In a bid to replicate and accelerate the success of Mendha Lekha, located in the Naxal heartland of Gadchiroli district in Maharasthra, the Union Minister of Rural Development, Jairam Ramesh handed out transit passes (TPs) for bamboo to seven more gram sabhas of other villages in the district last week.
This will now enable the seven villages to transport and sell bamboos outside their villages. These include villages such as Bordha and Shankarpur where Oxfam, an international NGO has been working towards the implementation of Community Forest Rights (CFR) along with a local NGO Srishti. For a while, the villages covered under the community forest rights (CFRs) in Gadchiroli - despite having got the CFR - were unable to exercise their right to sell bamboo as they were not given the transit passes (TPs).
A beginning was made in April 27, 2011, when Jairam Ramesh and Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan handed over TPs for bamboo to Mendha (Lekha) gram sabha under Section 3.1 of Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, which recognises the CFR. Since then, CFRs have been recognized in some 400 villages in Gadchiroli district, making Mendha Lekha India's first CFR success story.
Obviously Ramesh appears not to have forgotten his commitment. Despite his new portfolio for rural development, he visited Mendha Lekha recently and met with NGOs working here and discussed issues that the villagers face. Realising that there are still problems of control over TPs, Ramesh in a letter dated March 15, 2012 to chief minister Chavan (a copy of which is with Business Today) highlighted the need for further action. In this letter, he says: "The initiative taken by Mendha Lekha has proved very successful. In 2011/12, thanks to the bold leadership you demonstrated, the Gram Sabha has earned almost Rs 1 crore from the sustainable harvesting of bamboo in the community forest. Clearly, the move to transfer control of the TPs from the state forest department to the gram sabha has powerful implications for economic development."
Jairam Ramesh has given several other pointers to the chief minister of Maharashtra
However, despite all the positive moves, Ramesh also in his letter to the chief minister has pointed to some practical issues being faced by the 10-15 gram sabhas. One big problem is that the forest department, some months back, had issued the transit passes along with the order for felling bamboo to Ballarpur Industries Limited (BILT) as well. Thus, an odd situation seems to have arisen where gram sabhas and the private company both have TP books. "Ideally if TP is given to a village, BILT or any other private company should not be given a TP" says Mohan H. Hiralal, head of Vrikshmitra, an NGO working in Gadchiroli. "This problem did not arise in Mendha (Lekha) as BILT was denied TPs," Ramesh adds.
According to Ramesh's letter, the paper mill continues to want access to large forests and not move to farmer-community harvested bamboo. BILT controls about 70 per cent of the bamboo area in Maharashtra (around 841,000 hectares). This area is in the tribal dominated Gadchiroli and Chandrapur districts. Gadchiroli and Chandrapur together account for 66 per cent of the State's bamboo. As much as 84 per cent of the bamboo area in these two districts has been leased out to BILT.
It is understood from sources that BILT is allowed to extract bamboo up to 1.8 to two lakh tonnes annually. From Gadchiroli district alone, the forest department earns revenue to the tune of Rs 125 crore per annum from all the forest produce, mainly timber. Bamboo fetches about Rs 10 crore to Rs 30 crore out of this. Every year, 10 lakh to 16 lakh long bamboos are harvested for personal use.
The cost of bamboo supplied through government contracts is much lower and this distorts the market for community-grown bamboo. BILT has been fighting a legal battle against the state government over hike in lease rates. While the government claims it had hiked rates after many years, BILT refused to accept it.
Earlier, the royalty BILT used to pay was Rs 650 per tonne. The government had hiked it to Rs 1,500 per tonne of bamboo two years ago, but the increase has been challenged by BILT in the court. Even the other private contractors pay Rs 2,500 per tonne. The same bamboo is sold at Rs 6-7 per metre in open market. The forest department earns Rs 5,000 per tonne for bamboo it sells to artisans and other users.
Looking at the impact Gadchiroli bamboo initiative would have in Naxal affected area, Ramesh has urged Chavan to cancel contracts or leases of the forest areas where CFRs have been recognised.
Last week the forest officials have clarified to Ramesh that BILT has been asked not to work in the villages. It will be worth watching how the state takes up other suggestions made by Ramesh on this issue.