Kendu-Leave collection makes state rich and tribals poorer

February 01, 2009

Panchayati Raj governance and Forest Rights Act can help the tribals to revive their economic status, writes Pravin Patel, director, Tribal Welfare Society and Public Eye Swiss Award 2008 nominee

More than 10 lakh (1 Million) tribals and other forest dwellers are engaged in the Kendu Leaves (KL) collection in the state of Odisha. Kendu leaves trade in Odisha was done by few private contractors who made huge money in this lucrative trade. Those private contractors were so powerful that they successfully managed to interfere in state politics but also got the ministers of their choice. The interferences were tolerated in exchange of huge donations to political parties to buy favours. The instability of the Odisha governments during 1960s is largely attributed to the powerful Kendu Leaves lobby.

Immediately on coming of the late Indira Gandhi to the centre stage of National Politics; through the then chief minister late Nandini Satpathy nationalized the trade in the year 1973 to get rid of the private contractors. Big claims were made that KL contractors are exploiting poor tribals, as such to save them from being exploited, the trade will be conducted by the state Forest department which was assigned the duty to collect KL from the tribals and process the same and hand over to the Odisha State Forest Development Corporation for marketing.

With change in the players, Private traders' monopoly has been replaced by the Forest Department monopoly. Since 1973, a long period of thirty five years has passed. It can be safely assumed that the plight of the tribals must have changed within this period in the KL trade that generates annually about Rs 500 crore (INR 50 million) from average production of five lakh quintals. We were shocked to see that the plight of the tribals has on the contrary worsened. Poor tribals have become pauper. The very fact that almost half of the population of Odisha lives Below Poverty Line (BPL), which must be 80% or more amongst the KL pluckers. Besides acute poverty, lack of quality education, corruption in Public Distribution System (PDS) and lack of health care has resulted in malnutrition that has pushed them to their premature death.

Despite change in policy that promised them to bail out of exploitation, despite spending huge money on several developmental heads, if this is the reality, Questions are raised why? Whom to blame? What can be done? To find answers we need to look at reasons one by one.

The first reason is the dictatorial attitude of the forest officials who have replaced private traders. KL activities have been a milking cow particularly for field staff like for rangers and forest guards. Fictitious purchases; under counting of leaves and various tricks played in quality gradation of the processed leaves are some of the sources of eating away the money.

The other reason is the overall neglect of the tribals by the state in practicing anti-tribal policies for the comforts of Biri manufacturers, Industrial and Mining Corporations. It is shocking to know that while Iron Ore, Bauxite and other natural mineral wealth are allowed to be virtually looted at laughably low rate of royalty, for example Iron ore, it is only Rs. 4/- at the lowest and Rs. 27/- per MT (International market rate is about Rs. 10,000/-)

Bamboo is another example. Under management of OFDC, Bamboos were supplied at a highly subsidized rate to paper mills. When the paper mills can be supplied bamboo at only 49 Paise each piece, why tribals needs are ignored? Why tribals are harassed on false cases despite those tribals need Bamboos to weave baskets and make other products for livelihood. Even the artisans' needs are ignored.

Games played in Kendu Leaves

State share of earnings in shape of royalty and taxes is more than 40%, where as 10 lakh pluckers gets only about 25%. Forest department with a staff of 12,000 spends about 15% towards establishment cost, research and in the name of other over heads. What research they have done at the cost of spending crores of rupees is any body's guess.

The above facts makes it amply clear that the state policies are drafted to help those who can buy favours where as the poor tribals are denied their legitimate rights. State must accept the fact that its wrongly cultivated policies have failed to save tribals from being exploited or improve their economic and social conditions. The result of thirty five years of failed policy has pushed them to absolute poverty.

Newspapers have reported of selling children and wives at Bolangir district, where KL of best quality is collected that fetches highest rates in the country. Exporters compete with each other to buy those leaves at the highest rate in the country, those who collect the leaves are extremely poor.

The story is not limited to Bolangir only. We find in newspapers reports about protesting tribals from many areas of the state that even after months payments to the KL pluckers are not made. KL pluckers mortgage their cards to the money lenders, who collect the money on behalf of the pluckers. Delay causes further losses of high rate of interest charged by the money lenders.

It is painful to note that the Kendu Leaves Coordination Committee chaired by Chief Secretary, finds it difficult to even increase a paisa or two per bundle of 20 Kendu leaves by stating that any increase in purchase price will make the KL business less lucrative. Even when the decisions are taken with great difficulty, it is publicized as if great favours done on KL pluckers. This exposes the mentality of the state who exploit tribals as a tool to earn Rs 500 crore but even a token increase in KL purchase prices, their eyebrows are raised. From the air conditioned comforts they expect tribals to defy scorching summer sun with mercury touching 48 degree to collect KL.

From the above facts, we can conclude that monopoly of the state, dictatorial attitude of the forest officials at the field level, inept police to crack on illegally operating money lenders and lack of accountability at all level by the concerned officials is the root cause of misery to the tribals. The very purpose to save the tribals from being exploited at the hands of private contractors for which the trade was nationalized stands defeated.

The present policy practiced from last 35 years has failed. When there is a need to completely change the policy, tribals are lured by playing cheap vote bank politics by promising to give them shoes / chappals for free. Nationalization of Kendu Leaves is a glaring example to demonstrate how blindly a failed policy can be pursued so long for political games and satisfying Biri industries. Where the tribals should go?

After a long struggle to get justice by the tribals and civil society organization, it took 60 years to the Indian parliament to admit the 'historic injustice' done to the Scheduled Tribes and forest dwellers to get rid of the corrupt forest and revenue department officials. "The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006" finally recognized their rights, but the rules were framed much later i.e. w.e.f. January 1. 2008. The delay in implementation of the act is largely due to the strong opposition by a certain group of people who desperately tried their best to see that the tribals are not given their rights.

Forest rights act besides recognizing ownership of occupied land in the forests and provides rightful access to collect 'minor forest produce', including Kendu leaves, Bamboo, Honey besides other minor forest produces. FRA provides unrestricted collection of minor forest produces by tribals and other forest dwelling communities. It also allows one time processing and sales to whomsoever they wish. However, in absence of clear rules, some confusion remains on how to transport the material from the forest to the customer's destination.

Forest officials and traders who exploit tribals are under fear to get out of business if the tribals use their rights. Few retired Forest Department officials of Odisha have filed a Public Interest Litigation before the Hon'ble High Court of Odisha demanding to stay the implementation of the act by labeling tribals as "Encroachers" and feared that they will destroy the remaining forests. On the contrary, in many areas tribals themselves have come forward to protect forests. The fact remains that without forests tribals can not survive and without tribals forests can not be safe.

As per a report, Odisha has lost more than 25% of its forest cover during the period 1972 to 1999, which is much before the Forest Rights Act has come in to force. This further exposes the hollow charges of the officials who have not only failed in their duties to protect the forests. Is it a secret that timber and forest mafias have eaten away most of the forests including the Simlipal reserve forest! The so called plantations done by the forest department has largely remained on paper only. Money is spent but trees are not seen in itself; complains of corruption in the department. Where has the money gone that has been spent in the name of plantations?

Government policies and institutions have failed to raise the economic condition of the tribals all these years. Panchayati Raj governance and Forest Rights Act are two legal provisions that empower tribals to shape their future and improve socio economic conditions. A beginning has been made but lot more needs to be done. There is an urgent need to spread awareness amongst tribals about their rights on forest produces including Kendu Leaves; Bamboo; Sal Seed and other forest produces so that they can demand justice and start using those rights for their speedy economic recovery.