Nothing about the modern state seemed to infuriate the forest dwellers across India more than its continuous regulation and nationalisation of non-timber forest products (NTFP).
India is desperately in need of deregulation of NTFP. But what form should deregulation take? Are there any useful examples we can turn to for policy change?
Well, recent preliminary studies by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, and media reports about the impact of deregulation of NTFP in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra reveal that hundreds of villages have been successful in exercising their rights over NTFP and have achieved significant socio-economic gains. And the experience of this region’s success provides a helpful corrective to a highly centralised regulatory arrangement all over the country. Before I explain the experience of deregulation of NTFP from the Vidarbha region, however, it is important to get an overview of this sector and existing regulation.
The NTFP has always constituted a significant part of the forest economy in rural societies across India, especially in tribal regions. The tribal populated states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh account for around 70% of collected NTFP in India. The report of the sub-group on NTFP and their sustainable management in the 12th Five Year Plan of the Government of India suggests that almost 275 million people depend on NTFP with a turnover of at least Rs 6,000 crore per annum. This report also reveals that NTFP contributes to about 20% to 40% of the annual income of forest dwellers who are mostly disadvantageous and landless communities with a dominant population of tribals.
Let’s take the case of kendu leaf. Among the NTFP, kendu leaf (diospyros melanoxylon) constitutes a significant source of revenue for forest dwellers in India. The leaf of kendu is used in wrapping tobacco to make the beedi or locally known as a green cigarette. Realising the scale and potential of revenue from kendu leaf for the livelihood of tribals, in the post-independent period, state governments across the country nationalised kendu leaf and justified their respective state legislation to protect the tribals from middlemen. The NTFP legislations of the state government emphasised that no person other than the state government or an officer of state government authorised in writing on its behalf or an agent in respect of the forest unit in which the leaves have grown shall purchase or transport kendu leaves. Such legislation was, in large part, directed against the traditional and customary rights of forest dwellers.
It was only after several years of struggle and campaign by forest dwellers and their associated networks a historical legislation in the form of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 was enacted, which for the first time recognised the exclusive rights of forest dwellers over minor forest produce including kendu leaf under Section 3 (1) (c) of the Act.
Unfortunately, after more than 13 years of Forest Rights Act (hereafter FRA) enactment, except the state of Maharashtra, one would be hard-pressed to find any efforts by other state governments in the direction of deregulation of kendu leaf in which the exclusive rights of forest dwellers are recognised as per the letter and spirit of FRA.
Lessons from Maharashtra
Maharashtra became the first state in the country to deregulate its NTFP rules and regulations after the enactment of the FRA, 2006. First, in its order dated January 19, 2015, the Rural Development Department of Maharashtra directed the chief executive officer of every Fifth Scheduled Area to organise a special Gram Sabha to orient and discuss the collection and management of kendu leaf by giving them two options.
A Gram Sabha can choose between Option 1 and Option 2 and express their opinion in the form of a Gram Sabha resolution. Under Option 1, Gram Sabha members can take the service of the forest department for the sale of their collected kendu leaf.
Under Option 2, the Gram Sabha members can opt out of the auctioning process led by the forest department and can take suo motu initiative to identify the contractor, fix the rate and conditions to sell their collected kendu leaf.
Second, exercising power under the Fifth Schedule to the constitution, the governor of Maharashtra issued a notification on October 15, 2016, introducing modifications to the Maharashtra Transfer of Ownership of Minor Forest Produce in the Scheduled Areas, and the Maharashtra Minor Forest Produce (Regulation of Trade) (Amendment) Act 1997. This notification has made it mandatory that all decisions for the collection, use and disposal of NTFP in the Scheduled Areas of Maharashtra shall be taken by the Gram Sabha or by a committee made solely of the members of the Gram Sabha on approval of Gram Sabha.
Empowered by these two notifications along with the Forest Rights Act, 2006, hundreds of villages in Maharashtra have exercised exclusive rights over kendu leaf over the last five years. A recent study on the impact of deregulation of NTFP reveals significant socio-economic gains for the forest dwellers after the recognition of community forest rights.
Take the case of kendu leaf ownership rights of villagers in Deori Taluka of Gondia district, Maharashtra. As many as 41 Gram Sabhas came together and collectively under the Group Gram Sabhas and support from the facilitating organisation, namely-Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society (VNCS), gave kendu leaf auctioning advertisement in the newspaper; short-listed the contractor, fixed the price, and entered directly into an agreement with contractor to sell their collected kendu leaves. The following table gives an overview of the economic benefits from kendu leaf in the year 2020 for the 41 Gram Sabhas.
Table 1: Profile of group gram sabhas and income from kendu leaf
|Total number of recognised CFR villages under group gram sabhas||41|
|Total recognised CFR areas for the 41 villages||7,836.25 hectares|
|Total number of collected kendu leaves (standard bags*) in 2020||4,811.27|
|Rate fixed for per standard kendu leaf bag||Rs 5,209|
|Total income from kendu leaf||Rs. 2,50,61,905.43|
|Total number of households involved||3,230|
|Number of Scheduled Tribe households||2,155|
|Number of other traditional forest dwellers households||1,075|
|Average income per household from kendu leaf||Rs. 7,759.10|
Source: Information shared by group gram sabhas and facilitating organisation – VNCS
* Each standard bag of kendu leaf consists of thousand bundles and each bundle consists of seventy kendu leaf in Maharashtra.
The economic benefit from kendu leaf shared above is not to idealise the Maharashtra experience. In fact, there are reasons to be concerned about the increasing counter challenges coming from kendu leaf contractors and district administration. But the deregulation of kendu leaf, authorising the Gram Sabhas to take the decision over kendu leaf use and marketing is one of the encouraging NTFP policy changes in Maharashtra after the enactment of the Forest Rights Act.
To bring policy change, however, we will need to shed some preconceptions – in particular, the state-centric and sometimes radical conservation-driven belief that Gram Sabhas can’t manage the NTFP trade on their own and state regulation is always the solution.
The fact is that in nationalising and regulating kendu leaf, the state is often bloated, non-transparent and bureaucratic, while the Gram Sabha driven kendu leaf use and disposal system – notably the experiences of Gram Sabhas in the Vidarbha region – are very encouraging.
Like Maharashtra, there should be options available to the Gram Sabhas to decide without any pressure to sell their kendu leaves to anyone of their choice as per the rights conferred under Section 3 (1) (c) of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Other states can and should emulate Maharashtra’s example, and move beyond it if they can.
Geetanjoy Sahu is an Associate Professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.