Regarding forest rights the work of the organisation revolved around two issues in the 2014-15. The first is the payment of shares to the joint forest management committee. We have been following up on this issue since the last two – three years. The forest department had issued orders that committees which successfully complete ten years of forest conservation would be eligible for between twenty to fifty percent of the amount recovered through auction of forest produce. In Chandrapur circle this amounted to about Rs.eighty lakhs and in Amravati circle it was about Rs. Seventy lakhs. We agitated for this right and also had several meetings with forest officials to determine the shares of each committee. Finally on 16th November the government paid seventeen committees in Chandrapur in a public ceremony. The village with the largest share in village Gilbili which got Rs.35 lakhs.
The second issue is of bamboo availability to bamboo workers in the area. There are about ten thousand families in Chandrapur-Gadchiroli districts who work on bamboo to make mats, chatais, and other small products. They are entitled to fifteen thousand bamboos per year from the forest. They require green supple bamboo but the forest department provides dry bamboo in the depots that too at exorbitant prices which the workers are unable to pay. Thus, they go to the forest and extract bamboo for which they are labeled as thieves by the forest department. The organisation is demanding that the forest department should make available to workers on payment of just royalty which is a very small amount. The government should stop taking taxes such as the income tax, value added tax, education cess, forest development tax etc. from the workers which is unjust. The negotiations in this regard started when we handed over memorandum to the Principal Secretary Forest on 16th November. Meanwhile, the Chief Conservator of Forest, Wildlife, who is responsible for buffer area has issued guidelines to his staff to allow workers to cut bamboo with the help of the staff and bring the bamboo to the village area which shall be declared as transit depot. The workers will be paid for cutting and transport which shall bring down the cost of bamboo effectively by half. In one village Doni we have tried this method and the cost came down from Rs.15 to Rs.8. The tribal workers paid this amount to the department and were allowed to take their mats as legitimate trade.
In February we raised the issue with the Forest Minister and Principal Secretary Forest and as a result the Minister made a public declaration that the department would stop levying taxes on the bamboo to be supplied to artisans. This would substantially reduce the price of the bamboo. However, when we followed through on this matter, we learned that the Finance Department had raised objections. Therefore, we have to further negotiate with the government on this issue.