Adivasis in Maharashtra’s Maoist insurgency-hit Gadchiroli district made history in May when they took charge of the annual auction of tendu leaves, which are used to make bidis. This was the first time gram sabhas in Adivasi areas handled the auction, which has traditionally been conducted by the Forest Department with the proceeds going to the state, the presumed owner of the forests. This year, the 1,267 gram sabhas in the district’s Adivasi areas earned Rs 35 crores from the auction.

Tendu trees grow abundantly in the forests of Gadchiroli and its leaves are a major commodity in the minor forest produce (non-timber) trade in Central India. The trade in these leaves has been going on since before Independence.

Though this year’s tendu auction is a victory for Adivasi communities, who have for decades claimed their right over forest produce, it did not proceed without hiccups. For instance, Forest Department officials and activists agree that Adivasis could have got a better price for the forest produce as demand for tendu was high this year. That would have been possible if e-auctions had been held, said villagers and activists, who accused the Forest Department of ignoring demands to take the auction online.

Long battle

The auction by gram sabhas in Adivasi areas was made possible by the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, which provides for self-governing villages in areas dominated by Adivasi communities (called Scheduled Areas). The Act focuses on the self-empowerment of Adivasis, and one of its key thrusts is on gram sabhas being endowed with ownership of minor forest produce.

Although the Act was enacted by Parliament in 1996, every state was required to frame rules for its implementation. This process was considerably delayed in Maharashtra whose governor only issued a notification to implement the Act in August, 2014. The following year, the state issued two government resolutions empowering gram sabhas to collect, sort and auction tendu.

Complementing the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act is the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which gave people in these parts legal ownership of the forest, as well as responsibility for its management.

When the Forest Rights Act was passed 10 years ago, gram sabhas in Gadchiroli applied for recognition of their right to grazing lands, forests and sacred groves under that law. In due course, it became the district with the largest number of community forest rights in the country.

But gram sabhas were still not legally empowered to collect and sell forest produce.

In 2007, following talks between non-governmental organisations and the government, gram sabhas in Maharashtra's Adivasi districts of Gadchiroli and Gondia started receiving 85% of the royalty derived from tendu auctions, but there was gross under reporting of collection and royalty figures by traders and the Forest Department. The Forest Department, or State, was still the owner of forests in this arrangement.

In 2011, the Maharashtra government allowed some gram sabhas to collect and sell bamboo and tendu, but a large part of this process was handled by the Forest Department and operationalised through joint forest management committees controlled by the department. Under this arrangement, every gram sabha that had community forest rights would need to apply to the Forest Department for the right to collect and sell tendu.

But the governor's August 2014 notification said that inconsistencies in Central and state laws on forest produce and management had impeded the right of gram sabhas to ownership of minor forest produce, and resulted in the denial of livelihood opportunities for village communities in Scheduled Areas. The two government resolutions issued the following year sought to correct this anomaly, and handed over ownership and livelihood opportunities to people.

Then and now

So if earlier, the Forest Department controlled the tendu trade by carving forest areas into units, setting targets for production, employing Adivasis for meagre wages to collect the leaves, and selling the produce to traders who would, in turn, sell it to bidi manufacturing units, according to the new rules, gram sabhas are given two options regarding the process each auction season, and asked to pick one.

Under the first option, the Forest Department assists gram sabhas with the auction. Thus, the department calls for bids, signs an agreement with the winning bidder, conducts the auction, and transfers the royalty amount acquired to the villagers' bank accounts.

Under option two, the gram sabha conducts the auction independently though it can seek the help of the Forest Department and local administrative authorities. The gram sabhas call for bids, sign agreements with the winning bidder, and conduct the auction. The winning bidder, however, pays the royalty amount to the Forest Department, which deducts an administrative fee and transfers the auction proceeds to the head of the zilla parishad, who transfers it to the village fund.

Under both options, the Forest Department divides areas into units, asks villages to pick an option and announces the date of the auction.

The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act applies to 1,267 gram sabhas of a total of 1,688 in the district. Of these, this year, 633 gram sabhas chose option one, 538 chose option two, and 96 gram sabhas that did not choose any option were slotted under option two by default.

High demand

P Kalyankumar, the Chief Conservator of Forests, Gadchiroli, was effusive about the success of the first large-scale tendu auction by gram sabhas.

“Tendu and bamboo are the most important non-timber forest produce in Gadchiroli,” said the top forest department official. “The annual business in these commodities averages around Rs 100 crores to Rs 120 crores per year in this district alone. “Thanks to PESA [Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act], gram sabhas will now reap the profits of this lucrative trade.”

But he conceded that the profits could have been higher.

“Trade in tendu is tricky,” he said, adding, “unless you understand the market, you cannot realise its true value”.

This year in particular, said traders and forest officials, all tendu godowns in Gadchiroli and neighbouring Gondia districts were empty as the previous year’s stock had run out. The demand, therefore, was high.

“When you keep that in mind, you realise the money gram sabhas made in royalties was actually quite low,” said a forest supervisor who requested anonymity since he is not authorised to speak to the media. “Villagers could have struck much better deals at auctions had they been aware of the market.”

Claims and counter-claims

On the issue of market awareness, Kalyankumar said that the forest department conducted several workshops on market trends and the auction procedure for Adivasi villagers at the block and gram panchayat levels in the months leading up to the May-July tendu season.

But villagers in Bhamragad, Etapally, Alapally, Wadsa and Gadchiroli talukas of the district denied that any such workshop had been held in their areas. They said that they did not know a thing about the commodity's trade cycle or market value.

An employee of the Forest Department in Gadchiroli, who did not wish to be identified, said only a few meetings were conducted in some talukas, but no attempt was made to explain the importance of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) and the related issue of ownership of forests to the Adivasis. This is significant in Gadchiroli as although almost every Adivasi family in the forest earns between Rs 30,000 and Rs 50,000 in wages for collecting tendu in these parts every year, a minuscule number of them are aware of their rights over forests.

The case for e-auctions

Villagers and activists believe that e-auctions, which takes the bidding process online, could have enabled the participation of more traders in the process and possibly brought the villagers a better price.

Traders also said that they would have preferred e-auctions.

Bandopant Mallelwar, one of the two major tendu traders in the district, whose family has been in the business for decades, said that bad road connectivity prevented traders from visiting villages that conducted auctions on the same day.

“There were auctions in 15-16 different villages on the same day,” said Mallelwar. “Since it takes three to four hours to reach from one village to another even if they are in the same block, participation in the auction suffered. E-tendering would have saved us a lot of hassle.”

Mallelwar, a member of the zilla parishad, hails from the Komati community in Telangana. Maharashtra's current finance minister Sudhir Mungantiwar hails from this influential community. Its members were brought to Gadchiroli by the British in the 19th century to brew liquor.

Rajashri Lekame, a resident of Maraknar village in Bhamragad block, who is an Accredited Social Health Activist, and played a key role in the tendu auction in her village, complained that the local administration rejected her village’s request to conduct an e-auction.

“We asked the forest department to conduct e-auctions, but they refused,” she said.

But Chief Conservator of Forests Kalyankumar said that local officials did not receive any applications for e-auctions, a claim that activist Neema Pathak from Kalpavriksh, a non-profit working on environmental and social issues, contested.

Pathak recalled a meeting with the previous Gadchiroli Collector in February. “The Collector assured us [a team of activists that included Pathak] that the administration would do everything to make e-auctions possible,” she said. “After us, a group of villagers from Maraknar met him demanding e-auction for tendu. We were to learn later that this group had been denied help. The Collector had told them nothing could be done.”

Several gram sabhas in Bhamragarh taluka, once a Maoist stronghold, also wrote to the Collector asking for the tendu auction via e-tenders, but their request was ignored.

Trader-bureaucrat-politician nexus

Dilip Gode from the non-profit Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society, said that in past years forest officials and traders have worked to undermine efforts by gram sabhas to collect and sell tendu on their own.

“We began working with some CFR [community forest rights] awardee gram sabhas in Gadchiroli to collect, sort and sell tendu leaves in 2013,” said Gode. “In the first year itself, we noticed a 40% rise in collection figures collated by the gram sabha. This was the forest department's domain earlier and there was no transparency.”

That year, recalled Gode, traders boycotted auctions for tendu in villages that the non-profit was working in.

However, once the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act was implemented in Maharashtra, traders and the forest department did not have a choice but to let go of their grip over the tendu trade.

But there still have been several attempts to undermine the move by gram sabhas to take control of the process – which has brought to the fore the trader-bureaucrat-politician nexus in the tendu trade.

For instance, in villages under Potegaon police station, people said that the police was coercing Adivasis to sell tendu leaves to Mallelwar in the run-up to the auction.

Mallelwar denied this charge, and drew attention to other traders striking underhand deals with local politicians and their henchmen instead.

He alleged: “These traders from Andhra, Gondia and Chandrapur pay off logon ke mukhiya [people's representatives] like village sarpanches, zilla parishad members and panchayat samiti members to keep royalty figures suppressed.”

A case in point is Sironcha block, where auctions fetched gram sabhas just Rs 2,900 per standard bag while the average rate per standard bag was around Rs 6,000 this year.

Kalyankumar admitted that auctions were conducted merely on paper in several places and people were robbed of what was rightfully theirs, but added that there was nothing the Forest Department could do as the “procedure was being handled entirely by the people”.

Maoists vs Forest Department

Gram sabhas also found it difficult to arrange the resources to place advertisements for the tendu auction in newspapers, a requirement under the law. As a result of this, advertisements were placed in newspapers that forest department officials say “no one reads”.

“Even the smallest, most insignificant newspaper charges Rs 3,000 for an advertisement,” said Mura Halwe, explaining why this was so. “How are gram sabhas supposed to raise money for placing advertisements?”

He added: “Advertisements in big newspapers would certainly help reach more traders, but we don't have the money.”

Kalyankumar posited that villagers advertised in nondescript newspapers due to fear of Maoists. “Perhaps, they were under the influence of Maoists and did not want to conduct auctions in earnest,” he said.

But Mallelwar, whose family has been in the tendu business for 75 years, said that Maoists rarely target or demand money from tendu traders. Adivasis too said that they had no complaints about Maoists, but added that the Forest Department was another animal altogether.

Sainu Gota, former director of the state's Adivasi Development Commissionerate, and resident of Gatta village in Gadchiroli, said that forest officials were trying to take signatures or thumb impressions of Adivasis in several villages on the sly at the start of the tendu season.

Sainu Gota and other Adivasis offer prayers at a sacred grove in Surjagad village of Gadchiroli on August 9, International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples.

“They were getting villagers to choose Option 1 [tendu collection and sale with the help of the Forest Department] without their knowledge,” said Gota. “When we confronted the forest ranger about this, he was very unhappy, ‘Do what you want’, he told us.”

But Gadchiroli resident Ramdas Jarate from Maharashtra Gram Vikas Jan Andolan said that despite hiccups, the first season of tendu sale under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act had made several Adivasis aware of their rights.

Jagannath Narote from Koti village is one of them.

“All these years, the Forest Department used to tell us they owned the forest, and we believed them,” said Narote. “Now we know that is not true. PESA [Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act] recognises Adivasis' stake in the country's forests.”