Bengal should follow in the footsteps of Mendha Lekha if it wants to beat back Maoists.
And so should Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. That’s what rural development minister Jairam Ramesh has advised in a letter he wrote last week.
Create “more Mendha Lekhas”, he said, referring to the Maharashtra village that gave villagers community rights over minor forest resource and transit permit to sell such produce.
For thousands of tribal villages across the country, Mendha Lekha in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district has emerged as a model for implementing the Forest Rights Act.
The village panchayat harvested and sold bamboo worth nearly Rs 1 crore in 2011-12. Individual families earned around Rs 20,000 each.
The feat prompted the Union government to ask the six states to follow this example for sustainable livelihood management in their tribal areas.
“The gram sabha (Mendha Lekha) has been financially empowered to an unprecedented degree,” Ramesh said in the letter sent last Thursday. “I, for one, am convinced that we need to create more Mendha Lekhas and empower gram sabhas in order for us to successfully roll back the spread of Maoist activities in a sustainable manner.”
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA), gives villagers community rights over waterbodies and unused land in forest areas where they can grow and harvest minor produce.
The law also recognises rights of individuals to land where they have been living for over three generations.
However, according to figures available with the tribal affairs ministry, only 12 lakh individual title deeds have been distributed so far, while the number is just 2,000 for community rights.
Another problem is that forest departments in states have not been issuing transit permits to villagers to sell a minor produce like bamboo. Forest department officials harvest and sell bamboo in these areas.
Mendha Lekha was the first gram panchayat to be given full control over transit of bamboo in 2011. Since then, the gram sabha has taken control over the produce. In the last financial year, the panchayat witnessed a turnover Rs 93.31 lakh.
“I would urge you to send a team of your officers to Mendha Lekha to study what has happened there. I would urge you to override the inevitable objections of the state forest department and hand over the full control over transit passbook for bamboo to (the) gram sabha concerned where community forest rights have been recognised,” Ramesh wrote in the letter.
The lack of transit permit has been the main bottleneck for tribals to sell bamboo. Tushar Dash, a researcher at Bhubaneswar-based NGO Vasundhara, said under the Forest Rights Act, tribal communities have rights over minor forest produce and should be given transit permits.
“The environment ministry last year had asked state forest departments to issue transit permits to the gram sabhas for sale of minor forest resources,” he said.
“But even though four years have passed since the act came into force, only a few villages under the Mendha Lekha panchayat have got such permits.”
Villagers from across the country had petitioned against such “injustice” to the Union tribal affairs ministry and the environment and forest ministry, he said.