|Number of households||-|
|Number of people||400|
Mendha-Lekha is located 30 km from the district headquarters and is spread over two small and closely situated tolas (hamlets). The total area of the village is estimated at 1800 hectares. Nearly 80 per cent of this area is forested. According to Rodgers and Panwar (1968),1 the area falls in the bio-geographic zone of Central Plateau. The forest type is the sub-group Southern Tropical Dry Deciduous Forests (5A/C3) of Dry Deciduous Forests, with patches dominated by teak and bamboo. The local sub-types of forests found here include teak forests with dense bamboo, teak forests with scanty or no bamboo, mixed forests with dense bamboo, and mixed forests with scanty or no bamboo.
A total of 125 species of plants, 25 of mammals, 82 of birds, and 20 of reptiles have been recorded from the forests so far. Villagers report presence of Indian gaur, chital or spotted deer and wild dogs or dhole in the past, none of which have been sighted for last three decades. Animals like monkey and Hanuman langur are used in traditional medicines. Indian wolf, leopard, sloth bear, tiger and Indian peafowl are the endangered wild animal species in the forests of Gadchiroli district at large. Another highly endangered species found in these forests is the Central Indian giant squirrel. The range of the sub-species found here is restricted to only certain parts of central India.
The village is home to over 400 people, all belonging to the Gond tribe (indigenous people) or the Koya (human), as the tribe refers to itself. Like most other indigenous peoples or the adivasis in India, the people in this region are also heavily dependent on surrounding forests for their sustenance and livelihood.
The livelihood of the villagers is heavily dependent on subsistence farming and on the forests, which provide a range of food, fuel, timber and fodder. The average landholding is five acres. The major source of income is from the collection of non-timber forest produce (NTFP) and daily wages from labour work with government and private agencies.
|Origin||Revived by community initiative|
|Year of Formation||1979|
|Motivations||Livelihood, Response to external threat|
Mendha’s resistance and that of hundreds of communities across India is part of a larger resource politics emerging from the competing aspirations of state, corporations, and local communities. Forests constitute over 76 percent of the total geographical area of Gadchiroli district. Most of these are dense and rich in timber, bamboo, and other forest produce important for local people as well as for the state for their commercial value. As much as 85 percent of the state’s bamboo, for example, comes from Gadchiroli district.
Under colonial rule, and, following Independence, under Indian governments who continued to follow colonial policies and practices, the forests were nationalized and access to forests for adivasis and other traditional forest-dwelling communities was systemically and consistently restricted and legally annihilated. For over 200 years such communities have been subjected to exploitation by the government – both colonial and non-colonial; oppressed by a centralized and corrupt bureaucracy; and marginalized by economic and industrial interests. In this context, in August 2009, Mendha became the first village in the country to have its legal rights and responsibilities to use, manage, and conserve the 1,800 hectares of forest falling within its customary boundary recognized under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forests Rights) Act, or Forest Rights Act (FRA), of 2006. This was a milestone in the history of forest governance not just in the village, but for the country as a whole.
This prolonged tribal resistance was successful in forcing the government to withdraw a few plans for the region, but a more significant outcome was that in the region’s many villages it transformed into a strong movement towards self-determination and self-governance, which was based on tribal cultural identity and local community control over traditional lands and resources, including in Mendha.
Much like the tribal populations across India, in Gadchiroli district tribal communities were also, and continue to be, heavily dependent on the forests for their subsistence and cultural survival. Considering that zamindars in this region were tribal themselves, there were few restrictions on subsistence resource extraction, barring species prohibited by the government because of their commercial value for the state.
1987- Efforts towards forest protection started in 1987 through various discussions in the gram sabha
2009- Mendha becomes the first village in the country to have its legal rights and responsibilities to use, manage and conserve the 1800 hectares of forest falling within its customary boundary recognised under Forest Rights Act (2006)
In the late 1970s the Indian government proposed an ambitious hydroelectric project in the adjoining state of Madhya Pradesh. For the 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. It was also claimed that the majority of the benefits to be derived from the power generated would go to industry and other elite sectors of society. This awareness led to a strong tribal opposition to the project, and many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) helped the local people mobilize and organize public rallies and agitations against the dams. In 1985, after prolonged and determined tribal resistance, the government shelved the project.
The anti-dam struggle emphasized and strengthened the determination of the tribal people to take decisions at local level for activities directly affecting their lives. It gave rise to a strong movement towards self-rule in the region, based on the revival of tribal cultural identity and greater control over land and resources. Mendha was one of the villages where this process gained momentum. Upon their return to Mendha, individuals who had been engaged in the anti-dam movement continued to advocate for greater village self-rule and collective responsibility. Discussions ensued over a period of 4-5 years centred on key village issues such as creating equal status for women, reducing alcoholism, creating greater personal responsibility, and establishing means to protect and regulate the use of the surrounding forests. The discussions led to many positive social, cultural and environmental changes, including the development of a forest protection and management system in the village.
|Collective of CCAs||-|
|Decision Making Body||Gram sabha|
|Rules and Regulations||-|
|Community activities through the year||Fire Management, Patrolling, watch and ward, Plantations and restoration activities, Soil and water conservation|
Study circles are important village institutions in the production, assimilation, and transmission of knowledge. When people would sit and discuss, Mohan and Savita, one of the main mobilisers of the Gadchiroli movement, would join them and start introducing a range of issues which were not traditionally discussed, including news of the outside world and new laws and policies.
Villagers found these discussions enriching as these provided them with insights into the outside world. One of the most significant study circles was on Forests and People which lasted from 1987 to 1989. The results of the discussions emerging from this became the foundation for the struggle for self-rule in the village. Gradually, the villagers started using the opportunity when visitors came to the village to talk to them in the evenings, find out about their work, and inform them about the village initiative. They also started inviting experts from outside if needed. In this way, a large number of people became associated with Mendha over a period of time who contributed directly and indirectly towards their effort. Study-group discussions helped the villagers develop their own conversation skills and confidence, awareness of the world outside, and, most importantly, provided them with important contributions towards informed decisions to be taken at the gram sabha meetings or in negotiations with powerful outside government and non-government actors.
Women were also encouraged to be part of the study circle discussions and they raised a major issue of alcoholism in the village. Even though there was resistance against the consumption of alcohol but after over a year of discussions, it was concluded that the use of alcohol in the current context was no longer aligned with what it traditionally was. There were social sanctions put in place in case of violations. One of the positive outcomes of this was women’s mobilization and organization. They came together to start a support group for those who may be facing domestic violence or oppression because of alcoholism or other reasons. This later translated into the forma- tion of an empowered and socially active women’s group in the village and the active participation of women in all decision-making processes and village struggles.
Mendha’s traditional justice system is different from other villages in the region. Traditional justice among the Gond tribe is consensus-based, i.e. no decision on any conflict is ever taken until all women and men in the community agree with the decision, including the parties directly involved in the conflict. In Mendha, this practice was still followed and the conflict-resolution process involved intense and long discussions till a consensus was reached. The consensus system seems to works well in Mendha because of its homogenous population and an absence of caste inequities. Inclusive and transparent decision-making ensures the villagers’ adherence to all gram sabha decisions. Decisions taken by the gram sabha prevail over any other official or unofficial orders. All outsiders (government officials, researchers, NGOs) who intend to carry out any activity in the village or the adjoining forests have to present their plan in the gram sabha and seek the permission of the village.
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 gram sabha meets every Purnima (full moon) at noon. But villagers meet regularly on various issues and for pressing or urgent matters all members are informed and a meeting is immediately convened. Attending gram sabha meetings is compulsory for each family as the village considers regular dialogue-based informed decision-making to be their biggest strength. On average, about 75 percent of members attend the gram sabha meetings.
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
• Delegating responsibilities for forest protection
• Handling NTFP extraction and trade-related issues
The gram sabha has many specified rules, some of which are written down and kept in the gram sabha office, but not all. Villagers believe “rules when written down tend to become rigid, and allow for little flexibility.”
In 1987, the study circle started to discuss the importance of the forests for the physical and cultural survival of the tribal community. The long-standing lack of tenure security had led to many harmful extraction practices, often causing extensive damage to the forest. The gram sabha decided to stop all unregulated use of the forests by its own members and many rules for the protection of the forests were adopted after intense discussions.
Some of these were:
> All of the village’s domestic requirements would be met by the surrounding forests without any fee payments to the government or bribes to its local staff.
> Extraction for domestic requirements would be regulated by the gram sabha, based on a set of oral rules collectively discussed and adopted.
> The extraction of forest resources (including timber) would only be for personal use and to supplement livelihoods, and not for large scale commercial purposes.
> No outsider, government official, or private individual would be allowed to carry out any activity in the village without the permission of the gram sabha.
> Outsiders would need the gram sabha’s permission to extract resources. Fines would be imposed on those not complying.
> The voluntary and rotational patrolling of the forest by the villagers, two people per day.
MANAGEMENT AND RESOURCE USE
The governance, management, and conservation of forests are among the important pillars of Mendha village’s self-rule.
To ensure that forests are not over-exploited, the village follows a system of forest patrols in which four people from different households contribute to forest protection every day. This is on a rotation basis and one of the voluntary activities that every household has to contribute towards.
Patrolling teams ensure that there are no fires, extraction without permission by outsiders, or unregulated use by the villagers themselves. The village Patel (traditional head) provides free passes to people for the extraction of Non-Timber Forest Produce and fuel wood as per the gram sabha’s decisions.
The penalty for offenses is subject to the nature of the offense and the economic status of the offender; fines can be paid in cash or kind. In case of forest fires, which are common in summer, the entire village voluntarily helps to put out the fire. This is particularly important also because the village has created plantations in the open patches in the forest, taking advantage of funds available through various government schemes. These plantations stock the forest with local species and also provide the people with employment.
NO-TAKE NO-GO AREAS
Mendha’s gram sabha has also decided to keep 10 percent of its forest completely untouched as the village’s biodiversity reserves. No extraction of any kind is allowed on these patches of forest. Dedicated to the local deity Pen Geda (God’s forest), these patches are locally referred to as Konalkadiya, Sailandongar, and Penmetta. The objec- tive is to safeguard wildlife which may otherwise be disturbed by resource extraction activities undertaken for local livelihoods. Specific rules have been formulated to ensure the protection of this forest and the wildlife within.
|Legal Status||CFR under FRA|
|Community Forest Resource Rights (CFR)||CFR claims recognised|
|Date of filing CFR claim||-|
|Level of CFR claim||-|
|Date of recognition of CFR claim||06-10-2009|
|Management plan status||-|
|Land Ownership||Community Owned|
|Other Recognised Status||-|
A combination of factors have contributed to the progress made by the FRA in Gadchiroli, including a strong mass movement, a district-level study circle whose role is to understand and facilitate the process of filing claims, the effective and timely support of civil society actors, and an occasionally supportive district administration, among others. They also worked as a pressure group to ensure that all relevant government records that could be used in this process were provided by the government to each and every village in the district. In this context, Mendha emerged as an example and played an important role in the district-level processes related to the FRA. The village started with study circle discussions in their own village, followed by an effective implementation of the law, to eventually become the first village in the country to have their CFR rights recognized.
This paved the way for hundreds of others in the district and in the country. Villages which, after years of alienation, were not convinced that rights could actually be recognized, saw Mendha as an inspiration and source of encour- agement. The various struggles of Mendha’s villagers throughout the process of filing their claims and asserting their rights once they gained recognition have brought about significant policy interpretations and legal changes in the forest laws in the state and the country. Mendha continues to be an inspiration and learning ground for hundreds of villages across the country going through similar struggles to assert their rights under the FRA.
|Impact on Livelihoods and Subsistence||Cut fodder, Firewood, Non-timber forest produce, Timber|
|Social Impacts||Community empowerment, Assured land ownership or access, Revival or continuation of cultural/religious associations|
|Ecological Impact||Good diversity of crops, livestock, fish, Improved/sustained ecological services|
|Internal Threats and Challenges||Conflict with other communities|
|External Threats and Challenges||-|
Through its struggles, debates, discussions, and transformative processes, including evolving institutional structures and systems, the village has been able to achieve political empowerment, gender equity, secured livelihoods, economic independence, food security, secured access to natural resources, and cultural and ecological security.
Since the introduction of forest protection activities, the unregulated use of forest resources by commercial interests, the adjoining villagers and Mendha villagers has been controlled to a great extent.
Mendha villagers claim that the quality of the forests in general has improved during this period, but they qualify this, saying that availability of certain resources, especially closer to the village, has gone down, including fuelwood and some palatable grass species. They attribute this to the increased human and cattle population within the village and in the adjoining areas.
Specific, positive ecological impacts include:
• Soil and water conservation programmes: In the last seven years the villagers have taken up a number of soil and water conservation programmes, including building an earthen dam to retain water for longer periods. This has been especially critical in summers when water is a scarce commodity;
• The decision not to set fires in the forests and to the extent possible help in fire extinction.
• A vigilant watch is now kept in the forests against illegal activities.
• The forests are protected from commercial activities like extraction of bamboo by the paper mill.
Imparting to the government the value of bio-diverse forests. Through the JFM scheme, the villagers have been able to impress upon the forest department their preference for a more diverse forest in contrast to government-preferred forests dominated by commercially valuable species.
The following are some important social impacts of the village initiative towards self-rule and forest protection:
• Increased empowerment by striving and achieving the capacity and confidence to assert their rights and reaching a stage where the village is respected even in official circles. Today all government and non-government people come to the village (if they need to), instead of calling the villagers to their offices. They sit with them and converse with them on equal terms and often in their language.
• Established a reliable reputation as effective partners in development and forest protection. Through a non-violent strategy, Mendha has established strong and good relationships with many government officials, who in turn have helped them at many crucial points.
While earlier there was a strong opposition to Mendha and its efforts at self-rule and forest protection in surrounding areas, a visit in 2004 found the situation quite transformed. Adjoining villages such as Lekha and Tukum are now trying to follow in the footsteps of Mendha. Despite a multi-community society, Lekha village now meets regularly and discusses issues related to village development as well as forest conservation.
Apart from the challenges emerging from state laws and policies which have been a running thread throughout Mendha’s struggle, amongst the strongest challenges that Mendha has faced have been from its immediate neighbors. Mendha’s conflicts with its immediately neighboring villages began soon after its declaration of self-rule and the announcement of their governance structure with its rules and regulations. Mendha’s forests have been customarily used by neighboring villages. Over the years, as the forests of these villages gradually depleted, often through cultivation (outside the legal system), dependence on Mendha’s forests gradually increased.
In recent years, major challenges have emerged in the form of market forces and contractors involved in forest trade. A contractor raj (rule) flourished during the Forest Department’s exploitation of forests. Contractors enjoyed many privileges, much freedom and high profits by winning favors from the forest staff. A contractors’ lobby in the district is now ensuring that villages like Mendha which insist on transparent processes do not find a market for their produce or their produce is sold at a lower price at auctions.
Future plans of the village include: the move towards 100 percent organic agriculture and growing native crops; the revival of the fast eroding Gondi language, culture, and traditions; the tackling of soil erosion through regulated grazing; the establishment of a federation of gram sabhas in the region, and to restore an educa- tion system which is informed by traditional systems such as the ghotul and the modern education system.
|Data Source||From publicly available sources|
|Year of Study||2018|
|License||CC BY Attribution|