Gondia (Maharashtra): In a room full of men gathered for the federation meeting, Shevanta Kumeti stands out. Dressed in a colourful saree with the loose end pinned to her shoulder, and a bindi on her forehead to mark her married status, the 46-year-old is a member of the gram sabha of Dhamditola village and also treasurer of the federation which includes 31 gram sabhas.

Kumeti had served as a volunteer for a brief period in 2016; in 2017, the gram sabha members—all men—voted for her appointment as full-time treasurer and member of the gram sabha.

"I was hesitant to take the role of treasurer with the federation," said Kumeti, "because it was a matter of money, and it would involve travelling to Nagpur and other neighbouring districts to fix tenders." Her role, she said, is more titular compared to other male members of the sabha; even so, it represents a space for women to assert their rights in matters of resource conservation and community participation.

Her role as treasurer includes attending gram sabha meetings, going to the bank to withdraw money that the gram sabha requires, and signing financial documents that the executive board of the gram sabha requests her to—often, she confessed, without reading them.

This is the second and concluding part of the series, "Mava Nate, Mava Raaj– My village, My rules", on the effect of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006 (FRA). The Act recognises two kinds of rights: individual forest rights that allow an individual the rights to hold, self-cultivate and live in forestland; and community forest rights (CFR) that confer rights over community forest resources, including minor forest produce such as tendu leaf and mahua flowers, and also gives forest-dwelling communities the authority to manage forests.

The first part was on the economic transformation brought about by the FRA, and this second part is about its impact on the women and youth of the forest villages.

46-year-old Shevanta Kumeti pointing at a mahua tree, in this photo from February 2022.
Photo c
redit: Flavia Lopes/IndiaSpend

Kumeti had grown up in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, and studied till grade XII in Nagpur before being married to Vaibhav Kumeti from Dhamditola in 1997. The village is a four-hour bus ride from Nagpur. She and her husband worked as contracted labourers for the forest department for Rs 100-150 per day per person.

Her life began to change in 2013, when Dhamditola got community forest rights over 295 hectares of land. With villagers now owning the minor forest produce, Kumeti's family income rose, with each family member earning Rs 500 per day.

Under CFR, villagers of Dhamditola got access to five water bodies from the forest. The villagers desilted the water bodies over the next few years and thus improved groundwater recharge.

In 2016, the gram sabha, newly empowered by the money villagers were earning from forest rights, dug six borewells in the village, spacing them out in the corners for equal access. "Earlier, it would take us an hour to stand in line each day to fetch water for household use from the single borewell we had in the village," Kumeti said.

Similarly, in 2014, the tribal development department gave connections for Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG), used for cooking, to 173 households in the village. Once the gram sabha banned the cutting down of trees for firewood, more families moved to LPG for household purposes.

For women like Kumeti, this saves time as they do not need to go to the forest to collect firewood, and thus they have more time to work in the fields and add to their own income.

Now armed with both money and agency, women from several villages in the area formed informal committees to restrict the consumption and sale of liquor in the villages. "Mahua flower, which is available in the forests, is often used to make local liquor. Alcoholism has drained income away from households and affected women," said Narayan Salame, gram sabha president of Dhamditola. "Women from the village have imposed penalties and also formed vigilante groups to straighten out those who consume or sell liquor." Since then, incidents of alcoholism and alcohol abuse have reduced significantly, Salame told IndiaSpend.

Further, distress migration has reduced, since the community is now able to generate employment opportunities, especially among the youth, for at least six months of the year. Migration still happens, but in smaller numbers than before—and those young men who do migrate do so out of choice rather than necessity.

Pawar Singh Hidme, a villager in Dhamditola (read more about him in Part 1 of this series) has a son studying at a college in Chandrapur district. Hidme said that at least 10-15 youths from his village are studying professional courses in nearby cities—and thanks to improved economic circumstances, their families are now able to fund their education.

Shevanta Kumeti is the treasurer of the gram sabha federation of 31 villages in Gondia. Pictured here with other male members of the federation, February 18, 2022.
Photo credit: Flavia Lopes/IndiaSpend

All of what we observed in the villages of Gondia district is in line with studies, such as a 2020 study by the Washington D.C.-based Rights and Resources Initiative, a global coalition for forest policy and reforms. The study found that recognition of individual and collective rights, and support for forest dwellers to effectively manage their rights over forests, creates ample livelihood options in the village itself and in the process, reduces the need for distress outmigration.

Community forest rights and financial independence

Until 2019, Kumeti had juggled her work in the fields and harvesting tendu and mahua leaves in season, with her household chores—all this while fulfilling her role as treasurer. In 2019, she gave up working in the fields to focus more on her household and her work as a gram sabha member. "Our family of four, including two sons, earn enough money from harvesting tendu and mahua produce to suffice us," she said.

Until 2015, there was one account book per family to track collection of tendu and mahua produce and the gram sabha handed over wages to the head of the family, mostly men. In 2015, the gram sabha decided that it was necessary to maintain separate account books for men and women.

"We realised that while women took more effort in harvesting tendu and mahua, they didn't get the money, as the wages would go to the male head of the family," said Salame.

Empowered with her own earnings, Kumeti in 2016 decided to build a toilet in the backyard of her house. "The gram panchayat helped us by providing Rs 12,000 per household, to around 50 houses in the village," she said.

A woman from the forest village of Gondia harvesting tendu leaves.
Photo c
redit: Lalit Bhandarkar

The change in the status of women, once the villages got forest rights, was gradual but steady. Now, every gram sabha meeting that involves decisions on rates for tendu leaves, or about social and cultural events, has at least one woman per family in attendance.

In Paulzhola, a neighbouring village of Dhamditola, Manda Hidko is president of a self-help group that has 10 members. They call it swayam sahayata bachat gat (self-help saving group). Members contribute Rs 50 per month which creates a fund so the group can lend money to those in need. The members meet each month, on full moon night. There are at least six such groups in the village, each having 10 to 12 members. "Smaller groups make it easier to keep a tab on the money," Hidko said.

Manda Hidko is a president of a self-help group in her forest village of Paulzhola in Gondia. She is pictured here, in front of her house, February 2022.
Photo credit: Flavia Lopes/IndiaSpend

Unlike Kumeti, who has a bank account where she collects her harvest wage, Hidko and most other women take wages in cash, which they then invest in the self-help group. In 2015, Hidko took a loan of Rs 5,000, at a 2% annual interest rate, from the group to buy fertiliser for her farm. She paid back her loan in 2016; in 2019, she took another loan to rebuild her house.

Mangla Sunil Salaam sat patiently while Hidko told me about the changes in her life. Salaam, then 24, gave birth to her second child, a boy, in late 2020. That year, she had to skip the tendu and mahua harvest to take care of her child.

Salaam too takes her wages in cash, the majority of which she contributes to the household. "I earn around Rs 10,000-12,000 per month during the season, but I have to hand over the money to my mother-in-law, who looks after the house and our children," she said. Salaam's husband and her brother-in-law work in factories at Deori taluka, 80 km away from Gondia, and visit the village once every 15-30 days.

Salaam makes sure that she holds back at least Rs 2,000-3,000 for her personal needs. Last year, during the annual Sharda festival, a village festival for deity Sharda devi, held in November, she bought what she said is the most expensive personal purchase till date: a vibrant red saree, for Rs 400.

"I like to spend money on myself," Salaam gleefully said.

Migration out of choice, not out of desperation

Tuliram Uicke, 30, was in his early 20s when his village Mangatola got community forest rights. At the time, he was working in Nagpur, in a cola factory. "When I came home to the village once," Uicke recalled, "the gram sabha which had formed around that time asked me to help them by maintaining records, and reading and writing official documents."

He also began working with a local NGO, the Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society, to understand village governance, especially during the tendu and mahua season. In 2017, he joined the gram sabha as secretary, responsible for holding meetings in the village and hearing grievances.

"Since we got control over tendu and mahua produce, out-migration has reduced for at least five-six months, as the income earned in the season is much more than what the men from the village would get as wage workers," said Uicke. Further, employment opportunities such as forest patrolling and teaching at local schools have also helped in reducing distress migration.

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