Excess rainfall, followed by the COVID19 lockdown, has hit Chhattisgarh’s tribal communities dependent on the minor forest produce

Minor forest produce, such as mahua, tendu patta, chironjee, sustains the tribal communities of Chhattisgarh for six months a year. But, this year, due to excess pre-monsoon season rainfall, a large chunk of the forest produce was lost. The lockdown has further aggravated woes of forest-dependent communities

Nidhi Jamwal
Environment Editor| Updated: May 16th, 2020

100 million people in the country depend on the minor forest produce. Excess rainfall has lead to a decline in the produce. Photo: Nidhi Jamwal

This is the time of the year when Ahi Varan Bharia’s house in Arjuni village of Balodabazar district in Chhattisgarh used to be filled with the intoxicating aroma of mahua flowers (Madhuca longifolia), a minor forest produce found in the jungles of Central India. But this year, Bharia is worried as he is staring at huge losses.

“I used to collect 2-2.5 quintals of mahua in this season. But this year, due to heavy rains in the last two months, mahua flowers were destroyed and I barely managed to collect one quintal,” he told Gaon Connection.

His losses are not restricted to mahua alone. There has been a decline in other minor forest produce as well, which sustains the tribal communities in Chhattisgarh. “As against four to five kilos of char, this year I have got nothing. The same is with the tendu patta. I used to earn Rs 5,000-6,000 in a year from tendu patta sale. This year, barely Rs 1,200-1,500,” he lamented.

Bharia is a part of the 30 per cent population (2011 Census) of Chhattisgarh’s that belongs to the scheduled tribes. These tribal communities are heavily dependent on the forests for their livelihood and sustenance.

As per a recent news report, the state government has drawn up a Rs 225 crore plan this fiscal year to directly buy the minor forest produce and provide income support to the tribal communities hit hard due to the coronavirus disease (COVID19) lockdown.

There are other news reports on how the state has topped the country in purchasing Rs 18.63 crore worth of minor forest produce even during the ongoing lockdown.

However, these official numbers hide the losses suffered by the tribal communities, first due to the excess rainfall this pre-monsoon season, followed by the nationwide lockdown.

The Chhattisgarh government has drawn up a Rs 225 crore plan for the minor forest produce, but the annual turnover of such produce in the state is at least Rs 2,000 crore. Photo: Nidhi Jamwal

“Chhattisgarh’s rural tribal economy centres around minor forest produce, which has never received its due share of attention and careful planning. Even if the government has drawn up a Rs 225 crore plan, we must remember, the annual turnover of minor forest produce in the state is at least Rs 2,000 crore,” Ramesh Sharma, national convenor of Ekta Parishad, a people’s movement on land and forest rights, told Gaon Connection.

In spite of such a huge turnover, with almost half the state’s population (tribal communities and forest-dependent villages together) dependent on the forest produce, Chhattisgarh does not have facilities to process the minor forest produce, he added.

“On an average, a tribal family in the state earns Rs 1-1.5 lakh in a year from the collection and sale of the minor forest produce. But, this year, such an earning has taken a big hit because of the excess rainfall and then the lockdown,” Alok Shukla, president of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan told Gaon Connection.

As per the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs, minor forest produce means all non-timber forest produce of plant origin and includes bamboo, canes, fodder, leaves, gums, waxes, dyes, resins and many forms of food including nuts, wild fruits, honey, lac, tusser, etc.

It is estimated that 100 million people in the country depend on MFP for food, medicines and income.

At the national level, about Rs 200,000 crore worth of minor forest produce is gathered by the tribal communities spread in various states and traded in the haat bazars, as noted in the tribal affairs ministry’s concept note on Pradhan Mantri VanDhan Yojana. The sale of tendu patta is nationalised and tribal communities sell it direct to the government.

This year has been particularly bad for the tribal-communities of Chhattisgarh and other tribal dominated states in the country. Preliminary reports point out that in some districts the decline in produce is down to 20-25 per cent only.

Excess pre-monsoon season rainfall destroyed a large chunk of the minor forest produce. The lockdown further aggravated woes of forest-dependent communities. Photo: Nidhi Jamwal

This pre-monsoon season, between March 1 and May 15, Chhattisgarh received ‘large excess’ rainfall of 103.2 millimetre (mm), as against its normal rainfall of 32.2mm. In percentage terms, this comes to 220 per cent of the normal rainfall. And, this excess rainfall has been recorded in several other states by the India Meteorological Division.

“This year, nature has hit the tribal communities very hard. In the past two months, we have had rains and hailstorm almost every 10-15 days, which has directly affected the minor forest produce, such as mahua, tendu patta, etc,” Shiv Netam of Kanker district in Chhattisgarh told Gaon Connection.

Mahua flower collection season starts from March 1 and finishes by April end when the tendu patta collection starts. Already due to bad weather, there was a sharp decline in the availability of minor forest produce, which is down to 20-25 per cent in some districts. To top it all, the lockdown has made the matters worse,” he added.

According to him, high-speed winds and rains completely spoil the mahua flowers. The quality of tendu patta is also affected, as has happened this year. “Tribal communities collect minor forest produce in groups. Because of the lockdown and physical distancing norms, and the shutting down of local haats, collection and sale have been affected,” said Netam.

Tribals drying tendu leaves

Almost a month after the announcement of the nationwide lockdown by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on April 17 the Union Ministry of Home Affairs relaxed the lockdown guidelines and allowed collection, harvesting, and processing of minor forest produce. But that did not help much, claimed Sharma.

“The government does not have the financial and institutional capacity to buy an entire lot of minor forest produce from the tribal communities. For instance, as against an annual turnover of Rs 2,000 crore, the state government has a plan for Rs 225 crore only,” he said.

In response to the COVID19 pandemic, the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry has recently raised the minimum support price (MSP) of 49 items covered under the minor forest produce. This increase, ranging between 16 per cent and 66 per cent, has been announced “in view of the exceptional and very difficult circumstances prevailing due to COVID-19 pandemic.”

Last January, the ministry had added nine more items to its MSP list of minor forest produce, thus taking the total number of such forest produce covered under MSP to 49.

“There is no doubt about the fact that this year the government has made an extra effort to buy the minor forest produce from tribal communities. It has also raised the minimum support price. For instance, the rate of mahua has increased from Rs 17 a kg to Rs 30 a kg,” said Shukla.

Similarly, earlier 100 gaddi (One gaddi has 50 tendu leaves), locally known as ek sainkad, of tendu patta used to sell for Rs 250-300. “But now, the rate has increased to Rs 400,” informed Netam.

But, a large number of tribal communities prefer selling the minor forest produce to the local private traders, also known as seth. For instance, Deep Chandan Kispotta of Morga village in Korba district prefers selling mahua flowers to the local trader who is offering Rs 40 per kilo, as against the government’s hiked minimum support price of Rs 30 a kilo.

Interestingly, whereas in large regions of the state, minor forest produce has seen a dip this year, in some parts of Hasdeo Arand forest in Korba district, tribal communities have collected excess mahua this year. Last year, Kispotta has collected five quintals of mahua. But this year, he has collected the double — 10 quintals.

The government has increased the rate of mahua from Rs 17 a kg to Rs 30 a kg, but that may not bring much relief to the tribal communities. Photo: Nidhi Jamwal

“But this does not mean the forest-dependent communities have not suffered huge losses this year. There has been a significant decline in the availability of such produce due to bad weather,” said Shukla. The so-called highest collection of Rs 18.63 crore worth of MFP even during the ongoing lockdown reflects the higher MSP, he added.

Minor forest produce is a thriving rural tribal economy. “The rural areas have private haats all over where tribal communities trade in the forest produce. Some barter it for salt, oil and haldi (turmeric), whereas others earn direct cash. But because of the lockdown, these haats are all shut,” informed Netam. “The access to minor forest produce, and its sale ensures tribal families can comfortably sustain themselves for six months of a year. The rest of the year, they either do farming or wage works,” he added

According to Sharma, minor forest produce is like an ATM (automated teller machine) for tribal communities, and farming is a gamble: “Whenever these families need to buy something or spend on some social function, they sell some minor forest produce and get cash. But, farming is highly unpredictable due to the changing climate and other factors.”

This year’s excess pre-monsoon rainfall and the lockdown has affected the income of tribal communities, which is set to affect their kharif farming activities, too.

“The money earned through the sale of minor forest produce is put into kharif farming — buying seeds, preparing the fields, etc. Monsoon is just around the corner. But without any income, how many can practice farming this season,” wondered Sharma.