Profit an illusion for these Madhya Pradesh tribals forced to sell products to middlemen

Most of the tribal families here sell their products to intermediaries because of the unavailability of proper markets

By Mohd Amin Khan
Published: Monday 24 April 2023
The livelihood of the tribal people is being adversely impacted by growing competition from intermediaries. photo: iStock

Forests have been an integral element of tribal life and means of subsistence. Around 300 million people, primarily tribals, live in forests and rely on forest resources for their sustenance and domestic energy needs. About 70 per cent of India’s rural population lives in such areas. 

Madhya Pradesh is one of India’s wealthier states when it comes to tribal populations and forest cover regimes. Among the many forest regions of the state, the Hoshangabad forest division is notable for its resources. The division falls in the Narmadapuram district of Madhya Pradesh. It has nine forest ranges in which Itarsi is more sensible and vulnerable to forest fires.

Also read: Has forest rights Act enhanced the lives of Adivasis?

The major tribal ethnicities here are Koruku and Gond. Their economy is directly associated with the resources extracted from the nearby forest. It is not limited to economic value but has aesthetic, cultural and medicinal significance.

These forest divisions are a source of numerous non-timber forest products (NTFP) for tribal and local people. The primary goods are fuel wood, mahua flowers, mahua seeds (gulli), achhar (chironji), tendu leaves, saajamlakarva chirag, beej, safed musli, ashoka bark and semal cotton.

Tribal and local people of these areas collect these products and sell them to other traders. In the past 20 years, there have been significant changes in the condition, quality and competition among NTFP collectors.

Due to the presence of a non-tribal intermediary (bichauliyas) in NTFP selling committee, there is more rivalry among tribal groups. This has led to a consequent drop in NTFP prices below the state government’s standard price.

The livelihood of the tribal people is being adversely impacted by growing competition and invasion by non-tribal people and intermediaries. This changed the sustenance and socioeconomic environments of the local tribal people.

As a result, people relocated to cities where they could find suitable jobs either permanently or seasonally. People in the Itarsi forest range also travelled seasonally to Bhopal, Delhi, Chennai, Nagpur and Ahmedabad, where they work mostly as unskilled labourers.

The author has visited four villages in the Itarsi and two villages of the Sukhatawa forest range and interacted with more than 100 families there.

The price of the NTFPs and purchasing authority or persons (intermediaries) of these products were similar throughout the spatial order of the villages.

Most of the tribal families are selling their products to intermediaries because of the unavailability of proper markets. The intermediaries come to the villages during the harvesting season of the NTFPs and buys the products at a low rate. 

“During the previous mahua season, middlemen purchased mahua flowers for Rs 20-25 per kilogram while being unfair with the measurements. Because of the skewed mean of their measurement system, they typically took 1.05 kg of Mahua flower instead of one kg,” stated mahua collectors in Morpani and Saheli villages. 

Rise of middlemen

Multiple reasons force tribals here to choose middlemen instead of government bodies or proper markets where they can get the optimal price for their products.

The first and foremost reason is the lack of monitoring of NTFP sales. The local government established Van Samiti for selling NTFPs, but the samiti is typically run by intermediaries (Bichauliyas/Baniye), who have structural and political control over it. 

As a result, they can purchase NTFPs at lower prices and make profits from forest resources despite having no direct connection to the forest.

When villagers protest about the monopoly of Bichauliya to the government or news organisations, they temporarily hike the price. However, they do the same thing again after the season is over. 

 Also read: ‘Review 150,000 forest rights claims rejected without reason’ 

The second reason is the accessibility to nearby markets. Most families of small NTFP collectors do not have proper vehicles and accessibility to nearby markets. Therefore, they are unable to sell their products in these markets. Carrying products to the market involves a lot of time and cost, resulting in more loss for them.

There are no suitable or feasible markets close to the tribal villages in the Itarsi and Sukhtawa ranges. The nearest block-level market is 15-20 km away from the villages.

Consequently, the shortage of nearby markets constrained the tribal people to sell their products to middlemen. The third barrier is the lack of proper NTFPs storage facilities. Due to their inability to hold onto their goods for a long time, people here are now forced to sell them for low prices. 

The fourth reason is the lack of awareness among the NTFP collectors about the market. Even after 75 years of independence, the people here still struggle for basic amenities and education.

Their resources have been misused for a long time due to their lack of awareness or literacy. This is also happening in the context of the NTFP sale as they don’t know the outside market and some have never been to cities. This lack of awareness became the tool for exploitation by the middleman traders so they could easily convince the tribal people to sell their products at a lower rate.

The state government has taken some initiatives to address the issue, but they are still inaccessible to the people. The invasion of non-tribals and intermediaries needs proper supervision, regular checking and monitoring.

In addition, it requires effective measures from the government’s end to initiate new schemes and policies while keeping in mind the present challenges faced by the tribal communities.

 A geographic planning approach should also be considered while installing the market and the storage and processing facility for NTFPs. The appropriate monitoring, verifying and balancing of the extraction of NTFPs from the forest ecosystem comes subsequently.


Mohd Amin Khan is a PhD student at IIT Indore. In collaboration with ISRO, Khan is working on forest fire impacts on non-timber forest products and their associated losses and market dynamics in Madhya Pradesh.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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