Koraput, Odisha: On a scorching April morning on the outskirts of Badalibeda village, in Koraput's Boipariguda block in Odisha, an open field is lined with bundles of fresh kendu leaves. Three women diligently dry the leaves and turn them over, a process that is expected to continue for about a week, with fresh bundles of leaves being collected daily.

Badalibeda, 100 km west of Koraput town, is tucked away in the dense forest expanse bordering Chhattisgarh. The organised collection of kendu leaves, often referred to as Odisha’s ‘golden leaf’ due to its economic benefits, is a relatively new enterprise for the village. Despite being surrounded by lush green kendu leaf plants, the village had never collected or sold the leaves, which come under the Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) category.

In March this year, 103 villages in the block came together to form the Bopariguda Mahasangh, and resolved to facilitate the collection and sale of kendu leaves from these villages.

Empowering Gram Sabhas to sell kendu

Kendu leaves are used to wrap tobacco and make beedis and, due to its economic potential, it was the first NTFP to be brought under state control. Madhya Pradesh was the first state to nationalise the kendu leaf in 1964, followed by Maharashtra (1969), Andhra Pradesh (1971), Bihar (1973) and then Odisha (1973).

The various nationalisation policies mandated that only the state governments or officers/departments appointed by it were authorised to appoint an agent or trader to procure, sell or transport the kendu leaf.

Experts felt that this policy conflicted with the traditional rights of forest dwellers over their resources. The enactment of the Scheduled Tribes And Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition Of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA), conferred these rights to the forest dwellers under section 3 (1)(C) of the Act.

It was under this provision that the 103 gram sabhas came together to form the Boipariguda Mahasangh to “collect, use, and dispose of minor forest produce which has been traditionally collected within or outside village boundaries”, with kendu being an essential NTFP in the region.

“In many of the villages, kendu was never collected as there were no collection centres nearby or collectors registered by the forest department,” said Bhakta Majhi, a member of the Mahasangh.

“We had been under the impression that only the forest department can collect and sell the kendu. But when we learnt that it is our right to collect and sell kendu, the way it was done in Maharashtra, we decided to come together and form the Mahasangh.”

“There are incentives and assistance for self-help groups (SHGs) and farmer producer organisations (FPOs), but there is nothing for gram sabhas despite the large forest-dwelling population in the state,” said Bidyut Mohanty, founder and secretary of the non-profit Society for Promotion of Rural Education and Development (SPREAD), based in Koraput. This is essential, he argued, because “through economic empowerment, they can work even better for the well-being of the community at large”.

Nationalisation policy creating hurdles

The nationalisation policy however continues to create hindrances. The kendu leaf was deregulated in Malkangiri and Nabrangpur districts of the state in 2013, transferring the rights to sell the kendu leaves from the forest department to the community. In 2017 however, when villagers from Kalahandi district tried to sell kendu leaves, the trader was detained and the procurement was stopped. When the villagers protested the detention, the state was forced to issue an order to deregulate kendu leaf in the region.

In the absence of deregulation in the Boipariguda region, the community still has to seek permission from the department before making a sale.

Even as Odisha is on a mission to ensure individual and community rights over forest land to all eligible beneficiaries under the Mo Jungle Jami Yojana, the rights over specific NTFPs like bamboo and kendu remain only partially in the hands of the people. Under the same scheme, the villages had applied for land rights under FRA. The process is now at the Divisional Committee Level (DLC) which will issue the rights certificate through the collectorate.

“FRA gives exclusive rights over NTFPs to the gram sabha,” said Geetanjoy Sahu, professor at the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “In the post-FRA scenario, ideally, all states should have amended their respective NTFP legislations or passed an order to align their NTFP rules and regulations in compliance with FRA. Unfortunately, no state has done that except Maharashtra.”

The Mahasangh has written to the state officials asking for a seamless process ahead of the transportation of the now-drying leaves.

In contrast to what the experts say and despite the forest department itself procuring kendu leaves from selected pluckers from some of these villages, forest officials claim this collection to be illegal. “Deregulation is a state matter and we can not intervene there. But such collection is illegal as the rights under FRA are awaited. Once the rights are conferred they can go ahead with the process; otherwise the collection will be seized,” Divisional Forest Officer, KL division, Koraput, Sarat Sahoo, told IndiaSpend.

Lack of collection centres, registered collectors

In Badalibeda village of Haldikunda gram panchayat, there were no registered collectors, leaving the potential of kendu leaves unutilised. Most of the villagers migrated out, or are dependent on sal seeds to make a living.

The collection centre in the village is entirely managed by women. Malti Shanta (22), who manages the centre, said, “We knew our forests had kendu but we never knew that we could sell them and make a living.”

The collection centre setup by the Boipariguda Mahasangh at Badalibeda village is managed solely by women. They monitor the collection by ensuring that the leaves are not damaged and dried well, and also maintain records of the daily collection.

Odisha is the second-largest producer of NTFPs in India, with 37% of its population relying on these resources for their daily needs. In rural areas of the state, up to 40% of people's income is derived from collecting forest products.

It is the third largest producer of kendu next to Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The annual production is around 450,000-500,000 quintal, which is about 20% of the country’s annual production. Kendu leaf is available in 50 sub-divisions across all 30 districts.

According to officially available data, there are about 7,300 phadis (temporary collection centres) across the state, and about 800,000 pluckers who collect and offer kendu leaves to these centres.

However, these collection centres are distant from many villages where the numbers of registered official collectors are small--which among other things means the collectors have to transport the leaves across long distances at their own cost, thus cutting into their earnings.

In 2023, a financial assistance package of Rs 56 crore was allocated to support the pluckers, providing a 25% bonus and a 5% incentive to 40,000 binders and temporary workers.

The Bopariguda Mahasangh has set up a kendu collection centre or phadi in Phatkikumi village. Before this people travelled 3 km to deposit their collection every evening at the state-run collection centre.

But many villages are still out of the scope of this work. In Phatikikuma village of Dandabadi gram panchayat, of the 30 households in the village, only five have a ‘phadi card’ or authorisation to collect and sell kendu leaves at the collection centre set up by the forest department, and to be entitled to the incentives announced by the government.

The village never had a collection centre of its own. The registered sellers had to walk 3 km to deposit their collection at the nearest centre, which caters to over 50 villages. A delay in depositing the day’s collection also led to damage to the leaves, rendering an entire day of labour fruitless.

“We start the process of plucking kendu leaves at around 6 a.m.,” said Meeta Badanayak, one of the collectors. “The collection usually ends by the afternoon. After a small break, we begin arranging them into bundles or kerries. We must then walk to the collection centre to deposit the day’s collection. But if the leaves are not kept properly, they can wilt and get damaged. In such a case, the entire bundle gets rejected and our day’s labour goes in vain.”

Each bundle comprises 44 leaves. Badnayak manages to collect 200 bundles a day, and has deposited her collection with the Mahasangh’s collection centre in her own village this year.

At a government-run collection centre, the kerries are dried and processed and stored at the phadi house in bundles of 5 kg each, and further packaged into single lots of 60 quintals of kendu leaves. These are then delivered to the Odisha Forest Development Corporation for marketing.

A woman plucks kendu leaves in Odisha’s Koraput. The activity begins at 6 a.m. and goes on till noon, after which they bundle the leaves and walk to the collection centre to deposit them. A delay could mean the leaves are wilted and damaged, unsuitable for further processing.

Durga Badanayak (35), from the same village, is entrusted with managing the collection centre, while his wife collects leaves during the season. He is not registered as one of the pluckers.

“We do not know the process for getting registered as pluckers, and only a few households in the village managed to do so,” Badanayak said. “Even if we collected a significant amount of kendu leaves, there was no guarantee we could sell them. We were not entitled to any bonuses either. As a result, there was no income at all, making it pointless to waste our time collecting kendu leaves.”

In the absence of any other livelihood opportunities, Badanayak and his wife usually migrated for work, like many others from the village. But this year, most of them have stayed back to take advantage of the kendu plucking season.

After collection, the kendu leaves are stacked into bundles of 44 leaves each. The bundles are then deposited at the phadi centre.

Reduced migration, improved livelihood opportunities

Somnath Barik (45) from Phatkikumi village migrated along with his wife every summer, and returned to his village only during the monsoon to tend to his less than one acre of land, which provides his family with their annual requirement of paddy for household consumption. Apart from this, they depend on seasonal forest produce like sal seeds, honey, etc. to make a living.

This year, he has stayed back to participate in the collection of kendu leaves. While his wife is busy collecting the leaves, he manages the collection centre at the village with 10 others on a rotational 12-hour shift, day and night.

“I have worked at brick kilns, at construction sites, laying down railway lines,” said Somnath. “There is no work at all in my village during the summer months. There is no water for irrigation, no crops to cultivate. The village is usually emptied out during these months. This is the first time you see people around.”

In Badalibeda, a similar situation exists. Small land holdings and lack of market access often limits livelihood opportunities for the villagers, forcing them to migrate out for work.

However, as the village took up kendu leaf trade for the first time, 40 households of a total of 65 in the village got engaged in the process. The collection that started on April 23 with just 3,979 bundles ended with a total of 116,244 bundles. The collection centre at this village caters to 13 other nearby villages.

The Mahasangh has entered an agreement with the trader to sell the produce at Rs 5.50 per bundle. Of this, Rs 4 will go to the pluckers while Rs 1.50 per bundle will come to the Mahasangh which will pay for allied costs, including transportation if any, salaries to those managing the collection centres, etc. The collection centre is hoping to generate an income of Rs 6,39,342 per annum.

The 103 Gram Sabhas combined have collected 619,609 bundles of kendu leaves this season.

The collection usually spans two months in summer. The work begins with bush-cutting in the month of February-March. After a month and a half of this process, the leaves are collected from the new shoots. This usually takes about two to three weeks depending on the resource available. The collected leaves are packed into bundles or kerries which are sun-dried for a week and are then packaged, ready to sell. Odisha is the only state where the leaf is sold in processed form.

For Jayanti Shanta (52), an additional income from the kendu leaf collection is a potential investment for her farm. She along with her daughter managed to collect 3,500 bundles of kendu leaves, for an estimated income of Rs 14,000 for the family.

“We have a one-acre plot where we grow paddy and ragi, mostly for our own consumption,” Shanta said. “If there's any surplus, we barter it for oil and pulses at the local shop. My husband and son migrate for work, so this is an additional source of income for us. I plan to use it to buy compost for better yields on our farmland, and also to purchase vegetable seeds so I can start cultivating vegetables.”

The collective efforts of the Boipariguda Mahasangh and the empowerment of local gram sabhas, have not only revitalised the kendu leaf trade in the region, but are also creating new opportunities for sustainable income and community development.

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