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Summer of '99: The turning-point for Bastar's tribals

By Kumkum Dasgupta

With help from the district administration Bastar's tribals have eliminated the middlemen and taken direct control of trade in minor forest produce. The change in their villages since the Imli Andolan of 1999 is perceptible

Bastar, one of last tribal frontiers of the country, is also one of the richest areas in terms of forest produce and minerals. However, the tribals of the area have hardly enjoyed the benefits of nature's generosity. Take for example the case of Minor Forest Produce (MFP). Available in plenty in the district till about three years ago, tribals never got a fair price for the products. But the Imli Andolan (Tamarind Project) is a good example of how district administration can facilitate a process that takes the benefits to the poorest of the poor.

For the uninitiated, Minor Forest Produce are all usufructs/utility products of plant, animal and mineral origin except timber obtainable from forests and afforested/domesticated land area. "If managed properly, MFPs can be very good revenue earners for the state. For example, the Orissa government earns Rs 30 per tonne as royalty on bauxite, whereas from tendu leaves it earns Rs 12,000 per tonne," said N C Saxena, a Planning Commission member. "But forest management till recently stressed only on timber and wood-based enterprises while MFPs were seen as incidental. Owing to over-exploitation of wood it is now clear that the MFP-based enterprises can improve the socio-economic condition of the people," writes M P Shiva, director of the Dehra Dun-based Centre for Minor Minor Forest Produce (MFP).

Former Collector of Bastar Pravir Krishn and his DFO Sanjay Shukla planned the whole andolan (project). Krishn recounts the incident which prompted him to conceive the project. "I was going on routine inspection to one of the blocks in the district when I caught a trader red-handed bartering salt for an MFP. The salt bag was marked unfit for human and animal consumption. That was the worst form of exploitation I have ever seen," he told this correspondent.

"Traders used to come to us before any MFP season and they would pay us an advance," says 70-year-old Ganga Bai, resident of Komar village near Jagdalpur. "We had no clue about the end market price because the produce was always sold in big cities. So whatever price they paid, we had to accept. Moreover, they also manipulated the weights. Since the money during the off-season helped, we always took whatever they paid us."

The 1999 season of imli (tamarind) in Bastar can safely be called a watershed in the history of the MFP business. For the first time in India, tribal communities handled everything from the collection to the sale of MFPs. In the process, they eliminated middlemen from the trade and ensured profits to tribal collectors, said Chief Minister Digvijay Singh. Bastar's forests cover over 55 per cent of the total land area (40,000 sq km). Adivasis constitute 65 per cent of the total population of around 25 lakh. The mainstay of the tribal economy has traditionally been the MFPs like tamarind, mahua, tora seeds, chironji, kosa and honey, other than the nationalised products like tendu. The usual practice was that tribals would collect these from the forests, often do some basic processing and bring them in headloads to the haats (local marketplaces) where traders would buy the MFPs at very cheap rates. The trade thereafter was a three-tier affair. The haat trader would sell his MFPs to the mandi merchant who would promptly store it away in some cold storage in Jagdalpur. After the season was over he would sell it to bigger traders in larger cities of India. The haat trader earned around 50 per cent for his role while the mandi merchant would earn as much as 100 per cent for holding the stock in cold storage till the market was ready.

Today, tribals sell all the MFPs to Van Dhan (forest wealth) samitis, which have been formed in the villages by the village people. In fact, much to their surprise they discovered that the trade was worth more than Rs 1,000 crores. A little more computation and it was clear that adivasis were standing to lose at least Rs 200 crores annually due to the malpractices of traders and their agents.

In January 1999 the Tribal Co-operative Marketing Development Federation of India Ltd (TRIFED) started buying from haats. "Village haats were monopolised by our samitis (committees) and only mandis were open to traders. The imli session started from mid-February and slowly the movement started and came to be known as the Imli Andolan," reminisces Shukla. By March 1999, Van Dhan samitis were formed. The backlash from the traders was only a matter of time. "The traders rocked the March session of the Vidhan Sabha with allegations of malpractice by the district administration. They went to the district as well as the high court. They abused me, ransacked offices and went to the extent of saying that I had Naxalite connections. Even a parliamentary committee visited to see what 'excesses' I was perpetrating. However, we had the support of Chief Minister Digvijay Singh and managed to tide over those crucial days," recounts Krishn.

Travel around Bastar and the change is perceptible. Confidence is increasing. "Our Van Dhan samiti looted us. We threw them out and the money went back to the bank account. They used to sell the MFP outside and not to TRIFED. But now we have understood that if we work hard we can make profits," says Ganga Bai. "Local traders used to put pressure on us to sell the products to them only. Now we don't need to go to them. We can sell it to the samiti boys here itself and since they belong to us, they will not cheat us," says Vishaal Singh, 70, of Chamiya village.

Telephone at office of Bastar district collector:
(07782) 22693 and 22304
Fax: 25293

(Kumkum Dasgupta is a Delhi-based journalist)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2002