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Empowered Gujarat forest dwellers overcome financial losses during pandemic: Report

Counterview Desk

In new report, citing instances from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Odisha, has claimed that despite major issues faced by tribal people during the pandemic, they have been able to “overcome” constraints and crises situations by creating coping mechanisms through gram sabhas.
Titled "Community Forest Rights and the Pandemic: Gram Sabhas Lead the Way", the report says, India’s tribal rights laws, which have empowered forest dwelling communities, have made this possible. Reproduced below are two case studies from Gujarat, which, it believes, has helped create “sustainable economies”, making communities resilient to cope with the Covid-19 calamity.

Dediapada block, Narmada district

This story is about a cluster of 24 villages situated in the eastern-most part of Dediapada block in Narmada district. All these villages are exclusively Adivasi villages, predominantly inhabited by Vasava tribe, with some Tadvitribe families in two villages. These villages are also a part of Shoolpaneshwar Sanctuary, which was declared in three phases -- in 1982, 1987 and 1989 -- on 61,542.40 hectares of forest land, and has a total 104 villages, including 25 uninhabited villages.
While communities confronted several decades of violence by the Forest Department and a Paper Mill factory, it was when the Forest Rights Act, 2006 was enacted that people began to see a possibility of change. In 2013-14, after a long period of struggle, these village Gram Sabhasgot Adhikar Patras (titles) for all the Community Forest Rights (CFR) claims for the entire 19,220 hectares of forest of their villages.
Unlike in many districts in Gujarat, these Adhikar Patras observe all conditions of the Forest Rights Act and Rules. After they got the CFR titles, the Gram Sabha again elected new Community Forest Rights Management Committees (CFRMCs), each with at least one third women as members.
During the months of mid-March to mid-June 2020, most of the families lost close to INR 50,000. The months of the lockdown coincided with when communities would migrate for labour in agricultural fields and other small industries, where they earn INR 20-40,000 and furthermore they lost out on around INR 5000 due to non-availability of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) work in their villages.
They also incurred a great loss in the sale of their Rabi crop, especially maize, green tur (pigeon pea) and other vegetables, as they had to sell them for half the normal price. The months of March to June are also important months for collection or harvesting of a variety of Minor Forest Produce (MFP). Bamboo and tendu leaves are two important MFPs that have to be cut or collected during February to May.
A community managed watershed project
Many village Gram Sabhas had heaps of bamboo from last and current years’ harvesting in their forests or on the road side. The paper mill was about to take them away, but then came the Coronavirus and the sudden lockdown. Many of the Gram Sabhas and families suffered a substantial loss. Again, neither the Forest Development Corporation nor the Gram Sabhas could complete the process for auction/ sale of tendu leaves.
As a result, many of the families, especially women, lost their income from Tendu leaves, which usually amounts to INR 5-10,000 per family per season. Some families, especially women and children, lost some income from sale of some other MFPs like seeds of Kanji (Pterocarpus Marsupium), Galweda (tinospora cordifolia) , Baheda (terminalia bellirica), etc. also. 
While the lockdown resulted in major financial losses, this was also the first time when the Gram Sabhas were set to be a decentralized authority. In each village, there were a few families, especially Govaliyas (shepherds) and widows with small children, who had difficulty getting two square meals a day.
These families do not usually cultivate land and only depend either on labour or on MFP collection and sale. The CFRMC members and other village leaders took upon themselves to find out such families. As all the Gram Sabhasdid not have much income, they decided to themselves give some grains to these families and then approached Arch Vahini, which gave three months’ ration, including oil and spices, etc. to 116 such families.
As though Gram Sabhas could not hold big meetings during the lockdown, the CFRMC members of some Gram Sabhas, on the basis of previous discussions, took initiatives and initiated land leveling work on each family’s private or FRA land for fixed hours each with the help of tractors from their Gram Sabha funds.
During lockdown, most of the Gram Sabhas/ CFRMCs continued protecting their CFRs, as they perceived there might be more threats to the forests during this severe time. For that, they were patrolling in a group of 3-4 persons, so as to observe the precautions during the lock-down.
Trupti Mehta, a member of the civil rights organisation Arch Vahini who has been working with communities here since 1980s narrated:
“Till now, communities had chartered their ways through difficult terrain, but this crisis? Nobody had ever imagined that communities would have to face the situation that was totally beyond their imagination, and control -- Covid-19 pandemic in 2020! The situation of the people in general was bad during the lock-down, not because they, except a few families, did not have food in their houses, but because they lost almost half of their annual income from various sources. 
"Yet this was the first time when the Gram Sabhas were actively involved, in fact, were entrusted in the management and protection of the forest resources. The main challenge remains that they carry out their processes in a democratic and transparent way and continue the forest management and protection work.”

Banni grassland, Kutch district

“While we have been living a nomadic life with our buffaloes for over 550 years, after the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and the 1955 notification of Banni Protected Forests were brought into force, we were compelled to live a sedentary lifestyle,” Ishabhai, a Maldhari pastoralist from Gorevale village reminisces.
He says, “Subsequently the Forest Department began aerial seeding of an invasive tree species called Ganda Babul (prosopis juliflora). The Establishment of the Forest Division in Banni and a new working plan in 2009, which led to closure of grazing areas has affected us. However, since then we have filed our CFR claims that are still under process.”
The Maldharis of the Banni grassland, one of Asia’s largest grasslands located in Gujarat’s Kachchh district, are the first pastoralist group in India to have successfully filed for CFR under FRA. The area claimed for CFR is 2,500 sq km. Prior to 1947, the dependence on the grassland has been community based—there is no individual ownership, and no physical boundaries exist within the grassland area.
During 1947-55 the Banni grasslands was brought under the Revenue department and in 1955, it was designated as a protected forest. In 1998, the Forest Department was officially given the responsibility of the grassland by district authorities. Following this, there has been ambiguity about the ownership of the grassland-neither the Forest Department nor the Revenue Department have acknowledged or accepted the ownership.
There are 54 forest villages of 19 Gram panchayats in the Banni Protected Forest. The CFR claims of 47 of these villages had received approval from DLC but despite having made multiple representations to the Tribal and Forest ministries and the collector, the community has not yet received their RoRs and titles.
The Gram Sabhas have formed CFRMCs, who in their plans had consulted elders of the area who know about the numerous varieties of grass and indigenous shrubs in different areas, the varieties of soils as well as the wildlife such as cranes, jackals and foxes of the area. In January and February 2020, the CFRMCs in 15 villages were busy trying to carry out their conservation and management plans, as the pre-monsoon period is critical.
Maldharis at a sign board proclaiming Banni grassland CFR area
In particular, the removal of Ganda Babul (prosopis juliflora), the invasive species that propagates rapidly and thereby destroys native grass and herbs. CFRMCs in Shervo village used machines to get this invasive species on 200 hectares of land removed, while in Misriyado village, 150 hectares of land was being cleared of this invasive species.
When lockdown was announced, the CFRMCs had to put their work on hold.The Maldhari communities are mainly dependent on indigenous livestock herding: the Kankrej cattle and Banni buffalo being the most common. Most families have 50-100 livestock, each village around 5000 and the entire area has over 1,00,000 livestock. While the pastoralist community could largely survive on their own milk production, some community members had food shortages.
In Maldhari such instances, neighbours and villagers would assist them. At the same time, though the price of commercial fodder was rising, communities were able to rely on their own grasslands due to the timely management and removal of the invasive plants. Lockdown coincided with the summer months of March to May, where the Banni grassland is very dry, and water harvesting is very important.
As not just humans, but also close to a lakh of livestock depend on this water system, it becomes imperative to take care of these systems each year. Once lockdown 2.0 was lifted, the CFRMC fund was used to pay people to carry out the labour of water management by recharging traditional ground water jheels.
Through a collective system of work called aabat, communities worked to dig wells, called viradas, that collect sweet rain water. In July and August, the rains began in most parts of Kutch, yet communities are faring well due to the timely management of the lockdown, of the Banni grasslands and of people’s livelihood needs.

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