More work, less pay
Activists said forest dwellers get a raw deal in trade in nationalised MFP items. “Collection of forest produce is hard work. Women trudge through forests for long hours collecting mahua and lac and lug heavy loads, but have to sell their produce at a fraction of the market price,” said Nitin Barsinge of non-profit VEDHA in Gadchiroli. On an average, families work up to 10 to 12 hours collecting and sorting forest produce.
The restrictions on sale of nationalised MFP is bringing down the potential worth of the goods. Take the case of mahua flowers. At present, people are getting very low value for it. “If the villagers are allowed to process mahua, which has great nutritional and medicinal value, their income will increase manifold,” said Hiralal.
The collectors do get better prices now for certain produce after states announced minimum procurement prices for them. Yet these prices do not reflect the value of the effort that goes into collecting them, said activists. Most of the times states do not revise the prices for years. In Chhattisgarh, the minimum support price for tendu leaves remained stagnant at Rs 450 for a standard bag, for six years. It was increased to Rs 700 this year which is still low considering the government invites bids for them for up to Rs 2,182. The state’s profit from tendu leaves has increased four times in five years.
A 2005 study by NGO Astha in Madhya Pradesh found it takes about 19 hours to collect 100 bundles, 50 tendu leaves each. The wages the collectors got for it was Rs 70 which is far less than the minimum wage for the same hours of work. In the case of sal seeds, a person can collect six to eight kg seeds in eight hours but the income from it is just Rs 40 at the prevailing minimum support price in Chhattisgarh, the study said. The low wages explain the chronic poverty in tribal dominated areas.
The monetary returns collectors get from almost all nationalised MFP items is low. “Nationalisation curbs competition and thus profit to the community,” said Saxena. “It just helps the government earn money by paying collection wages to the people,” he added. The Planning Commission, which set up a committee in 1999 to look into MFP, too, had observed, “Nationalisation reduces the number of legal buyers, chokes free flow of MFP and processed goods and delays payment to the collector.”
Data from eight states affected by Naxalism show an average 25 per cent collectors were paid wages three months late; the money is supposed to be paid within a week of collection.
Officials in Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh alleged Maoists did not allow traders to collect the leaves which caused the delay. The tribals do not get good value even for those MFP items that are not nationalised because government does not support communities in adding value and marketing them, villagers said.