Raipur: Saakhu Gond, a tribal from Katghora village of Korba district in Chhattisgarh, has decided it's no longer worth his while collecting lac (a resin used in varnishes), mahua seeds (a source of soap-nut oil) and flowers (used to make alcohol) and sal (Shorea-robusta) seeds from the forests.
These are minor forest products that he's been collecting and selling for as long as he can remember. But Saakhu plans to migrate, along with his wife and two sons, in search of work. "We gather produce wandering the forest in the heat of summer but can't earn a living wage," he complains. "I will move to Punjab, Haryana or Gujarat and find work there."
Tribals across the state, from Sarguja to Sukma, face a threat to their livelihoods ever since the Chhattisgarh government drastically reduced the minimum support price (MSP) of minor forest produce. In Chhattisgarh, the minor forest-produce business is worth around Rs 2,000 crore a year.
Last year, the government reduced the MSP of coloured lac to Rs 100 per kilogram from Rs 230, that of kusumi lac to Rs 150 per kilogram from Rs 320 and tamarind to Rs 18 per kilogram from Rs 20 (when the latter retails for Rs 120 a kilogram in the open market). The MSP for karanj (an oilseed) has dropped to Rs 18 per kilogram from Rs 20, that of chirongi (an almond-flavoured seed) to Rs 60 a kilogram from Rs 100 and of harra (used in Ayurvedic medicine) to Rs eight per kilogram from Rs 11.
In the past, the union government would bear 75 percent of the MSP for minor forest produce while the state government contributed 25 percent. But, the central government has now stopped contributing altogether and that decision has jeopardised the lives of more than 14 lakh tribal families in Chhattisgarh.
The central government granted Rs 80.16 crore to the Chhattisgarh state minor forest produce cooperative union in 2014-15, which it reduced to Rs 73.50 crore the following year. After the central government stopped paying its share, the state government tried to compensate and raised its grant to Rs 15 crore in both year 2015-16 and 2016-17. But with the cuts, in the year ending March 2018, support dwindled to just Rs six crore from the Rs 98.38 crore paid in 2015-16.
Alok Shukla, a tribal-rights activist and convener of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, said: "Never before have tribals been forced to search for employment elsewhere, leaving their own forests. But government policies have created an employment crunch for the tribals of Chhattisgarh."
The problem is that there is little alternative employment in the state. Even the employment-guarantee scheme has fared poorly in Chhattisgarh. Although the state promised 200 days of work a year under national rural employment guarantee scheme, in practice this has rarely exceeded 40 days a year.
Chhattisgarh chief minister Dr Raman Singh, however, insists that gatherers of forest produce won't be left in the lurch. "Our government very well understands the importance of minor forest produce in lives of tribals," Singh said. "That's why arrangements have been continuously made for the purchase of forest produce at the support price. In fact, we have decided to pay a bonus over the declared minimum support price by the central government for the year 2017-18."
According to Singh, the Chhattisgarh government has decided to pay a bonus of Rs one on top of the MSP of Rs 12 for sal seed, a Rs three bonus over the Rs eight per kilogram price of harra, and a Rs 33 bonus over the Rs 167 per kilogram price of kusumi lac. He claims that these payments will benefit 14 lakh families.
The government claims that of its purchases of 21 types of minor forest produce, tendupatta (used to roll beedis) gives the tribals the maximum benefit. Not only has the government not reduced the MSP on tendupatta, it claims it has increased the bonus on the leaf.
Ambesh Jangde, parliamentary secretary for tribal affairs in Chhattisgarh, said: "Tribals are happy and their income from tendupatta provides them food for the whole year. If the support price is reduced somewhere, tribals won't be affected."
But the government's own data tells a different story. In 2016-17, nearly 14 lakh standard bags of tendupatta were collected by nearly 13 lakh families in the state, which works out to 1.1 bags collected per family. They received an income of Rs 1,725 per bag. Adding a bonus of Rs 750-800, a family gets a maximum of Rs 2,500. This works out to just Rs 200 per gatherer a month.
Interestingly, the government is buying forest produce cheap and selling it dear in the open market, earning a huge profit. For example, the government purchased kusumi lac at Rs 150 per kilogram and coloured lac at Rs 100 per kilogram and sold both at Rs 355 per kilogram.
Manish Kunjam, a former member of the legislative assembly for Bastar and national general secretary of the Adivasi Mahasabha, said: "Tribals do not share in these profits. They have been thrown off their own land, their own forest and now, denied their livelihood. This is a very bad time for tribals."
The author is a Raipur-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
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Updated Date: Apr 13, 2018 16:51:17 IST