It was a scene typical of any government official’s visit to a village gathering. This particular health official on a visit to the village of Mendha in Gadhchiroli district of Maharashtra was being arrogant as he went about a physical examination for leprosy among villagers. Rudely he was barking out his instructions, pushing the villagers to and fro.

Just then a wizened old villager stood up and said, “Stop!” He went on to declare that the health official had no business talking to the villagers like that and demanded to know if he had actually sought the permission of the village Gram Sabha to conduct his business. Paying no attention to the officer’s threat of complaining to higher authorities, he actually brought forward a visitor’s book maintained by the village and asked him to record whatever he wished to say.

Within no time, the entire village had gathered in support, and the outcome was that the health official had to stand before the Gram Sabha, introduce himself and state the purpose of his visit. Only then was he allowed to continue.

The admiration is still evident as Neema Pathak, an environmental activist from Pune, who witnessed this scene, relates the story. “I have witnessed enough interaction between government officials and poor uneducated villagers to have found his rude behaviour not out of the ordinary. So imagine my surprise when this old man got up, and on the behalf of the entire village, insisted that the official pull up his socks. That, to me, was proof enough of the empowerment and self-reliance of the villagers of Mendha. In a scenario where people have little power over their elected representatives and environment, this small tribal village had paved a different path, and I was curious to know how it had reached this stage.”

Pic credit: Vivek Gour-BroomeA grama sabha in session

Kalpavriksh, the Pune-based environmental action agency that Pathak is associated with, then went on to choose the case study of Mendha-Lekha in 1997-98 as part of a regional and global process of documenting community based conservation of natural resources and biodiversity. The global project, called Evaluating Eden, is sponsored by the London-based International Institute of Environment and Development. The South Asia Regional Review of Community Involvement in Conservation, which was part of the global project, was coordinated by a group of Kalpavriksh members: Ashish Kothari, Neema Pathak and Farhad Vania. This story was put before the world at the recently-concluded World Parks Congress in Durban, South Africa, as a successful instance of community intervention in natural resources management.

Gadchiroli district is situated at the tail end of the Satpura range of hills. The hills that are a part of the Dhanora-Pendhri Range are largely forested (ranging from scrub to degraded to dense). According to statistics made available by a Joint Forest Management evaluation in 1996, the total area of Mendha village is about 1930 hectares, and out of this 1806 hectares are covered by dense forests. The tribal residents have always had a close link with the forests; their culture, traditions, and now more importantly, their sustenance and daily livelihood is closely bound to the forests.

Forest management in Mendha is interlinked with the struggle for tribal self-rule. The story begins in the late 1970s. The government had proposed two dams in the Gadchiroli region. For the economically poor tribals of the region, the project not only meant displacement from their traditional homes and possible social disruption but also destruction of large stretches of forests on which their livelihood and culture heavily depended. Thus this project faced strong tribal opposition and was finally shelved by the government.

Therein were sowed the seeds of a very strong movement towards tribal self-rule. Mendha got its boost from the support of visionaries like Devaji Topa, a local who has not studied beyond primary school and Mohan Hirabai Hiralal of the anti-dam movement. Together they helped initiate the Jungle Bachao Manav Bachao Andolan (Save Forest, Save Humanity Movement). The struggle emphasised and strengthened the determination of the tribals to take decisions at a local level for activities directly affecting their lives, culture and livelihood, especially with regard to the forests.

Both Topa and Hiralal encouraged the need for informed discussions before taking any decision. Gradually, the villagers began to introspect. “Do we have the capability to take decisions?” They realised the importance of a clean existence sans any vices, and the first obstacle in this process was the incapacitating vice of alcoholism. This was all the more so because the government had issued licences to local brewing dens, and also because brewing household toddy was socially and culturally upheld among these tribals. The leaders and elders had accepted that decisions cannot be enforced. Hence they spent as many as four to five years just discussing the ill-effects of alcoholism. Interestingly, the women came forward this time. Eventually, prohibition became a social rule. It was decided that no liquor would be obtained from outside, and brewing it at home would be only for self-consumption and that too after the Gram Sabha gave its permission.

The successful liquor story was a landmark event in the process of tribal self-rule in Mendha. This was accompanied by a greater realisation of the importance of the surrounding forests, and the villagers understood that they needed to take charge of them. These forests were largely under the management of the local landlords till 1950s and there existed a more or less harmonious relationship between them and the tribals. However, with Independence, these forests came under the management of the Forest Department. Subsequently, commercial exploitation of timber and other forest produce started. Parts of the forest were also leased out to a paper mill. The process of converting these into Reserved forests also started, thereby reducing the access of forests to the locals.

The tribal community decided to assert itself. Efforts towards forest protection started in 1987 through various discussions in the gram sabha, an institution that was born out of the unity among the villagers. Several decisions were taken for the protection of forests, including the following:

  1. All domestic requirements of the village would be met from the surrounding forests without paying any fee to the government. This, however, was accompanied by a set of rules for sustainable extraction.
  2. No outsider, whether governmental or non-governmental, would be allowed to carry out any forest activity without the permission of the gram sabha (which includes one member from every household).
  3. No commercial exploitation of the forests, except for Non-Timber Forest Produce, would be allowed.
  4. Villagers would regularly patrol the forests.
  5. They would regulate the amount of resources they could extract from the forests.
  6. Water and soil conservation efforts followed to arrest soil erosion.
  7. Forests would not be set on fire and villagers would aid in fire-extinguishing activities.
  8. Encroachment would not be allowed.

“No wonder, I have observed that the lower government officials posted here have tremendous respect for the villagers.”
To implement these decisions an informal Vana Suraksha Samiti (VSS) was formulated including at least two members from each household. However, since the forests in this area were not entirely degraded, the efforts of the villagers at forest protection were initially not recognised by the official circles. Things changed, when in 1992, the State adopted a Joint Forest Management Resolution. According to it, degraded forests would be handed over to villagers for regeneration activities, which would be handled jointly by the villagers and the Forest Department.

The JFM was initially not applicable to Gadchiroli district as the forests were still largely canopy natural forests. The villagers, however, persistently demanded on inclusion in the scheme, and gradually their stand was accepted and subsequently, an official VSS was formed. Mendha-Lekha became the first village with standing forests in the state of Maharashtra to be brought under this scheme.

According to Neema Pathak, the story of Mendha is unique for many reasons. Firstly, the decision-making process is an informed one. In this, the study circles or the Abhyas Gats formed in the village play a crucial role. The villagers welcome all kinds of information from the outside world, yet they retain the right to decide for themselves, and this helps in making the right kind of choices. Then comes the fact that no decision is taken merely by majority. Almost always, it is taken by a unanimous vote. And finally the transparency that is strictly adhered to makes the entire effort of self-rule successful.

“No wonder, I have observed that the lower government officials posted here have tremendous respect for the villagers,” avers Pathak. But there is a flip side too. “There is a bit of discontent among the higher officials who feel threatened by the power enjoyed by the villagers. It sort of makes their position redundant.” While this transition of Mendha from a helpless, uninformed and fear-ridden community into an informed and empowered community is remarkable, the struggle is by no means complete. Neither is the conservation process completely foolproof. Inherent traits of the community like its being close-knit and cohesive have rendered their methods successful, but a replication of the same process elsewhere may not always be the best way out.

Yet, when site-specific and decentralised management of natural resources is the need of the hour, the process of self-determination and natural resource conservation in Mendha can show the way to other villages in India.