An evolving story on forest produce and their relevance in the lives of forest dwelling communities
Image Courtesy: https://cjp.org.in/
The month of Sohorai passed by right before the eyes
But the loud, frenzied beating of the tamak and the tunes on the tiryo
Were not heard
As the sun god conceals himself behind a corner of the earth
A foreboding calm descends everywhere
A gunshot was heard in the distance
After that, a man’s voice, dying, in pain
From a mahua tree, an owl
Flew away towards the hills
The earth is curled in fear
A young woman at a well at the end of the street
Urged, “Delana, hurry up,
Let us return to our houses”
On a tattered cot in the yard of a broken house
Lies Lalmohon’s old father
Staring at the sky above
At the moon in the night sky, with tears in his eyes
He is waiting for a new moon
A moon on whose body there will not be
Even a hint of a scar drawn with soot
Parimal Hansda, (Dhunwa Otang Og Kana, Winner of Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, 2016
Translated by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Mahua, which has found mention in folk poetry, songs and stories is rightly called the “gift of Gods.” Flowering in summer, especially during March and April, the flowers provide a respite to the lands and peoples stricken by drought and summers. These deciduous trees flower even as all
other trees lie bare. It’s a revered tree for central India.
Derived from the Sanskrit word madhu, meaning honey, Mahua has survived thousands of years on the planet. Its existence dates back beyond the existence of humankind itself. Persians, who came to India, called the tree Darakht-i-gulchakan, due to the deciduous nature of its flowers.
In the mid 18th century, James Forsyth, the Deputy Commissioner of Nimar in Madhya Pradesh, wrote this about the flower, “The Mohwa (Bassia latifolia; now Madhuca indica) is one of the most useful wild trees in this part of India. It is not cut down like other forest trees in clearing the land for tillage, its value being at first greater than that of the area rendered unproductive by its shade and roots… The reason of this I believe to be that, during the “times of trouble” referred to in my first chapter, the majority of the small proprietors of the land were ousted from possession of their fields; but the custom having been established that possession of the fruit trees growing on it did not necessarily pass with the land, they mostly retained the proprietorship of these trees…
“The value of the Mhowa consists in the fleshy corolla of its flower, and in its seeds. The flower is highly deciduous, ripening and falling in the months of March and April. It possesses considerable substance, and a sweet but sickly taste and smell… its main use is in the distillation of ardent spirits, most of what is consumed being made from Mhowa. The spirit, when well made and mellowed by age, is by no means of despicable quality, resembling in some degree Irish whisky.”
His account clearly establishes the use of a forest produce such as Mahua in the lives of forest dwelling communities over a significant period of history.
Even today, if one looks around, no forest dwellers seem to be interested in using Mahua for commercial purposes or growing it on a large scale. The evidence of this is found in this essay titled, “Of Mahua and its People”. The author writes, “I, however, still wonder why people do not undertake plantation of Mahua as a hedge tree – and to find this out I asked around but nobody seemed interested in it. One of my good friends, Charansingh, told me that there are so many Mahua trees naturally growing around that plantation of new ones is rather unnecessary! Maybe he is right, whatever the ration provided by Mahua today, as it did a hundred years ago, comes from natural forests. To harvest a double load of Mahua will also require as much storage and primary processing, which is generally undertaken by the collector itself, and given the constraints – from land to manpower, it is perhaps difficult to attain this.”
I would go a step further in commenting, from our interactions in Sonbhadra, that the core of this argument is to preserve the forests in their current form.
Not only that, the forest dwelling communities help in the sustenance of useful forest herbs and produce by regularly taking care of the forests around them. They weed out unnecessary shrubs and weeds that hamper the growth of these plants and trees.
Co-habitation, inter-dependency, sustainability
Forest produce is integral to the survival of forest dwelling communities in forests. Though Mahua is just one of the forest produce, whose mention has survived the test of time, mainly because of the folklore and oral history, the forests of Sonbhadra present a wide range of exquisite flora that are specific to the land, climate and water that surrounds it.
Tendu Patta is another commonly known forest produce. Tendu, like Mahua, provides livelihood to millions of forest dwelling people in the lean months of May. Tendu pata is used for making Bidis, also known as the “poor man’s cigarettes”. In UP, the UP Forest Corporation is entrusted with the collection, storage and marketing of Tendu leaves.
However, few people know the labour that goes behind this. The leaves of Tendu are plucked from trees, tied and then sold. While collecting Tendu, people are at the risk of snake bites and attacks by wild animals. Moreover, Tendu leaves are collected in the month of May, and the collectors are often exposed to heat waves and sweltering heat conditions.
Forest dwellers in Majhauli village of Sonbhadra say “nigam sits for it.” Sometimes, it can be sold late at night. The Nigam takes Tendu contracts. Tendu is sold at Rs. 70/80 per bundle. Each bundle has 50 leaves.
The extraction of these forest produce provides a “safety net” or a sort of ‘green social security’ to billions of people in the form of low cost building material, income, fuel, food supplements and traditional medicines.*
FAO 1995 says that besides meeting the subsistence needs, NTFPs (Non-timber forest produce) are a good source of supplementing income, providing employment during the slack periods of agricultural cycles and acting as a buffer against risk and household emergencies.”
Rights of forest dwelling communities
The Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, for the first time, recognised the rights of forest dwelling communities over the forest produce. It says “Dependent on forest land or forest for bona fide livelihood needs” – Sec 2(c) and sec 2(o): Bona fide livelihood means not mainly for commercial profit or for making money but also for survival. As per the Rule, livelihood needs include sale of the crop cultivated on the land, sale of MFP (Minor Forest Produce) collected in the forest and income from water bodies and grazing.
A reading of Sec 3(1)(c) lays down that the right to MFP includes:
· Ownership of MFP
· Collection of MFP
· Use of MFP
· Disposal of MFP
The Rule says that MFP can be transported in forest area by headloads, handcarts or by bicycle. Motorised transport is not allowed in forest areas. Some possible evidence for such a claim would include:
1. Statement of elders, reduced into writing.
2. Any previous record of MFP collection like nistar patras, records from forest settlements, Gazetteers etc.
3. Transit permits, collection permits, registration cards etc issued by the Forest Dept or other government bodies.
4. Collection organized by registered MFP cooperatives like LAMPS, TRIFED etc.
While submitting claims over forest lands, areas for collecting roots and tubers, fodder, wild edible fruits and other MFPs need to be specified.
Sonbhadra, rich in forest produce
Some of the many forest produce found in Sonbhadra include Mahua, Pyar, Tendu, Genthi, NakwaBirain, Chenhar, Satavar etc.
Chenhar is usually found beneath rocks and stones lying on the ground. Sometimes, it can take up to two to three days to dig it out. Each day, after digging, people go back to their homes. It is identifiable on seeing. Once dug, at one time one can get it in quantities ranging between 2-3 kgs. Fascinatingly, the quantities are determined by the age of the tree. Chenhar is used for medicinal purposes and has demand in the local market. It can be used to treat even deadly diseases such as Malaria. While the Adivasis and forest dwelling communities sell it for approximately Rs. 80 per kg., because of lack of options and in order to fulfil day to day needs, it is sold in the market for Rs. 250-300 per kg. It is considered to be one of the most precious forest produce found in the Sonbhadra area.
Genthi, is another forest produce. It is found in smaller quantities. One has to go to the jungle and dig. This herb is always at a danger of being eaten by wild pigs. Once taken out from the ground, it is brought home and peeled. It is made into small discs, steamed with water three to four times. Once ready, it can be consumed. It is said that this is a very good cure for fever. And since it takes a lot of labour and work to get it ready, people prefer to consume it rather than selling it.
Kanha/ Bendro is roasted in fire and eaten. It is effective for stomach ailments. It can be sold but it is found in lesser quantities.
Gonjila, usually,requires a day’s digging. It is fried in fire and sold at Rs. 10-15 per kg. It is usually not consumed at home.
When the Adivasis sell Mahua, it’s usually at Rs. 20-30 or maximum Rs. 40 per kg, if the demand is more. However, the selling price can go up to Rs. 70 per kg.
Arjun Chhal is the bark of a tree. It can be cut, mixed with Tulsi and used for fever.
Forest dwelling communities in Sonbhadra region say that the forest department tries to restrict and stop the forest dwelling communities from going into the forest and picking forest produce on their own. Adivasis in the village Majhauli said, “The forest department thinks [of it] as its property. They ask us why we don’t pick/ lift rocks and soil. They tell us not to sow seeds, dig ditches, or construct homes.”
Many of the forest produce very commonly found in the region do not find a mention in the list prepared by the government.
MFPs, not a priority for governments
During the colonial rule, it was the claim of ownership on forest produce that drove the appropriation of forests. Timber was one of the most highly sought after forest produce during the time.
The rights of the forest dwellers are obstructed by state forest departments which are unwilling to “cede control over forest resources”. The forest resources, and such MFPs, remain a major source of revenue generation for the department. The common experience while working with the various states has been that even though community forest rights claims may have been granted to people, forest departments refuse to issue transit passes needed under state laws to transport the produce outside the forest for trading. An incident was reported from Kalahandi in Odisha, where the area Member of Parliament was not allowed by the forest department to carry away the few bamboo poles he had purchased from a village that has been conferred community forest rights.
In July 2015, the Union tribal affairs ministry had issued a set of guidelines aimed at ensuring better implementation of the FRA, 2006. The new guidelines stated that forest dwellers will no longer need to get transit passes for carrying MFP, including bamboo, outside the forest and that the movement of all MFPs would be exempted from the purview of transit rules of state governments.
However, little information about these guidelines seems to be available with most villagers. The guidelines further added, “Even a transit permit from gram sabha should not be required. Imposition of any fee, charges or royalties on the processing, value addition, marketing of MFP, collected individually or collectively by the cooperatives and federations of the rights holders, would also be ultra vires of the Act (FRA),”.
Though a scheme, “Mechanism for Marketing of Minor Forest Produce through Minimum Support Price and development of Value chain for MFP”, Minimum Support Price (MSP) for Minor Forest Produce (MFP) was brought in 2013-14 by the UPA government, the scheme saw dwindling expenditures and other process related issues, apart from the fact that many forest produce were either not listed or were rated below the price that the communities would receive by selling it.
A detailed analysis of the scheme can be seen here.
In December 2010, a 19 member committee headed by National Advisory Council member NC Saxena and Devendra Pandey, former director general, Forest Survey of India, noted its observation, “The focus has mostly been on giving individual pattas (for agricultural land and housing) while ignoring rights over MFP.” N C Saxena, member of the National Advisory Council, who was reviewing FRA implementation, added, “We are losing an opportunity to economically empower tribal communities.”
The recognition of the importance of MFPs in the lives of the forest dwelling communities is closely linked to the demand for community rights claims. However, the situation today is grim, with the Supreme Court order on eviction of Adivasis. Though the order has been stayed, the road ahead is tedious, because the state governments need to submit the bases on which the claims of Adivasis were rejected in the first place.
Despite the challenges, the struggle for claims over lands is accompanied by dreams. And forest dwelling communities, especially Adivasis, are known to keep their dreams alive even in challenging times.
The Human Rights defender and Forest Rights campaigner, Sokalo Gond says,“Because of widespread diseases (fever, lack of haemoglobin, Jaundice, Cancer, sugar, UTI, problems of irregular periods, when I built this place [her kacha house in Majhauli] and opened a school, I thought that I will plant all the herbs [jadis] here. I thought of training children and people about the forest produce.
“For example, the Tendu patte churan can be used for gastroenteritis, problems of lack of hunger. If it is to be plucked and sold in a co-operative form, then we will have to make a big shed, since it has to be plucked, dried and bundled. I am not in favour of giving it to the Nigam (Forest corporation)! It is tedious work to collect [these items] and we don’t get the price as per our labour. You can imagine, one Tendu patta, if small, can be used to make 4 bidis. A bigger leaf can be used to make 8-10 bidis. One pola consists of 80-85 leaves. We get very less money for the pola. And hence, we want the full ownership of the forest produce so that we can strengthen our co-operatives and sell them at reasonable rates!”