Sukhmati wakes up early, because it is Friday, a weekly market day at Lohandiguda in Bastar. The market place is 10 kms from her village. She has readied a basket full of tamarind. The crop was from the tree in her farmstead. Her husband felled the pods on three Sundays. Sukhmati manually removed the shell and fiber and seeds from the pods. It is now ready for sale in the market. She will bear the load on her head and walk the distance to the market. Agents of the merchants based in Jagdalpur will be there with their mini-trucks and sacks and scales and cash. There will be sweet talking and haggling, and then the basket will be softly wrested off her head by the merchant’s operative to add to the pile on a plastic sheet in a make-shift tent that serves as a procurement-window.
This is the ‘trade’ that has been enacted countless times week after week by these two and their forebears for over a century now. There are an estimated five crore Sukhmatis in tribal India, who gather nearly a hundred types of forest produces whose value aggregates to a whopping Rs.2,00,000 crores a year. The produce that begin their journey in the nondescript backyards and farmsteads of Sukhmatis, are raw materials for myriad industries: food, beauty-care products, drugs and pharmaceuticals in and outside of India. The produces return processed and packaged as chocolates, spices, home-care, beauty-care and health-care products, and much more. They adorn the best of retail outlets in swanky malls in urban metros and cities.
This is the curious story of forest produces that are available largely in tribal-dominant pockets. Many urbanites may be aware of, in different degrees, the trade-cycle of forest produces. What they are not aware of is the gross inequity that characterizes this trade cycle. The tribal gatherer, who under law is the ‘owner’ of these produces, receives barely twenty percent of the last-point sale price of the raw produce; the bulk part gets cornered by a chain of middlemen. At the cutting edge, the first point of sale in the weekly market, the buyer is often a predator, whose credentials are his cunning skills in under-valuing, under-weighing and deliberate under-computation of the exchange payable.
It is a fact widely acknowledged that forests in India have survived mostly in areas that have a high percentage of tribals. This is largely because the tribals traditionally have had an interest in forest conservation and development. Their economy, culture, and every other aspect of life is closely related to forests. They have a symbiotic relationship with forests: the survival of one depends on the survival of the other. Over generations, they have built an enormous traditional knowledge base regarding forests and forest produces.
After 1927, when the Forest Act was enacted, the State adopted a timber-centric, commercial approach towards forest development. Timber, especially high-value timber like teak, found focus. The various ‘crops’ of the forests (the non-timber products) were dismissively clubbed as ‘Minor Forest Produces’ (MFP). The fact is that the tribals’ dependence on forests was chiefly for these MFPs; to them timber was secondary. It was precisely for this primacy of MFP that they were nurturing the trees. However, tribals were overlooked. Their voice went unheard.
The State’s interest being supreme, the mixed forests were systematically replaced by high-value timber plantations. The tribals’ protests were disregarded because they were viewed as ‘encroachers’ and as axemen who posed a threat to forest development. This thinking had disastrous consequences. The forests became places of civil unrest and collective angst. This was conducive to left-wing extremism.
The Government after much thought, which took a rather long time, brought the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. Earlier, Provisions of Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 conferred ownership rights on tribal Gram Sabhas in respect of MFP found in their area. In 2014, the Scheme of MSP for MFP was introduced.
All of the above are steps in the right direction, but they are inadequate to achieve the desired object. Why? Because of several ‘gaps’. As a result of the timber-first policy still being pursued by the Forest Department, the area under MFP-bearing trees is shrinking. This is reflected in a general fall in production figures of various MFP.
The trade mechanism of MFP at the primary haat bazar level remains highly exploitative and inequitable to the tribal. As a result of this, even when the market prices appear impressive, the cash that comes to the tribal’s hands remains low. Substantial gain is reaped by the long chain of middlemen. This is diluting the interest of the tribals in MFP.
In other words, the first mile and the last mile intervention by the Government to safeguard the tribals’ trade-interests in MFP is still pending. The result is that the forest-tribal areas continue to remain hotbeds of unrest and continue to bleed under Left-wing extremism.
The Government has now resolved to address the gaps. Aptly named Van Dhan (Wealth of the Forests), a new scheme has been mooted for training and strengthening the activity of primary processing of MFP in the villages in common facility centres to be called Van Dhan Vikas Kendras.
Trifed, an organization under the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, has begun active advocacy to impress upon all concerned for institutionalizing through legislation that a certain percentage of the forests, especially in the vicinity of forest-villages, must be developed as MFP-bearing forests and not timber plantations. This would address the first mile ‘gap’. It will ensure sustainability of MFP production.
Another point on which Trifed has stepped up advocacy relates to tribal market (haat bazar) reforms. Infrastructure in the haat bazars, which generally are the first point of sale of MFP by the tribal gatherer, need to be strengthened and the capacity of these bazars must be built to ensure proper weighing/measuring of the produce sold by the tribal and due transparency in the arithmetic and payment made to him by the trader.
Secondly, it needs to be appreciated that the tribal forest gatherer cannot interact equitably with the professional operatives of the mainstream merchants. Hence, collective strength needs to be promoted. Community structures in the form of women’s SHGs (MFP largely is a women’s affair) must be created, trained and supported to handle the trade of MFP at the first tier so that the predatory middleman, ubiquitous at present in tribal haat bazars, is eliminated/tamed.
The Ministry of Tribal Affairs launched the Van Dhan Vikas Kendra scheme from Bijapur (Bastar) in Chhattisgarh on April 14. This should set the ball rolling for replication of such centres in all Schedule-5 districts in the country that have minor forest produces.