Turning a new leaf, these Odisha women make eco-friendly practices a habit

Turning a new leaf, these Odisha women make eco-friendly practices a habit

Turning a new leaf, these Odisha women make eco-friendly practices a habit

They make siali and sal leaf plates and bowls, besides enforcing the ban on single-use plastic in their villages located in Nayagarh district


Nayagarh, Odisha: Men and women sit cross-legged on the ground enjoying a scrumptious meal of rice, dal (lentil) and chicken on a sultry afternoon at Sanakameti in Bhogabadi panchayat of Odisha’s Nayagarh district. A quaint charm abounds the whole affair — the trees with wide canopies, the orderly assemblage of people under them, and the feast served in siali (Bauhinia vahlii) and sal (Shorea robusta) leaf plates.

Sanakameti is aware of plastic menace to such an extent that even drinking water is served in leaf bowls for events here. If bowls are not available in enough numbers, residents carry steel glasses to the functions. Undoubtedly, community participation is at the core of this sustainable lifestyle.  

This transformation did not occur overnight. Following COVID-19 pandemic, the villagers began to rely more on the local forest for siali and sal leaves. This caught the attention of Vasundhara, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) advocating for the rights and livelihoods of forest dwellers.

In August 2021, the state government declared that all picnic spots should be plastic-free. "We were overjoyed and hopeful for our income," exclaims Monorama Gauda (33), a resident. However, the real change came about only in June 2022 when Vasundhara's field staff interacted with the women members of Sanakameti's producer group, Banabhumi, to explore the potential of selling sal and siali leaf plates. With the district administration’s support, a strict order was issued to make the local picnic spot, Kuanria Dam, plastic-free.

Visitors were encouraged to use leaf plates and bowls made by the local women. “When plastic ban came about in the dam area, the members of Banabhumi Mahila Utpadaka Gosthi petitioned local authorities, including the sarpanch, block development officer, tehsildar, welfare extension officer, irrigation officer and sub-inspector, and got approval to use biodegradable leaf plates in the picnic spot,” says Pramila Behera (45), a gram sabha member of Sanakameti in Dasapalla block.

For over one-and-a-half years, prohibition of single-use plastic has been in place at Sanakameti. In February last year, a gram sabha meeting decided to embrace this initiative fully, especially as loss of livestock due to suspected ingestion of plastic was increasing in the village.

Inspired by Sanakameti's efforts, Kanipadar in Kalasakhaman panchayat and Bijataila in Kujamendhi panchayat followed suit. Sanakameti and Bijataila are located 15 km apart, while Kanipadar is 40 km away. However, all three villages are united in their shared commitment to sustainability. 

Nine domestic animals died in our village in a span of two years. Although the exact reason was not known, we suspect polythene ingestion,” claims Tilottama Bhoi (42) of Bijataila.

Tapaswini Bhoi (45) of the same village says she lost four goats to polythene munching in 2022. “Like every other day, the goats had gone to the field near my village to graze. When they got back, they were suffocating. Upon consulting a veterinarian, we learnt that they have ingested polythene. We could not save them,” she says dejectedly.

“Before the plastic-free initiative, residents used to carelessly discard plastic waste within the village premises and grazing fields,” notes Baniprava Nayak (42), a member of Sanakameti gram sabha.

“Once we recognised the issue, we began to convene a village-level meeting every two months to discuss the challenges posed by single-use plastic and devise strategies to reduce its impact," says Lambodara Behere (36), a member of the Sanakameti plastic-free campaign.  

Villagers sit cross-legged enjoying a meal (Photo - Prativa Ghosh, 101Reporters)

A positive coincidence

Around the same time when the villagers’ reliance on forest resources were increasing came the positive outcome in connection with their community forest resource (CFR) rights.

“Since the early 1990s, the residents have diligently protected their village forests, yet they remained unaware of their legal rights on them. It was not until 2010, when NGO Vasundhara began its work in Nayagarh district, that the path towards empowerment was illuminated. We initiated a grassroots movement mobilising the residents to fight for their forest rights,” Vasundhara’s Forest Rights Act (FRA) team member Nilamani Mohapatra (42) tells 101Reporters.

A pivotal moment arrived in 2012 with the FRA amendment, which paved the way for the formation of regional forest committees and forest protection unions in small villages. However, lack of financial resources hindered the villagers' ability to effectively protect and manage their forests. Consequently, the once-thriving woodlands fell prey to encroachments.

Vasundhara restarted its efforts in 2018, joining forces with local NGOs Brukhya o Jibara Bandhu Parishada, Nirman, and Mahila Jibika Surakhya Mancha. Together, they filed claim forms for CFR rights in Dasapalla and Nuagaon blocks, igniting a process fraught with bureaucratic hurdles.

Initially, the forest department refused to cooperate in the joint verification process, but the collective perseverance of the villagers, supported by the revenue department and the district magistrate (Collector), prevailed. After a thorough verification process involving local rangers and foresters, the forest department finally recognised the community's rights on January 8, 2022, marking a historic victory for the villagers of Sanakameti and Kanipadar. Bijitaila has filed for CFR and is awaiting its approval.

Avanti Behera (33), a gram sabha member and secretary of Banabhumi group, reflects on the transformative journey they have undergone. "Before 2022, we did not have control over our forests. Whenever we went to gather food and leaves from the forest, we moved in constant fear of the forest department. They would demand to see our voter IDs. They would ask for transit permits [to transport forest produce from the forest to places outside] if we were into selling sal and siali leaves to the local traders."

"We now legally own the forest. Earlier, we could not sell sal and siali products in large quantities as the forest department demanded transit permits. When local traders bought from us, they struggled to pay us fairly," shares Gijantajali Behera (28) of Sanakameti.

Each village has designated forest areas within its traditional boundaries, which the community members protect and manage. Ipsita Behera (29), the field coordinator for Dasapalla of NGO Vasundhara, tells 101Reporters that the community forest resource management committees have been guarding forests using thenga pali system after getting CFR rights. 

Awareness programme for plastic free village (Photo - Prativa Ghosh, 101Reporters)

The common goals

Banabhumi was formed in May 2022, pioneering the producer group movement in the area. Banalata producer group became operational at Bijataila on September 19, 2022, and Banasivani  at Kanipadar on May 8 last year.

It is not just business that matters for these women, their social commitment is a notch up. Sanakameti gram sabha has unanimously decided to impose a strict penalty of Rs 1,000 on anyone found violating the single-use plastic prohibition rule. Banabhumi group has been entrusted with its implementation and monitoring.  

All three villages have adopted a comprehensive set of guidelines to promote eco-friendly practices. Single-use plastic products are barred in the village premises. Each household has been provided with separate dustbins for organic and plastic waste.

In February last year, Rs 2.5 lakh from the Kalasakhaman panchayat development fund was utilised to construct a solid waste management facility. Its primary objective is to collect and segregate solid waste, process organic matter into compost and utilise plastic waste for landfill purposes.

Women pluck sal leaves from the forest and bring them back (Photo - Prativa Ghosh, 101Reporters)

Women in business

With the assistance from Vasundhara, Banabhumi established a small-scale leaf plate production unit in September 2022. Three specialised machines one for hydraulic pressing and two for stitching   for processing sal/siali leaves were procured at a total cost of Rs 1 lakh. The Ford Foundation Project undertaken by Vasundhara facilitated the funds. Women from all three producer groups use the machine installed at Sanakameti.

People in these villages belong to Scheduled Tribe Kandha, Scheduled Caste Gouda and Behera and other traditional forest-dwelling communities. The women traditionally gather and sell minor forest produce such as sal/siali leaf, herbs, fruits and seasonal mushrooms at the local market. Men take up agriculture in forestlands. Some migrate seasonally for work.

Before Vasundhara's intervention, sal leaves were primarily used for household purposes and as gifts for relatives. Occasionally, the villagers would sell siali leaves to local businessmen who visited the villages, but at meagre prices. "We could only fetch Rs 30 for every 100 sal leaf plates sold,” recalls Sarojini Behera (29).

After completing their household chores, the women venture into the forests, typically collecting the leaves from 6 am to 9 am during the summer months and 10 am to 3 pm in the winter months. They make these trips twice a week.

“A woman can gather up to 4,000 good quality, mature leaves in a day and make a maximum of 200 sal/siali leaf plates,” says Bisakha Behera (39), a member of Banabhumi group. If the machine is used, a woman can press up to 240 plates daily.

Due to their engagement in other works, the women’s group dedicates only about an hour per day for the leaf plate-making. The process involves stitching of sal/siali leaves into the desired plate shape either by hand or machine as per the buyers' preference, followed by manual hydraulic pressing. Generally, the finished pressed plates could fetch them Rs 45 per 100 piece in the market.  

Machine-made plate involves assembling two hand stitched plates together. For pressing, it cost Rs 15 per 100 plates. Grading, packaging and transportation costs Rs 5 each.   

"Due to our family's insufficient income, I had to abandon studies in 2018. However, the additional income generated by my mother Biroja Behera through leaf plates has opened new doors for me," beams Debjani Behera (25), a student from Sanakameti who enrolled for higher secondary education at Brundaban Subudhi Mahabidyalaya, Dasapalla, last year.

NGO Vasundhara has forged strategic partnerships with major traders in Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and in local markets such as Bhubaneswar, Puri and Cuttack, facilitating the sale of sal/siali leaf plates and bowls, sal seed, mango kernel and other minor forest produce. Following Vasundhara's intervention, the traders in Andhra Pradesh have agreed to pay Rs 89 per 100 pieces of leaf plate, while local traders have promised Rs 90.

Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli

Cover Photo - Women with their hand stitched leaf plate (Photo - Prativa Ghosh, 101Reporters)

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