Lakhs out of lac
In Nowgai village of Madhya Pradesh’s (MP) Shahdol district, a self-help group (SHG) comprising members of the Baiga tribe today boasts savings worth over Rs 4.5 lakh. This recent upturn in their fortunes is linked to lac cultivation on the palash (Butea monosperma) trees that dot most fields in the area.
“I could never have imagined making all this money before,” says Madhav Singh, the leader of the SHG. “All I had was 1.21 hectares of land that wasn’t irrigated. The only way we could make ends meet was by working as labourers in cities. Who would have thought that these palash trees, which we used primarily for fuel wood, would make me a lakhpati ?” he adds.
Madhav is now a ‘master trainer’, teaching lac cultivation to people of other villages in the district. Lac is a natural resin which is formed when the insect Laccifer lacca alights on certain types of trees (see ‘Steep lack’, Down To Earth, May 15, 2004).
Success stories such as those of Madhav and Nowgai’s other lac cultivators have been largely scripted by Jitendra Singh, an officer in charge of implementing the mp government’s Rajiv Gandhi Watershed Mission (RGWM) in 10 villages of Shahdol. Jitendra Singh took charge in 1999 and soon realised that the project would not have the desired impact if it focused only on water harvesting. “The villages are predominantly inhabited by poor tribals. The focus here had to be on income generation and SHGs,” he says.
The official began researching on traditional means of livelihoods of the area and found lac cultivation to be one such method. Gulab Singh, the erstwhile ruler of Rewa (where Shahdol district is now situated), had set up an efficient system of lac production and distribution. He had set up a lac processing unit in Umaria in 1903 — the well-known Lac Research Centre in Ranchi was set up only in 1925 — and by 1941, the town had 44 godowns to store lac. Mukadams (village-level officials) supervised lac production and ensured that it was sent to these warehouses.
Gulab Singh continued to patronise lac cultivation even after princely states were dismantled in 1948. But once the Indian government took over, the system fell into complete disarray. The authorities’ indifference and the inability of the cultivators to sell their produce put paid to lac cultivation in Shahdol. It was this source of livelihood that Jitendra Singh decided to revive.
The project officer noticed that almost all houses in Nowgai had palash trees (about 20 per cent trees in Shahdol are palash). The trees were, however, merely a fuel wood source. Jitendra Singh and Moni Thomas — of the government-run Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Shahdol — arranged to train Nowgai’s residents in reviving their traditional means of livelihood.
A group of 10, with Madhav as their head, was the first to benefit from the training. They formed an SHG under Jitendra Singh’s and Thomas’ guidance; the village watershed committee pitched in with a loan of Rs 6000 to buy palash seeds from Pendra in mp’s Bilaspur district. In 2001, Nowgai’s cultivators started selling palash seeds to villagers in nearby Narsinghpur and Mandla.
They earned about Rs 15,000 in the first harvest in June. In the next harvest in October, the villagers sold seeds worth Rs 70,000 to Shahdol’s forest department. Since then they have been assured of a constant source of income, as lac cultivation has gained in popularity. There are 12 SHGs in Nowgai alone. And while the RGWM has come to an end in Shahdol, there are 152 lac cultivators’ SHGs in 142 villages of the district.
Madhav explains: “Lac cultivation is not affected by the vagaries of weather or natural disasters. Poor tribals can make huge profits from it with very little investment. I spend only Rs 1,000-1,200 and every year, in June and October, can make almost a lakh of rupees.” In addition, lac is cultivated when farmers are not busy in their fields. So, it can bring them a tidy sum of money during the off-season.
Jitendra Singh ascribes a large measure of the programme’s effectiveness to the flexibility of the RGWM. “Without my superiors’ support, we would not have succeeded in this risky venture,” he adds. Nowgai’s case exemplifies how a little commitment and enthusiasm can help in reaping a rich harvest, even in a government-run venture.