in a world where market forces are increasingly becoming the dictating factor, indigenous communities are hoping to enhance their hold over natural resources. The revival of customary laws through the Panchayat Act (extension to the scheduled areas) 1996 has revitalised the aspirations of the Gadchiroli tribals who have so far been either meek witnesses or forced participants in the gradual death of rich natural resources. The Act legitimises the increasingly felt need of people's participation in decision-making and decentralisation of the developmental process. Earlier, even decisions which were basically local in nature, like whether to fetch fuel and fodder from surrounding forest or from forest depots, were taken at national level.
Now that the ownership of natural resources and the authority to exploit these have been restored to the villagers, there is an eagerness among the villagers to take over the responsibility which comes with the authority.
Towards self-governance Almost 95 per cent of the villages in Gadchiroli fall in the category of scheduled areas. Seventy per cent of the population is tribal and about 80 per cent of the area is categorised as forest. Around 20 per cent of Maharashtra's forest is in Gadchiroli district.
Villagers, especially from villages located near bigger towns, are in an upbeat mood over what they call 'restoration of faith'. The amended Panchayat Act not only accepts the validity of customary law but also directs the state governments not to pass any law, which is inconsistent with the community's traditional practices. This comes as a boost to their efforts though at times overreactions lead to statements like, "We don't need a government for anything now."
Some feel that the Act is an eyewash. "What will we be able to do with no funds at our disposal? We may voice our suggestions to the gram sabha, but will anybody listen?" queried Nersu Usendi from Firola. Between these two extremes there are some very practical opinions as well. Lalsa Atram from Tukum says, "They are interested in procuring sofa , while all we want is employment and income. They reduced us to the status of cheap labour. Now we own the raw material. We will supply sofa."
Rightful recognition As was expected, enacting the amended Panchayats (extension to scheduled areas) Act in Maharashtra legislature was not an easy task. The Act was passed just 14 days before the deadline on 24 December, 1996.
Until today, while enacting panchayat laws, the Maharashtra state government never made any provisions for tribal areas, keeping in mind their specific nature and problems. The incongruencies were often challenged in Maharashtra High Courts. The courts held that the Act could be extended to scheduled areas only after tabling it in Parliament.
Setting up of the Bhuria Committee and its path-breaking recommendations on village governance, community control over resource, participatory democracy and creation of suitable administrative set-up for scheduled areas laid the foundation for the Panchayat Act of 1996. It accepted a clear-cut role of the community and gave wide-ranging powers to gram sabhas. The committee specifically mentions, "While shaping the new Panchayati Raj structure in tribal areas, it is desirable to blend the traditional with the modern by treating traditional institutions as the foundation on which a modern super-structure should be built." Though the Bhuria Committee recommendations has been diluted in the Act, it, however, gives constitutional and legal sanctity to community rights. Now the question is: in the midst of tribal unrest how will the provisions of the Act be received and how will it be channelised in the true spirit of self-governance?
The genesis Some villages in Gadchiroli launched their struggle long before the enactment of the Act. Lekha Mendha, a tiny village on Gadchiroli-Dhanora road, started work about 20 years back to protect its degraded forests. Self-imposed restrictions followed protests against timber theft. Gradually, they started establishing their rights over the forest and coined the slogan, "We are the government in our village." Shailekh stones with inscriptions detailing the provisions of the Act and tribal rights have also been erected.
Some ngos and politicians helped in reviving the tradition of community living in some villages. B D Sharma, who heads the National Front for Tribal Self-Rule, and Hiraman Warkhede, an ex-mla, have been active in mobilising the tribals.
"Jangal Bachao, Manao Bachao" (save forests, save human being) is another movement seeking self-rule in Gadchiroli. The struggle is spreading to other tribal villages too and, despite the low level of literacy, awareness campaigns have been quite successful in Gadchiroli.
Villagers are eager to take charge while government officials are finding it difficult to understand the provisions of the Act and the people's sentiment. A collector's speech in Palgaon village meeting was interrupted when a group of women got up and said, "We do not know what you do in other villages, but you will have to explain the expenditure incurred on road construction in our village." Even this overreaction is welcome, says a senior forest official. "The tribals have been suppressed for so long. It's time government representatives realise that if they don't fall in line, they will have to face the villagers' ire. Honesty in words and deeds is not possible till there is revolt."
Areas of conflict
The major cause of conflict in Gadchiroli is over forest produce. The Maharashtra government's ordinance, issued on 10 December, 1997, has made provisions for transfer of ownership of minor forest produce (mfp) to panchayats. Several restrictions, in accordance with the Indian Forest Act, 1927, have also been mentioned. These include exclusion of the ownership of land and trees in the panchayat areas, exclusion of national park and sanctuaries and adherence to the rules laid in the working plan. The exclusion of tendu and bamboo has become a highly emotive issue for the villagers. At the cost of losing wages which villagers earn from extraction work, several villages have already stopped extraction activity for the Ballarpur Paper Mill though the latter has already paid royalty to the government.
The ordinance has listed 33 categories of forest produce. According to the ordinance, " Tendu, apta and bamboo can no longer be considered mfp as conventionally understood in terms of revenue." Says G R K Rao, deputy conservator of Gadchiroli forests, "Exploitation of mfp items ought to be done in a scientific manner to ensure sustainability and maximum yield. The tribals should not hesitate in asking for guidance." However, the villages think otherwise. They have demanded the right to lease out, collect royalty, select the contractor and harvest even teak within their village boundaries. If the gram sabha so decides, villagers contend they can use timber for household purposes or even sell it. According to Madhav Gota of Tukum village, "We need not be taught the scientific methods of extraction, our traditional methods are much better. We have all the knowledge of sustainable use. Whatever forest is left today is due to our preservation efforts."
Work undertaken by several other departments is facing similar displeasure. In Girola, a tiny Gond village, Soil and Water Conservation Department officials were forced to stop bodi (a small water storages in individual agriculture fields) construction work. The department selects beneficiaries every year and pays the contractor to set up six to seven bodis at approximately Rs 60,000 each. Villagers allege that in reality not more than Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 is spent on the bodis. When the villagers asked for a clarification or freedom to choose the contractor, the officials stopped construction work. Though the villagers are the losers, they are determined to keep up their struggle and ultimately become the final decision-makers.
The interpretation of the Act has also stirred a debate among the tribals themselves. While some villagers are happy about the provisions in the Act, others voice apprehension. According to Chatura Halami, a village priest in Markigaon, the 33 items of mfp listed under transfer of ownership, if managed judiciously, could provide gainful employment for almost nine months every year. However, in the adjoining village the reaction is not the same. The villagers are insisting on harvesting not only bamboo and tendu, but also costly timber and are on the verge of revolt over this issue.
Wanted: a strong leader
The very soul of self-governance could take perverted form if the Act is not well understood. Under such circumstances, the role of politicians, activists and ngos become vital. Local politicians and activists have so far been in the forefront in spreading awareness among the villagers. The fear that politicians may now pursue the issue to gain political mileage is also being discussed. The need of the day is constructive use of this decentralisation effort. If used in right spirit, the Panchayat Act would not only take care of local needs but also cater to national and global needs.