Coronavirus Lockdown: Tribal People Restless Over Sale of Minor Forest Produce

Dismantling of the established market is breeding uncertainty even as state governments try to make alternative arrangements for procurement.

The jungles of central India are blooming with mahua flowers (Madhuca longifolia). An emblematic tree of the region that is deeply connected with tribal life, Mahua is used in distilling country liquor, medicines, oil and culinary dishes. It is thus an important source of economic sustenance for tribal families. The bloom also signals the start of the four-month season when the jungles are flush with several riches, including the highly lucrative tendu leaves used make bidis (hand-rolled cigarettes).

India receives Rs 20,000 crore’s worth of minor forest products (MFPs) and non-timber forest products every year. This year, these products are expected to cushion the massive job loss and a tanking economy. The gatherers of these products are mostly tribal people and other forest-dwellers who get the direct benefit of this natural economy at their doorsteps. There are many who have also returned to villages after losing their jobs in cities.

The scheduled tribes are India’s poorest people, with five of 10 falling in the lowest wealth bracket, according to the 2015-2016 National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4). The earnings from the current MFP season also helps tribals buy seeds and fertilisers for the next crop season provided they get the right price.

But the ongoing nationwide lockdown has cast a shadow on the trade of MFPs. While governments have allowed collection of MFPs from forests, the usual weekly markets haven’t been functioning as usual and traders are also not allowed to move around.

“Usually, we either sell forest products or barter them for salt, biscuits and other items from roving traders,” said Jagannath Manjhi, who lives at Dobara, a remote hamlet in Rayagada district of Odisha. “But the traders are not coming now and it’s difficult to reach nearby towns because of the lockdown and non-availability of vehicles.”

In certain villages, small scale trade is happening at local kirana stores but collectors feel they are not getting the right price. “Untimely rain and thunderstorms have affected the production of Mahua flowers. Low availability should have increased the selling price but that’s not the case this year,” said Gopal Kumethi, a resident of Dhamadi Tola village of Gondia district, Maharashtra. “Currently we are getting Rs 25 for a kilogram of mahua flowers. In an open market, we could get Rs 35-40.”

The village shop owners also have limited capacity because of lack of storage and cash reserves. Many gatherers are holding on to their collections hoping for better days ahead. “I am getting regular calls from people asking how much Mahua flowers we can take,” said Pradeep Dubey, who works with the Covenant Centre for Development, a non-profit organisation that acts as link between gatherers and companies in Madhya Pradesh. “People are scared that untimely rain will breed fungus or cause other damage to the stock, and are willing to dispose it.”

Traders registered with agricultural produce marketing committees who have been allowed to purchase wheat are also asking villagers to sell mahua flowers. “These big traders are issuing slips, similar to those issued for wheat, which documents the purchase. Money will be credited later. People are used to getting immediate cash in case of mahua and hence are not keen on this option,” said Dubey. “They are waiting for local traders who operate from weekly markets (haats) to start functioning.”

Also read: Post COVID-19, Adivasi Development Policy Must Look Back to the Past

Experts feel that absence of government support will force people to be left with no option but to go for distress sale. “The earnings from forest products in these pre-monsoon months contribute to 60 to 80 percent of the annual income of tribals in Odisha, especially landless poor,” said Chitta Ranjan Pani, a researcher on MFPs and forest-based livelihoods. “Both state and centre governments need to act fast to prevent loss of essential earnings to the forest produce gatherers.”

A lacking system

State governments in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Odisha have  issued notifications allowing for collection and sale of MFPs with required social distancing and sanitation norms.

Union tribal affairs minister Arjun Munda asked chief ministers to prevent movement of traders from urban to tribal areas and procure the MFPs at minimum support price (MSP) from the funds available under the Pradhan Mantri Van Dhan Yojana. The scheme was launched last year to create additional income for tribal communities through establishment of 1,205 van dhan vikas kendras (VDVKs) where forest produce could be collected and value added.

Most kendras are, however, yet to be established. Each kendra is supposed to have 10 tribal self-help groups, and each group with up to 30 members, according to a concept note released last year. Around 11 states were to establish 21 demonstrative units from their VDVKs by December 2019.

“The scheme is at a very preliminary stage and even the few established kendras are focussed on capacity building and training of tribals,” said Dubey. “These can’t be expected to meet the needs of procurement at such a short notice.”

Officials agree that there is uncertainty but are hopeful that things will improve soon. “We have started procuring the minor forest produce but the process is yet to pick up the desired momentum,” said Sanat Kumar Mohanty, managing director  of the Tribal Development Co-operative Corporation of Odisha Ltd. “We are currently identifying local procurement agencies like self-help groups which can purchase the products from individual collectors and deliver these to designated collection centres”

In Maharashtra, district authorities have been entrusted to work out the modalities. “The respective administrations can decide on movement considering zoning of their area based on risk assessments,” said Manisha Verma, principal secretary of Maharashtra’s tribal development department. “There will be some adverse impact of lockdown on market linkages but I am sure things will ease out soon. District administrations and representatives of local committees will work together to deal with the bottlenecks.”

Also read: COVID-19 Economic Blow: ‘Jaan Bhi, Jahaan Bhi’ Needs a Bigger Stimulus

Madhya Pradesh will start procuring MFPs from April 25 and the State Minor Forest Produce (Trading & Development) Cooperative Federation has been tasked with setting up collection centres. “These centres will function in areas identified as Mahua production regions. For tendu, we already have an established system under which collection is done,” said Ashok Varnwal, principal secretary for the Madhya Pradesh forest department.

The state has fixed Rs 35 per kg as minimum support price for Mahua flowers and seeds. “The MSP will act as a deterrent to traders who might be trying to exploit the situation. Those not getting the right price can sell their produce to the procurement centres at forest range offices at MSP,” said Ravindra Mani Tripathi, Divisional Forest Officer, Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh.

Tendu is mostly auctioned

Next month will be the peak season for collection of tendu leaves. Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Maharashtra are the main production states; they sold Rs 1,900 crore’s worth of tendu leaves in 2012, according to a study by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru.

Trade of tendu leaves is nationalised, which means only state governments or their authorised agents can procure these leaves from gatherers or growers. Mostly forest departments or state cooperative federations auction the forest areas before the season begins – except Odisha, where the leaves are auctioned after they have been collected and processed. Elsewhere, auctions begin in January and end by April. Due to the lockdown announced on March 24, the last leg of auctions had to be moved online but the process is complete.

“We already have a formalised system of tendu trade and that should suffice during the lockdown period as well,” Varnwal said.

The contractors would be issued movement passes and they would arrange for collection of the leaves. Gatherers would get labour charges based on number of leaves deposited. States also have provisions to transfer a portion of the revenue to the people as bonus but there are frequent complaints about delayed payments and siphoning of funds, forcing a few gram sabhas to take over the trade.

In Maharashtra, 173 gram sabhas in five districts asserted their community forest management rights under the Forest Rights Act 2006, and now auction tendu leaves without involving the forest department. This has led to higher and timely payment of labour charges and bonuses to gatherers, who are now the actual co-owners.

“This year, the gram sabhas have already received 30% of the bid amount in their bank accounts, which they can use to deal with economic distress due to the lockdown,” Dilip Gode of the Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society (VNCS), a non-profit that guided the gram sabhas in attaining community forest rights, said. “The best way to deal with shortcomings in trade of MFPs is to let people organise and take over.”

Manu Moudgil is an independent journalist. He is on Twitter at @manumoudgil.