, take in the way they have used an unexpected opportunity that came their way to reap a fortune. On April 27 last year, Mendha Lekha became the first village in the country to secure community forest rights (CFR) - following the passing of the historic Forest Rights Act (FRA) in December 2006.
Until then, forests were governed by the Indian Forest Act, 1927, a colonial law that gave the government the right to unilaterally declare any area a 'reserved forest' or 'protected forest', after which no one except the state had rights to the forest's produce. Thus the residents of Mendha Lekha, living in a reserved forest, had no right to pluck even a leaf from the thick clusters of bamboo that surrounded their village.
The passing of this law by the British - mainly to provide themselves unhindered access to Indian timber - was a crushing blow for the hundreds of thousands of forest dwelling tribals who depended largely on the forests around them for livelihood. Worse: most of them, living in forest villages, had also cleared land, which they had been cultivating for generations. The Act turned them into encroachers overnight. It did have provisions directing forest settlement officers to look into the claims of such tribals and 'settle' with them the lands they had been cultivating, but in practice this was hardly done. Even in Independent India, forest tribes remained forever at odds with the forest departments of different states, with forest officials frequently arresting them or taking advantage of their vulnerability in various ways.
The FRA, passed after decades of prodding by activist groups, recognises the individual forest dweller's right to live in and cultivate forest land he had been occupying. It also allows the government to grant community forest rights to village gram sabhas, thereby permitting them to manage the forest around them and utilise its 'minor produce'. (Cutting trees and selling the timber is still barred.)
But passing an Act is not enough. A committee appointed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests to examine how the FRA was working, which submitted its report in January this year, was strongly critical of the way it was being implemented. Apart from noting that 11 states had yet to start implementation, it pointed out that most states had confined themselves to the first part of the Act: allotting forest land to tribals. A total of 3.19 million claims had been made till June 2011, of which 86 per cent had been settled. But not many villages had sought community forest rights so far, and fewer still had been granted them.
That is what makes Mendha Lekha, which has secured CFR over 1,800 hectares of forest surrounding it, special.
Arriving we find a large village crowd seated on a ground listening to a frail, bespectacled but very articulate man. He is Devaji Toffa, the head of the village gram sabha - it is a gram sabha meeting is in progress. The topic of discussion: the pricing of bamboo. The meeting has just sealed the price of the eight meter long bamboo.
Devaji Toffa, who heads Mendha Lekha's gram sabha
Decisions are taken with everyone's consent. Even if one member disagrees, the decision is put on hold and reviewed, say members of the gram sabha. "We believe in swayamshasan (self-rule)," adds Toffa. "We believe in peaceful change, unlike the Maoists."
In the current bamboo season the village has done even better than in the last one. It has sold bamboo sold for Rs 33 per pole as against last season's Rs 23 per pole and has already earned the village over Rs 1 crore. But the main reason for the high income generation is because this time the bamboo was sold through a tender process to the highest bidder.
With the help of Mohan H. Hiralal, head of Vrikshmitra, an NGO working in Gadchiroli, and Subodh Kulkarni, an independent researcher, Mendha-Lekha's gram sabha drafted tender notices and advertised in two local newspapers on August 26 last year. "Forms were priced at Rs 2,000, four times the normal forest department price, to discourage non-serious applicants," says Kulkarni.
A gram sabha meeting in progress at Mendha Lekha
The contract went to the highest bidder, one V K Anand of Bhopal, who bid Rs 8,151 per notional tonne (the weight of a 2,000 metre long chain of green bamboo). "The price was much higher than the Rs 3,300 earned by neighbouring Godalwahi village which had to perforce sell to the forest department," says Kulkarni. "The village has also sold 150 notional tonnes of industrial (dry) bamboo at Rs 2,100 per tonne." The entire sale has earned the village over Rs 1 crore..
The villagers also prepared a biodiversity register listing the flora and fauna of the forest they had been given control over. Once it was ready, the village was given a 'transit passbook' at the instruction of the then minister for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh and Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. The transit passbook thus allowed the gram sabha to transport bamboo out of the village.
Mendha Lekha villagers are happy as their lives have a taken a positive turn. I visited one villager Naresh Kirangi (35) and his wife Sumitra. They tell me that together have earned a total of Rs 40,000 in the last bamboo season. They worked as labourers in the forest during the bamboo felling season. "We are very happy our home condition has improved for the better. We are able to eat enough and also feed our children enough," says Naresh.
Their new prized possession from the money earned is a TV set. Kirangi is also keen to use the money earned to provide his son a good education.
In another first, the Gram Sabha has been issued a Pan card and has paid value added tax of Rs 60,000 last year, on the proceeds earned from selling bamboo.
I am also told by Toffa that the village plans to use the money earned to implement its ideas of "integrated, all-round" development - soil and water conservation to increase bamboo productivity, strengthening roads, erecting barricades in the forest to regulate entry, and creating five natural watering holes for wildlife. The gram sabha is also looking at creating employment opportunities for young people in the village so that they do not migrate in search of work. It wants to impart training to young people in making bamboo artefacts. Some youths have already been trained at nearby Melghat's bamboo training centre and are now looking to train the rest.
Gadchiroli is being treated as a model in Maharashtra. So far - till September 2011, according to the latest statistics available - 737 community forest rights claims have been cleared in the district. The fact however is that besides Mendha Lekha, not a single village has been granted right to protect and manage community forest resource. Moreover the forest department has also not issued the gram sabhas the transit pass books that give the owners the right to sell minor forest produce and transport bamboo.
Why have more villages not been granted CFR? At the Gadchiroli district office I was provided a list of CFR claims. It showed not all claims pertain to community rights to ownership and management of forest resources. Many have sought rights to divert forest land to for the community's public utility needs like cremation grounds, temples, fisheries and community halls.
In this list, 458 were found to be full CFR claims. But, it's not clear if the villages will be able to exercise full rights the way Mendha Lekha does.
"The administration clubbed two types of claims to exaggerate the actual quantum of rights given," says Hiralal. "The administration should be asked to maintain separate lists for different types of claims," he adds.
One district officer under conditions of anonymity says that they are worried the way the rights are being demanded and that the provisions of FRA should be reworked according to the existing laws. The authorities' argument is that the gram sabhas are not capable of sustainable use of forest resources.
"The forest department is irked that they are losing control over the forests," says Hiralal. "There is definitely large scale discontent over the bottlenecks imposed by the department," adds Kulkarni.
District Collector of Gadchiroli, Abhishek Krishna informs that not all villages have rich bamboo surroundings but the ones which do need to apply to the Forest Department and most villagers were not aware of the proper procedures to do so.
Chief Conservative Forest officer of Gadchiroli-TSK Reddy says: "We have selected about 20 villages and are training them to get value additions from the bamboo they cut. The forest department will conduct auction for both bamboo as well as for the value added products."
Across the country FRA has not been implemented in a proper manner despite states having got the rights. N C Saxena, member of the National Advisory Council, which is reviewing FRA implementation says: "The implementation of the community rights (CFR) aspect of the FRA has been very poor, and therefore it's potential to achieve livelihood security for collection of minor forest products, and changes in forest governance along with strengthening of forest conservation, has hardly been achieved."
The progress of implementation of the CFR is abysmally low. In all states, the CFR process has not even got off the ground, due to lack of awareness, amongst communities, civil society organizations, or relevant officials. "The main reason is that state governments have not adequately publicized the CFR provisions or even internalized their importance themselves. Most communities are not even aware of the ground-breaking CFR provisions in the FRA," says Saxena.
In addition, the forms are flawed, as they do not mention some of the sub-sections. "Given the serious inadequacies in implementation of CFR at all levels, there is a need for a second phase implementation of FRA in all states with primary focus on CFR. Both MoTA and MoEF need to take the lack of implementation of CFR with the seriousness it deserves," he adds.