National Commission on Labour (1967)||
28.70 Our forests are spread over 73 million hectares out of 327 million hectares of the total geographical area of the country. The national forest policy stipulates that our aim should be to maintain at least one-third of the land under forests. The present area under forests, which is 23.3 per cent of the total area, is not only inadequate but also unevenly distributed, the percentage varying from 9.5 in Jammu and Kashmir State to 43.7 for Orissa. Forests have played and will continue to play a vital role in our economy. They yield a variety of products which are conventionally classified as "major" and "minor". Forestry is an important industry in the public sector, about 90 per cent of it being State-owned, State-managed and worked by specially created Departments. According to the 1961 Census, labour engaged in forestry, fishing and livestock constituted about 6.4 millions out of the working force of 137.5 millions in the agricultural sector. Forestry and logging are a primary source of livelihood for a relatively small but significant section of workers (0.4 million) in rural areas, and a secondary source of income tor a much larger section of the community engaged in construction, wood work, furniture making and the like.
28.71 In what follows, however, we propose to Confine ourselves only to labour engaged for forest work of all types. In view of the special problems involved, the Madhya Pradesh Government helped us by asking two of its experienced officers to prepare a report for our consideration. We have benefited from this report, as indeed from the valuable information received from other States and the personal visits paid by some of us to make related investigations on the spot. The conclusions of our Study Group on Tribal Labour were also useful.
28.72 Forest labour is ordinarily employed by (i) the State Forest Departments on departmental works such as afforestation, protection of forests, working of coupes, collection of forest produce, construction and maintenance of forest roads and buildings; and (ii) contractors who take forests on lease on the conditions prescribed by the State Governments. The contractors can be (a) individuals, partnership firms or corporate bodies, (b) forest labour cooperative societies and (c) quasi-government organisations such as cooperative development corporations. The Madhya Pradesh Tribal Cooperative Development Corporation is an example of (c). Skilled workers are required for specialised jobs such as charcoal burning, catechu making, and sawing; the semi-skilled for logging and felling; and unskilled for stacking, loading,
unloading, and collection and transporting of forest produce. Contractors engage without any restriction labour of their choice from forest villages or from villages in or around the coupes to be worked by them. They have to give preference to forest villagers in the matter of employment. Forest labour can be divided into three categories, viz., (i) local labour, (ii) migratory labour, and (iii) labour from the forest villages or settlements. Local labour is recruited by the local forest agencies from surrounding villages regularly every year for operations such as construction of forest roads, clearing fire lines and arranging departmental burning. Unskilled and semi-skilled labour for ordinary forest works is plentiful throughout the year, except when agricultural operations are in progress. Migratory labour is brought into the area, for work extending over a year or more, for extraction and conversion of forest produce during the working season. Labour in forest villages or settlements is permanent.
28.73 Exploitation of forest resources gave rise to the need for maintaining a regular supply of labour. The response to this need, in the early stages of forest exploitation, was through establishment of forest villages with a view to securing permanent and regular supply of labour for forest operations and for providing employment to the 'Adivasis'. These villages, unlike revenue villages, are not meant for extending cultivation. The terms on which people are allowed to settle in forest villages are: (i) the Forest Department and the Contractors have the first claim to the labour of forest villagers on payment of the market rate; (ii) the villagers will not accept any other employment without obtaining prior permission from the Forest Departments; and (iii) they can be summarily evicted for non-compliance with orders.1 Preference is given to local people in the matter of settlement, because they have experience in the extraction or handling of forest produce. The settlers enjoy the right to free grazing of their cattle and to free supply of wood required for bonafide agricultural purposes, house building and repairs. A headman elected by each village advises the forest officials in the organisation and employment of forest labour. The system of forest villages has been criticised on the ground that the workers do not enjoy tenancy rights on lands which have been cleared by them and can be evicted for refusing to work.
28.74 The problems faced by the forest workers in regard to employment, wages and working conditions have not been systematically tackled. Even in States which have a predominance of such labour, it has by and large remained unorganised. Various pieces of labour legislation do not cover forest labour. A measure of protection is provided through the application of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948 to agricultural labour, but forest labour does not get relief under this legislation. Seasonal operations do not assure full-time employment to the forest workers all the year round. Afforestation is taken up during the rainy season; felling of trees and charcoal burning are carried on during the dry periods. Shortage of labour is experienced during agricultural seasons, because labour which is mostly drawn from the ranks of the small cultivating landholders or landless agricultural workers prefers to go back to agricultural operations. These factors explain the difficulties in building up a 'specialised and stable" labour force for forest operations. Working hours for labour employed by contractors are not fixed. They range from 10 to 12 hours a day, with a break of an hour or two in the afternoon. Workers employed by the forest department report to work-sites in the morning and return home after putting in eight hours of work. They do not have to stay inside the forests at night.
28.75 Conditions of work in forest operations are not satisfactory. Labour has to work in remote areas, away from home, under difficult conditions. Accommodation at work-site is limited; supply of drinking water, bathing and washing facilities are inadequate. And so are medical facilities, transport and rations. While this is the general picture, Government and in rare cases the contractors, have arranged for medical and educational facilities and made provision for drinking water. We have been told that the facilities are qualitatively better only where a union is organised or where labour is in chronic short supply. But these represent only a beginning and vast areas remain uncovered by them. One of the distressing sights in the forest areas is lack of attention to prevention of accidents and treatment when they do occur. In the forest areas visited by us, the first-aid arrangements if they existed at all, were very poor. The agents of contractors whom we met could not say whether there were any cases within their knowledge where a
1These terms appear to be inequitous since there is an element of compulsion in (i) and (ii), but the contractor has merely to give preference to forest villagers and is not compelled to employ them.
worker received payment in case of employment injury.
28.76 Workers are employed on a daily basis but they are not time-rated. Piece-rate is the common pattern, though at times a group of them take on work as sub-contractors. Piece-rate is often resorted to in departmental operations for extraction of timber for local use and occasionally for road work. For quality work, contractors employ workers on job contract.
28.77 No special machinery is in operation for fixation of wages of forest labour; fixed principles under which wages are regulated and settled are also absent. In some areas, for forest labour employed on departmental works, daily wage rates are fixed by the Collector or the Divisional Forest Officer. The wages paid by contractors vary and are dependent on the availability of labour during different periods, skill of the workers and the urgency of the job. Wage rates are not uniform; they differ not only from State to State but also from region to region and period to period. They vary in neighbouring areas even for the same operation. Though wage rates have increased in recent years, they have not kept pace with the increase in the price of foodgrains and other necessities. Piece-rates for felling and logging of timber are determined by the size of the trees and the labour involved. Workers engaged In collection of minor forest produce such as gum, rosha grass, honey, wax, tendu leaves, and mahua flowers are paid on the basis of the quantity and average quality of the produce collected. During years of drought and scarcity, forest labour is anxious to be paid wages in kind rather than in cash, a phenomenon not uncommon with agricultural labour. It prefers to work with a contractor to being engaged for departmental works. This preference is shown only if the former can arrange to supply food-grains at work-sites at reasonable rates. To remove: such difficulties in the way of labour, the Madhya Pradesh State Tribal Cooperative Development Corporation has opened a number of fair price shops at convenient locations. Workers are usually paid once a week on the market day. Complaints are common about manipulation of accounts and taking advantage of their illiteracy and ignorance while adjusting advances against the work done by them. Work done is measured in such a manner that the worker is always the loser. All malpractices consequent on a weak state of organisation prevail in forest work also. Allegations of undesirable practices by officials at different levels of the forest department were Blade, but by and large, they were not substantiated in the course of our enquiries.
28.78 Forest labour is not a regular stabilised labour force because (i) the nature of work is casual, (ii) opportunities of employment in agriculture during the peak agricultural seasons draw them away from forest operations, (iii) accidents, illness and other domestic worries claim their presence at home, and (iv) the labour lacks the urge to earn and save for the rainy day. Forest labour is not organised except in certain pockets where trade union workers have found it feasible to operate. The reasons for apathy towards organising themselves are (i) illiteracy, ignorance and indifference of the tribal forest labour, (ii) non-existence of a regular forest labour force, (iii) Instability of employment due to shifting of work-sites and locations; and (iv) remoteness and lack of easy accessibility for trade union workers to work areas and forest villages. Here again, a close parallel can be noticed between agricultural labour and forest labour.