Odisha's tribals who gather and sell minor forest produce left at the mercy of dysfunctional market with no govt support

Odisha's tribals who gather and sell minor forest produce left at the mercy of dysfunctional market with no govt support

Odisha's tribals who gather and sell minor forest produce left at the mercy of dysfunctional market with no govt support

NOTE: Please find my response/suggestions in yellow highlight. 

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Decade after FRA, Odisha’s Nayagarh tribals still deprived of rights

By Manish Kumar


Mahua seeds are an important part of the different kinds of forest produce that the tribals of Nayagarh district often make (sell and dispose of). It is also a laborious (arduous and painstaking) process. Picking the seeds shed by the Mahua plant from the forest, segregating them back at their homes and drying them before getting them ready for the market means a family (a tribal household) is able to make just two kilograms of the seed per day.

Mahua seeds is (are) among the many products classified for procurement by TDCCOL (Tribal Development Co-operative Corporation of Odisha Ltd) at a minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 20 per kg. But TDCCOL suddenly stopped procurement of Mahua seeds last year, the collection of which is mainly in April-May. With private traders unwilling to match the MSP, the tribals had to throw away their entire Mahua seed stockpile.
“A number of households here are dependent on collecting Mahua seeds,” said Bula Padan, a villager. “When TDCCOL did not take it from us, all our labour went waste.”

This is just one example of how the well-intentioned Forest Rights Act (FCR??) (FRA) of 2006 is failing due to lack of proper implementation on the ground. As 64-year-old Maagi Padan, a Kandh tribal from Dengajhari village in Ranpur Block of Nayagarh, asked: “While we get subsidised ration, school uniforms for kids and other aid, what about the issue of MSP and marketing of our products and giving us a fair price?” Nobody cares of the tribals, added Padan, “except during elections when politicians roam around in our areas seeking votes”. 

Examples abound of the indifference of the state agencies in ensuring the MSP rights of these tribals, whose only source of income is the produce they are entitled to make from their foraging in the forest.

The FRA is great on paper, with all kinds of provisions to ensure the community rights and stable income of tribals. As part of this act, the tribal ministry in 2013 declared MSP for 23 non-timber minor forest produce (MFP) like tamarind, Sal leaves, Mahua and wild honey which Odisha accepted in 2014.  In 2018-2019, the state increased the total minor forest produce brought under MSP to 49 products, most of which are made (sold) by tribals settled in different parts of the state.

However, despite the central law and MSP regime, a number of reasons have kept the tribals of Nayagarh district, which falls under the Puri Lok Sabha Constituency and comprise about six per cent of the electorate, unable to get the full benefits of MSP assistance, at times being forced into distress sales of their produce. Primarily due to the lethargy of the state procurement agency to buy forest produce on time and lack of adequate storage capacity and other required infrastructure, even though funds for this are not lacking under the Tribal Ministry scheme of ‘Mechanism for Marketing of Minor Forest Produce (MFP) through Minimum Support Price (MSP) and Development of Value Chain for MFP’. States are expected to procure the notified MFP only in the event of market price falling below its notified MSP. Odisha has made little use of this provision.

“There is blatant failure of the state government to create awareness among the tribals so that the Gram Sabhas pass resolutions and get their forest rights recognized by the local government,” said Chita Ranjan Pani, a noted tribal rights expert. “Even after 10 years of FRA, the tribals are yet to get their full rights to sell, dispose of and market their produce. Archaic states laws in contradiction with the FRA is one reason. Odisha needs a comprehensive law to ensure tribal rights,”  he added.

This correspondent visited Dengajhari village, a pre-dominantly tribal village comprising the Kandh tribe. Despite the tall development claims of the Naveen Patnaik government, access to this village, barely 90 kilometres from Bhubaneswar, is a narrow kuccha road, with minor forest produce bearing trees like reetha lining the roadside. Many of the Kandh tribals in this village, most of whom are forest dwellers, still live in kacha (kuccha) homes. The village presents a sorry tale of blatant neglect by the MPs and MLAs of the constituency. And its residents, a sorry tale of apathy by politicians and bureaucrats
alike.

The villagers said that they, like many tribal families of other areas in Nayagarh district and other tribal dominated districts in the state, seldom go to the local market, rather the traders come to their villages for sale and negotiations. “Local traders often come to the village,” said Bhagya Laxmi, a community leader from the area. "They scrutinise the products and negotiate with the tribals over price. Most products are sold at prices lower than MSPs”.

The traders have their own rationale. “Unlike the government, we make a bond with the tribals,” said a trader who would not give his name. “We ensure their produce, like Sal leaf food plates and others are sold in urban markets like Cuttack and Bhubaneswar where these products are in demand”. Sal leaf food plates, for instance, find big orders in towns.

During the visit to Dengajhari village, we were told that many women are involved in making Sal leaf food plates which takes hours to finish. “Earlier we used to sell Siali leaf food plates which are machine stitched and were procured by the government, but it was stopped as the compensation was very low and we shifted to Sal leaves,” said Mukta Padan. “Now we make food plates from Sal leaves and the local traders give us Rs 80 for each set of 100 plates”. Bula Padan, 35, added: “We go into the forest, pluck it, bring it home, dry it and stitch it which are then bought by the traders. We do not think we are paid what our toil deserves”.

Forest produce is bought by TDCCOL at MSP rates only when the tribals face distress conditions. Poor infrastructure in the tribal areas to store forest produce also makes it difficult for the tribals to wait for a good price, which often means they are forced to sell at throw away prices if TDCCOL does not come to their rescue. Villagers told Firstpost that many forest produce have shorter life span and if not sold or procured within a fixed time period it could turn deteriorate and ultimately become non-usable making the whole toil exercise redundant. 

A senior TDCCOL officer, however insisted that “We reach out to the tribals and help them through MSP whenever we are informed about distress sales. They are, meanwhile, are also linked with private traders and markets for selling the minor forest produce.” However, data from parliament records show that TDCCOL in recent years failed to utilise fully central support meant for MSP and other needs.

Official statistics show that Odisha was sanctioned Rs 40 crore for 2013-14 but spent just Rs 0.73 crore that year. There was no sanction in 2014-15 while in 2015-16 the state received Rs 9.91 crore but utilised a mere Rs 0.36 crore of this.

“Most tribals in Odisha are landless and primarily dependent on the minor forest produce and its marketing for their livelihood,” said Y Giri Rao, a Bhubaneshwar based expert on forest rights. “There is an urgent need for better MSP coverage and providing facilities like cold storage and processing units for the tribals' forest produce”. 

And the state government cannot cite lack of funds for implementing the law. In fact, indications are that the SC and ST department has asked the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) to shut down the MSP scheme completely.

It is believed that non-profitability of TDCCOL, lack of coordination of TDCCOL and Union government agencies and the rule that the state bear 25 per cent of losses are cited as reasons for doing away with MSP. The relevant ministries are said to be working on an alternate model, though no details of this are known.

BJD Stronghold

Nayagarh comes under the Puri Lok Sabha constituency represented by the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) since 1998 and is said to be stronghold for the party. Its MP Pinaki Mishra who is also a lawyer in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) won the last 2014 General elections against his close competitor Sucharita Mohantry (Congress) with a margin of 2,63,361 votes.

Nayagarh is said to host 6 per cent tribals who are expected to cast their votes during the upcoming elections. Although many expressed their happiness with the state schemes like-subsidized ration, school uniform for kids and others many tribals who are still deprived of their forest rights claim, not getting MSP aid under distress conditions and the alleged failure of the state government in reaching out to them through tribal-targeted schemes could decide their voting patterns in the coming elections. 

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