Forest babus, Jairam in bamboo war

The forest bureaucracy has taken on environment minister Jairam Ramesh and Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan to defend its turf. Despite the two planning to attend the first ever sale of bamboo by a village in India on April 27 in Mendha-Lekha of Gadchiroli under the Forest Rights Act, the state forest department has announced it is illegal and people will be prosecuted.

At stake is the forest bureacracy’s control over the Rs 10,000 crore annual business with the paper and pulp industry as the biggest benefactor for getting the raw material at dirt cheap prices. Mendha-Lekha is meant to set an example with the environment ministry finally accepting what the law says since 2006 – bamboo is a forest produce that people have a right to harvest and sell.

The Maharashtra principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF) — the highest forest official of the state — has written a letter warning that despite the Forest Rights Act of 2006 declaring bamboo as a forest produce that people can harvest, the department will not allow people to cut it and they will continue to regulate its trade. His letter comes despite Ramesh’s official letter to all states that bamboo was a forest produce and people should be allowed to harvest it where they claim rights over it under the law.

The state department though has other plans as it has already decided to auction off the districts entire bamboo harvest having put out a tender for it in March 2011.

The state PCCF has said that the forest officials will decide what can be harvested if it can be at all and the village would have to seek their permission just as it did before.

Mendha-Lekha has becomes a test case for the entire country as the forest department has long denied people the rights to harvest what’s often referred to as ‘green gold’ by defining it as a tree which permits them to control it under the antiquated Indian Forest Act of 1927. Science has always defined bamboo as a grass. But the contractor based system of auctioning off bamboo has helped the paper industry also get the chunk of India’s bamboo at low rates while the villagers got little.

The Forest Rights Act changed this by clearly defining people’s rights over forest produce. But since 2006 the forest department has maintained its stranglehold on the resource while the environment ministry has looked the other way.

Source: The Times of India