Residents of two villages in Maharashtra's Chandrapur district have been out of work for over six months after cases filed by the state forest department brought the local bamboo-based livelihood to an abrupt halt. Incidentally, it's been two years since they were granted authority over forest land and resources — including bamboo — under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006.
Community forest rights (CFR), a crucial part of the FRA, empowers the 'forest dwellers' to exercise control over non-timber forest produce and use it to supplement income from farming or labour. For most members of the Pardhan and Mala tribes in Sitarampeth and Kondegaon, however, the only income is from selling bamboo products.
"At least, three generations in this village have depended on bamboo. Since they were granted CFR over around 1,300 acres of forest land in June 2016, they have been using it by law," Shankar Bharde, an FRA activist, says.
With the Assembly election exactly a week away, forest rights and unemployment — which was also a major issue for the ruling BJP in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections this year — are likely to be deciding factors in the voting booths in Sitarampeth and Kondegaon.
Usually, locals were able to earn a maximum of Rs 1,000 a week from selling the hand-crafted items, but business took a hit when a truck of the private contractor, who has been buying goods from them since the 1980s, was apprehended by forest department officials in March this year. He was also asked to give information about the suppliers.
The contractor, Vasudev Kamble, named Rambhau Dhande, Kaudu Kowee, Arvind Bhowee, and Subhash Ghedam at random, against whom FIRs have now been filed.
Kamble explains that under pressure, he mentioned these people to the officials because he knew "they would be able to manage the situation". He adds, "When they seized our truck, they said I must plead guilty to trading forest produce without a permit, but we insisted on fighting it out in court because we hadn't broken any law. But the whole process has taken six months, and the loss has been manifold."
The total cost of rent for the truck while it was in the department's custody is Rs 1 lakh, of which Kamble, so far, has been able to pay only half. "All the products I had bought have gone bad, and my business has come to a standstill because of the case. I have lost close to Rs 2 lakh in the last few months," he adds.
In September, Kamble's case got a boost when a district court ordered for the truck to be freed from custody after the Sitarampeth gram sabha submitted an affidavit stating that the produce had been sold to him by locals.
However, the case against Dhande, Kowee, Bhowee, and Ghedam remains and has been listed for hearing on 6 June, 2020.
The kicker that has caused resentment against the government and the forest department, is that while officials claim that they were unaware of the villages having received community forest rights, the document declaring the same was signed by then-deputy forest director, Gajendra Narawane.
Madhukar Kowee, president of a local eco-development committee instituted under the Maharashtra government's former Joint Forest Management (JFM) scheme, says "They are saying they didn't know that we had been given CFR, but how is that possible? When any government makes a decision, a notification is given to all departments, so how can the forest department be left out of the loop? Kahi tari khotepanna chalu ahe (something fishy is going on)."
'Forest department creating an atmosphere of fear'
The situation is summed up by Bharde with an analogy: "The government's approach to implementing FRA is like serving someone a plate full of food but saying, 'Don't you dare eat'. "Everything is by the book theoretically, but the rights of the people are non-existent in reality."
The implementation of the provisions under FRA, specifically of CFR and individual forest rights (IFR), was one of the key demands of state and nationwide protests by tribal farmers in 2018.
"The forest department has flouted the law in this case because under FRA, the gram sabha gets immediate and total control over the forest as soon as CFR is approved. Secondly, the government is supposed to consult the gram sabha before launching an investigation against any of the locals, but that didn't happen," Bharde says.
Ghedam, an accused in the case from Kondegaon village, says that the forest department often resorts to "intimidation tactics" by filing false cases against people.
"Sometimes, even if we cross paths outside the jungle, they pick us up take us to the rangers' outposts in the jungle and beat us up. They've kept us there for several days at a stretch. There's no use going to the police about this," he adds.
Bhowee, another accused, noted that there has been "atmosphere of fear" since the case has ensured that other private contractors trading in NTFP also stay away from the two villages, which adds to the issue of unemployment.
'Everyone is sitting at home'
The mismanagement of the case by the forest department has cost at least 50 families in both the villages their primary livelihood, and voters have resolved to hold the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP-Shiv Sena combine government of Maharashtra "accountable" in the election, they said.
Twenty-five-year-old Sushma Dhog says that not only has this case taken away the option of self-employment people were relying on, but it also emphasises the government's inability to generate jobs for the people in the villages inside the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve.
"Since the case, almost everyone is sitting at home. Men are sitting around idle all day while the women are taking up odd jobs or labour in neighbouring villages and running all the household expenditure on that. Currently, there is palpable resentment against the administration," she says.
Kowee, a 65-year-old who is also an accused in the case, and his wife Nirmala, live alone. They now subsist on the Rs 150 a day that she earns from working in cotton fields.
"If thekedaars (contractors) refuse to buy from our village in the future, how will we eat? We are willing to do the work, but there's no one to buy our products because such problems cost them Rs 1-2 lakh. The government is trying to shut us out of the forest completely," Kowee says.
"There's no land to farm here," Nirmala adds.
Former seat of 'giant killer' Suresh Dhanorkar
Former Shiv Sena MLA from the Warora Assembly Constituency and currently the lone Congress MP from Maharashtra, Suresh Dhanorkar's support for FRA during his tenure as a state legislator gave a boost to the effort to secure CFR for the villages, Bharde says.
While those deprived of the law benefit in Bhamragarh, those in Korchi and Kurkheda in Gadchiroli district say that the governance concerning forest rights by both the BJP and the Congress has been equally ineffective, the Sonia Gandhi-led party's candidate for the Warora seat, Dhanorkar's wife Pratibha, is likely to find favour among tribal voters.
Madhukar echoes Bharde's opinion and says that then-MLA Dhanorkar had set up several meetings with the District Collector to expedite the demand for CFR in Sitarampeth and Kondegaon.
Dhanorkar, however, is also reportedly facing "23 offences related to robbery, assault, issuing life threat, damaging government property etc. registered against him since 2006."
On the other hand, Mangesh Kedar (31) of Kondegaon village, says that voting based on identity politics is rampant in the taluka. "People say that they want to give this government a jhatka but they are mostly judging candidates based on whether they are from the same community or not. The issues come second."
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Updated Date: Oct 15, 2019 15:57:04 IST