Community forest rights in villages of Maharastra paved the way for economic empowerment

The Vidarva region of Maharastra is infamous for the highest number of farmers’ suicide cases in India. Few people know the brighter side of the region and more particularly the stewardship rights of natural resources asserted and exercised by the community that have led to gross economic empowerment. There are villages that earn revenues in crores of rupees per annum and able to meet the all of their developmental needs without depending on any government grants.
The villages of the region have set a trend for the rest of the country in exercising the ownership rights over minor forest produces like bamboo, kendu leaf (used for Bidi), and Mahua. The kendu leaf is a nationalized forest produce, so the state has monopoly over it in the market and it is not a freely traded forest produce. The only option for the villagers is to pluck the kendu leaf for the state forest corporation, which has the authority of storage and marketing the forest produces. The forest dwellers or kendu leaf pickers used to get some wage for plucking and drying the leaves. Similarly, mahua (mostly used in preparing liquor) is an excisable product and there has been a cap on hoarding the mahua and it is allowed only for domestic consumption. In the case of bamboo, the Forest Corporation has the authority to trade it and the villagers were mostly engaged in cutting the bamboo for which they were paid some nominal wage. The villagers never enjoyed ownership rights or were able to trade as they wished.

 After the enactment of the Forest Rights Act in 2006, the villagers started exercising their ownership rights. Initially, the Forest Department was reluctant to allow the community to harvest bamboo, but after sincere efforts from the community and pressure mounted on government from various stakeholders, bamboo was later freed from the Forest Department’s control in reality in some of the villages. Villagers harvested the bamboo and kendu leaf and sold it in the open market through bidding. They proved their worth as green gold; that bamboo and kendu leaf can lead to economic freedom of the community is well-established in these cases. However, it is not just limited to forest produces: the villagers have also harnessed potency in inland fisheries, biogas using cow dung, and land development works. After these sustainable livelihood interventions over forest land, the out-migration from villages has significantly decreased.
In Maharashtra, around 1176-1200 villages got recognition to their Community Forests Rights (CFR) under the Forest Rights Act over an extent of 6.5lakh acres forest land and more than 1000 water bodies. The Vidarbh Livelihood Forum(VLF) is working in 525 villages in 21 blocks of 7 districts in Maharastra. Kolam and Madia are the two particularly vulnerable tribal groups with whom the Forum is engaged in some villages. They have facilitated the larger landscape and habitat rights claims of the Madia community in their field interventions.
The Vidarbha Livelihood Forum, in collaboration with the State Department of Tribal Development & Forests, organised a state-level consultation on “CFR Management, Technical Intervention and Livelihoods, Roles & Responsibilities of CSOs/Panchatiraj institution members & Government Institutions” on 28th June 2013 at Van Bhawan, Nagpur. Sankar Pani (Natural Justice) participated in the consultation. The following subjects were discussed for implementation through appropriate actions:
1. Management of CFR areas with technical expertise and back up.
2. Livelihoods based on minor forest produces and/or fisheries and agricultural intensification,
3. Working plan/capacity building of Gram Sabhas and their executive committees under section 4(1)(e) of the Forest Rights Act,
4. Support and convergence with line department e.g. Forest, Tribal Development, Revenue, Fisheries, & Agriculture.

8 July 2013

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