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Padaboria has been living with the ignominy of being a Naxal stronghold for decades. Electric poles twisted down to the ground bear testimony to the power that lit the lives of its people 15 years ago. The village surrounded by lush green hillocks shot into the news in 2009, when a heavy exchange of fire ensued between the Maoist insurgents and a police commando team led by the formidable Munna Singh Thakur. Seven years on, the blot of it harbouring ‘Naxal sympathisers’ remains, even as no charges could stick to the seven from the village who were released after being kept in Gadchiroli jail for eight months.
In the past couple of years, though, Padaboria has been witness to something quite different. The village, with 75-odd inhabitants about 50 km from Gadchiroli town, earned Rs 2.71 crore during the 2015-16 forest year (October-September) from sales of bamboo harvested from 508 hectares of community forest rights (CFR) land it had got in 2012. This was way above the Rs 15 lakh that an average village in Gadchiroli district with even 1,000 people receives from all government schemes, as adivasi rights activist Mahesh Raut points out.
One of Padaboria’s beneficiaries is Dayaram Pada, whose family earned Rs 1.5 lakh from bamboo-harvesting last year and who has just invested Rs 8.5 lakh in a heavy-duty tractor along with a dozer for levelling fields. He has already made a down payment of Rs 3.5 lakh and the rest would be paid in equal half-yearly instalments of Rs 75,000 to Mahindra Finance, a rural non-banking financial company that has a branch at Gadchiroli. Pada has purchased the machine to rent it out for use in fields of other farmers, both in his own and nearby villages.
Several villages of Gadchiroli — among India’s most backward districts with almost 40 per cent adivasi population and much of it covered by forests and hills — are currently experiencing a mini-revolution thanks to bamboo, categorised as a ‘minor forest produce’ under the Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA). The FRA also gave adivasis the “right of ownership, access to collect, use and dispose of minor forest produce…which has been traditionally collected within or outside village boundaries”. Since bamboo was no longer a ‘tree’, it ceased to be timber under the control of the forest department.
According to official data, 69 villages in Gadchiroli earned over Rs 28 crore from harvest and sale of bamboo in 2015-16. In all, 107 villages have been given transport permits to take and sell this as ‘minor forest produce’, as opposed to “trees” that cannot be ordinarily felled. The villages include small hamlets such as Tahakapar. With just three families comprising 12 adults, it grossed Rs 1.23 crore from bamboo sales last year. After paying out roughly Rs 95 lakh as wages — both to themselves and to 1,500-odd outside labourers — the village’s local community or gram sabha was left with Rs 28 lakh in its State Bank of India account at the latter’s branch in Dhanora, a tehsil town of Gadchiroli.
The most telltale sign of what a newfound source of earnings has done are motorcycles. Ravi Puppalwar, manager of the Sarbani Bajaj showroom at Gadchiroli, informs that his outlet sold 800 two-wheelers in 2014, rising to 1,200 in 2015. “This year, the 1,200 figure was crossed by end-September itself. We deal mainly in low budget 100 cc bikes and our buyers come from Dhanora, Pendhri, Gatta, Karwafa, Murumgaon, Etapalli, Bhamragarh and other interior areas,” he notes. Manish Satpute, accountant at Mahindra Finance’s Gadchiroli office, similarly points to the spurt in financing of tractor sales by his company — from a mere 80 in 2015 to 130 during June-August this year. Most of it, he adds, is to interior village folk engaged in the new business of bamboo harvesting and sales. There are other visible indicators as well: New TV sets in many homes with dish antennas hanging up on roofs, mobile phones with most (though it requires going to vantage points for receiving call signals), and women in newly-bought clothes pillion riding behind their men to the nearest market town of Dhanora.
“No one here had a bike earlier, today there are 16. We also have seven Tata Sky DTH connections,” observes Mohan Atla, secretary of the forest rights committee (FRC) of Yedampayli. The gram sabha in this village sold full-length bamboos (15 feet-plus) at Rs 50 per piece and medium-length pieces (10-15 feet) at Rs 30 each. Short-length bamboos (about 7 feet) packed in six-piece bundles fetched Rs 100. In all, the village of 102 people earned around Rs 1.10 crore, of which Rs 80 lakh was paid out as wages. The balance Rs 30 lakh was deposited in the gram sabha’s bank account, with the money used for developmental activities like deepening of village reservoirs, raising and fortifying embankments to increase water storage capacity, and farm soil conservation. The irrigation cover created has, in turn, prompted farmers to adopt improved agricultural practices — for example, proper transplantation of paddy samplings, as opposed to traditional hand broadcasting of seeds.
“We learnt to do everything, from e-tendering to auctioning, ourselves with the forest department providing valuable guidance. There are traders who come from Gondia, Gadchiroli and even Chhattisgarh,” claims Vasudev Dugga, secretary of the FRC of Jambdizora village in Dhanora tehsil. This village, with just eight houses, fetched Rs 1.17 crore from bamboo sale. With 1,350 hectares under its CFR command, Jambdizora has labourers from adjoining villages also coming in to harvest bamboo.
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There is, no doubt, an asymmetry in the allocation of CFR lands, with hamlets like Jambdizora getting huge tracts, while many villages that are bigger have much smaller command area. It has to do with forest allocation being as per the traditional ‘nistar’ (utility) rights traditionally enjoyed by villages, based on government records. Also, the fact that bamboo can be harvested from a given forest patch only once in three years, to allow its regeneration, means many villages may have nothing to sell over the next two years. That asymmetry, however, gets significantly taken care of, since people in those with less forest command area can earn wages from harvesting the bamboo of villages having greater area.
The real revolution, so to speak, being seen in Gadchiroli today is about bamboo’s re-classification as a ‘grass’ or ‘minor forest produce’, while allowing traditional forest dwellers the right to harvest and sell it. With about 80 per cent of the resultant revenues being paid out as wages and the rest earmarked for village development activities, the effects are palpable.
“In 2014-15, we took a sample plot to estimate how much bamboos could be harvested. In the following season, we cut the old dried-up bamboos and three-year-old wet bamboos, while ensuring no pieces below that age were touched. In all, we harvested 1,23,271 bamboos and sold them in six-piece bundles, each at Rs 95, to the Ballarpur Paper Mill unit at Chandrapur. Out of the Rs 1.17 crore revenue, we paid labour charges of Rs 85 lakh and kept the remaining in our Central Bank of India account at Gadchiroli,” says Dugga. The essential difference between the time when the forest department was handling the harvesting for Ballarpur Paper and now, he adds, is that “the wages for our labour, which was earlier just Rs 20 per bundle, has gone up to Rs 73”.
Gandhian activist Mohan Hirabai Hiralal is both happy and cautious. “Forests were long cursed as a hurdle in development. The bamboo revolution has not only proved it wrong, but has resuscitated the age-old tribal tradition of community ownership of resources,” notes this pioneer of the CFR movement, which began in Mendha Lekha, a village of the Maria Gond adivasi community in Gadchiroli. Mendha Lekha, in 2009, became India’s first village to secure CFR in over 1,800 hectares of its ‘nistar’ forests, following the passage of the FRA in December 2006. In 2011, after a hard-earned victory to get bamboo declared as non-timber forest produce, the village also earned Rs 1.15 crore from sale of this ‘grass’.
All this has been further enabled by the Maharashtra government formally notifying the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act in August 2014. “In FRA, the granting of rights over collection, processing and marketing required application by the gram sabha and its subsequent scrutiny. In PESA (which was enacted by Parliament in 1996, but not notified by most states), these rights are deemed to be granted without the need for application. PESA extends to 1,311 out of Gadchiroli’s 1,557 villages”, explains Kalyan Kumar, chief conservator of forests in the district.
“The challenge is to sustain the movement. Already, there are villages where holding of gram sabha meetings to pass resolutions for bamboo sales and transparent auctions are being bypassed. In some, the purchasing contractors are dealing directly with village coteries,” warns Mohan Hirabai Hiralal, recently conferred the Jamnalal Bajaj Award for outstanding contribution in the field of constructive work.