ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Experiences in the Vidarbha Region of Maharashtra

Implementation of Community Forest Rights

The Vidarbha region of Maharashtra presents a unique case in the implementation of community forest rights where much of the region’s potential community forest rights claims have been recognised in the name of gram sabhas under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. The key factors like the collective action of gram sabhas, the role of non-governmental organisations, grassroots organisations, and state implementing agencies, and their collaboration in advancing the implementation of cfr are explained here. There is need to support the upscaling of cfr across India, and to analyse the broader implications for forest resource governance at a national scale.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (hereafter FRA), recognises and vests two broad types of rights to forestland with forest-dwelling communities: individual forest rights (IFR) and community forest rights (CFR). While IFR secure an individual the right to hold, self-cultivate, and live in forestland under individual or common occupation, CFR have the potential to bring about radical changes in forest governance by, inter alia, conferring community forest resource rights and management authority on forest-dwelling communities. Over the last 12 years, a total of 76,154 CFR claims to 88,04,870.81 acres of forestland1 have been recognised and, in many of the recognised CFR villages, forest dwellers have begun to exercise their rights. This includes harvesting and selling bamboo and kendu leaf (Diospyros melanoxylon), increasing forest protection and reducing destructive practices, managing fires, regenerating degraded patches, and identifying patches that require strict conservation in recognised forest areas. But the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra stands out from the rest of the country, as much of the region’s potential CFR claims and areas fall under the customary and traditional boundary of gram sabhas (village assemblies) under the FRA. Most of the other states are yet to recognise CFR claims, and in the states that do so, the CFR area is less than the potential CFR area of the gram sabha.

The Vidarbha region of Maharashtra constitutes 31.6% of the total geographical area of the state and houses 21.3% of its total population (Government of India 2011). Around 28% of the tribal population of the state lives in this region, which has about 53% of the state’s total forest cover (Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change 2017). This area, with its large tribal population, suffers from inadequate development, poor infrastructure, poverty, unemployment, agrarian crises, and migration from rural areas. Recent attempts to attract investors by providing subsidies and various economic incentives have been unsuccessful as most prefer to invest in Mumbai–Thane–Nashik and Pune (Nagpur Today 2018). Due to the absence of livelihood and employment opportunities, forest dwellers in the Vidarbha region have largely depended on agriculture and forest resources for their subsistence. In such circumstances, the enactment of the FRA has given hope to forest dwellers who have been otherwise alienated from their forestland and deprived of its resources for centuries.

There are four aspects in which the Vidarbha region stands apart from rest of the country in its recognition of CFR. First, the boundaries of community forest areas in most parts of this region overlaps with the traditional and customary boundary of the gram sabha. Second, more than 1,500 villages in this region have asserted their rights over non-timber forest products (NTFP) by opting out of the traditional NTFP regime of the Maharashtra Forest Department. Third, since recognising CFR, the socio-economic benefits to forest dwellers have increased significantly. The fourth unique aspect of the Vidarbha region is the range of community forest resource management plans facilitated and supported by the Maharashtra Tribal Development Department along with grassroots organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Thus, it is worth discussing the processes and factors that contributed to the implementation of CFR and its impact on the socio-economic conditions of forest dwellers in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra.

The analysis in the paper is based on case studies from 14 villages in three districts of the Vidarbha region—Gondia, Gadchiroli, and Chandrapur—and information obtained from gram sabha federation members, facilitating NGOs, and forest rights groups working in other parts of Vidarbha, namely, Nagpur, Amravati, Yavatmal, and Bhandara. Villages were selected based on the following criteria: villages with homogeneous and heterogeneous social groups; existing and potential CFR titles; Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) and non-PESA; a gram sabha federation or a lack thereof; dense or openly degraded surrounding forest; and NGO intervention or a lack thereof in claiming CFR. Village-level information on the nature of CFR recognition and the process of obtaining it was collected by conducting focus group discussions and interviews with members of the gram sabha, the community forest rights management committee, and intervening NGOs and forest rights activists working to enforce CFR in the Vidarbha region. The impact of the recognition of CFR on the socio-economic conditions of forest dwellers was assessed through a household survey. State- and district-level officers dealing with the implementation of CFR were also interviewed to understand their role and methods of intervention following the recognition of CFR in the studied areas.

The study was carried out in two phases in April–May and September–December 2018. This paper is divided into four sections, including this part on background and methodology. The next section provides a detailed description of CFR implementation in the Vidarbha region. This is followed by an analysis on the key factors that contributed to the effective implementation of CFR in the Vidarbha region and the discussion.

CFR Recognition in Vidarbha

The recognition of CFR claims across India has been slow and ineffective. Of the 76,154 recognised claims, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Gujarat are the top five states in terms of number of recognised CFR titles; together, these titles constitute 87.44% of all recognised CFR claims and 80.10% of recognised CFR areas in the country (Sahoo and Sahu 2019). Without crucial evidence and effective implementing agencies to facilitate the claim process, thousands of gram sabhas across India are yet to claim their CFR or have submitted claims without proper evidence, so that they are either pending or have been rejected at different stages (TISS 2017). In several cases where CFR claims have been recognised, the recognised forest area is smaller than the claimed area, which is based on the traditional and customary boundaries of forest-dwelling villages. For example, the recognised CFR claims of several villages, such as Jamguda in Odisha, Chalkarikala in Jharkhand, Kamepur in Chhattisgarh, and many other villages across India, are not as per the traditional and customary boundary of these villages. The recognised area under CFR is either part of the joint forest management (JFM) area or an area decided on by members of the district-level committee.

Another major concern in the enforcement of CFR across India is that gram sabhas with recognised CFR are not allowed to exercise exclusive ownership rights to NTFP; the nodal agency and district-level line departments do not extend the required technical support to the gram sabhas to protect and conserve the recognised forestland. In contrast, the nature, process, and impact of CFR recognition in the Vidarbha region is unique in many ways. The following section highlights some of the most recent advances in the recognition of CFR claims, and the socio-economic benefits and management of recognised CFR areas in Vidarbha.

Nature and status of recognition process: Several facts and field insights from case studies indicate the effectiveness of CFR in Vidarbha. First, those in Vidarbha constitute 92% of all the CFR claims recognised in Maharashtra (of the 7,084 recognised claims in Maharashtra, 6,488 are from Vidarbha). Moreover, the number of pending and rejected claims is relatively lesser compared to in other parts of Maharashtra.2 Also, 73% of the recognised community forest areas in Maharashtra are in this region (of 27,36,660.68 acres of forestland in Maharashtra, 19,85,296.1 acres of forestland are in Vidarbha). While the average recognised CFR forestland in Maharashtra covers 386.31 acres, the average recognised CFR area in the Vidarbha region covers 445.53 acres, which is greater than the national average of 115.62 acres (Sahoo and Sahu 2019). Second, the recognised CFR area in most villages precisely overlaps with the customary and traditional boundary of the village. Villages like Mendha Lekha, Pachgaon, Dhiwrintola, Palasgaon, Serpar, Dhamditola, and many others in the Vidarbha region have the rights to their customary and traditional forest areas as per the Nistar Patrak.3 Third, the recognition of a CFR claim is not based on the number of households in a village or the JFM areas it protects. For example, Bhimanpayili village in Kurkheda taluka of Gadchiroli has only 12 households and a CFR title for 4,000 acres of land. Also, a total of 1,935 villages in this region populated by other traditional forest dwellers (OTFD) have CFR titles. For example, Shankarpur village in Kurkheda taluka of Gadchiroli became the first OTFD village in the country to receive a CFR title. Another important feature of the CFR process in this region is that a total of 242 claims to 307.74 acres have been recognised for development projects under Section 3.2 of the FRA. For example, the Shankarpur Gram Sabha used around one hectare (ha) of land to set up a transformer for village electrification.

Harvesting rights to NTFP: One important provision of the FRA is that all powers related to the use and governance of NTFP are transferred from the forest department to gram sabhas. With this regime transformation, gram sabhas have gained control over harvesting NTFP and have obtained the exclusive right to determine what and when to harvest, and where and to whom to sell the NTFP. However, gram sabhas have the option to continue with the traditional NTFP governance, led by the forest department, instead of acting autonomously. While forest departments across India continue to regulate the NTFP access, use, and disposal rights of forest dwellers, more than 1,500 villages in the Vidarbha region have exercised their rights to NTFP, especially kendu leaf and bamboo, in a remarkable way.

Mendha Lekha in the Dhanora taluka of Gadchiroli became the first village in the country to exercise its rights to bamboo under the FRA in August 2009. Drawing inspiration from Mendha Lekha, more than 1,500 villages in the Vidarbha region have opted out of the traditional governance and marketing of NTFP, controlled by the forest department. These villages have taken suo motu initiative and, sometimes, the support of grassroots organisations, to identify contractors and sell NTFP from their villages for better prices. More significant is how gram sabha members assert their rights to NTFP even when their CFR claims are yet to be recognised by the district administration.

Gram sabhas have framed a set of rules to deal with NTFP contractors: (i) payment for collected NTFP is made upfront instead of being delayed for years, as was the case in the earlier arrangement; (ii) upfront payment for the NTFP is used for agricultural activities, because of which dependence on the local landlord for credit has come down drastically; (iii) forest dwellers without bank accounts are paid in cash on the day of the sale and are not required to depend on middlemen to sell outside the gram sabha; (iv) contractors pay insurance coverage in the case of any accident during the collection of NTFP; (v) NTFP collectors are not responsible in the case of any damage to NTFP materials after pickup due to natural calamities like fire or rain, and it is the sole responsibility of the contractor to pack and export NTFP materials from the village to markets; and (vi) the gram sabha will not issue a transit permit pass to a contractor to transport NTFP materials, unless the latter makes the full payment as per the agreement.

According to Ramkumar Madavi of Palasgaon village in Gondia district, gram sabha members in this region believe that the “recognition of [a] CFR claim is only a process and their rights over NTFP have already been recognised under Section 3(1)(c) of [the] FRA. [A] pending claim doesn’t mean rejection or denial of their rights over NTFP.”4 Indeed, villagers do not wait for the forest department to issue the transit permit book in order to dispose of forest products. For example, the gram sabha of Dhiwrintola village in Gondia district has printed its own transit permit book, as required under the FRA, which enables the contractor to take NTFP materials from the village to the godown or nearby market.

Emergence of gram sabha federations: One of the most important outcomes of CFR enforcement in Vidarbha is the emergence of gram sabha federations in this region, facilitated by grassroots organisations and NGOs. Despite the enactment of the FRA and provisions for community rights to NTFP, gram sabhas continued to face hurdles and harassment at the hands of contractors and the forest department (Sahu et al 2017). Realising the power of contractors and the forest department, and the monopoly they have over forestlands and NTFP, several gram sabhas have come together to form gram sabha federations at the taluka level without compromising their autonomy and rights recognised under the FRA.

The idea of gram sabha federations has become popular and has spread to other regions of Maharashtra over the last five years. It did not take long for tribal villages, especially in Fifth Schedule Areas, to come together under one platform because collective action has traditionally been a part of tribal governing structures. In the Korchi taluka of Gadchiroli, 87 villages formed a gram sabha federation in December 2016 to increase their bargaining and negotiation powers vis-à-vis the state and market agencies with regard to the disposal of NTFP. Similar associations of gram sabhas have been formed in Dhanora, Kurkheda, Bhamragarh, and Etapalli talukas of Gadchiroli; Sadak Arjuni and Deori talukas of Gondia; Ramtek taluka of Nagpur; Dharni and Chikhaldara talukas of Amaravati; and Maregaon and Pandharkawada talukas of Yavatmal. Each gram sabha federation is organised as a multi-tiered network at the taluka level and has provided a platform to thousands of forest dwellers to voice their concerns about the NTFP governance process. These associations, through their executive committees that consist of two representatives from each gram sabha, identify contractors, bargain with them about price and payment, and engage with district administrations to address the hurdles that gram sabhas face.

Along with NGO alliances and grassroots organisations, gram sabha federations have challenged conventional NTFP governance processes and have shown great interest in the introduction of scientific approaches to harvesting NTFP and the sustainable conservation of forest sources. However, gram sabha federations think beyond just NTFP and work towards the overall development and empowerment of communities. Discussions with members of gram sabha federations from Dhamditola in Gondia, Mendha Lekha in Gadchiroli, Payvihir in Amravati, and Awalgaon in Yavatmal reveal that the gram sabhas in these villages have demanded the integration of line department schemes at the district level with those targeted at forestlands and resources. By bridging forest dwellers’ immediate social and economic needs with line department schemes, gram sabha federations have played a crucial role in shaping the agenda and priorities of local and district administrations. As a result, there have been tangible economic benefits in these villages.

Socio-economic benefits: There is a great deal of scepticism in the CFR management literature, especially in developing societies, about the possibilities for equitable decision-making and the sharing of benefits from effective resource management among diverse social groups through community-driven governance processes. This concern stems from the fact that social structures in these societies are riddled with hierarchies, patriarchal practices, inequality, and unequal distributions of power; these societies also lack vigilant civil society, the social auditing of public policy, and adequate access to information and decision-making power. In India, several supposed community involvement programmes, including the widely discussed JFM, exemplify the hijacking and appropriation of decentralised forest resource management processes by powerful local elites and bureaucrats (Lele 2014). This is due to the partial recognition of community rights to and power over forest resources and the absence of well-defined principles of accountability and responsiveness in the use and management of forest resources.

Even after the enactment of the FRA—which clearly defines the role and responsibilities of gram sabhas and implementing agencies in facilitating and supporting forest dwellers in the enforcement of the act—local elite capture (village-level powerful persons deciding the terms and conditions for kendu leaf harvesting and auctioning), contractor hegemony, and forest department monopoly over forestlands and resources continue in several parts of India. Learning from past experience, intervening NGOs and gram sabha members in the studied areas have developed rules and regulations to ensure the transparency, accountability, and participation of forest dwellers—especially women and those from landless households—in the benefit sharing and decisions about forest resource management.

Discussions with villagers and results from the household survey conducted in the studied areas reveal that there has been a significant change in the socio-economic conditions of forest-dependent people in the period after CFR recognition. A major economic benefit is that the income of households from kendu leaf harvesting has increased significantly in comparison to during the kendu leaf governance regime led by the forest department.

Table 1 explains the price difference for kendu leaf under two different regimes—the kendu leaf auctioning price under Korchi Gram Sabha Federation and the kendu leaf auctioning price under forest department.

The recognition of CFR to NTFP has transferred the decision-making power to communities to decide when, where, how, and to whom to sell the NTFP that they collect. The remarkable impact of ownership rights to these forest products on income and empowerment is evident in several parts of the Vidarbha region, where community rights under the FRA have been implemented at scale; almost 20 lakh acres of forests have been transferred to the jurisdiction of gram sabhas. The information obtained from gram sabha federations, NGOs, and forest rights groups from this region reveals how exclusive ownership rights to NTFP, especially kendu leaf, has resulted in better economic returns for thousands of forest-dwelling households in this region. People in these villages earned a total of nearly `33 crore in 2017–18 from kendu leaf alone (Table 2).

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Updated On : 4th May, 2020
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