Kumbhiwagholi, a village of Korku tribals on the foothills of Melghat, is unique in many ways. First, it came up out of nowhere in 1997, at a place where the last human habitation had been a settlement that vanished decades ago, following an epidemic. Second, for the first 18 years, migration for work was villagers’ only way to survive. Then in 2015, it suddenly found an identity of its own — as a gramvan, or village forest.
Kumbhiwagholi had no forest and villagers expressed a desire to conserve and develop one of their own. The forest department department granted them a forest under Maharashtra’s village forest rules of 2014. VFR, incidentally, traces its origin to the 1927 Indian Forest Act, part of an effort to involve communities in forest management, but the provisions have rarely been invoked through the decades.
The land was barren in 1997 when 40-odd families from Melghat and Madhya Pradesh decided to settle there. “There was only one temple here (from the earlier settlement). We made it our home and got attached to Jawlapur gram panchayat,” said Sukhram Dhandekar, a village leader and gram sabha member.
“Landless labourers of this village had to go out to far-off places to earn their livelihood. It was while they were working as labourers under MNREGA at Payvihir village that they got this idea of having their own forest and conserving it,” said Purnima Upadhyay, who runs the NGO Khoj along with activist Bandu Sane. “They worked on various forest department jobs trenches, ponds, etc, where they got a daily wage of Rs 181 each. So they started wondering, what if they had had their own forest? We thought we could help them,” she said.
“Khoj liased between the villagers and the forest department to get 98 hectares shrubby area around the village,” said Dhandekar. “We sought it under Gramvan rules and were granted it. Since last year, MNREGA works have been available to us in the village itself as part of our forest conservation activity. Families from our village don’t have to migrate for work anymore.”
Today, Kumbhiwagholi stands apart as one of the very few villages that have shown an inclination to prefer gramvan to the more prolific community forest rights (CFR) and Panchayat Raj Extension to Scheduled Areas. All three are about community rights over forests around villages. Among the differences, VFR requires mandatory presence of a forest department representative in management of the forest allotted to the village.
The village has undertaken various activities like plantation of different trees on 10 hectares, removal of lantana on 50 hectares and construction of three farm ponds. “We hope to see the shrubby land grow into a regular, dense forest,” villagers say, showing around their work.
“There are many villages all around that have no right to claim CFR or are privileged to be PESA villages. So what do they do? VFRs offer them a great opportunity,” said Upadhyay. “For CFR and PESA, the villages have to adduce evidence of over 75 years of traditional forest use. Many villages don’t have that.”
Also, unlike CFR and PESA, VFR offers ownership of timber along with non-timber minor forest produce too. CFR and PESA don’t allow timber to be touched.
Currently, 67 villages in the state have got VFR status as against thousands of CFR and PESA villages. Among the 67 are Ralegan Sidhhi of Anna Hazare and Hivre Bazar of Popatrao Pawar.
VFR became one of the options before villages after the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs dropped its opposition, having overcome a perception that it could not stand legally due to the overriding effect of superior legislation such as FRA and PESA.
“VFR doesn’t work at cross-purposes with CFR and PESA. It in fact offers another option to villages that can’t claim either CFR or PESA rights to manage their own forest,” said chief conservator of forest (Nagpur) T S K Reddy. “Since we have excluded CFR and PESA villages from its ambit, the general apprehension that VFR will defeat CFR or PESA rights is misplaced. In fact, we have rejected VFR claims of some Gadchiroli villages covered under PESA,” added Reddy, who was earlier chief conservator of forest, Gadchiroli.
Mahesh Raut, a PESA activist, believes VFR is the forest department’s “stealthy attempt to regain control over forests”. “CFR and PESA rights over forests are executed entirely by the gram sabha but in the VFR arrangement, a forest department employee is a member of the executive joint forest management committee, and everything is done according to the department’s plan,” he said.
“The forest department is a legitimate government set-up,” Reddy countered. “Does gram sevak, a government representative, or municipal commissioner erode the powers of a panchayat or a municipal corporation, respectively?”
Raut also objects to the VFR clause that provides for taking away rights if the forest gets exploited in an unruly manner. “This is only when the very purpose of granting VFR is defeated. But restoration of rights is also provided for if correction is promised,” Reddy said .
Raut sees the timber offer as “invitation to forest destruction”. “CFR and PESA are conservation-oriented,” he said. Reddy’s counter to this was: “The plans will be executed with help from forest department, so there will be accountability and the department itself does timber extraction regularly.”
“What is redeeming about VFR is that villages can also dump it to choose CFR and PESA if they want to,” Upadhyay said.