Jalku Netam, the Sarpanch of the village of Dotometa in the Kanker district of Chhattisgarh, is rejoicing over the fact that his people will get the right price for tendu leaves this year. The residents allege that the Adivasi people have been exploited in the name of the collection of forest produce, especially tendu leaves, but now the people will not be victims of this exploitation.

“The Panchayat Act of India gives the right to Adivasis in the Fifth Schedule, that their gram sabha can take any decision in their favour according to their traditional work,” explained Netam. “That is why we have decided to sell tendu leaves wherever we get a good price. The Forest Rights Act of the country also gives us the right to collect, conserve and promote forest resources.”

Dotometa is not the only village to announce that they would sell tendu leaves in the open market instead of selling to the government. This year, people in more than 60 villages such as Ghotunveda, Burka and Anjadi of the Kanker district are deciding not to sell tendu leaves to the government. Similar reports are coming in from many villages such as Mendha, Kendal, Chikhlaksa and Kande in the neighbouring Rajnandgaon district.

An official of the Forest Department in Rajnandgaon district told Mongabay-Hindi that in more than a dozen villages of Manpur area alone, people have refused to sell tendu leaves to the government. Even as the Forest Department officials tried to persuade the collectors, people in these villages state clearly that they are free to sell the leaves anywhere they want, citing the Forest Rights Act and Panchayat Extension in Scheduled Area.

Villages in Kanker and Rajnandgaon districts have now started selling tendu leaves on their own, forcing the government to take note of the issue. Photo by Alok Prakash Putul/ Mongabay

Talking about the issue, a forest department official said, “After talking to the top officials of the district, we have decided that there should be no big uproar on this issue.”

“So, first, tendu leaves should be procured from other villages of the district,” the official said. “After this, in the villages that do not sell tendu leaves to the government, the leaves will be confiscated and legal action will also be taken against them.”

Green gold

The leaves of tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) are used for making bidis (thin cigarettes). It is also called as “green gold” in tribal areas because tendu leaves are the biggest source of income for a large population dependent on forest produce collection.

According to the data of The Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India, 75 lakh people across the country get employment for about three months through the collection of tendu leaves. Apart from this, around 30 lakh people earn their livelihood by making bidis from these leaves.

Before 1964, the market of tendu patta (leaves) was open across the country. The Forest Department used to auction the right to collect leaves to any individual, group, or contractor. But in 1964, the undivided Madhya Pradesh nationalised the business of tendu leaves after repeated complaints of contractors paying less money for collecting tendu leaves and taking more work from the collectors.

This move was followed by the neighbouring Maharashtra, taking a similar call in 1969, Andhra Pradesh in 1971, Odisha in 1973, Gujarat in 1979, Rajasthan in 1974 and Chhattisgarh in 2000, after it became a separate state from Madhya Pradesh.

Under this arrangement, the Forest Department of the state gets the tendu leaves collected by the locals and then sells it to the traders. The department also issues permission to carry tendu leaves from one place to another.

In 1984, the state government formed the State Minor Forest Produce Association to conduct the business of tendu leaves through cooperatives.

In Chhattisgarh, the state government has been getting tendu leaves collected from about 13.76 lakh families every year. This collection work is done by the Chhattisgarh State Minor Forest Produce (Trade and Development) Co-operative Federation of the Forest Department. There are 31 district unions and 901 primary forest produce cooperative societies of this union in the state. There are more than 10,300 collection centres or phads across the state, where tendu leaves are collected from the local collectors.

When Chhattisgarh became a separate state in 2000, a standard sack of tendu patta earned the collector Rs 400. A standard bag means 1,000 bundles of leaves in a sack and each bundle contains 50 leaves.

Till 2018, Rs 1,800 was given per sack of tendu patta. But after the Congress party came to power in the state in 2018, its price was raised to Rs 4,000.

The Chhattisgarh government has fixed the price of a standard bag of tendu leaves at Rs 4,000 per bag. However, the collectors say that the price of one sack is getting more than Rs 8,000 in the open market. Photo credit: Alok Prakash Putul/ Mongabay

Forest department data shows that in 2019, more than 15 lakh standard bags of tendu leaves were purchased at the same rate. But in the following year, tendu patta collectors did not get much benefit from this increased price, as the government bought only around 9.7 lakh standard bags of tendu. This was the first time after the formation of the state, that the government had procured in such a small quantity. In 2021, the state government procured around 13 lakh bags of tendu leaves.

Manohar Baghel, a tendu leaf collector from Kanker, said, “The government may have increased the price but reduced the number of days it would procure the leaves.”

“Even though the government is presenting itself as generous by giving us Rs 4,000, it sells the tendu leaves collected from us, at a much higher price,” Baghel said. “You can estimate the profit from the average rate of the auction this year at Rs 8,067 per standard bag.”

“Even the incentive remuneration for the years 2020 and 2021 has not been given to the tendu collectors so far,” Baghel said. “This is the reason why the collectors do not want to sell to the government and sell the leaves according to their free will.”

A petition filed in the Chhattisgarh High Court states that as per the Tendu Leaves Act 1964, in the case of tendu leaves growing on forest land, the forest department was both the producer and the owner. Therefore, the department used to pay only the “collector rate” to the collectors. However, after the Forest Rights Act in 2006, tribals and local communities gained rights over the forest. The petition further states that the collector of tendu leaves should be paid the “purchase rate” instead of only the “collection fee”.

Official argument

It is not the first time that the demand for freeing tendu leaves from government control has arisen. From time to time, tendu patta collectors have raised questions over its fair price. In areas like Bastar, the Maoists first made their place by standing up against the unfair practice and demanding an increase in the price of tendu leaves.

After the Panchayat Scheduled Areas Expansion Act was passed in 1996, once again the demand for freeing tendu leaves from government control arose. Even after the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, questions were raised about government monopoly in states like Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Maharashtra. However, these demands did not have any significant effect. The government is now forced to take note of this issue due to the firm decision of villages in Kanker and Rajnandgaon districts to sell their tendu leaves on their own.

Sanjay Shukla, Managing Director, Chhattisgarh State Minor Forest Produce Cooperative Federation, says that only a few collectors are involved in the decision to sell the leaves directly to traders. “They want to buy tendu leaves at throwaway prices,” he said. “That is why they are tricking the others.”

Shukla explains that those collecting tendu leaves not only get Rs 4,000 per sack, but the dividend received from the sale is also distributed to them. “Apart from this, the Forest Department also ensures insurance scheme and other facilities for them,” he added. “If villagers sell tendu leaves directly to traders, then they will not get the benefit of these facilities.”

“The Extension of Panchayat Scheduled Areas Act has not yet been enacted in the state,” Shukla said. “As per the Forest Rights Act, the villagers are supposed to sell the leaves by forming a cooperative society.”

“In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the procurement is done only through cooperative societies,” Shukla said. “In such a situation, neither the villagers, nor the traders can transport it without the consent of the government. If they do so, we will be forced to take legal action.”

The leaves of tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) are used for making bidis (thin cigarettes). Photo credit: Alok Prakash Putul/ Mongabay

Vijendra Ajnabee of Chhattisgarh Vanadhikar Manch does not agree with these arguments. “They say that the neighbouring state of Maharashtra has, for the last seven years, allowed forest-righted gram sabhas to pluck tendu leaves and do business on their own,” Ajnabee said. “If there is any obstacle in this, then the Tribal Development Department also helps them. In Maharashtra, the Federation of Tehsil and district-level gram sabhas are carrying out the tendu leaves business.”

Ajnabee opines that the Forest Department wants to maintain its influence, by maintaining a monopoly on the trade of minor forest produce. “In his own letter to the states, the Principal Secretary of the Forest Department, who himself is looking after the tribal work in the Central Ministry, had talked about ending the monopoly on forest produce,” he said, questioning the confusion.

“Threatening action against the decision of the tendu collectors to sell their leaves on their own is regrettable and is a violation of the Forest Rights Act,” Ajnabee said. “Apart from this, it is punishable under the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.”

“Under the amended (2016) section 3(1) g (3(1) g) of this Act, preventing the tribals from taking advantage of forest rights is considered an atrocity,” Ajnabee said. “This is also a violation of the direction of the Honourable Supreme Court.”

Supreme Court directives

In 2013, the much-talked-about Niyamgiri judgment of the Supreme Court gave detailed instructions on this issue. The Supreme Court, in the guidelines issued regarding minor forest produce, clearly said that the state government should ensure that the forest rights related to minor forest produce under Section 3(1) c of the Forest Rights Act, as defined in section 2 (i) of all minor forest produce.

The forest produce has been recognised in all forest areas and the state policies have been modified as per the provision of the law. In section 2(i) of the Act, minor forest produce includes all non-timber forest produce of plant origin, including dams, shrubs, stubble, cane, tussar, coco, honey, wax, lac, tendu or kendu leaves, medicinal plants and herbs, roots, tubers and similar products.

In its decision, the court clearly said that the monopoly of forest corporations in the trade of minor forest produce, especially high-rate forest produce like tendu patta in many states is against the spirit of this law, hence it should be abolished.

The Supreme Court said that the forest rights holder or his co-operative society/federation should be given complete freedom to sell such minor forest produce to anyone. For livelihood, individual or group processing, value addition and marketing should be allowed inside and outside the forest using proper means of local transport.

The state governments should exclude the movement of all minor forest produce from the purview of the State Government Transport Rules and for this purpose, appropriate amendments should be made in the Transport Rules. Even transport permission from Gram Sabha should not be required. Any fee/royalty on processing, value addition of minor forest produce collected individually or collectively by co-operative societies/unions of rights holders shall be beyond the powers of this Act.

In its judgment, the Supreme Court said that the state governments should not only transfer the full rights of minor forest produce to the Scheduled Tribes and other traditional dwellers residing within the forest, but they should also give remunerative prices for the minor forest produce collected and processed by locals.

Government spokesperson and State Forest Minister Mohammad Akbar assured that the government is committed to following all legalities. “It is not to my knowledge that people in villages want to sell tendu patta on their own,” Akbar said. “If there is such a thing, then the government will take any decision keeping in mind the interests of the tribals.”

However, Netam calls it a matter of circumventing the issue. “The government pays us Rs 4,000 per bag,” he said. “We have spoken to the traders, and they have promised to pay us Rs 11,000 per bag. Now, someone should explain to us what is in our interest.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.