In Mendha, the movement towards self-rule and protection of the surrounding forests in the late 1980s led to the creation of three key village institutions.
The gram sabha (GS)
The village council for Mendha is called the gram sabha (GS). In the past, village elders took most decisions. However, through the village discussions that took place during the late 1980s movement towards self-rule, a decision was reached to constitute a village-level decision-making body. The GS was created, and is responsible for all village-level decisions including those related to natural resource use and management. It was agreed that the GS would use a consensus process for decision-making, and that these decisions would prevail over any government or other decisions. The GS initiated the move towards self-rule by acquiring factual, legal and political information about the village including various revenue and customary use documents. The move initially faced strong opposition from officials but villagers eventually succeeded in acquiring every important document.
The GS is composed of at least two adult members (one male and one female) from each Mendha household. All adult members of the village can attend the meetings. The GS has its own office and an office administrator maintains the records of all meetings organized in the village. It meets once a month and issues are discussed and revisited, if necessary until a consensus is reached.3 On average, about 75 per cent of the members attend GS meetings, with equal participation from men and women. In 1999, a decision was taken to declare a traditional holiday on days when the GS is convening to make it possible for the maximum number of people to participate. Outsiders (including government, industry, NGO representatives, etc.) are occasionally invited to discuss their plans and programmes with the villagers. The GS also functions as a dispute resolution body for small village-level disputes. For larger conflicts, a meeting of elders from 32 surrounding tribal villages is called. The GS also decides what activities will be assigned to other village institutions based on interests, responsibilities and capacities.
The GS is responsible for the following forest-related decisions and activities:
• Carrying out watershed development in the forest
• Holding discussions on forest use activities and other issues such as forest fires and soil erosion from the forests
• Formulating forest protection rules and ensuring adherence to these rules
• Selecting representatives for the official van suraksha samiti (see the Joint Forest Management programme below)
• Delegating responsibilities for forest protection
• Handling NTFP extraction and trade-related issues
In carrying out these decisions and activities, the GS works with forest department staff. Most often, these will be the local forester and two guards who are directly responsible for the forests falling within Mendha village boundaries. The GS can also interact with the four forestry officers who oversee these three functionaries.
The GS has also registered itself as an NGO, the Village Management and Development Organization. In this role, the GS carries out a number of village development and welfare activities. It focuses on equitably distributing the costs and benefits of development projects and programmes amongst the villagers. The GS has also been a strong force in coordinating the efforts of many government departments and NGOs wanting to offer various forestry protection or development programmes.
So far, the GS has deliberately avoided receiving major external funds, unless originating from government programmes targeted for the region. Each member of the GS donates 10 per cent of her or his wages to the GS corpus fund from their employment generated through the GS. Any money left over from GS projects or programmes also goes into the fund. In addition, any donations or payments made by visitors go into the fund. The GS now has its own account in a local bank, and uses a unique accounting system that spreads the responsibility and accountability for withdrawing and spending money among many villagers.
The mahila mandal (MM)
All women in the village (of all ages and classes) are members. The President of the MM is chosen at every meeting for that meeting. Often the GS meetings also work as MM meetings. Forestrelated activities carried out by the MM are:
• Regular monitoring of the forests;
• Punishing those who breach forest protection rules.
The abhyas gats (AG)
This is a study circle which operates as an informal gathering of people. Meetings are convened as and when desired for discussions on any issue. Outsiders are sometimes specially invited if the village wants some specific information or desires debate on a certain issue. These dialogues have helped the villagers develop their conversation skills, increase their awareness of the outside world, learn about their rights and responsibilities, and obtain important inputs and information which help them take informed decisions at GS meetings. In turn, outsiders have gained insights into village life and the process of village self-rule. For example, discussions initiated by outsiders at the AG significantly helped the village overcome the problem of encroachments on forest land. Discussions in the AG have also been focusing about the negative impacts of fire and hunting on the ecosystem. Frequently, the AG members establish smaller, specialized study circles to pursue particular issues and research (e.g., bird and habitat inventories, honey extraction). The following are a few examples—and some results—of the many participatory research and monitoring activities related to forest management:
• A study on the number and types of bird species and their habitats.
• A study on the impact of NTFP collection on the productivity of the concerned species. The results led to a decision to prohibit the felling of fruit trees in the village.
• A study on the behaviour of bees and the structure of their combs during honey extraction. The findings led to the development of a new enterprise specializing in ‘non-violent’ honey extraction. The marketing of non-violent honey has generated substantial economic benefit for the members of the honey-bee study circle.
Both village and outsider members of the study circles carry out these activities.
The gram sabha often interacts with another key village-level administrative structure, the village panchayat. The panchayat is an executive council of elected representatives from one village or a group of villages. It works with the government administration and the judiciary. In most government schemes and programmes the elected panchayat is responsible for receiving funds and implementing projects. The panchayat for Mendha is composed of the elected members from Mendha and two other adjoining villages. In 1999, a decision was taken by these three villages to select rather than elect their members to the panchayat. By doing so they hoped to eliminate the corruption involved in the election procedure. The selection has to be unanimous and the process takes place in an open meeting where the merits of each candidate are discussed freely.
Establishment of forest protection activities
Efforts towards forest protection started in 1987 through various discussions in the gram sabha. Several decisions were taken, including:
• All domestic requirements of the village would be met from the surrounding forests without paying any fee to the government or bribes to the local staff.
• Approval of a set of rules for sustainable extraction.
• No outsider, including governmental, would be allowed to carry out any forest use activities without the permission of the gram sabha. If someone was caught doing so, the material would be seized by the village and the offender would have to accept any punishment decided by the village.
• No commercial exploitation of the forests, except for NTFP, would be allowed.
• The villagers would regularly patrol the forest.
• The villagers would regulate the amount of resources they could extract and the times during which they could extract resources from the forests.
To implement these and other minor decisions regulating extraction, an unofficial van suraksha samiti (forest protection committee, see below) was formulated, including at least two members from each household in the village. Originally, a procedure for collecting fines from those who did not adhere to the village forest protection rules was established, but this failed to work because people did not want the responsibility of collecting fines and, most often, fines were not paid. As a result, the system for applying sanctions to Mendha village members became one of peer pressure, creating family shame and social ostracism. In the commercial sector, the gram sabha— representing a strong and united village opposition to forest practices and revenue sharing— succeeded in stopping the timber industry’s bamboo and teak extraction from the late 1980s/early 90s.
Mendha villagers speak proudly of the fact that the forests now ‘belong’ to them, and that they have implemented effective forest protection activities. Indeed, despite the state’s 1992 declaration of 1900 hectares of the customary zone of the village as Reserve Forests, the villagers continue to view the entire area as their forest and include it in their activities governing regulated use and protection.
Establishment of the Joint Forest Management programme
The efforts of the villagers at forest protection were not initially recognized in official circles. However, in 1992 an opportunity arrived to remedy this when the state adopted a Joint Forest Management (JFM) resolution. In general, the JFM scheme envisages the handing over of degraded lands and forests to villagers for raising valuable timber species. Plantations are created and valuable forests regenerated, with the forest department and villagers jointly responsible for forest management. After 5–10 years, valuable timber is harvested and local villagers involved in forest protection are entitled to receive up to 50 percent of the revenue generated. The scheme, however, was not applicable for districts like Gadchiroli where most of the forests were still close canopy natural forests. Since Mendha’s forests were healthy standing forests, the government did not plan on creating plantations for revenue generation, and there were no guidelines for benefit sharing for standing forests. The villagers, however, persistently demanded that they be included in the JFM scheme, pointing out that they should not be punished for protecting their forests thus far. With the help of some supportive forest officials, the villagers succeeded, and they entered into a JFM agreement in 1992. Subsequently, an official van suraksha samiti (VSS)4 was formed and Mendha became the first village with standing forests in the state—and one of the few in India—to be brought under the JFM scheme.
After the introduction of the JFM programme, the villagers discussed the scheme in greater detail with outside experts. Subsequently, the villagers managed to bring in many provisions that were not usually within the mandate of the JFM resolution. These included meeting the actual needs of the villagers and not interfering with the rules set out by the villagers for controlling the extraction of resources from the forest. Thus, the rules (some written, but most unwritten) followed by the villagers are a mixture of what the official resolution states and what the villagers have decided. The written rules include:
• All decisions regarding the forests will be taken in a joint meeting between the forest department and the villagers.
• Mendha villagers will have the first right to employment in any official forest-related activity in the village.
• To carry out any work in the forests, permission will have to be sought from the gram sabha.
The unwritten rules include:
• Labourers from the outside will have to take a letter of permission from the VSS;
• Villagers will extract forest produce for their real requirement as per the existing village rules;
• Villagers will have the power to punish offenders both from within the village and outside;
• Details of the joint meetings will be recorded both by the forest department and the villagers.
The functions of the VSS were also adopted for Mendha’s JFM programme. The VSS in Mendha meets far more often than it is officially obligated to, and the meetings are open to all members of the GS, not just the executive committee. The creation of the official VSS has not affected the functioning of the unofficial Mendha VSS, and official decisions found unacceptable to the villagers are not carried out. The official VSS has a set of forest protection rules, and supports the authority and role of the GS regarding its forest protection activities. The official VSS in Mendha carries out the following forest-related activities:
• Daily forest vigilance, carried out equally by men and women members.
• Stopping outsiders from commercial extraction, e.g., the paper industry.
• Initiation and implementation of JFM in the village, including decisions about the time of bamboo extraction and plantation, methods to be employed and payments to be made.
• Appointing an official firewatcher in the village. For any forestry operation to be carried out under the JFM, a joint meeting between the forest department and the villagers is organized and all matters, including those of daily wages, are openly discussed. As evidenced above, the implementation of the JFM scheme is largely based on the Mendha village rules and regulations, not the provisions of the JFM Resolution. JFM in Mendha village is viewed as among the very few successful cases of JFM in Gadchiroli District.