Gondia (Maharashtra): It is a mid-February afternoon. Dhansingh Janglu Dugga, a lean, rugged 55-year-old gond adivasi, has come home from his daily wage job under the government's rural jobs scheme. There is a wedding in his village, Dhamditola, and the supervisor has given him the rest of the day off.

"It is off-season," Dugga said, explaining why he is doing work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) for a meagre pay of Rs 200 per day.

By mid-March, all the villagers, including Dugga, will go back to collecting the mahua flowers, fruit, seed and bark, which are turned into wine or ayurvedic medicine, and Tendu leaves, that bud once a year, and are mostly used to roll bidis. The season lasts from March to May, but those three months will generate sizeable revenues.

By June, when the season is over, most of the villagers will go back to farming or take up daily-wage jobs. Dugga and Dinesh Uicke--also from the same village--are tasked with a different responsibility: that of forest guards, responsible for patrolling the forest area, staying alert to prevent the theft of wood and keeping a check on forest fires.

Dhamditola is one of several villages in Gondia district in Maharashtra's Vidarbha region that have banned setting fire to the forest floor after the tendu and mahua season. These villages have also demarcated fire lines and increased fire monitoring and patrolling, all of which have reduced forest fires and led to the regeneration of forests.

Forest fires are becoming more extreme and widespread globally because of the changing climate. India recorded 345,989 forest fires between November 2020 and June 2021, double the earlier recorded figure of 124,273 between November 2019 and June 2020. Maharashtra alone recorded 34,025 incidents, most in Gadchiroli, Gondia's neighbouring district.

Gondia is one of the most backward districts in India, according to the Niti Aayog. Since 2013, community forest rights (CFR) of close to 6,500 villages, spanning 794,118 hectares--equivalent to five times the size of Delhi--have been recognised in the Vidarbha region, under the Forest Rights Act of 2006.

This was not confined to Vidarbha. Across the country, close to 100,946 community forest rights claims have been recognised, covering over 4.7 million hectare of forest land, nearly equal to the land area of Haryana, as of February 2022.

The result of CFR recognition is an increasing sense of ownership and responsibility among tribal villagers, who have adopted a range of sustainable forest management practices and enforced fines for offences such as illegal logging, hunting, setting fire to the forest floor, dirtying ponds and other water bodies, all of which has improved the local ecology, benefiting the locals, both economically and socially.

Secure rights over forest land motivates forest dwellers to manage and regenerate forests. This in turn creates local employment, reduces distress migration and contributes to food and livelihood security. This helps in building local adaptive capacity to deal with crises, wrote Tushar Dash in a January 2022 policy brief.

Dhansingh Janglu Dugga, 55, on his afternoon break from MGNREGA work, pictured with his wife, at their house in village Dhamditola in Maharashtra's Gondia district, February 2022. Dugga also works as a forest guard protecting the village's forests.

From encroachers to protectors

When Dugga was young, there were regular instances of forest fires, each outbreak requiring the villagers to race to put it out. "We would fetch water from any nearby pond to put out the fire," Dugga recalled, in a mix of Hindi and the local Gondi dialect. "Even though the land was with the forest department, we would all help in putting out small fires since our livelihood depended on the forest." But back then, forest department officials would arrest villagers, alleging that they had set fire to the forest floor.

The forest surrounding Dugga's village is a source of livelihood. Villagers cultivate rice on bare patches of land inside the forest, harvest forest produce such as tendu leaves (Diospyros melanoxylon), mahua flowers (Madhuca longifolia) and baheda fruit (Terminalia bellirica), and also collect wood for their cooking fires.

Though their livelihoods depended on the forests, they had no ownership, until 2013--which meant that they were regularly harassed by forest officials for entering forest premises and using forest produce. At times, FIRs were filed against them; at other times, there would be scuffles between the forest guards and the villagers.

In 2006, the central government initiated the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, a law that set out to formally recognise that forest-dwelling communities had a right over forest land.

Since its enactment, the FRA has "assigned rights to protect around 40 million hectares of community forest resources to village level democratic institutions", said the 2009 Forestry Outlook Study of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. This accounts for 56% of the 71.22 million hectares of forests, as estimated in 2019; this is now accessed and used by a fourth of India's villages, reported a 2015 study by the Washington D.C.-based Rights and Resources Initiative, a global coalition for forest policy and reforms.

In 2013, over 100 villages of Vidarbha, including Dugga's village Dhamditola, were granted community forest rights, which meant that the gram sabha of the village would own and manage forest land in its jurisdiction. Dhamditola got collective forest titles over 290 hectares of forest land.

Motiram Kaliram Sayam was a gram sabha member when the CFR titles were given in 2013. Now ageing and no longer active, Sayam recalls that the first thing the gram sabha did on receiving forest rights was to put stringent rules in place. "With ownership," he said, "comes responsibility."

Guardians of the forests

Anjoura Samru Netam worked as a village kotwal (a medieval term first used to denote the leader of a fort, and later used by the British for police officers) for over 10 years. As a village kotwal, his main duty was to communicate information to the villagers about gram panchayat meetings, village festivals, orders passed by the gram sabha, and so on. After 2014, he had a new set of responsibilities, including informing villagers about the start of the tendu and mahua collection season, about any forest fires that had been sighted, etc.

Anjoura Samru Netam, a village Kotwal in Dhamaditola, February 2022.
As a kotwal, his duties include informing villagers about the start of the tendu and mahua collection season, and about any forest fires.

Netam is himself landless; his claim to forest land is still pending. In return for his services, each family in the village gives him five cups of rice per year. There are around 130 families in the village; the nearly 50 kg of rice that he earns suffices for his family of four--a wife, and two daughters.

"The gram sabha had been newly formed under the Forest Rights Act," said Sayam. "The Act gave us powers over all forest resources within the community forest area such as water bodies, non-timber produce, land."

The gram sabha in one of its first acts banned the pruning and cutting of bushes and the burning of forest floors--methods that were earlier used by traders to generate fresh produce. Deterrent penalties were instituted to check these practices, Motiram said.

In the first few years, the gram sabha of Dhamditola village formed a voluntary squad to guard the forest. Each day, four people, drawn from four different families, would perform guard duties; this cycle was continued till all families had their turn, at which point the cycle rotated back to the first family. Dhamditola now follows a different system of protecting the forest.

The rotational method is still followed in the neighbouring village Paulzhola, in the Deori block of Gondia. As Shyamsai Hilke, the gram sabha president explained, "There are around 300 men in the village above the age of 18, so 10 people are tasked to patrol the forest for a day; after 30 days, when everyone has done one turn of duty, the cycle goes back to the beginning. Women are left out of the patrolling groups." Paulzhola got over 600 hectares of forest land under community forest rights, twice as much as Dhamditola.

In September 2020, Nandakrishna Sriram Madavi was taking his turn guarding the forest at Dhamditola when he caught another villager stealing teak wood from the forest. The felling of teak trees or stealing of teakwood, identified as timber produce, is prohibited under the Indian Forest Act of 1927. The culprit was fined Rs 10,000 for stealing 9-10 bundles of teakwood, but after apologies and negotiation, he eventually paid a fine of Rs 5,000 and returned the wood.

In another village, Mangatola, in 2019, a villager set fire to his part of the forest land to burn up dry leaves. The fire spread, engulfing the community forest area. He was found guilty of starting the fire, and was fined Rs 3,000.

"After these and a few similar incidents, such violations have stopped as people began to recognise forest land as communal property," said Narayan Fulsingh Salame, Dhamditola's current gram sabha secretary. "Villagers now harvest fallen trees, rather than chopping live trees down. For a villager to pay a Rs 5,000 fine means he loses almost half his salary, so people are more careful now."

"The money collected as fines is used by the gram sabha for various welfare purposes," he said, "including repairing ponds, building tribal leader Birsa Munda's statue, and hiring teachers for the village school."

Narayan Fulsingh Salame, Dhamditola's current gram sabha secretary, shows baheda fruits, February 2022. The fruits are collected by the villagers from the forest for sale and use for household purposes.
Credit: Flavia Lopes/ IndiaSpend

Defence against deforestation

In June 2021, the Dhamditola gram sabha decided to do away with the rota system and asked for two volunteers to guard the forest, for a monthly salary of Rs 3,000. "During the tendu and mahua season, the villagers are in the forest anyway to collect the produce, so the forest is secure," said Salame. "We need guards only after the season."

Dugga volunteered. "The compensation of Rs 100 a day is too little for me to run my household," he said. "But my family of six members all contribute to the household income, so this is additional income."

On a normal day, he starts at 7 a.m. when he makes his first round of the forest. He does additional rounds at 9 a.m., 12 noon, 4 p.m. and 5.30 p.m. He and his fellow guard, Uicke, have divided up the work; each does a round when the other goes home for a break. "We guard not just our area, but the entire forest area, even those under the forest department," said Dugga.

Anjoura Samru Netam demonstrates how he walks around the village streets, informing villagers that cutting forest trees for wood is not allowed, in a voice pitched high.
Video by Flavia Lopes, shot in February 2022

"I had to especially look after the bamboo plantations," said Dugga. Since 2015, the villagers of Dhamaditola have planted bamboo trees in over 65 hectares of forest land. Bamboo takes only 3-4 years to grow, and is a source of income for the village, said Sonawne.

Surveys by the Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society, a Nagpur-based NGO, shows that the stopping of bush cutting and tree felling has led to the regeneration of 14,638 ha of forest land, over half the size of Nashik, between 2011 and 2019, roughly 600-700 saplings per hectare. "Regeneration is caused when the biotic pressure is removed or minimised. Banning bush cutting and tree felling helped grow tendu leaves and catalysed regeneration," said Dilip Gode, environmentalist and executive director of Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society.

'A forest should remain a forest'

Indigenous people, which includes the tribals, play a major role in protecting forests, especially in the face of annual rise in forest fires and deforestation, said a February 2022 report by the Rights and Resource Initiative. But while they play a major role in preserving the forest, there is no legal recognition of their rights over the forest and they are treated as encroachers, the report added.

This failure to respect and recognise the rights of local communities has devastating consequences. In India, the government has often uprooted tribal villagers or restricted their traditional activities, in the name of creating protected areas. The conservation model promoted by the government treats forest-dependent communities as a threat to the forest and to wildlife.

Villagers create a fireline, usually before the start of the summer season when forest fires are likely to break out. A fire line is the practice of burning a strip of vegetation and clearing the land so in the event of a fire, the flames don't spread. Pictured a fireline in Gondia, Maharashtra, February 28, 2022.
Photo credit: Lalit Bhandarkar

"Local communities have long used mechanisms like controlled burning, and cattle grazing, to sustain themselves while maintaining the ecosystems," said Lalit Bhandarkar, a project coordinator with Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society. "These villagers have shown how forests can thrive if forest-dependent people are given back their rights over customary lands and allowed to manage and protect them."

"Forests will always remain as forests," said Dugga. "Just because we depend on them does not mean we will destroy them. We know for a fact that if our forests are saved, our future generation is safe."

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