Rahu Strikes Green Gold – Voices from Melghat

#fieldworkdiaries

Melghat which literally means the ‘confluence of ghats’ is the meeting point of a series of hills and ravines spread across Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Blessed by natural beauty and resources in the form of lush flora and fauna, the area is replete with poetic beauty. But behind this natural beauty lies a region which is lagging in human development and is plagued by high degree of developmental issues especially in the area of health and education. This can be seen from the high maternal and infant mortality rates in the Melghat region with nearly 6000 women and child deaths in the last six years. (Ganjapure, 2016). This bleak situation is accentuated by the hilly terrain of the region which makes it difficult to provide quality public services.

However, despite the hardships, there do exist success stories from the region that provide hope and show the way forward several positive stories from the region. One such story is that of Rahu village, which has leveraged used its Community Forest Rights (CFRs) to bring prosperity to the village. We were able to have an enriching discussion with Mr. Shyamlal Darshimbe, a former the ex-Sarpanch of Rahu and Mr. Mungilal Bhusum, a member of the Rahu Gram Sabha, during a part of our fieldwork with KHOJ. 

PC: Dharmendra (KHOJ, Melghat)

This piece briefly traces Rahu’s journey to prosperity and empowerment, with the hope that it provides a replicable model for other forest villages entitled to FRA claims. The authors strongly believe that with the right administrative support and community mobilization, the dense forests of Melghat which have so far been seen as an obstacle to tribal development may very well be the solution as well.

Beginning of the Journey 

The Forest Rights Act, 2005 was passed to correct the historical injustices meted out to Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Forest Dwelling Tribes, who share a symbiotic relationship with forests. Through the Act, the communities can be granted rights (community or individual) to manage their forests and sell minor forest produce such as fruits, flowers, leaves, berries, and lac. 

In 2015, the East Melghat Forest Division put out an advertisement inviting community forest rights (CFR) applications from eligible villages. The villagers of Rahu were made aware of the same by civil society organizations, one of which was KHOJ. However, the Forest Department was initially reluctant to hand over the ownership of the forests as they felt that the villagers would be unable to conserve their newly owned forest area. 

Undeterred and under the guidance of KHOJ, the villagers decided to go ahead with filing their claim in 2015. Documents such as grazing passes would be used as evidence to support their claims. However, even before making the application, the Gram Sabha of Rahu constituted a team from within the village to properly understand the potential of marketing forest produce in a sustainable manner. The team then visited other villages of Payvihir in the foothills of Melghat and Mendhaleka in Gadchiroli that had been granted CFRs and were successfully managing their forests. Taking notice of their efforts, Mr. Praveen Pardeshi, IAS, Principal Secretary, Chief Minister’s Office, personally visited Rahu and endorsed their claim. Following this, the village was granted rights over nearly 1300 ha. of forests in 2016 in a short span of 4-5 months. In conjunction with the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996 the villagers of Rahu now have rights nearly 4500 ha. of the surrounding forest.

Managing the Forests

A CFR model is only successful when benefits from forest produce are shared equitably and with a view towards sustainability and conservation. Here is how Rahu ensured they meet the criteria.

  • Ensuring Sustainability

The forests of Rahu are rich in teak, amaltas, bamboo, tendu, etc. In 2016, when the Gram Sabha decided to begin harvesting bamboo as MFP, the villagers were provided with requisite technical support by the Forest Department officials, who helped divide the forest into compartments for use on a rotational basis. The forest was divided into 3 large sections on silvicultural considerations and the bamboo is harvested only from one area every year before moving onto another area in the following year. Thus, a rotation period of 3 years is set, which is also the time taken for the bamboo to fully regenerate. This ensures that the bamboo is sustainably harvested from the forests. Further, activities such as grazing and extraction of firewood would take place only from the area that was being harvested, ensuring that the remaining areas of the forest remain free from interference.

To protect the forest against encroachment and felling by outsiders, the Gram Sabha employs a team of locals for patrolling. Thus, this has also become an avenue for local employment. Notably, Forest Department also cooperates in this regard by providing a few forest guards and the Gram Sabha is empowered to issue penalties on encroachers. 

  • Scientific Harvesting

The villagers shared that previous experience of carrying out works for the Forest Department and employment at paper mills had given them a background of bamboo harvesting techniques. Some basic rules they use are as follows: 

  1. The bamboo is always cut leaving a margin of thumb height as measured from the base of the plant.
  2. The villagers discard dead and irregular shaped bamboo stalks to promote healthy growth.
  3. The bamboo is only harvested if the plant is capable of yielding more than 8 stems.
  • Mobilizing Local Labor

The harvesting process begins in January and goes on for 4- 5 months. It is overseen by the Gram Sabha of Rahu and labour for the entire process is sourced locally. The Gram Sabha decides the wages for the harvesting work. Usually, the cutting of each steam is remunerated with Rs. 5-6. Next, 400-500 people are recruited for the harvest season. 

Thus, this activity provides employment not only to Rahu but also to neighboring villages. The harvested bamboo is then stored in a depot situated in the village until the marketing process begins.

  • Marketing

The Gram Sabha decides the price of the harvested bamboo and invites tenders for the same by publishing advertisements in the local newspapers. Interested firms/individuals from Nagpur, Amravati and Madhya Pradesh come to take part in the auction for buying the harvested bamboo.

Financial Gains from Bamboo

When the Gram Sabha initially carried out the harvesting in 2016-17, they had to rely on a loan of Rs. 5 Lakh under the ‘Manav Vikas Nidhi’ granted by the SDO. However, with the returns from the first harvest, they were able to earn a revenue of Rs. 40 Lakh with a profit of Rs. 20 Lakh. As of 2019, Rahu reports 1.3 Crore of benefit from the harvesting of bamboo. 

Table 1: Volumes of Bamboo Harvested between 2016 to 2019

YearBamboo stems harvested
201725,000
201865,000
20193,00,000

Source: Oral Records of Mungilal Bhusum, Member of Rahu Gram Sabha

A Community Empowered 

The grant of Community Forest Right has led to several positive changes in Rahu. The villagers have employment opportunities available throughout the year in the form of harvesting the bamboo, patrolling the forests and planting of saplings. As a result, outmigration has become negligible since there are adequate employment opportunities available in the village itself. The revenue from the forests has been used by the Gram Sabha to improve the standard of living of the villagers. Welfare activities such as the provision of tap water to every household, purchase of books for the Zilla Parishad school and development of infrastructure for cultural activities. 

Rahu is a stellar example of how communities can use their rights to bring about bottom-up development.

In the coming future, the Gram Sabha has ambitious plans of making finished bamboo products for marketing by skilling local people. Also, they are studying the potential of diversifying into other marketable forest produce like lac. They have also requested the Forest Department for a share of the teak leftover after felling.

A Replicable Model for Success

Rahu is a stellar example of how communities can use their rights to bring about bottom-up development. The community initially gained financial empowerment through the sale of forest produce which then had a positive spillover effect on socio-economic development. In bringing about this change, the Gram Sabha has played an instrumental role by making villagers aware of their rights and responsibilities, developing consensus among the villagers and then mobilizing villagers to act. 

The case study is also a testament to how the three main stakeholders – Gram Sabha, Forest Department, and Voluntary Organizations can work together towards achieving common goals. The Rahu example is thus a successful model that can be emulated by other villages successfully to use their resources in a sustainable manner and foster their own development through CFRs. 

(Neel Karnik is a student of the Masters in Public Policy program. A graduate in electrical engineering, his areas of interest are Internet and social media, energy, agriculture, international relations, and policy evaluation. He can be reached at karniknitin@nls.ac.in)

(Priyanka Sahasrabudhe is a student of Public Policy at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. She is interested in exploring the intersection of economic policy with societal inequalities in India. She can be reached at priyankanitin@nls.ac.in)

References 

Ganjapure, V. (2016). Melghat: Nearly 6,000 kids, mothers died in Melghat due to Malnutrition. [online] Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/nagpur/Nearly-6000-kids-mothers-died-in-Melghat-due-to-malnutrition/articleshow/54434218.cms [Accessed 31 Dec. 2019].

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