India has scraped a colonial rule restricting harvesting of minor forest produce and has empowered the village body -- gram sabha --- with its regulation to improve livelihood avenues for poor tribals and forest dwellers.
The British through Indian Forest Act of 1927 had vested the power of regulating minor forest produce (MPF) with the forest departments to control the Indian forests, a treasure of rich exotic herbs and minerals. The powers had been used by the forest bureaucracy to prevent locals from extracting the produce for their livelihood purpose.
The ministry of tribal affairs changed it through new rules allowing gram sabhas to issue permit for harvesting and transportation of the MPF by forest dwellers and tribal communities.
The rules notified this week gave gram sabha the power to constitute a committee to issue transit permit to villagers to "individually or collectively" collect and transport MFP without restricting their right to dispose of the produce.
"The collection of minor forest produce shall be free of all royalties or fees or any other charges," the new rules say.
A small example of how the change in rules can benefit the poor tribal communities is evident from seven villages in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra where villagers were allowed to harvest MPF. "Seven villages in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra earned 7.5 crores last year from harvest of bamboo which had been illegally denied to them by the forest department," said forest right activist Shankar Gopalakrishnan.
To ensure that the rules are enforced, the ministry has asked the state government to enlist all hamlets under the Forest Rights Act for the purpose of MFP in a limited time-frame. But, the state governments have been debarred from use the rules to re-visit the rights of individuals or communities already recognized under the law.
The committee, apart from regulating minor forest produce, will also prepare conservation and management plan for community based resources for sustainability and equitable distribution of the resources among forest dwellers, an erstwhile right of the forest departments. The management plan will be implemented through revenue generated by sale of minor forest produce and the committee will have powers to modify them, the rules say.
To make the business of MPF inclusive, the rules have stipulated presence of 50 % of gram sabha members as minimum quorum for holding the meetings and all decisions to be made through majority vote. The gram sabha will have to meet at least once in three months, the rules stipulate.