Open Space

Informal workers, making up 90% of workforce, won’t get a good deal till netas notice them

In a room of a jhuggi colony in Delhi, women sit around, painstakingly snipping extra threads off newly-minted denims, made by a large multinational. The company making these jeans has outsourced the cleaning up work to contractors, who, in turn, have farmed out the job to these women. The women do not earn a fixed salary. Instead, they are paid a few rupees for every piece of garment that they clean up.

If they, or their kids, fall ill and they take the day off, they earn nothing. They get no medical benefits, insurance, pension or Diwali bonus. They are India’s informal sector: a vast workforce that powers the economy, but flies under the radar of each and every political party. The courier who rings your doorbell with the books you ordered online is an informal sector worker, likely hired on a contract and liable to be fired at a moment’s notice.

Construction workers, among the most hazardous jobs anywhere in the world, fall in this category, as do private security guards, household help, drivers of cabs, dabbawalas, presswalas, shoe shines and the chhotuswho scurry around teashops serving tea and cleaning up the bartans.

The informal worker is so ubiquitous that we’ve stopped noticing her. Just how large is India’s informal economy? This year, Neelkanth Mishra, chief strategist at brokerage Credit Suisse (CS), and his team tried to answer this question.

Their report, published in July, offers a stunning conclusion: half of India’s $1.85-trillion economy is informal. With 55%, only sub-Saharan Africa has a larger unorganised economy than India’s.

And it is possible that much of sub-Saharan Africa doesn’t have much of an organised sector anyway. The average of most transition economies, or emerging markets, is a little over 20%. This below-radar economy is mostly urban: concentrated in the big cities, but widespread in smaller towns and mohallas as well. CS reckons that as much as 84% of the non-farm workforce in India is informal.

No Sweat over Sweatshops

Once you think about it, this seems obvious. Formal workers work for companies or governments, the vast majority of Indians don’t. India’s businesses, like the sweatshop cutting loose threads from jeans, are also largely informal.

According to the CS study, only 13% of industrial companies and 12% of materials businesses are listed. That’s a quarter of all enterprises. So, 75% of all businesses in India fall in the unlisted and informal category. Mishra and his team also say that over time, Indian companies have started hiring fewer and fewer formal workers, even though the number of companies has been shooting up. Based on the periodic Economic Censuses of the government, they show that in 1980, India had 19 million enterprises, with each employing around three people.

By 2005, the number of companies had increased to more than 40 million, but by now, each employed only 2.4 people. So, informal workers perform the additional new tasks on hand. Given all this, Mishra and his team believe that India’s GDP is badly underestimated, perhaps by as much as 15%. Hence, they believe that there are big investment opportunities in companies with exposure to the informal economy.

There are large political possibilities to be tapped here as well. Workplace safety is unheard of: for example, women working in brick kilns have unusually high levels of urinary tract infections, possibly the result of working long hours in intense heat, with little downtime and scarce drinking water. There are no welfare measures, or holidays. Informal workers have no bargaining power with their employers.

Onsite accidents or deaths go largely unreported, with meagre compensations paid out to family. Even in organised manufacturing, workers get only a few minutes off per shift to go to toilets or eat.

All this can change for the better with sustained political campaigns. But parties have to first take note of the vast informal sector as a vote bank within their reach. Narendra Modi campaigns only in cities and towns. With his burqas and skullcaps, his is a broad-brush communal rant. Rahul Gandhi campaigns only in villages. He speaks in terms of broad-brush welfarism.

No Account in Vote Bank

Mayawati speaks to her Dalit and downtrodden brethren. The DMK and AIDMK talk of Tamil pride. Akhilesh Yadav broke with his father’s socialism, spoke of laptops and bicycles, and has turned out a dud. Mamata Banerjee rouses her Trinamool hordes to frenzy with talk of Ma, Mati, Manush. Nitish Kumar says he deserves special treatment from the Centre. Naveen Patnaik does not speak.

Nobody has bothered to address something right under their noses: the largely urban, informal economy and its denizens. So, where does that leave nearly 90% of the Indian workforce that produces half its economy? It leaves them leaderless and abandoned. It’s as if informal equals invisible. Yet, they will also vote on polling day. It’s time our leaders noticed them.

Source: The Economic Times

Tribals finally get land rights, using GPS technology

Last week I visited tribal areas in Gujarat to see how technology and an activist NGO could empower once-powerless tribals to get their full land rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

The Act provided for land titles to be given to tribal plots in cultivation in December 2005. Earlier, government takeover of forests had converted forest dwellers into encroachers on land they had occupied for centuries. Their villages and farms were always at risk of demolition by forest departments. The Act was supposed to end this inequity. Many state governments soon claimed, falsely, that they had implemented the Act, empowering lakhs. In fact implementation was terrible. No proper maps or land records existed in most areas. Semi-literate villagers were supposed to fill long forms and file claims. Forest Departments contemptuously vetoed most claims.

Under the Act, gram sabhas certified which plots were cultivated by individual families in 2005, and forwarded the documents to the state government. But 128,000 of the 182,000 claims filed in Gujarat were fully or partly rejected. Even in the accepted cases, only part of the claimed area was approved. ARCH (Action Research in Community Health and Development) and other NGOs appealed to the High Court. The Court pulled up the state government and decreed a review of claims, allowing many sorts of evidence (including panchnamas, case records, official receipts and satellite images from Google Earth as well as the National Remote Sensing Agency) to establish ownership.

This opened the path for redress. Yet the traditional survey method of triangulation to establish the boundaries and area of each farm plot was onerous. Then ARCH came up with the idea of using GPS (global positioning system) hand-held devices costing Rs 12,000 apiece. Holding a GPS device, a tribal simply walked around the perimeter of his plot and pressed some buttons. The device automatically sketched a map of his farm, with the right latitude and longitude and exact area.

This enabled every family to produce a map of its holding, and get it verified by the gram sabha. All individual maps were then superimposed on a satellite image of the village dating from 2005 (the deadline under the Act). This produced a detailed map showing the exact size and ownership of every plot. Land disputes arose if two villagers walked over the same area, and disputes were settled by the gram sabha before certification. Any encroachment on forest land after 2005 showed up clearly after superimposing today’s maps on the 2005 satellite image. This assuaged the Forest Department’s fears.

Thus a simple technology promoted by activist NGO provided a quick, elegant solution. The overall village map was then uploaded onto the internet, empowering any villager to go to an internet café in a nearby town and print out a copy. This ended tribal dependence for land documentation on government departments or NGOs. Tribals are willing to pay Rs 60 to ARCH for this service, roughly enough to cover all costs. So, the project can be expanded without limit with no subsidy or donations.

The new approach yielded far better outcomes. When tribals re-filed claims using these maps and additional evidence like panchnamas and receipts, government acceptance of claims went up to 61 out of 63 in one village, and 96 out of 112 in another. ARCH hopes to average 90% success. Early project villages are training their neighbours in using GPS, speeding up tribal capacity. The project has so far covered 150 tribal villages, just one-tenth of the total. It may take 18 months to cover all villages.

The Gujarat tribals say formal ownership makes a huge difference. They are no longer treated as encroachers, and so are entitled to all government schemes for agriculture, including land leveling and well digging on their lands under MNREGA. Earlier, the forest department banned the entry of tractors into forest land. But after getting ownership recognition, tribals say they use tractors on 90% of plots, because these are faster and cheaper than bullock ploughing. They want to modernize fast.

There is an urgent need to spread this approach to all forested states. The Liberty Institute and ARCH are trying to do so (see by contacting NGOs everywhere. Some Marxist and “romantic pastoralist” NGOs oppose the very notion of individual plots, or of modernizing tribals. But less ideological NGOs are co-operating . A massive country-wide effort is needed to empower of millions of tribals, making them masters of their own plots and community land.

The same GPS technology could be used to help update land records across India. This may require prior work on dispute settlement, since disputes are furious and widespread. Still, the methodology has much potential.


Ministry of environment and forests wants states to free bamboo grown on private land

NAGPUR: Considering the role of bamboo in livelihood security and its ecological importance, the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) has urged all states and union territories not to require transit pass (TP) for transporting bamboo grown on private lands.

At present, no permission or licence is needed to grow bamboo on private land. However, permission is needed from revenue department followed by a TP from forest department to transport it. In a letter to all principal secretaries (forests) on May 14, 2013, the MoEF has asked them to revisit these requirements. The MoEF has said bamboo represented very important group of plants that provide ecological, economic and livelihood security to a large number of forest dependent communities.

It further said bamboo had multiple uses from construction material, handicraft and furniture making, raw material for paper and pulp industry and as food. It also has a very important role in addressing climate change concerns in addition to providing safety net and building resilience of forest dependent communities who are most vulnerable to climate change.

MoEF said, in this light there was an urgent need to encourage planting of bamboos in areas outside forests including private lands. The Centre was promoting bamboo plantations through various schemes with the involvement of public, especially in rural areas. The ministry received suggestions from various quarters for considering exemption of bamboo grown on private lands from requirement of felling and transit pass permissions in order to encourage farmers and other land owners for taking up bamboo plantations in a big way.

To ensure success of these efforts, it was important to provide enabling environment that includes a simplified regulatory regime so that the interest of growers could be sustained. MoEF said some states had already freed bamboo grown on private land and it had yielded good results.

However, experts cautioned that the issue needed to be handled with care. When illicit felling from forests was rampant, bamboo taken from forests could easily be passed as one from private land. Already a lot of damage had been done by those extracting bamboo illegally from sanctuaries and parks and reserve forests, they said.

Praveen Pardeshi, principal secretary (forests), said, “we have removed the condition of TP on bamboo grown on private land across the state, except in nine districts of Vidarbha where bamboo in forest may be illicitly felled and mixed with bamboo grown in farms. As of now, no state has removed all TP restrictions.”

“We are examining how to identify farm bamboo from forest bamboo, so bamboo could be freed in remaining nine districts too,” Pardeshi added.

Source: The Times of India

Vendors apprehensive about Street Vendors Bill

Some of legislations on the cards is the issuing of vending certificates to the nearly one crore street vendors in the country.

From eatables to fruit juices, soft toys to precious stones, garments to iron tools – you name the product and street vendors in the city are selling it. But useful as they are, there is no legislation yet to provide immunity to the vendor community.

However, a Bill is waiting in the wings to provide resistance and existence to street vendors. Approved by the Union Cabinet, the Street Vendors (Protection and Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, 2013 awaits a Parliamentary nod.

A brainchild of the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI), the Bill aims at enhancing the rights of street vendors. Among the important legislations on the cards is the issuing of vending certificates to the nearly one crore street vendors in the country. This would help to give them an identity as well as protect them from harassment by law enforcement agencies.

The Bill also endeavours to put in place a strong grievance redressal mechanism for the vendor community. It proposes the setting up of Town Vending Committees (TVCs) which will be responsible for deciding vending zones and the number of vendors that each zone should have. The TVCs will have to conduct at least one survey every five years to keep a close check on the number of vendors. To prevent exploitation, transfer of vending certificates will be prohibited, hence ensuring that only vendors themselves can have access to them.

With an estimate of around two lakh street vendors in Delhi, different opinions were expressed by vendors when asked about the Bill. Shivam Kumar, who operates in INA market and has some idea about the Bill said, “I read about the Bill in the newspapers, it would really help street vendors like us, if passed. More importantly it would save us from the police and local authorities.” The Bill ensures that the police cannot exercise Sections 283 and 431of IPC without specific reason on vendors having certificates.

Sundar Lal, an employee in a garments shop at Sarojini Nagar market, while appreciating the provision of non-transferable certificates, said, “As of now we work under a person who doesn’t do anything but takes 50 per cent of the net profit. He has left the shop to us to run and has three such shops.”

However, a section of the vendor community was sceptical about the ultimate outcome of the Bill. Arun Kumar, a chaat vendor in Chandni Chowk, has neither a license nor any idea about the new Bill. He doesn’t expect much to change either. “Bhai saab, bahuth saare kanoon bane huye hai, par inka koi fayda nahi hai.”According to the chaat-selling vendors, they pay Rs. 200 to the police every day, Rs. 500 to the Municipal Corporation every month and Rs. 10 to the sweepers regularly. Other vendors, too, expressed their fear of what the Bill might bring.

“We have tried to make a Bill which will benefit our vendors to a large extent,” said Arbind Singh, national coordinator of NASVI. According to him, 40 per cent members in TVCs would be vendors themselves and one-third would be women vendors. Emphasising the need for organising, he said, “Organising without law or law without organising both are failures, organising plus law can only bring about change”

The Bill, Mr. Singh explained, is designed to protect the livelihood rights and social security of street vendors and regulate urban street vending in the country. “In a society like ours, anybody can give you a law but you have to stand for your own rights; nobody can gift you your rights.”

Source: The Hindu

Centre to come up with NULM policy soon: Ajay Maken

The Central Government would soon come up with a new policy of National Urban Livelihood Mission (NULM) to alleviate poverty in urban areas, Union Minister Ajay Maken said here today.

Maken, Union Minister for Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, is on a two-day visit to the Andhra Pradesh capital to study and review the urban poverty alleviation programmes in urban areas implemented by the state government.

He visited the Indra Nagar Slum at Kapra Municipality here and interacted with Urban Self Help Groups and Town Level, Slum Level Federation Members and also the office of Mission for Elimination of Poverty in Municipal Areas (MEPMA), an official release said.

The minister reviewed the Swarna Jayanti Shahari Rozgar Yojana (SJSRY) programmes and interacted with the women members.

He said he was impressed by the way women members belonging to slum areas have been organised.

The model developed by Government of Andhra Pradesh can be replicated in the entire country for the empowerment of women and Socio-Economic development of the families of poor people living in urban areas, the release said.

The Centre would pass a legislation in ensuing Parliament session on Street Vendors Livelihoods Protection to benefit 95 lakh street vendors in the country.

The street vendors will be provided free vending places of 2.5 per cent of the urban areas and they will be supported with financial linkage through the banks and protection given to make business without any harassment, the minister said.

Another important programme of the Centre will be Rajiv Awas Yojana, under which urban infrastructure will be developed and housing provided to the occupants in the slum areas, the Union Minister said during the interaction.

Andhra Pradesh Minister for Municipal Administration and Urban Development M Maheedhar Reddy highlighted the number of steps taken for urban poverty alleviation and requested the Union Minister to support the state by allocating required funds for effective implementation of Rajiv Awas Yojana and other programmes, the release added.

Source: Business Standard

Hawk land

Sameera Khan on the large scale hawker evictions in the city

I have a serious confession to make. I am middle class, I have a master’s degree, I live in a comfortable 3-BHK, and I regularly patronise hawkers. I frequently buy vegetables, fruits, books, chappals, dangling earrings, vada pav, balloons, kebabs, mogra gajras and other such essentials and frivolities of everyday life from them. These are people now only described as a “menace” and a “nuisance” but whose continued presence on the streets comforts me – especially late evening and night – in familiar and strange parts of the city.

I doubt we are the only middle class family dependent on hawkers in Mumbai – though the way the mainstream media in recent weeks has framed the story of large scale hawker evictions, it seems as if the only relationship between the urban middle-class and hawkers is one of antagonism and intolerance. There’s no mention of the Andheri man upset that his neighbourhood bhajiwala has been evicted, forcing him to buy vegetables from Food Bazaar at Infinity Mall. Or of the harried working woman who prefers the late evening convenience of the hawkers outside Santa Cruz station, reassured by the warm light of their petromax lamps.  And what of the old woman near Pali Hill grateful for the threedecade long presence of the same bhelpuriwala at the end of her lane? Why don’t we hear these middle-class voices supporting the people who provide daily essential services, access to cheap goods, whose existence they depend on and whose non-appearance causes them distress?

Instead, we hear the chorus of zealous “citizen” groups expressing great displeasure at hawkers. Some have put up large banners congratulating the police for their relentless anti-hawker drive. Others no doubt are waiting to download the new Hawker Tracking System, an android phone application planned by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation so that concerned citizens can report a hawker’s location for faster eviction.

So much easier to target the hawker as the villain – who messes up the city and stubbornly “encroaches” on its public spaces. So much more difficult to take on your own middle-class comrades who often have more than one car and park on the pavement or the shopkeepers/restaurant owners who unashamedly extend their shopfronts or the builders who deliberately encroach on open spaces.

These are also illegal acts but somehow only the hawkers get seen as “illegal” and of course, most are “illegal” as the BMC has not issued any new hawker licences in Mumbai since 1978; only about 15,500 of the 2.5 to three lakh hawkers in this city are licensed. Hawkers desire legal status – their illegality makes them vulnerable to extortion and harassment.

Unfortunately we see the hawker question as a beautifying pavements issue and not as an employment concern. Hawking provides our urban poor a legitimate livelihood. Since hawkers often sell goods of small-scale or home-based industries, the impact of street vending on employment is even larger. Research reveals that many vendors hawk due to a decline in formal low-skilled jobs such as those in the textile mills. A street vending study by Sharit Bhowmik of Tata Institute of Social Sciences in seven Indian cities showed that around 30 per cent of hawkers in Ahmedabad and Mumbai and 50 per cent in Kolkata were former workers in the formal sector.

Looks like the formal sector has come back to claim its pound of flesh. Just observe who stands to gain once the hawkers are unemployed – big retail malls and supermarket chains like Reliance Fresh, Hypercity, Foodland, and others are all gainers in the process. The losers are the poor: as marketers and also as consumers. Everyone doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to shop at a supermarket and maybe you can drink a R80 coffee at CCD but for your domestics and other poor workers, the chaiwala on the street is a necessity.

Eventually the hawker’s issue is about who has rights to the city – “from whom” are we protecting our public spaces and “for whom” are we protecting them? It exposes our general indifferent attitude towards the working poor. We need policy and regulation but it has to be based on tolerance and acceptance of the others’ right to be there. I too want a clear pavement to walk on but just as I want my rights as a pedestrian respected, I also want to acknowledge the rights of other citizens to public space.

Business School for Rural Women

The Mann Deshi Business School for Rural Women (MDBS) is a new program that provides training in technical, financial and marketing skills to women with no formal education and to girls who have dropped out of high school, allowing them to start and improve their own small enterprises. HSBC is founding sponsor for Business School for Rural Women. As on July, 2010, there have been 27,543 Women’s Business School graduates. Of these graduates, 60% have gone on to start their own businesses.

One of the main criticisms of Microfinance is that it only helps the “economically active” poor, while excluding the “poorest of the poor.” The Mann Deshi Business School for Rural Women helps to make microfinance available to all women by providing not just business capital but also skills, knowledge and motivation. With the support of Mann Deshi Mahila Ltd. Bank, the business school guarantees suitable loan options to its graduates for seed capital to start micro-enterprises.

Most courses are offered in a classroom setting located in Vaduj, which opened in December 2006, although some classes are also offered in Mhaswad and in smaller villages through the Mobile Busines School. We have inaugurated business school in Satara on 21st September, 2010 and in Hubli on May, 2010.

The courses are designed to provide the skills needed to start and run a successful enterprise in the local market. The levels of the courses range from basic to advanced, to meet the varied needs and skill levels of women. Courses last between two and eight weeks, and are offered on at least a two-year rotation, ensuring that the market will be able to absorb new graduates.

The British Asian Trust supports Mann Deshi business school for rural women.   This will enable the rural women to start the business and become a successful business entrepreneur.  The British Asian Trust was founded in July, 2007 by a group of British Asian business leaders at the suggestion of HRH, The Prince of Wales. It aims to serve as a ‘social fund’ to support high impact charities within the areas of education, enterprise and health in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the UK.

For more details click here.

Bamboo rising

Five years after it was implemented, the Forest Rights Act finally takes root. Communities across the country rush to claim rights over forests and their produce, particularly bamboo. But they face a double challenge: the forest bureaucracy refuses to help communities prepare forest management plans, and contractors manipulate the market for their benefit. Is this the new battle in implementation of the Act? Richard Mahapatra from Odisha and Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava from Maharashtra unfold the plot:

Nobody in Loyendi village keeps track of time. But for its 150-odd residents, December 7, 2012, is a day to remember. “It is our independence day,” says village elder Petra Kanhara. On this day, the village in Odisha’s Kandhamal district got community right over 20 mountains full of forests under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). “Now, the forests and their produces are rightfully ours,” he smiles. Till now, paper mills had exclusive access to the vast bamboo resources the mountains have.

Back in 1967, people of Loyendi, most belonging to the Kondh tribe, became encroachers on their own land when the Odisha government declared the surrounding forest as reserve forest. The government had abandoned them, they felt and wondered why the forest they worshiped so ardently was being snatched away from them.

FRA, introduced in 2006, proved to be the gamechanger. Its two provisions turned the story around. The Act gives communities the right to protect and manage forests under traditional use. It also allows communities to own, manage and sell bamboo, which it calls a minor forest produce. FRA recognises rights for settlement and farming in forest areas, and community rights over minor forest produce. In 2009, all the residents of Loyendi got individual settlement rights.

The turnaround was not easy. The community had to fight an intense battle with the mighty forest bureaucracy, and a paper mill major employed exclusively by the Orissa Forest Development Corporation (OFDC) to procure bamboo from these forests.

Loyendi residents worked in these forests as bamboo cutters, earning Rs 30 in a day. The paper mill, on the other hand, was procuring bamboo at throwaway prices—Rs 180 for a tonne, or 2,400 metres, of bamboo. At the local market, one metre fetches Rs 20. The forests sustain the domestic needs of 25 other villages, besides helping close to 1,000 artisans.

“Years of bamboo harvesting by the paper mill had depleted the forests. We were looking for an opportunity to protect them while earning from them,” says resident Bal- krishna Kanhara.

But even in 2011, five years after FRA was implemented, nobody knew about its provisions. The forest bureaucracy opposed FRA and took no step to popularise it. The campaign by non-profit Vasundhara to sensitise the community on FRA worked to people’s benefit. “The first thing we decided to do was stop the paper mill from taking away bamboo from the forests,” says Binayak Kanhara, president of the forest rights committee, the nodal body to implement the Act in the village.

On January 25, 2011, the gram sabha wrote to the divisional forest officer (DFO), saying it was illegal for the paper mill to cut the bamboo. The DFO shot back, saying there was no official recognition of the village’s community right under FRA. A heated exchange of letters ensued. The forest department argued it had the right to allow harvesting in the forest until the community right was claimed and recognised. “The paper mill officials tried to bribe me. When I refused, they threatened me of physical harm,” says village sarpanch Bishnu Charan Malik who has been instrumental in getting community rights to many villages in his panchayat.

On January 31, the gram sabha wrote to the state-level monitoring committee of FRA, which is headed by the state chief secretary. After this, the response was smooth: forest officials came to Loyendi. After a four-hour discussion, government ordered the paper mill to stop harvesting bamboo. The paper mill winded up in a hurry, leaving behind some 40,000 clumps of bamboo. In February, the village was drafting its community forest right (CFR) claim. Loyendi became the first village in the state to get its community claim title over customary forests by using the traditional tribal system of forest demarcation called sandhi.

Loyendi’s message

The message from this unheard of village now echoes in Kandhamal’s forests, covering close to 90 per cent of the district’s area. Step into any patch of forest here, one will find a community that owns and manages it. Of the 2,415 villages, 1,907 have got CFR over 57,880 hectares of forests, the highest in the country.

Within months, seven villages near Loyendi managed to stop the paper mill from harvesting bamboo. Another 25 understood the importance of FRA which gives people the right to own, manage and sell bamboo. Bamboo cutting almost stopped in the district. The state’s chief conservator of forests rushed to the villages and requested people to allow bamboo harvesting, but the people refused. The paper mill had to withdraw from the district in March 2012.

“The surge in demand for this right is dominantly community-driven,” says Jitendra Kumar Sahoo of Vasundhara. “We expect some 10,000 CFR claims the next year,” says Santosh Sarangi, commissioner, tribal affairs. “Community right is a great economic and livelihood incentive,” he adds. People couldn’t agree with him more.

Bamboo is an incentive for local communities. “Whether we sell it or we don’t is another matter. That bamboo has become our resource is reason enough for villages to claim community right over forest,” says Rabindra Kanhar, resident of Priedi village, the second village in Odisha’s Kandhamal to get CFR.

“Within a year of getting the right, there is significant inflow of money to the community. Remember, we have not abused the forest,” says Trinath Patra, president of Kalahandi Jungle Mancha, a district-level federation of forest-dwelling people. Jamguda in Kalahandi was the first village in Odisha to get community rights over 49.7 ha of forests, in 2010. Jamguda came into prominence in June 2012 when forest officials stopped Member of Parliament Bhakta Charan Das from taking away a few pieces of the first harvest of bamboo from the village.

Now as bamboo flowers, Jamguda’s gram sabha has taken up selective harvesting. Bamboo is of no use once it flowers. “Within six months, Jamguda has earned Rs 20,000 from selling bamboo locally. The forest department still does not allow transport of bamboo outside the village,” says Nilambar Patra, president of forest rights committee.

With the forest under community control, life revolves around it. For the first time the village has its own development fund. “This is how community control over forest will unfold: development without destruction,” says Das.

Rush for bamboo

People are proactive in asserting their community forest rights (CFRs) in nine bamboo-rich states. Campaigns are on to get control over forests.

The fight remains

In many villages gram sabhas prove they can manage forests and their resources well, but there are challenges ahead.

It’s not just communities living in the forested areas of Odisha that are excited about managing their own forests. There has been a surge in claims across the country ever since April 2011, when Jairam Ramesh, the then environment minister, gave transit passes to the people of Mendha Lekha to transport bamboo. Mendha Lekha in Maharashtra was the first to get community forest rights (CFR) in 2009. Between April 2011 and November 2012, about 14,000 claims have been made.

But the village could exercise its right after a long battle with the forest bureaucracy. The forest department had conveniently misinterpreted the definition of minor forest produce (MFP) under the Forest Rights Act (FRA).

It said people had the right over MFP, which includes the lucrative bamboo and tendu, but could not use them to make monetary gains.

A change in forest regime is happening in bamboo forests, which is the world’s largest. Bamboo occupies 13 million hectares of India’s forested area, Forest Survey of India estimates.

The total bamboo growing stock is about 169 million tonnes. According to the Planning Commission, the country’s domestic bamboo economy is worth Rs 2,043 crore. By 2015, it will reach Rs 26,000 crore.

In September 2012, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs amended the Forest Rights Act (FRA) rules after several campaigns pointed out its ambiguity. FRA did not specify how villages would manage forests after CFR was granted.

The new rules give gram sabhas the authority to issue transit passes and prepare conservation and management plans for forest resources after their rights over the resources are recognised. It mandates that the administration cannot arbitrarily reject forest rights claims. All villages with forest-dwellers must get forest rights related to protection, regeneration and management of community forest resources.

Now that many villages have received CFR, people have evolved fascinating village-level forest management plans. Villages of Odisha and Maharashtra have already enforced management plans for forests. Loyendi, Priedi and Jamguda in Odisha have taken up community-driven forest fire control activities. Mendha Lekha has collaborated with the government to transfer the rural development fund directly to its gram sabha for watershed development in bamboo forests. Pachgaon in Chandrapur district has its own management plan. “This will revive forest communities’ traditional practices,” says Bhubaneswar-based forest rights activist Sudhanshu Sekhar Deo.

Transfer of authority

“Now that rules have been clarified we expect community to assert its right,” says V Kishore Chandra S Deo, Union Minister of Tribal Affairs.

But people have tough challenges ahead. First, most bamboo forests have paper mills as captive market. In fact, government has drafted policies that favour paper mills. In Odisha, 98 per cent of the extracted bamboo goes to paper mills. In Maharashtra, 66 per cent of the bamboo forests are controlled by just one paper mill. Sixty per cent of the bamboo in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are supplied to paper mills. The rest is auctioned for commercial purpose. “The challenge for the community is to look for a captive market as big as paper mills. I don’t think paper mills will come to the community because prices will definitely go up,” says Santosh Sarangi, commissioner, tribal affairs.

Second, communities, which have no government support, are not well equipped to handle this new business. And lurking around are stakeholders ready to manipulate the market.

Murky business

In the only district trying to do business in bamboo in the new regime, manipulative stakeholders are all out to claim their share. On December 25, Down To Earth secretly recorded an unusual meeting on the outskirts of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra. Bamboo contractor V K Anand was addressing 200-odd people: “Tendu market has crashed to an all-time low this year. The rates have fallen to half in many states. Do not worry if you do not get a good price. Rates keep fluctuating. You can make up for the loss in the coming years.” Anand tells them about a new auction mechanism for tendu leaves, also a minor forest produce, as people listen to him stupefied.

“We have done it for bamboo. We will do it for tendu, too,” Anand ends his speech gaining people’s confidence. Within no time, he orchestrates a 10-member committee which will auction tendu leaves on behalf of more than 115 villages. Soon, a leading regional newspaper publishes a tender notice under Anand’s name inviting bids for advance sale of tendu leaves from these villages. The notice states that gram sabhas of these villages have authorised him to do so.

Legal experts say only a gram sabha committee can perform functions related to management and sale of forest produce. No one outside the gram sabha can be a member of this committee.

Following strong reactions, on January 5 people saw two notices in the morning newspapers—a public notice by the deputy conservator of forests of Vadsa division, and a modified version of the tender notice.

The public notice asked people not to get “misguided” by an “unauthorised person” who was misusing FRA for personal monetary gains. The modified tender notice this time authorised Hiraman Warkhede, a former MLA, to perform the auctioning. Warkhede had earlier led the fight for CFR in many of these 115-odd villages. He defends Anand, saying, “We take decisions for all the villages as a federation of gram sabhas. Anand is helping us in the process as an adviser.” Anand tried to clear his name, saying trade in tendu leaves is not his business. “I am helping people exercise their rights.”

Here lies the catch. While the contractor claims to have no business interest in tendu leaves, he is quite interested in the bamboo of these villages. “The contractor is eying bamboo of these villages in the guise of tendu deal,” says an agent who trades in forest produce in the region. “Anand is enticing people to be loyal to him so that he can monopolise the bamboo trade.”

The bamboo contractor shifted from Madhya Pradesh to Gadchiroli in 2011 when Mendha Lekha got its community forest rights title. In the absence of other buyers, the village directly sold all its bamboo to Anand. The next year, six villages harvested bamboo. All of it was bought by Anand. While Mendha Lekha sold bamboo through competitive bidding and got a price higher than last year, the other five villages sold bamboo without tenders on Mendha Lekha rates.

Some activists feels people were misguided. “The contractor colluded with a few village leaders to strike the deal. Had people opted for tenders they would have earned much more,” says an activist who did not wish to be named. When Down To Earth visited some of these villages, it found people were not aware of the profits their gram sabha had made from bamboo sales.

“Gram sabhas did not want to sell bamboo through tender because they think it is a problematic process,” says Anand. Vajirao Usendi, village leader of Rekhatola, went a step ahead and said law prohibits auctioning of bamboo.

Anand foresees a promising business future in Maharashtra where villages are making a beeline to claim CFR. Till now, 786 of the 1,600 villages in Gadchiroli have got their forest rights recognised.

Of the 115 villages Anand is helping auction tendu leaves, bamboo will be harvested in 15.

Anand claims he is still negotiating with people for bamboo trade, but village leaders say at least three gram sabhas have already agreed to sell bamboo to him.

Deaf to people’s calls

“Trade is new for us,” says Shivaji Narote, resident of Marda, the first village to get community forest right title along with Mendha Lekha. “We wanted to study the prices and the entire tender process before getting into the trade,” he says.

But when the gram sabha wrote to the district administration in March, 2012, to guide them on sale, purchase, rates and tender process of bamboo, it, characteristically, did not respond. So people reached an agreement with Anand to sell him the bamboo. When they geared up to begin harvesting, another hurdle came their way. The forest department had given CFR title for the compartment they were planning to harvest to the neighbouring Jhillar village as well. People of both the villages wrote to the forest department asking for demarcation of territories, but the department took no action.

Even as people of the two villages were staking claim over bamboo, a third claimant emerged. In February 2012, the country’s largest paper manufacturer, Ballarpur Industries, started felling in the forest without consulting the people of Marda. In 1968, the Maharashtra government had leased most of its bamboo to Ballarpur Industries. In November 2011, the forest department gave the paper mill permission to fell bamboo in all the patches ready for harvest. This included many villages which had received community forest rights. People of Marda wrote to the forest department to stop the paper mill from felling in their forest. When the department did not respond, people forced the paper mill workers to stop the felling and seized the harvested bamboo from the paper mill.

Despite this extraordinary feat, the village could not sell the bamboo because the contractor did not come to collect it. “We had asked Anand to buy the bamboo that we had seized from the paper mill as well. But he refused, saying it was of poor quality. He also kept delaying the harvest till the rainy season. The gram sabha had to finally cancel the agreement,” says Ramesh Koram, secretary of Marda gram sabha.

Apart from Mendha Lekha, at least 10 villages were issued transit passes to harvest and sell bamboo. Of these, only five managed harvesting. The rest ended up relinquishing their rights to Ballarpur Industries. All these villages had sought the district administration’s help to harvest and trade bamboo. When the administration did not respond, people stepped back. Sources say there was pressure from Maoists to allow the paper mill to harvest bamboo. Marda faced similar pressure but stood firm in exercising its right to stop the mill from felling its bamboo.

That year, the paper mill harvested a large quantity of bamboo, says an activist. “Fearing it might not be allowed to harvest in community forests from the next year, the paper mill cleared the forest, leaving no scope for regeneration,” he says.

After protests from civil society, the district collector issued an order in April last year cancelling all government leases and contracts in CFR areas. But this has not improved the situation. In Korchi and Kurkheda tehsils of Gadchiroli many villages had refrained from harvesting last year. “None has taken any step to harvest this year either,” says Keshav Gurnule of non-profit Shrusti.

“Last year, it was the paper mill and the contractors. This year it could be just contractors,” says a source in the government. Nothing here happens without support or pressure from Maoists, he says.

“Not all gram sabhas are as empowered as Mendha Lekha which withstood all kinds of pressure to manage its forests with utmost transparency,” says Devaji Tofa, community leader of Mendha Lekha.

Meanwhile, Marda, along with Karsi, Suimara and Jhillar villages, has written many letters to government officials seeking guidance on bamboo trade, but got no response.

District collector Abhishek Krishna expressed ignorance about the letters. “It is difficult to address these issues in each village,” he says.

The forest department’s strategic silence smacks of conspiracy, says Mohan Hirabai Hiralal of non-profit Vrikshmitra.

It conveniently evades responsibility to help villages harvest and trade minor forest produces, and is accumulating cases to show that gram sabhas cannot manage forests, he says.

Time to find solutions

Ambiguity in FRA had made it easy for the administration and the forest department to wriggle out of responsibility. “Most villages received titles when FRA rules were not amended and there was no clarity on community forest rights,” says Sanjay Upadhyay, lawyer and legal consultant to the ministry of tribal welfare on FRA. Many did not even form committees to protect and manage community forest resources. Issues of rights and responsibilities of gram sabhas were not touched, he says. Amendment has not cleared the confusion totally.

There are issues that still need to be solved, says Ashish Kothari of non-profit Kalpavriksh. It must be found how gram sabhas can ensure equity and sustainability in forest management. Besides, the district administration must take responsibility when people seek help in the new trade. “In none of the rules or guidelines is there any mention of the forest department’s role,” he says.

The administration, on the other hand, is seeking an easy but flawed way out. “It is essential that the forest department is engaged in the entire process,” says Abhishek Krishna, district collector of Gadchiroli. “If a forest guard is made a member of the gram sabha committee, he can guide the gram sabha on sustainable management. The administration can make the forest guard accountable if anything is amiss. The gram sabha can also introduce a talathi (revenue staff) or a gram sevak in place of forest guards,” he says.

“But that would be illegal,” says Madhu Sarin of non- profit Campaign for Survival and Dignity. “Law does not provide for anyone other than a gram sabha member to be part of its committee”.

“Even if the forest guard, who is at the lowest level of the machinery, enters in the committees, he will have most of the control. This is what happened in Joint Forest Management,” adds Kothari.

The forest department should work as an advisory body to the gram sabha and provide technical inputs the way the agriculture department helps farmers. The environment ministry should issue a circular in this regard, Kothari says.

Upadhyay informs that as per FRA gram sabha can complain to the state-level monitoring committee if any government department does not cooperate with it. The committee will have to respond within 60 days, he says.

This season, be it in Loyendi or in Marda, communities are expecting their rights reaffirmed and economic condition improved. It has taken more than 150 years to right the wrongs done to the forest communities. They cannot afford another round of government apathy. “It is better late than never,” says activist Sudhanshu Sekhar Deo. “But it should not be so late that we miss the opportunity.”

Source: Down to Earth

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