The setting sun painted the sky a ripe orange as Pawar Singh Hidme – a lean 45-year-old man from the Gond Adivasi community, dressed in a plain shirt, khaki pants with a pink gamcha (scarf) around his neck – took us on a tour of his farm.

“Twelve different types of produce – lemon, jamun, chillies, onions, garlic, mango, papaya, rice, guava, lima beans, chickpea lentils and pigeon peas,” Pawar Singh said, with evident pride. His farmland is surrounded by forest on three sides. Mahua, tamarind and baheda trees shaded sparse grass and small shrubs, and a stream flowed on one side. Birdsong trilled over the landscape, birds returning to their homes occasionally landed to drink from the stream.

It was not always like this. Until 2009, Hidme was considered an “encroacher” on this land. His father was routinely arrested for cultivating on the land. The copies of complaints registered against him served as evidence when the family applied for forest rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006.

In 2013, his village Dhamditola, along with 100 other villages, received community forest rights over 295 hectares of land, which allowed them to use and access non-timber forest produce for sale and livelihood purposes.

Soon after receiving community forest rights, the residents decided to wrest control of tendu leaves and mahua flowers – a major source of income particularly during the lean season – from the forest department. Thanks to the granting of cultivation rights and the taking over of the tendu and mahua, the income for the Adivasis in these villages in Gondia, a backward district in Maharashtra, has risen steadily since 2013.

Hidme used his increased income to diversify and to cultivate the 12 different crops he grows on the 1.49 hectare individual forest title that he got under the 2006 Act. In 2019, he installed a solar-powered borewell to irrigate his land, and this further increased his profit margin. As of 2022, Hidme and other villagers from Dhamditola village are contesting a case seeking rightful compensation against the Adani-owned Raipur-Rajnandgaon-Warora Transmission Ltd. that passes through their community-owned forest.

The life trajectory of Hidme, from alleged encroacher to owner of the land, is an example of how the Forest Rights Act can empower people from the Scheduled Tribes to take control of the land they were earlier denied. Hidme and his fellow community folk in the region have, thanks to the Forest Rights Act that includes both individual forest rights and community forest title for the village as a whole, seen their lives altered for the better. Distress migration has reduced as employment and income-generating opportunities increased.

Pawar Singh Hidme, 45, on his individual forest title which he got under Forest Rights Act, 2006. Since 2013, he has been harvesting at least 12 different types of produce on the land. On the right-hand side, is the solar-powered borewell he installed in 2019 with the profits he earned. Photo credit: Flavia Lopes/ IndiaSpend

Labourers to owners

A modest hut stands in a corner of Hidme’s farmland. He calls it his “workshop” – it is where he stores the farm produce till it is time to take it to market. Last year, his land produced revenue of over Rs 1 lakh – not counting the income from collecting tendu and mahua leaves in the months of March to May, a period that brings in Rs 10,000- Rs 15,000 per family member.

Prior to 2013, the forest department engaged the villagers as labourers and sold the produce to traders. “The forest department would directly give a contract to a trader, who would hire villagers at a daily wage of Rs 100-Rs 150,” said Narayan Fulsingh Salame, Dhamditola’s current gram sabha secretary. “It would be a basic collection wage. The trader never regarded our rights over the produce, nor did he give us a share in the profits that he made”.

“The traders had a monopoly and they would exploit us,” Baleshwar Mansaram Kumble, a 53-year-old resident of Dhamditola, told IndiaSpend. “Sometimes they would not hand out the money unless we gave them 100 additional leaves.”

“They would claim that this was to compensate for any leaves from the harvest that were not up to standard,” Kumble said. “At other times, they would insist that we had not collected the contracted amount of leaves, and reduce our wages.”

Each year, the villagers and forest dwellers collect Rs 2 lakh crore worth of non-timber forest products, which includes mahua and tendu, from the country’s forests, as per the Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation, an arm of the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs. Mahua flowers, fruits, seeds and bark are turned into wine or ayurvedic medicine, and tendu leaves that bud once a year are mostly used to roll bidis, which are cheap cigarettes with unfiltered tobacco.

In 2013, one hundred villages, including Dhamditola, in the Gondia district applied for forest rights under Forest Rights Act 2006. 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 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.

Villagers sorting tendu leaves they harvested between the months of March and May. Tendu leaves are used to roll bidis, which are cheap cigarettes with unfiltered tobacco. Photo credit: Lalit Bhandarkar

Since 2013, community forest rights of close to 6,500 villages spanning about 8,00,000 hectares –equivalent to five times the size of Delhi – have been recognised in the Vidarbha region.

The majority of Dhamditola’s residents are members of the Gond tribe, one of India’s largest indigenous communities, numbering around 16 lakh in Maharashtra. For centuries, they have inhabited the forest, cultivating its plants, protecting its trees and worshipping in its sacred groves.

In 2014, Maharashtra became the first state in the country to deregulate its Non-Timber Forest Produce rules and regulations, after the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The deregulation meant that the gram sabha members could opt out of the tendu and mahua collecting process led by the forest department, and could take suo motu initiative to identify the contractor, fix the rate and conditions, and sell the leaves they had collected directly to traders. Hundreds of villages in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha district have since exercised these rights.

Income from sale

On February 5, a delegation of gram sabha members of Dhamditola travelled to Nagpur to fix the tender for tendu leaves. Earlier, in the last week of January, an advertisement inviting tenders was published by the federation, which includes multiple gram sabhas of Vidarbha, in a regional newspaper. On February 5, traders came with their bids. The process was overseen by local NGOs, and a price was fixed on February 17.

Photo of an advertisement inviting tenders, published in regional newspapers of Maharashtra in January. Photo credit: Lalit Bhandarkar

“Every village and region gets a different rate depending on the quality of the tendu leaves,” said Dilip Gode, environmentalist and executive director of the Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society, one of the NGOs that oversees the bidding process. “Deori taluka of Gondia, which also includes Dhamditola, produces some of the best quality tendu leaves and therefore gets a higher rate compared to other villages.”

“The tender is issued based on who the gram sabha members trust,” Gode added. “If a trader bids the highest amount but the villagers say that they don’t trust him, then he is rejected.”

The first such tender was issued in 2014 when, after receiving the community forest rights, the gram sabha told the forest department about its intention to issue a tender on its own and set up a phadi (collection unit) for the sale of tendu leaves.

The first year of taking over the management of the tendu trade was difficult, according to Salame, the gram sabha secretary. “The income in the initial years was low and erratic.” When the villages put out tenders, no trader came forward to bid. The long wait to find a trader affected the produce.

Next year, the villages appointed a munshi to oversee the process of collection and sale. This official kept records of who had collected how much, and also of the helpers who needed to be paid wages. The gram sabhas learnt and refined their processes, and became financially independent. “We conduct the process in a way that is democratic–villagers can voice their concerns and seek redress,” said Motiram Kaliram Sayam, a former gram sabha member of Dhamditola.

These changes reflect in the income of the locals. Earlier, when the forest department managed the trade, each villager earned around Rs 100- Rs 150 a day as wages. Now, the villagers of Dhamditola earn around Rs 500 per day. Depending on various fluctuations, their monthly income ranges from Rs 10,000-Rs 15,000 per person.

“Since gram sabhas pay the wages now, everyone gets equally paid and they are also able to access the account books,” said Kumble.

Village 'munshi' (front, centre), an accountant who maintains records and oversees the process of collection and sale. He is pictured here counting the leaves collected by villagers. Photo credit: Lalit Bhandarkar

Salame shows me a small, green book containing details of the tendu leaf collection. A barely legible scrawl mentions the name of the collector, how many leaves he collected, the amount due for the collected leaves, the date of collection and the signature of the collector.

“Every villager who collects tendu leaves has a book in his name,” said Shevanta Kumeti, 46, a treasurer in the Dhamditola gram sabha. “In the initial years, we had one account book per family, and the amount due would be given to the head of the family, usually a man.”

“But later, we made individual books for every villager – which means that each man and woman has his or her own book,” Kumeti said. “The dues for women are given directly to them in cash, or deposited in their accounts.”

In 2021, Dhamditola earned total revenues of over Rs 25 lakh through the sale of 363 standard bags of tendu leaves. Each bag holds 10,000 leaves and is sold for Rs 7,695. The revenue includes labour cost of about Rs 18 lakh, and bonuses to collectors amounting to over Rs 7 lakh. For 2022, the tender price for one standard bag of leaves has been fixed at Rs 9,364 – the highest price bid since 2017, when one standard bag was sold for Rs 9,312.

“Before the tender is finalised, we conduct a meeting to decide the commission for the gram sabha,” said Sayam. “This is usually between 3%-5%.” This money is set aside in a separate fund, and over the years the gram sabha of Dhamditola has used this money to repair ponds, to build tribal leader Birsa Munda’s statue and one of Babasaheb Ambedkar, to appoint forest guards for the protection of community forests, and to hire teachers for the village school.

Gram sabha federations

On a normal day in the tendu season, Hidme gets up at 4 am to go to the forest to collect the leaves. “There is a fear that the cattle will eat all the leaves,” he said. Hidme and the other villagers work all day, collecting leaves and depositing them at the phadi (local collection centre). The manager checks the quality of the leaves and writes the number of leaves collected by each person, and the date, in the respective account books.

Women carrying bags of tendu leaves harvested from the forest. They will take the produce to the ‘phadi’ or a collection centre where the ‘munshi’ keeps a record of their collection. Photo credit: Lalit Bhandarkar

The gram sabha is central to the entire process of deciding when, where, how and to whom to sell the produce that they collect. This has ensured not only better returns but has also provided employment opportunities to several people in the village. However, before the Forest Rights Act of 2006 made it mandatory to form gram sabhas to process all forest right claims, Dhamditola and three neighbouring villages were part of a gram panchayat.

“People would never attend gram panchayat meetings as it was inconvenient for them to travel to other villages,” Salame explained. “Since the gram sabhas were formed, the meetings have been taking place in every hamlet.”

Gram sabha members of forest villages of Gondia supervising the collection of leaves. Each bundle has 70 leaves, together 10,000 leaves make for one standard bag. Last year Dhamditola village sold 363 standard bags of tendu leaves for a revenue of over Rs 25 lakh. Photo credit: Lalit Bhandarkar

Every village in Deori taluka has a gram sabha that plays a pivotal role in the village economy. Gram sabhas have framed rules such as: the payment for collected produce is made upfront by the trader instead of being delayed for years, as was the case in the earlier arrangement, villagers without bank accounts are paid in cash on the day of the sale and are not required to depend on middlemen to sell outside the gram sabha and the villagers are not responsible in case of any damage to the leaves after the pickup, and it is the sole responsibility of the contractor to pack and export produce from the village to markets.

Further, the gram sabhas of 31 villages have come together to form a federation. Several such federations from the neighbouring districts of Amravati, Chandrapur, Gadchiroli and Gondia have formed a Mahasangh, which also includes non-governmental organisations that play a role as facilitators.

In Vidarbha, grassroots organisations and NGOs have played a major role in mobilising gram sabhas to take the initiative, and they work to actively defend their claim to customary and traditional forest resources. “We ensure that the villagers learn to take charge of this ownership,” said Lalit Bhandarkar, a project coordinator with the Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society, “and address hurdles that they face with officials on their own”.

“The idea of gram sabha federations has become popular and has spread to other regions of Maharashtra over the last five years,” wrote Geetanjoy Sahu, an associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, in his 2020 paper on the implementation of community forest rights. “It did not take long for tribal villages, especially in Fifth Schedule Areas, to come together under one platform, because collective action has traditionally been a part of tribal governing structures.”

Social implications

As his income rose, and with the profits from tendu and mahua collection, Hidme in 2014 introduced chickpea lentils, lemons, guava trees and mango on his land where previously he had only cultivated rice. “The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development helped me by providing saplings of these trees.”

The new crops brought in more money, and Hidme used that money over the next few years to introduce more crops like chillies, onions and garlic. His revenue correspondingly increased, and he kept ploughing it back into his land. In 2015, he installed a fence on his farmland at a cost of Rs 6,500. In 2017, he renovated his house; in 2019, he installed a solar-powered borewell. Now that the family could afford it, his son left home to study at a polytechnic in the neighbouring district of Chandrapur – the first member of the family to get an education.

Success breeds success. Distress migration reduced appreciably. A ban on alcohol helped improve the quality of life. In 2014, 173 households in the village were given cooking gas connections by the tribal development department. For women like Shevanta, this saves time as they will not need to go to the forest to collect firewood for cooking. The time they save enables them to work in the fields, and the forests, and add to their own income.

Once they got ownership of the area’s water bodies, villagers de-silted the ponds, which increased the availability of water for irrigation which in turn drove up yields. The diet of the locals also improved. Fish became an important component.

A villager from Paulzhola village catching fish from forest water bodies. The villagers got rights over these water bodies under community forest rights. Photo credit: Flavia Lopes/ IndiaSpend

“Fishers from the village sell fish at a discounted rate of Rs 100- Rs 120 per kg. If they have extra stock, they sell in the open market for Rs 200 per kg,” said Shyamsai Hidko, the gram sabha president of Paulzhola, Dhamditola’s neighbouring village. “The gram sabha oversees the process; we have made it mandatory for fishers to first sell in the village before taking what is left to the open market.”

“Earlier, fish like rohu, katla and kalamkari were not easily available,” Dilip Kumre, a fisherman from Dhamditola village, told IndiaSpend. “But with us getting ownership over the water bodies and improving them, these fishes are now available in abundance.

Villagers from Dhamditola started fishing in 2017. The annual yield now is between 200 kg-400 kg, and brings in Rs 20,000-Rs 40,000.

Villagers have also adopted a wide range of sustainable forest management practices, such as demarcated fire lines and increased fire monitoring and patrolling, all of which have reduced forest fires and led to the regeneration of forests, IndiaSpend reported in March.

In 2017, Hidme and other members of Dhamditola and neighbouring villages pooled their savings to seek legal support against a transmission line that passed through their community forest area.

“Our trees were cut for putting in the transmission wires, and they did not provide any compensation for it,” Hidme told IndiaSpend. “Instead, they said it is a forest land and put the money in the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority fund. We decided that we will fight for our rightful compensation, come what may.”

A transmission line passes through the community forest area. Hidme and other villagers from Dhamditola village are contesting a case seeking rightful compensation against the company. Photo credit: Flavia Lopes/ IndiaSpend

“Mava Nate Mava Raj [My village, my rule]”: Dhansingh Dugga, a villager from Dhamditola, calls out the traditional Gondi saying that marks the restoration of their dignity and tradition of self-governance.

“Earlier,” said Hidme, “I would look to survive each day as it came. Now, I have a land to cultivate, a court case to fight, and a son doing higher studies. There is something to look forward to.”

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.