How government is subverting forest right act

By: Richard Mahapatra, Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava, Sumana Narayanan, Aparna Pallavi

Two tribal villages in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra—Mendha Lekha and Marda— savoured victory when they won community rights over their forest resources in August last year. The rights conferred under the Forest Rights Act of 2006 include the right to collect and sell minor forest produce (MFP). These include tendu leaves used in beedis, and bamboo that have high commercial value and were under the forest department’s control. Winning the right to manage these resources meant economic liberation to the two villages.

Soon, 60 other villages in the district filed claims for similar rights with the district authorities. Only eight were recognised, that too with riders. The document transferring rights to villages was ambiguous and imposed seven conditions; one of them was the residents could collect MFP but only for self-use. People realized they still had to battle forest officials unwilling to relinquish control over MFP. The expectations raised by Mendha Lekha and Marda winning forest rights were short-lived.
The forest department’s attempt to dilute the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, also known as Forest Rights Act (FRA), triggered protests. Besides rights over MFP, community rights include rights to pasture, water bodies and diversion of up to one hectare (ha) forestland for community infrastructure like schools.

Opportunity lost
The trick came to light in August 2010 when the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the nodal ministry for implementing FRA, released a status report. Of the 2.9 million claims settled under FRA, only 1.6 per cent (46,156) gave community rights and most of these did not include rights over MFP, the report said. All other titles were for agricultural land and dwellings in forestland. The focus has mostly been on giving individual pattas (for agricultural land and housing) while ignoring rights over MFP,” said N C Saxena, member of the National Advisory Council, who is reviewing FRA implementation.

In Chhattigarh, the ground reality is no different. Of the 214,918 claims processed in the state, only 250 relate to community rights and none of them grant rights over MFP. Most lower level forest officials who are supposed to help process forest rights claims are not aware of the provisions of the Act. A study on the implementation of FRA in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh by non-profit Samarthan in Bhopal goes beyond the Centre’s status report. No community claims were approved in districts that have dense forests and high concentration of tribal population, the yet-to-be-released report states.

MFP sustains forest departments
The main reason forest department officials are not telling people about rights over MFP is that it is a major source of revenue for forest departments. Most states have nationalised certain MFP items— mahua, sal seeds and flowers, tendu leaves and certain gums. The produce accounts for 50 per cent of forest revenue, according to the forestry statistics of India; the states trade in them through cooperatives and corporations. FRA and the Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), however, render state trading of MFP illegal Most forest departments earn more from MFP than timber. For example, Andhra Pradesh, earns Rs 82 crore from MFP, while its earning from timber is Rs 43 crore. In Chhattisgarh, the tendu capital of India, MFP accounts for 60 per cent of forest revenue. After the Supreme Court banned tree felling in forests without working plans, MFP has emerged as the main source of revenue for forest departments.

Bikash Rath of non-profit Regional Centre for Development Cooperation, in Bhubaneswar said even in places where communities have followed due process, community claims have been rejected. People in the villages of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh confirmed this too. 

Conspiracy of joint management
To retain hold over forests, various state forest departments are pushing for joint forest management (JFM) committees (first introduced in the 1990) to manage community forest rights. Such a committee is at the village-level and has a forest official as joint secretary. Minutes of a workshop of the Indian Forest Service officers on January 11 this year include a recommendation that these committees should be the new forest rights committees and declared village-level institutions under FRA.
In Andhra Pradesh’s Paderu block in Visakhapatnam, the authorities carried out resettlement of 118 villages between 2002 and 2007, with funds from the World Bank. The plan was meant to compensate the tribals for the shifting agricultural land they lost under an earlier World Bank-funded JFM project. But the people who lost their land to the project could not claim rights under FRA.

PESA stalled
A battle for control over resources was witnessed when PESA was passed in 1996. The Act provides for community rights over MFP in tribal areas of nine states, which are also Naxal hot spots. PESA puts the gram sabhas in charge of MFP, but did not define what constitutes MFP.

In Maharashtra, people were given rights over 33 MFP items. But within a year, these rights were transferred to the Tribal Development Corporation on the pretext that people were unable to manage MFP.

The Odisha government negated PESA by adding a clause in the corresponding state law that made the Act subject to existing laws. This includes the Non-Timber Forest Products Policy of 2000 that states panchayats shall have no control over MFP collected from reserve forests.

Technically, all laws that are in conflict with PESA ought to have been repealed after PESA came into force 13 years ago.

The Andhra Pradesh government bypassed PESA by giving rights over MFP to Van Suraksha Samitis (forest protection committees under JFM). The Madhya Pradesh government was prompt in effecting changes in the state laws in response to PESA. The state’s Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes department issued a circular to district collectors in April 1999 transferring powers to collect and sell MFP to gram panchayats. It also suitably amended the panchayat rules. But a few months later, the department issued another circular saying nationalised MFP items like tendu leaves would not be controlled by gram panchayats because PESA did not define MFP.
In these states, cooperative federations trade in nationalised MFP items.

War of words

Now the Centre views PESA and FRA as a means to curb Naxalism. Therefore, non-implementation of the provisions giving rights over MFP to people has triggered a fight between ministries. Secretary to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, G K Pillai, in a letter to MoEF in June this year, accused the forest department of atrocities against tribals in Madhya Pradesh and causing dissatisfaction among forest people. MoEF responded by saying that it is poor governance that is spreading Naxalism and sought a ban on mining in forest areas.

MoEF is planning a project that may prove to be another flashpoint in the battle for rights over forest resources. The ministry wants to rope in tribals for its Green India Mission, one of the eight missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change. The mission aims to increase forest cover by five million hectares by 2020 to curb greenhouse gas emissions; the forest people will be involved in planning, execution and monitoring activities. The mission will promote tree plantation on all types of land including common lands and degraded forests.

A Parliamentary standing committee in its report in 2008 has criticised such programmes, saying they promote monoculture. MFP depends on plant diversity and provide income in all seasons.

High-risk trade

MFP is a renewable, reliable source of income, but faces many threats Around July every year, Laxman Nag, a resident of Kolang village on the outskirts of Kanger National Park in Chhattisgarh, sees crows attacking silk cocoons to pick the larvae inside and wakes up in a sweat. He sells the cocoons in the weekly market in the nearby Darbha village from where traders pick them and sell them to buyers in Bihar and Karnataka. Kolang is one of the 12,000 villages in Chhattisgarh with access to forests; 44.2 per cent of the state is under forest cover. About 70 per cent of people’s income in these villages is from MFP. The threats to the people’s income are many—crows, extreme rain and heat, pest attacks, forest guards and Maoists.

Whereas in Jharkhand annual income from MFP in villages comprise 10 to 31 per cent of a family’s income. Here Naxalites are hampering people’s access to forests.

Profits go to state

The MFP economy is fragile but supports close to 275 million people in rural India, according a World Bank estimate. These people comprise the poorest, including 54 million tribals. Agriculture takes care of their food while MFP is the main source of cash income. The Planning Commission has put the annual trade of MFP at Rs 50,000 crore, but MoEF claims the trade is worth less at Rs 5,000 crore.

Very little of this money goes to forest communities. Take bamboo. It has about 1,500 documented uses. But communities do not have access to bamboo. Reason: the forest department treats it as timber; therefore, it cannot be felled. Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, which are among the worst Naxalite-affected states, account for 47 per cent of the total area under bamboo cultivation. The forest departments of these states together earn up to Rs 82 crore a year from bamboo. Despite FRA, which says bamboo is MFP, government, not people, continues to be the sole owner of the produce.

With the Supreme Court ban on tree felling without working plans, bamboo has become a major source of revenue for forest departments. “Plantation in private land can help, but there are many tribals and poor artisans who do not own land. The first step to ensure right to livelihood of tribals would be to deregulate restrictive laws,” said Ashok of Mahatma Gandhi Adivasi Seva Kendra, an NGO in Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh.

In Shankarpur village in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, residents expressed resentment over the measly payments they receive. “Our village produces 150,000 to 200,000 packets (70 leaves each) of tendu leaves every year. The government contractors give us  Rs 100 to   Rs 105 for 100 packets,” said Falgun Talmale, a member of the village forest rights committee. This is twenty times less than the market price of   Rs 200 to   Rs 250 per kg (five to 10 packets).

Tendu leaf collectors work the hardest, but it is the contractors and the forest departments that make the profits, said Shivram Budhe, a resident. In Madhya Pradesh, the state earns over   Rs 200 crore from tendu leaf sale but wage paid to collectors is less than half of it. The authorities say they return all profits to the collectors and retain only establishment costs. But the tribals say there is no surety whether they would receive the bonus.

More work, less pay

Some MFP items were nationalised to get people fair deal; it was of no help Activists said forest dwellers get a raw deal in trade in nationalised MFP items. Whereas the restrictions on sale of nationalised MFP is bringing down the potential worth of  the goods. Take the case of mahua flowers. At present, people are getting very low value for it.  The collectors do get better prices now for certain produce after states announced minimum procurement prices for them. Yet these prices do not reflect the value of the effort that goes into collecting them, said activists. Most of the times states do not revise the prices for years. A 2005 study by NGO Astha in Madhya Pradesh found it takes about 19 hours to collect 100 bundles, 50 tendu leaves each. The wages the collectors got for it was Rs 70 which is far less than the minimum wage for the same hours of work.

Competition curbed

The monetary returns collectors get from almost all nationalised MFP items is low. “Nationalisation curbs competition and thus profit to the community,” said Saxena. “It just helps the government earn money by paying collection wages to the people,” he added. The Planning Commission, which set up a committee in 1999 to look into MFP, too, had observed, “Nationalisation reduces the number of legal buyers, chokes free flow of MFP and processed goods and delays payment to the collector.”

Role models

Two Madhya Pradesh villages break free of debts, Naxalites Subelal Markam, a Baiga tribal of Korka village in Madhya Pradesh used to get just Rs 1.5 to Rs 2 per bamboo piece from middlemen. In 2007, the forest department helped him earn Rs 2.1 lakh from 11,000 pieces of bamboo through auction. The forest department has helped 17 other Baiga families of Korka earn Rs 20 lakh from bamboo auction in the past three years. The village was once considered a Naxal hotspot. Not any longer.
The tribals in Harranala village in Balaghat improved their incomes without official help. They pooled funds and bought mahua from the collectors at rates higher than what middlemen offered. Now middlemen who purchased mahua flowers from the villagers for Rs 3 to Rs 4 a kg are offering Rs 15 a kg.

If other forest communities are to benefit similarly, the first step would be to give them the right over MFPs. There are suggestions that MFP rights should be granted in scheduled areas without filing claims. In other areas, the authorities could be asked to prepare claims and present them to the gram sabha. N C Saxena, said the forest department should help villages in securing the market for their produce and take up forest productivity activities. Shanker Gopalakrishnan of the NGO Campaign for Survival and Dignity in Delhi said collectors must be given the same benefits as workers. A trade union model, free of government interference, could be viable, he said. Demand and supply forces would ensure people get the highest price for their produce.