By Jaideep Hardikar
It’s a collective wisdom that villagers in Lekha-Mendha evolved over decades to find solutions to their problems. “No point in looking outward, first look inward to find solutions,” says a bespectacled, Devaji Topha, the former sarpanch of this Gond adivasi village that abounds with an astounding biodiversity in its forest.
Mendha for one looked inward to resurrect its strong community bonds. “We do not believe in individual property rights, but in community rights,” says Topha, who spearheaded the village in establishing a participatory assembly for self-rule and determination and claiming back the forest rights from the government.
Earlier this week, Mendha – 40 km from Gadchiroli in Dhanora tehsil, inhabited by 480 Gond adivasis – became the country’s first village to get legal record of rights to manage its forest, water and forest produce as per the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Right) Act 2006, or Forests Rights Act (FRA) in short. The adivasi will guard their forests like they did for ages, but now they’d get revenue from the minor forest produce.
The law gives land ownership rights to individual dwellers and bestows upon a village community virtual ownership of surrounding forests – including nistar or utilization rights for cattle grazing, collection and storage of minor forest produce and management and disposal of resources.
“It’s a major responsibility,” says a be-spectacled Topha who never went to school, but is a walking encyclopedia on the nature’s laws. The villagers will be trained in management, but forest, he says, “is our life – it is our livelihood.”
Mendha’s 1800 hectares of forest is replete with a variety of bamboo, teak, herbs, mahua flowers and at least twenty different varieties of produce. Topha says the village is evolving plans to collect this produce (like Amla and chironji), process it in villages and market it. “It will generate income and employment.”
When the world is closeted in chaotic give-and-take to strike a political deal on climate change, this small community in Mendha says nature doesn’t have any scope for manipulation. You either preserve it or perish, says Topha.
“World over the management and science are showing that the natural resource management is a complex process,” says Mohan Hirabai Hiralal of Vrikshamitra (friends of trees), a green group in Chandrapur. “And it’s now proven that only the communities closest to the resources can effectively manage them.”
Mendha’s model, Mohan says, is in line with the Copenhagen concerns– the only way to conserve forests is to give its management to local tribal communities.
It was in the eighties that he first discovered Mendha’s collective wisdom while doing a research study. “The village took every decision collectively in its Gram Sabha and stood by that decision,” he remembers. Be it prohibition or ban on tree felling or commercial exploitation of forests – it would be a collective call.
The villagers protested the felling of forests for commercial purposes by officials in mid-eighties; it said “no” to the outsiders coming into its territory; then, it laid down dos and don’ts for its own people for conservation of resources.
Together, Mendha resurrected a decade ago a dried up river Kathari that flowed along the village.
It became an example for the scholars and researchers from all over the world to study. Mendha fits a Gandhian idea of participatory democracy. Villagers say the rule of nature is supreme. “We are bound by those laws,” says Topha.
Three decades ago, he remembers, the villagers questioned the government logic: “How can we have no right on the forest, which we managed and conserved for generations?” The uneducated adivasis locked horns with the government in Mumbai and New Delhi, he says. “No law can be enforced on us from the top – those who make it don’t face it,” he says. “Here we decide what is good or bad for us and once a decision is taken, we face it,” he explains as he walks through the village that is spread over three wards, each having its separate working groups. An ebullient group of children is playing on a wooden cart. Topha says the new generation would be educated, but would follow the nature’s rule.
Mendha first hit the headlines with its slogan, ‘Mawa nate, mata raj’ (we are the government in our village). “Gram Sabha,” says Topha, “is the authority.” A signboard declaring that slogan in the bold still hangs on its office wall.
When the Biodiversity Act came into being, it became the first village to have a bio-diversity register (record of the bio-diversity in its forest). Every household in the village has a biogas – its first step toward energy self-sufficiency.
The village laws, among other things, make it mandatory for anyone to seek the Gram Sabha’s permission before commencing any work on the community land, make sustainable use of natural resources and take all decision by consensus.
Negotiations don’t work. Consensus does. Mendha realized and learned from its experience over the past decade to become what it did – an example in India, nay the entire world, that the tribal communities can manage natural resources.
“Today’s problems emerge from a lack of an outsider’s understanding of a tribal way of life and his idea about development,” says Topha. “We call ourselves Koitur, which means human beings. Outsiders call us Gond, Madia Gond, tribal, adivasi or vanvasi or by such names. Pumping in money in a village won’t work, give us our forests and rights over natural resources, and see the results.”
An enlightened adivasi population of this village can consensually achieve what the world leaders can’t – putting the nature first.
Mendha was already managing its resources under the joint forest management (JFM) scheme, but the government hasn’t shared since 1992 with the Gram Sabha its legitimate 50 percent revenue from the sales of minor produce and bamboo. But at no time did the village say it wouldn’t guard the forest because it was not getting revenue share. “It’s not about money,” say villagers. “Forest is our life.”
Having won the legal right, Mendha has to decide what needs to be done with the minor forest produce – like tendu leaves, amla, hirda, charoli, mahua, honey.
“We are thinking of setting up self-help-groups and cottage processing units in households,” Topha says. That way, he says, everyone would get income and be part of managing our resources. The village, he said, could offer employment to people from other villages. “We can achieve our self reliance in our sense.”
First though, they’d have to train themselves in management of forest resources. The entire village will sit together for a plan – in a study group approach.
Topha says he too evolved with the emergence of Mendha’s collective conscience – as an individual and later as a Sarpanch who headed the village Gram Sabha.
In 2000, when the then Governor P C Alexander wanted to visit the village, the district collector personally came to seek permission of the Gram Sabha. “It has such a powerful impact,” he says. “The assembly accorded its permission and welcomed the Governor.” But think of it now, he says, this is the same village that 30 years ago would fear outsiders clad in modern apparel.
“As a child, I would escape into forests with friends if we saw a pant-shirt-clad man coming to our village,” says Topha, clad in a white dhoti and kurta.
His elder daughter Manda works with her husband Nitin Barshinge in Marda, which, along with Mendha, also got record of rights over its 800 hectares of forest from the governor. His second daughter Nanda works for Vrikshamitra (friends of trees) in Chandrapur and youngest son Charandas helps him in his work.
Mendha, he says, got support from researchers and workers in understanding tedious government procedures and law. The answer to paper work could only be paper work, he chuckles. “But when it comes to decisions, it is always our call. No outsider can influence our decisions – nature guides us.”
Mendha first hit the headlines with its slogan: “Mawa nate, mawa raj” (we are the government in our village). Here are a few of its resolutions:
1. All domestic requirements of the village would be met from the surrounding forests without paying any fee to the government (This, however, is accompanied by a set of rules for sustainable extraction.)
2. No outsider, whether governmental or non-governmental, would be allowed to carry out any forest activity without the permission of the Gram Sabha (which includes a member from every household).
3. No commercial exploitation of the forests, except for Non-Timber Forest Produce, would be allowed.
4. Villagers would regularly patrol the forests.
5. They would regulate the amount of resources they could extract from the forests.
6. Water and soil conservation efforts followed to arrest soil erosion.
7. Forests would not be set on fire and villagers would aid in fire-extinguishing activities.
8. Encroachment would not be allowed.
The Scheduled Tribes and Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, or Forest Rights Act (FRA) in short, recognises four main rights: (i) the right of traditional forest dwellers to claim forest land held before December 13, 2005; (ii) the right of the government to divert forest land for 13 kinds of development activities, including building of schools, hospitals, aganwadis and roads; (iii) the rights of individuals and a community as a whole over minor forest produce, grazing land and water resources, and so on; and (iv) the right of communities to protect, conserve, regenerate or manage any forest or community forest resource that has been traditionally protected.
After Lekha Mendha and Marda, several villages in Gadchiroli and across India have begun process of filing claims of community rights to the forests.
But the tribal rights activists are seeking an extension to the December 31, 2009 that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had set for complete filing the claims.
Mendha village has appealed to the PM to make the procedure for securing rights easy by ridding the tribals of the onus to prove and file their rights claims.
“It’s unjust to ask the illiterate tribals to fill in the claims and produce records when the government itself has the records,” the village said in a letter written to the PM some time back. “The job should be done by the government through its district collectors. Why bother the illiterate tribals with the complicated job they can’t do on their own? Most of them will not be able to do it and will thus remain away from the benefits of the legislation.”
As per the law, a village assembly has to prepare a claim in a format ascribed, refer it to the village forest rights committee and revenue officials and get a nod of its Gram Sabha by a two-third majority. The draft claim is sent for approval to a sub-divisional committee and district-level committee headed by the collector.
Each district collector, Mohan said, can grant community rights to other villages on its own volition instead of waiting for the villages to submit their claims. “The government must correct its mistake of denying people their traditional rights.”