Lockdown halts harvesting season in Odisha's forests

Lakhs of tribals, dependent on sale of non-timber products, stare at uncertain days

April 04, 2020 12:31 am | Updated 01:54 am IST - BHUBANESWAR

Tribals stitch leaves, collected from forests, to make plates in Odisha’s Rayagada district.

Tribals stitch leaves, collected from forests, to make plates in Odisha’s Rayagada district.

Lakhs of tribals in Odisha, who have pinned their hopes on sale of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) being collected during March-June, are staring at a grim future as the COVID-19 lockdown has coincided with the harvesting season.

The lockdown has badly impacted livelihood of forest-dependent communities. Forest products are seasonal in nature with major incomes of tribal accruing in the months of March to June. The hard cash earned during these months are critical for their sustenance during the monsoon season when employments dry up.

Wild honey, tamarind, mango, tendu leaves, sal leaves, sal seeds, mahua seeds, neem seeds, karanj (pongamia) seeds, mahua flowers and tejpatta (bay leaf) are major NTFPs collected during the summer season. The labour-intensive NTFP collection employs millions of tribals.

“Unfortunately, the lockdown phase has coincided with the NTFP collection period during which 10 million people in Odisha and nearly 275 million people across the country collect NTFPs like tendu leaves, tree-borne oil seeds, mohua flowers, siali and sal leaves,” said Chittaranjan Pani, a leading expert on NTFP economy in the country.

From mid-March when the issue of COVID-19 and its likely impact started to hog headlines of all local and national newspapers, the middlemen (buyers) had stopped coming to villages. Since March 22 when the ‘Janata curfew’ was imposed, the weekly markets in tribal-dominated regions also started to fall apart. Thus the NTFPs collected by tribals could not be disposed of.

Mr. Pani said, “in Odisha, majority of population are landless in tribal region. The earnings from forest products in 3-4 months period contribute to 60 to 80% of their annual income. As per conservative estimate, Odisha’s NTFP market pegs at ₹5000 crore.”

Collection centres

The State government should immediately establish and ensure collection centres function under the Van Dhan Vikash Kendra scheme, he pointed out, adding that forest dependent communities must be assured of minimum support price and total procurement of minor forest produces collected by them.

Of the 156 VDVKs proposed in Odisha, only one centre at Kuchinda in Sambalpur district has been made functional.

As the confusion is prevailing on ground, Tribal Development Co-operative Corporation of Odisha Limited, which facilitate the marketing of tribal produces, said it would intervene after lockdown.

“We have instructed primary procurement agencies to start procuring minor forest produces once lock-down is over,” said Sanat Mohanty, Managing Director of TDCC.

According to ground reports, forest dependent communities have not fully started collection of NTFPs, because they cannot dispose produces immediately.

Chandan Gupta, Marketing Manager of TDCC, however, said, “if the lockdown is stretched further or sector is not opened for free trade, primary gatherers would have uncertainty in their mind. The government through a clear announcement should clarify the issue.”

Like exemption accorded to agricultural operations through a recent Home Ministry guideline, the market of minor forest produce should be recognized as critical for tribal community’s sustenance, feel experts.

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