Scheduled tribes constitute over 30 percent of Chhattisgarh’s population. IPC spoke to officials in the Chhattisgarh state government to better understand the issues they face and what the government is doing to try and resolve these.
At the national level, Scheduled Tribes constitute a little over 8 percent of the Indian population. In Chhattisgarh, however, they constitute over 30 percent of the total population. In some districts, such as Bastar and Surguja, more than 70 percent of the population is adivasi.
According to the latest State of Forest Report (2019) published by the Government of India, forests in the country are 21.67 percent of the total geographical area. This is way below the national target of 33 percent forest cover. In sharp contrast to this, in Chhattisgarh, the forest cover is over 44 percent, more than twice the national average.
Adivasis and forests share a symbiotic relationship – they depend on one another and sustain each other. Adivasis could be called the trustees of Indian forests, particularly in Chhattisgarh. Forests across the world have survived wherever indigenous societies have any degree of control over the environment.
Given that forests and adivasis characterise Chhattisgarh, they must both be the focus of any responsible government in the State. This focus must go beyond livelihood and economic development. If forests develop, and if adivasis are actually given a key role in forest management, it will help the state develop holistically on the human development index.
A Chronology of Events: What has Happened So Far
- In 1993, the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act infused fresh impetus into local self-governance by instituting new bodies, systems and processes. Three years later, the Provisions of Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, was brought in. This was meant to give the local self-government bodies in tribal areas the control over local resources, more specifically, jal, jungle, zamin (water, forests, land). The new law recognised, rather than provided, ‘ownership rights’ of the adivasis over the minor forest produce (MFP), also known as the non-timber forest produce (NTFP).
NTFP refers to the flowers, fruits, leaves, tree-borne oil-seeds, gum, lac, honey, hill-grass, spices such as tamarind, cumin seeds, medicinal herbs, kosa cocoons and other such produce. In adivasi Chhattisgarh, the list further includes mango-bits (aam-chur), gooseberry (aaonla), and condiments like chironji. All these are largely part of nature’s bounty, but it is the adivasis, particularly adivasi women, who brave dangers and enter the forests to collect the produce. They often walk ten kilometres or more and then carry basket-loads of over twenty kilograms of produce through the long and rough road back home. Then they do intricate primary processing – including decorticating, cleaning, sieving, sun-drying, and chopping. After this, they carry the ready produce to the weekly markets, walking as much as ten to fifteen kilometres. The cash that the NTFP yields, sustains them through the year. There are more than a hundred varieties of NTFP in the forests of Chhattisgarh. The total market value of these is estimated at Rs 2000 crores a year. Around five lakh adivasi families in the State are engaged in the NTFP collection and primary processing. The toil of these tribal families ensures supply of raw materials for a range of mainstream industries in India and abroad. These include soaps, cosmetics, food, beverages, beedis, silk, paper and pharmaceuticals. Not many may know that some of the reputed international brands of chocolates contain the butter extracted from sal-fat, obtained from the seeds of the Sal (Shorea Robusta) trees in the forests of Chhattisgarh.
- Former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh recognized that there has been a “historic blunder” with regard to India’s adivasis, and that this needs to be corrected. What he meant by this was that commercial interests were given priority in tribal areas by successive governments at the expense of tribal rights and forest conservation. The result of such policies was that the forest-adivasis increasingly became homeless and helpless in their traditional habitat. In 2006 the central government brought the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, with a view to correct this “historic blunder”.
- In 2013, the central government at the centre took another much-needed step: realizing that the trade in NTFP was often fraught with unfair trade practices against adivasis by unscrupulous trade operatives, it introduced a scheme of minimum support price (MSP) for minor forest produces (MFP). However, in 2014, a new government at the centre put the scheme of MSP for MFP on the back burner.
What’s Happening Now
Here is what the government in Chhattisgarh is doing.
Of all the NTFP, the most remunerative for the tribal gatherer are the tendu leaves. These leaves require skilled and delicate harvesting and primary processing before they are sun-dried and made into bundles and packed in standard sacks for sale. Every year, 1.5 million standard sacks of tendu leaves are produced in Chhattisgarh. The leaves are used as the wrap-material to fill tobacco for rolling beedis.
- In 2019, the state government raised the procurement price for tendu leaves from Rs 2500 per standard sack to Rs 4000. This was a 60 percent increment - a cash benefit of Rs 649 crores. This year, Rs 870.61 crores has been budgeted for this purpose. It should impact the lives of nearly 13 lakh forest dwellers.
- The MFP Federation was reactivated last year. The procurement mechanism for MFP was strengthened. 1080 weekly markets in the state trade in MFP. 480 persons were trained and sent out to undertake a survey of the crop before the procurement season began. This was to fine-tune preparedness, because the procurement season for most NTFP is just before the monsoon and the window available is small. 866 weekly markets were shortlisted in 3491 villages.
- The list of MFPs under the MSP scheme was enlarged from 7 to 25 products. These 25 products account for Rs 30 crores - more than half of the total market value of roughly 100 products. By April-end this year, over 860 tons of NTFP had been procured.
- To keep unscrupulous trade operatives out, the women from the villages themselves are involved in the procurement process. Around 55,000 women have been organized into 5,747 self-help groups (SHGs) under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission, for this purpose. Although adivasi women are immensely knowledgeable with regards to the forest produce, they needed training in order to be adept at market preferences and dynamics. Hence skill-development programs have been started and over 10,000 women have been trained. These women function as heads of the collection posts, called phads. Earlier, this task was conducted by male employees of the government and there were complaints against their alleged high-handed ways of functioning.
- The gatherers who deliver their MFP are now paid in cash on the spot. The former practice of procurement on credit and payment at a later date put off many gatherers who chose instead to sell their products on a cash basis to middlemen, despite knowing that they were being cheated.
The idea of ownership of MFP conferred on the tribes by law, has so far remained largely symbolic. The objective of the aforementioned steps is to move towards making it a reality.
- Chhattisgarh has traditionally been treated as a hub for raw-material. The produce grows there, but is then taken out of the state and processed elsewhere. This deprives the local population of the benefits of employment and higher earnings. To correct this, the emphasis now is on value addition to the local product. The State has budgeted Rs.155 crores to promote processing of NTFP. Common facility centres, called Van Dhan Vikas Kendras, are being set up to help the tribes in this regard. The women gatherers can work on their produce in these more spacious facilities, because working in small huts is both stressful and challenging for quality control. 139 Van Dhan Vikas Kendras have already been set up and are functional.
- With the help of CFTRI, Mysore, new product-lines are being developed. These include mahua-based energy bars, chocolates, pickles, sanitizer, gooseberry dehydrated products, tamarind candy, jamun juice, bæl-sharbat and marmalade, spiced chironji and cashew etc. 14,000 young adivasis are being trained for creating bamboo products, including furniture. Others are being trained to convert forest waste into manure. The aim of these activities is not only to provide employment to thousands, but also to usher tribal Chhattisgarh into new-age markets.
- The Van Dhan Vikas Kendras are useful for primary and secondary processing of the forest produce. But in many cases, tertiary processing is required. This can only be done in medium and large industrial facilities. The government wishes to enable this by involving private capital and entrepreneurship. This will help generate wage employment for the local population. An MFP hub is under construction at Jagdalpur, with the support of the Tribal Cooperative Marketing Federation Ltd.
Dealing With COVID-19
While COVID-19 hurt every sector of the economy, it threatened the MFP sector particularly. This is because the season for most MFPs is from February to May-end and for a large part of these months the country has been under lockdown. The adivasi economy is a subsistence economy. Adivasis may find most of their basic needs met by the forests but they need cash for miscellaneous purposes. MFP provides them with this cash.
The Chhattisgarh government’s response:
- MFP collection is an activity that is, even in the normal course of things, done with social distancing. But crowding in the weekly market for MFP sales was a threat. In order to deal with this threat the government resorted to ‘door-step collection’. MFP Unions went from door-to-door in villages, collected the produce from tribal gatherers, and made payments on the spot. Consequently, according to Government of India records, 90 percent of the total MFP collection in the country this year came from Chhattisgarh.
- In order to carry out MFP related activities amidst the viral threat, masks were required in large numbers. The women of the SHGs rose to the occasion and began producing these. Over 8000 women are engaged in making masks today and the production has become a source of additional income for them.
- Hand-sanitizers are an essential preventive against Coronavirus. Inventively, adivasis in Jashpur district have been making alcohol-based hand-sanitizers using distilled Mahua, the most valued indigenous alcoholic drink in the Gond world. Experts have approved the standard of these hand-sanitizers.
A lot more is left to be done for MFP, for the forests and, most importantly, for the tribes dwelling in them. The Chhattisgarh government is currently drawing up a ‘reform-agenda’ for this purpose.
- In the last century, beginning with British India, the mixed forests have been systematically replaced by timber plantations. The state government hopes to reverse this trend and promote mixed forests again. MFP forests shall surround tribal villages and be required to be a certain minimum percentage of the total area.
- The state government also proposes to return to the practice of having highways in tribal areas lined with MFP trees. One can find such today in Bastar and Surguja where the roads are lined with mango trees planted more than a century ago, which have yielded sustained income for the tribes through the production of aamchur (dried mango powder).
- Weekly markets need to be reformed in order to enforce fair trade practices. Eg. ensure the usage of proper weights and measures and the recording of transactions.
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