Chattisgarh’s widely campaigned programme to purchase forest produce from tribals has witnessed a significant setback in its implementation.

Raman Singh, the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, who accumulated a fair degree of success enacting pro-poor schemes in the past, has failed to push the programme to purchase minor forest produce directly from the tribals, owing to strong resistance from the traders of north and south Chhattisgarh.

The government had promised to buy the produce giving a Minimum Support Price (MSP) to the gatherers, bypassing the traders and the ‘middlemen.’

The plan annoyed the businessmen of partially Maoist controlled Bastar Division and the traders association virtually forced the government to withdraw the programme, launched earlier this year.

Within hours after taking oath of the office, Mr Singh’s first announcement was to directly purchase of forest produce like imli (tamarind), mohua flower (for liquor) mohua seed (for oil), chironji nuts, kosa-cocoon (for yarn) etc. from the tribal gatherers bypassing ‘middlemen.’

“Till now, the government is buying paddy from the farmers,” said the Chief Minister, “…now Chhattisgarh Minor Forest Produce (Co-operative) Federation will buy (forest produce) as the majority of the State (population), from Bastar to Surguja, depend on [selling of] forest produce…to prevent middlemen from exploiting people.”

Minor forest produce, collected by the tribals in Bastar has annual turnover of nearly Rs. 500 crores. The traders normally buy the produce from the tribals in weekly village huts. In some parts, the businessmen make use of the traditional barter system of trading to buy expensive forest produce in exchange of few kilograms of salt or turmeric. The Chief Minister himself told The Hindu earlier that such exchanges “are exploitative” and “a direct cash transfer fixing a MSP will stop such unfair practices.”

Mr Singh, however, had to retract this position as traders obstructed government’s plan to buy forest produce directly from tribal gatherers. Defending the decision of the trader’s association, president of Bastar Chamber of Commerce and Industries (Jagdalpur), Bhonwar Bothra explained that state-level nationalization of the business will reduce productivity. “We go to village huts to buy forest produce (from tribals) early in the morning, Government employees can not do that. Since the procurement of saal seeds has been nationalized, production has reduced by 75% and everyone is losing money,” said Mr Bothra.

“The bureaucrats are meddling with the age old system and trying to take away the livelihood of the traders of forest produce,” he said. He questioned Chief Minister’s use of the word, ‘middlemen.’

Contrary to the popular belief of fly-by-night operators, the traders of forest produce in Chhattisgarh are powerfully organized clump of rich businessmen who operate and make money out of tribal areas of Bastar and Surguja Divisions. These predominantly non-tribal traders mainly from north and west India are not only controlling the economy in tribal areas, but also are shaping the State’s finances and politics. The business communities, considered as outsiders by the tribals, have settled in Fifth Schedule areas for decades and have managed to outnumber the local residents in few constituencies of both north and south Chhattisgarh. They have grabbed tribal land and even lobbied to reduce the number of tribal seats in the State Assembly. Incidentally, the lobby, that is opposing Mr Singh’s decision, is more close to BJP than any other political party.

“These traders buy forest produce at a dirt cheap rate from tribals for years using their (tribals’) inaptitude to understand the market outside their villages. They (traders) make colossal wealth, transfer money out of Bastar and follow the same model of colonization put in place by the Europeans…in this case it is implemented by our own people,” said an officer working in Chhattisgarh Minor Forest Produce (Co-operative) Federation.

BJP’s senior officials feel that the failure to implement the promise to “tender fair price” for forest produce, made in party’s election manifesto, may affect the party’s prospects in tribal areas in the forthcoming Loksabha election. In tribal areas of Chhattisgarh, BJP’s seat share has reduced from 18 (2008) to 11 (2013) in the last Assembly election, which pushed the ruling party to launch the programme (MSP for forest produce) bypassing the local traders. However, government’s failure may affect electoral prospects, feel party’s senior leaders.

While it has been said that the programme will be re-launched in 2015, the fate of the scheme now seems to be in complete jeopardy, says the federation officials.