Dharni, Amravati: “Ab toh ham milke kuch bada karke dikhayenge” (Now we will do something big together).
That’s what Krishna Khadke, a young Korku farmer, told me, looking radiant as we went up the hills on a hot summer morning in March 2021 in Sosokheda village to see the trench resident villagers had come together to build that month in the village’s community forest land.
Sosokheda is a remote tribal village in Dharni block, on the north-eastern edge of Maharashtra’s Amravati district, along the border with Madhya Pradesh. In this difficult, mountainous terrain, the village is brought to life with around 150 households of the marginalised Korku tribe with their culture and community living, as well as an abundant bounty of nature and forest.
The village had secured a Community Forest Rights (CFR) title to nearly 200 hectares of its traditional community forest lands in 2012 under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The landmark law was enacted to formally recognise the traditional rights of India’s over 250 million forest-dependent peoples over forest lands and produce. It thus sought to stem the violent evictions and criminalisation of forest communities, enabled for over a century by colonial and post-colonial forest laws.
In the next two months of their promise, the village of Sosokheda did as it said, collectively planting over 5,000 saplings of bamboo, custard apple, jamun, tamarind, Indian gooseberry, mango and behada on the community lands to which they had received formal rights. They also dug leaf compost pits in “their” forest to prevent forest fires.
The bulk of this work took place under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2006(NREGA)—the world’s largest social security program, which guarantees rural populations a safety net through the ‘right to work’ and stem distress migration of vulnerable communities. The law mandates the state to provide a minimum of 100 days of demand-driven unskilled work to every rural adult in a financial year—a little over Rs 230 a day in Maharashtra.
Deploying this legal guarantee of the NREGA, in 2020-21 Sosokheda created over 5,000 person-days of work, and witnessed reverse migration in their village. The annual average until then in the village had been 600 person-days of work i.e four days of NREGA work per household in a year.
Marketing Their Forest Produce
Around 70 km from Sosokheda, in Rangubeli village— located in Dharni block of Melghat— people were busy collecting tendu patta to sell before the monsoon arrived in June.
Rangubeli, a predominantly Korku village with over 120 households, lies within the buffer zone of Melghat Tiger Reserve, bordering three other core villages. The collection of tendu leaf, used to make bidis, is a vital source of seasonal employment and income for millions of forest dwellers across India, in villages like Rangubeli.
The FRA for the first time gave them the right to market such produce, thus deriving financial benefits, which had been mostly going to contractors and the forest department.
In tribal villages, livelihood options are scant. Apart from working in their or anyone else’s fields in the Kharif season when natural irrigation is available, the means of earning are limited. More importantly, the unique culture of communities such as the Korkus makes them one with nature—which they worship as their God.
Therefore, traditional access over minor forest produce and the ability to earn some livelihood from it is crucial not only for their way of life, but for the administration too which often struggles to establish trust with Adivasi communities.
This year, over May-June, even after the forest department refused to give them permission to collect tendu patta citing restrictions on movement in the core and buffer areas of the reserve, the gram sabha decided to assert their rights under the FRA to gather and market forest produce and not give up.
The forest department yielded its long-running control over the produce after intense discussions, and Rangubeli collected tendu patta after 25 long years, auctioning it under the FRA to earn lakhs of rupees for the community.
Exploitation Amidst Plenty
Sosokheda and Rangubeli are two of eight villages selected by the district administration in Dharni for a pilot of converging the MGNREGA and FRA laws. This area, more commonly known as Melghat hosts a tiger reserve, scattered and sparse forested settlements and is nurtured by the Korku tribal community, which forms over 77% of the more than 300,000 people of the Dharni and adjoining Chikaldhara block (2011 census).
The Reserve was formally announced in 1974 and sprawls over 2700 sq km—a site of conflict between traditional community access to forests and livelihood and state control over forest lands and conservation laws.
On one hand, this vast landscape is blessed with abundant resources. Yet people’s access to the forests and resources are tenuous and even criminalised by law, and socio-economic marginalisation runs deep. Trucks full of Adivasi people leaving in search of basic livelihoods every Diwali following the monsoon harvest are a telling feature of the Melghat landscape.
Most of these families migrate to adjoining districts and even the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh with their children for 4-6 months of the year, toiling in low-paid, insecure work such as wage labour on brick kilns.
Their absence from villages for several months, year after year, further marginalises them by disrupting entitlements to education, nutrition, health and other public services.
In Melghat, for example, a peak in the number of malnourished children has been seen in the month of March, when families return to their homes in the village after a season of migrant work.
Bringing Together 2 Key Laws
As an administrator, moving around the forests of Amravati district made me wonder at the immense riches available, the potential of the work that people can do, and the alliances that strategic policy can build.
I was also acutely aware of the annual distress migration which communities had been resorting to in order to survive, and their desire to create an ecosystem of prosperity and sustainability for themselves, around themselves.
This sparked the design of a pilot in eight villages in August 2020. Our initial idea was to use a convergence—NREGA with FRA, in particular its community forest rights (CFR) provisions—followed by detailed planning of resource management, spearheaded by the community.
These villages are what we call 'forest villages'—as they are in reserved forests area—and, therefore, fall under multiple government jurisdictions: development departments control the gaothan or the built-up village part, while the largely forested surrounding areas come under revenue or mainly Forest Department. Since the land is categorised as reserve forest, all estimates and work execution under the NREGA rests with the forest department.
However the legal concept of community forest rights (CFR) for forest-dwelling communities shifts power over natural resource management towards the community. A community right incentivises economy of scale, brings people together, and promotes ownership that reflects the steadfast possession of its people. At least in principle.
FRA guidelines also instruct the state to assist with post-right management and capacity building (section 16).
It has been our observation on ground that the mere recognition of a right is not enough if the post-claim support is not provided to communities.
The Promise Of Community Rights
The potential of a CFR land title can be vast and course-altering for a particular village, as we have seen in many villages across the country. In Dharni—one of the blocks of Melghat—we wanted to use convergence as a tool to empower villages that had received CFR titles for many years.
Here are just a few observations from the work we could do in less than a year working on this simple convergence:
* More than 20,000 working days were generated in these 8 villages in 2020-21 and projects/works worth around 37 lakh rupees were implemented/ built.
* Sosokheda, which had not seen any forest work in the past 3 years, had ten times the work generation in 2020-21 (compared to average person-days of previous years).
* Sososkheda village started their NREGA work at 112 laborers but increased every day as migrated people came back after hearing that work was available in their village. This reverse migration has become the short term push for people to invest in the management of CFR lands.
* Minimal NREGA work had started on CFR lands in these villages until 2020-21. In Bod village, forest work opened up for the first time in at least six years.
*Rangubeli collected its tendu patta after 25 years from CFR land, with proceeds worth 1.67 lakh rupees going directly to the village.
* Many of these villages significantly reduced migration, not only over the past year (i.e. 2020-2021) but also potentially in the near future as communities have planned work on their CFR lands for the coming year, such as tending to the young saplings, and soil and water conservation projects.
The key for us, however, was to see truly participatory planning. The typical practice in many forest villages is that officials of the Forest Department provide NREGA work to villagers but predominantly control its planning, frequency, budgets and implementation.
We believe this is a lost opportunity.
NREGA work on CFR land gives us an extraordinary moment in history—people planning for what they want regarding water conservation, agriculture and sustainability, and carrying the responsibility of nurturing their land and environmental resources.
Since convergence across departments was so fundamental, I would like to outline how it played out for us on the field. Our stakeholders in this entire process are—the state (in the form of revenue/tribal department who also form the nodal office for FRA), a non-governmental group called Samaj Pragati Sahyog (SPS), the forest department, the village ‘s Community Forest Rights Managing Committee, and the community at large.
The overall push for planning and implementation came through the Revenue/Tribal office—12 block-level meetings took place in six months involving range forest officers (RFOs); we also took suggestions from them on making this a more fruitful exercise. The revenue office gave targets to the forest officials for estimate-making and approvals ready in time for employment.
The groundwork and technical documentation was laid out by staff of the SPS who worked alongside villagers in drafting management plans. SPS and the district administration also planned extensive training and exposure visits for members of the Village Forest Rights committees to other areas of the state where similar efforts were underway, as these community committees were a key institution in this process, and our building blocks.
This technical support was crucial as it kept us focused. But most importantly, it put us in touch with people: we started taking up works that came out of discussions and shivarferis (targeted community walks for village resource-mapping exercises) in villages, our intention being to create a solid village team, exit and stand back to wonder at what communities can do for themselves.
With the village communities we had a simple principle to begin with: that they know more than us—and we need to listen and facilitate, rather than control. This gave them ownership in what they were doing, and we believe that is the single-most thing that can make these initiatives sustainable.
For example, in its rugged terrain laden extensively with mountains and forest, the gram sabha (village assembly) meeting sessions of Rangubeli are a sight to behold. People intensely involved in natural planning, making natural resource maps, and demarcating their traditional forest boundaries.
We hit roadblocks many times. In one or two villages, it took significant work with the community. At times the SPS was not able to reach people, or convergence could not be initiated. The pilot effort took us understanding the concept, and learning lessons to mend things on a case-by-case basis.
There is, perhaps, a need to also mention the importance of transforming attitudes when pursuing reforms like these. For us, extensive discussions were key—whether with the forest department or with the people. It was important to negotiate with forest officials to understand their concerns and how these could be addressed while keeping the focus on community-driven planning.
I observed that making the forest bureaucracy part of these reforms helped many forest officials on the field renew their trust with people and add meaning to their work.
Power To The People
When villagers saw something as possible, more people joined in the collective effort to build something good.
There is a lot of difference, therefore, in soil and water conservation trenches that people build in their villages to get employment from the state and the trenches they have proposed and build, because they know it will replenish their well for years to come.
The difference is ownership: in the former instance, they are doing work on a project controlled by the state to earn a day's wages from it; in the latter, it is their own land they are taking care of, with the knowledge and anticipation of future benefits.
Then, it was no surprise when Sosokheda village used shramdaan (voluntary labour) to build leaf-composting pits in their CFR land to prevent forest fires. Or when Rangubeli people repaired a stretch of road leading up to their village by themselves.
This is apart from the extensive CFR area demarcation exercises carried out by people in their villages—around 43 Km of forest areas have been demarcated by people as they mapped their traditional forest areas.
An argument, of course, can be made that NREGA work is not really the main intention of CFR. However, it can be an excellent short-term goal to orient people, via state-guaranteed employment, around the concept of building community assets and conserving forests.
Given Melghat’s context of remoteness, dense forests and community living—things common to many tribal areas—NREGA becomes the tool that incentivises people to start with the narrative of living in their villages, and shaping their own environment.
Half the work in NREGA is timely and relevant planning: if that can be coordinated well ahead of the migration months, it would bear a great impact on people’s livelihoods, nutrition, climate and much more. And at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of community resilience and grassroots development, a convergence like this becomes indispensable.
If democracy and people’s well-being can be approached in this manner in India’s vast forest areas, the future years should demonstrate a new model of sustainability and a new level of sophistication, which forest-dwellers can create for the world to learn from.
(Mittali Sethi served as assistant collector, Amravati district, from 2019 to July 2021. Her views are personal. She would like to thank her colleagues Pawan Jeph and Swami Durke for inputs.)