A right wronged

Written by Sandip Das | Updated: Jun 3 2012, 08:45am hrs
Both National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Forest Rights Act were passed in 2006. But six years later, while NREGA has changed the lives of many, FRA has failed to have a similar impact.

Envisaged to confer upon forest dwellers the right to collect, use and dispose of minor forest produce that has been traditionally collected within or outside village boundaries, the Act, in the words of a a senior official of the Planning Commission, has not been given the kind of political commitment that NREGA has received.

Take the case of tendu leaf collectors in the three states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, where the activity is mainly concentrated. Around 2.5 crore tendu leaf pluckers in these states, which produce more than 85% of the countrys tendu leaves annually, are denied even the market price for their produce. Depending upon plucking of tendu leaves during the lean months of May and June, the pluckers get only about R60-70 per day for an entire days collection of leaves. Pluckers are even denied minimum wage because of the seasonality of the work, admits a senior official with the tribal affairs ministry.

Consider this: These three states receive close to R1,100 crore as revenue from selling tendu leaves annually. The combined production of beedi leaves in these three key states is estimated to be around 1.5 million quintals. In return, only about 40-45% goes back to the pluckers and others, while the rest is added into the non-tax revenue.

Provisions under the FRA state that pluckers should be paid as shareholders in the enterprise and all the revenue collected from the sale of the tendu leaves should go back to them. However, in all these states, pluckers are not allowed to sell their produce in the open market and the trade is monoplised by the respective forest departments, leaving the pluckers with no option but to accept whatever the government doles out.

While most pluckers are not aware of their rights under the Forest Rights Act, poor families are not provided even minimum wage for collection of beedi leaves, says NC Saxena, member of National Advisory Council and an expert on forest rights. Revenue from tendu leaves belongs to communities living around forests. The state governments have no right to monopolise the trade. The collection prices should be hiked so that returns from plucking are at least equivalent to the minimum wages fixed for unskilled agricultural work by the states, Saxena adds.

For instance, Usha Murmu from Taljuri village in Balangir district of Orissa earns about R2,000 during the months of May and June each, plucking tendu leaves from early morning till evening. Her daily earnings after working for nine hours come to only about R50-60, which is much lower than the state prescribed daily wage rate for non-skilled workers at R126 per day. In the absence of any other manual jobs during the summer months, I am forced to take up plucking of tendu leaves, she tells FE.

Similarly, Gajendra Sahu, a marginal farmer and plucker from Jangir Champa district of Chhattisgarh, has been plucking tendu leaves since the past one decade, but earns only about R60-70 per day, again much less than the state prescribed wage of R132.

The measly wages apart, there is little else for these pluckers in the name of benefits. Take the case of Sarita Rani from Balangir district in Orissa. She has been running from pillar to post to get compensation money for the death of her husband due to heat stroke last year. Her husband (a registered plucker) died while gathering tendu leaves under the scorching sun, but all that she is entitled to is a paltry insurance amount of R50,000.

Pluckers like Sarita this year will be paid a mere 40 paise per kerry (a bundle of 20 leaves) by the Orissa Forest Development Corporation (OFDC), the agency that markets forest produce since its nationalisation in 1970s. And, this is an improvement! Last year, the pluckers got just 35 paise per kerry. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have fixed the price at R650 per standard bag (consisting of 50,000 leaves) this year. What the forest department gets from traders is anywhere between R1,200 to R1,400 per bag. Clearly, as soon the leaves enters the market, they command double the price of what is given to pluckers.

Saxena adds here: The massive surplus generated from the tendu leaves trade, if shared equitably with lakhs of poor who are involved in plucking, would directly lead to poverty alleviation and improvement of their livelihoods. A detailed analysis for Balangir district by Saxena as part of a working paper for the Planning Commission, titled Enhancing Livelihood Through Minor Forest Produce, 2009, shows that sharing of 50% royalty from sale of tendu leaves would increase the total earnings of an average pluckers household by R3,000 per annum.

Even a report of an expert committee on revenue enhancement measures, finance department, Orissa, 2011, states that marketing of tendu leaves by OFDC is exclusively a commercial operation, even though there is a content of labour welfare implicit in it by offering seasonal jobs to a large number of workers for a period of about two months.

Jogendranath Tripathy, general secretary, Orissa Kendupatra Karmachari Sangha, also feels that under the Forest Rights Act, the pluckers are the owners of tendu leaves collected by them, and so they are entitled to a share in the ultimate price of the product, instead of the paltry wages they get. Tripathy recently asked the state government to provide insurance cover to the pluckers under the Janashree Bima Yojna, where life insurance is provided to poor families, besides assistance for children education. We have asked the state government to provide the premium from tendu leave revenue estimated at R8 crore per annum, he tells FE.

The Forest Rights Act is about recognition of the fundamental right that the community already has. It's not something the state is giving to people out of charity, notes environmentalist Ashish Kothari.

Manoranjan Mishra, manager, tendu leaf, OFDC, says about 50% of the revenue earned from tendu leaves goes toward wages and insurance schemes for more than a million pluckers. OFDC charges about 8% for its marketing operations, while the rest goes back to development work. He, however, did not elaborate on the nature and expanse of the development work.

While RS Negi, managing director, MP State Minor Forest Produce Co-op Federation Ltd, declined to comment, an official in charge of tendu leave trade with the federation tells FE the state government returns 60% of the net annual income from tendu leaf sales to pluckers. The net earnings (after providing for pluckers) from beedi leaves jumped from R74 crore during 2008-09 to R175 crore last fiscal in Madhya Pradesh. We make a profit from selling tendu leaves and it is vital for our financial survival, he adds. The Chhattisgarh government has decided to give 80% of profits as incentive wages to tendu leaf collectors since 2008.

Orissa is the third-largest producer of tendu leaf next to Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. But the leaves from the eastern state command a premium from the beedi makers because of their superior quality. As per the OFDC data, last fiscal more than R415 crore worth of revenue was generated through selling tendu leaves in Orissa, and this figure is expected to go up further during 2012-13. In fact, revenue from tendu constitutes the largest chunk of total forest produce of Orissa (over 80%), and has gone up from R140 crore during 2006-07 to R415 crore last fiscal.

Due to the better quality, leaves from Orissa command better prices. So much is the demand for leaves from the state that the supply does not match up, Mishra of OFDC tells FE. The annual production of beedi leaves in Orissa is 4.5-5 lakh quintals, which is about 30% of the countrys annual production. The OFDC official claims there is a shortfall of 25% in production.

All three states nationalised marketing of tendu leaves and other forest produce back in the 1970s, for saving poor people from being exploited by traders. It is another matter that after the Supreme Court banned tree felling in forests without working plans, revenue from forest produce has emerged as the main source of earning for forest departments.

As an official with MP State Minor Forest Produce Co-op Federation admits: "We acknowledge that we need to pay back profits earned from tendu leaves to pluckers. But if we withdraw from the sale of beedi leaves, puckers would be at the mercy of traders."

Another forest department official in Jangir Champa district of Chhattisgarh claims that because of forest officials and the system of tendu leaf auctions, pluckers are getting better prices. "Our presence ensures that traders do not cheat the pluckers, he says.

Last year, then environment minister Jairam Ramesh had suggested to the Planning Commission that MSP be fixed by a central committee to serve as a benchmark for the states for minor forest produce. State governments will be free to fix a price which is higher than the benchmark. Ramesh had argued that since these areas fall within the purview of Schedule V of the Constitution, the Centre has the right to introduce MSP for minor forest produce. At present, the government has fixed MSPs only for the main agricultural crops and there has been a long pending demand to have similar minimum procurement price level for products like tendu leaves, mahua, or sal seed, which provide livelihood to millions of forest dwellers across the country. Several expert committees have also recommended the fixing of MSPs for minor forest produce. The Planning Commission, however, is yet to firm up its view on the issue.