The British described India as an ocean of trees. This tree cover was nurtured by village and tribal communities. To organise the drain of India, as Dadabhai Naoroji put it, the British destroyed these community organisations and took over forest land as State property. Only Goa was spared. Initially, the Portuguese attempted to break down village communities, but stopped when faced with substantial losses in land revenue. Goa, therefore, remained an ocean of trees till 1961, attracting hordes of tourists. To this day, the gavkari, or “communidad” organisation continues to bravely hold on to Goa’s natural heritage.
Following Independence, India’s ruling classes stuck to the same colonial mindset. Nevertheless, the country’s deep-rooted democracy resulted in the enactment of several pro-people measures, such as the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution establishing Panchayat Raj in 1992, the Right to Information Act in 2005 and The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA). All of this helped in restoring rights.
Gadchiroli, Maharashtra’s easternmost district, has the highest level of tree cover in the state at over 70%, safeguarded by its predominantly tribal population. It is the one district where the Community Forest Resource (CFR) rights and provision of FRA have been implemented properly, with thousands of villages being assigned lakhs of hectares to manage minor forest produce sustainably.
This was the result of a combination of capable tribal leadership and competent and honest officials. CFRs have been granted from 2009 and have led to skill development and community-based employment. Before the Act was in place, young women in Gadchiroli had a taste of the government’s ill-conceived skill development plan when they were trained to become air hostesses. On completing the course, no airline was willing to employ the women.
Pachgaon, a village in neighbouring Chandrapur district, has been assigned CFR rights over 1,000 hectares. The gram sabha asked each family to submit five rules regarding management of forest resources and other civic affairs.
These were then discussed in a meeting over two days and 115 rules were unanimously accepted. The entire community now abides by these 115 rules. These include regimes regarding the harvest of bamboo and other minor forest produce, regular patrolling of CFR areas and sharing of responsibility in sorting and auctioning bamboo. The villagers used to earn to a fair income plucking tendu leaves for contractors earlier. But this involved setting fire to parts of the forest, which the people deemed undesirable. The tendu trees are now producing an abundance of fruit. This fruit is in high demand and, in the long-run, the village may become economically better-off selling the fruit rather than plucking the leaves. The wages for bamboo harvest were three times what contractors paid.
Nevertheless, they managed to make a net profit of Rs 35 lakh from the sale of bamboo in 2015. This has been invested in organising forest and village development works which provide year-round employment. Prior to being empowered by the CFR rights, many villagers used to migrate all the way to Gujarat to earn a living. Now, no one leaves the village.
The lessons from villages such as Pachgaon must reach all other CFR-holding villages. To kick off such a process, Maharashtra’s tribal development department sponsored a special five-month training programme in the field at Mendha-Lekha, the first village to win CFR rights in 2009. I was associated with this programme in which 24 young men and three women were trained. Following the training, they have formed groups of villages, processing and marketing minor forest produce, while diligently maintaining accounts and paying taxes.
Or take Kudumbasree, a network of community-based women’s self-help groups from Kerala, which provides a different kind of experience in strengthening community organisation. This network is engaged primarily in activities related to food production, processing and restaurants. Large tracts of farmland are fallow in Kerala because the owners find the costs of chemical inputs and labour prohibitive. Kudumbasree groups take such lands on lease and make them productive. They can afford to do so because, without alternative employment, their members accept lower wages. They don’t use chemical inputs, thereby reducing the cost of cultivation and taking pesticides out of the ecosystem. As a result, they are successfully in practising organic cultivation.
Empowering communities through organisation and resource rights is a very effective and desirable route to both employment generation and skill development. India needs to think of an alternative economic paradigm to prevent the distress we have seen this year.
Madhav Gadgil is former professor, Indian Institute of Science where he founded the Centre
for Ecological Sciences
The views expressed are personal