COVID-19: Maharashtra exempts non-timber forest produce from lockdown

Income from collecting tendu leaves keeps small farmers in Maharashtra from depending on loans
COVID-19: Maharashtra exempts non-timber forest produce from lockdown

The Maharashtra government on April 15, 2020 exempted the collection of non-timber forest produce from the nationwide lockdown invoked to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Forest dwellers and tribal communities in Maharashtra, like a large part of the Indian population, found themselves at the thin edge of the lockdown. Several of them earlier approached the government to procure non-timber forest produce like mahua and tendu leaves.

Maharashtra has been the worst hit in the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, but most cases have been reported from urban centres like Mumbai, Pune and Thane. The lockdown, however, has economically affected people throughout.

Several gram sabhas (village collectives) and their non-profit partners, like Vidarbha Livelihood Forum, sought permission from the state government on April 2, 2020 for collecting NTFPs — forest produce other than wood. 

Odisha and Chhattisgarh allowed the collection of NTFPs. An April 6 letter from Union Minister for Tribal Affairs Arjun Munda urged states to procure NTFPs at a minimum support price.

In Maharashtra, the collection of tendu leaves — used for rolling beedis — deserves special attention. Unlike in Odisha and Chhattisgarh, in the western state they are sold by:

  • The forest department
  • Gram panchayats under Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas
  • Gram sabhas or their collectives under the forest rights Act

Village panchayats and collectives independently sell and market tendu leaves through contracts with traders. Key decisions, including auction and contracts, are taken in March and April. 

This year, it has been in a limbo. Some electronic auctions were held up as the model code of conduct kicked in for the upcoming panchayat elections. The lockdown threatens to delay them further.

For the collectives, which auctions in March, contracts are stuck at various stages. The lockdown ambiguity is a concern for them as collection is constricted to 10-15 days in May when a fresh flush of leaves grow to the size and thickness in demand.

A delay in deciding on auctions, sale, contracts, etc may cause a 20-30 per cent loss in annual household incomes.

Incomes from the leaves are divided into wages (60-80 per cent) and royalty (20-40 per cent). Wages — disbursed in the collection season — are critical investments for the kharif crop.

This income keeps several small farmers from depending on loans. A hold-up in tendu leaf collection, therefore, can impact agriculture.

Relief packages announced under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act are piece-meal, compared to the magnitude of income lost from sales of NTFPs like tendu leaves.

The exodus of migrant workers from cities to rural areas also holds significance in this aspect.

A large portion of this labour belongs to the forested areas. Workers can thus benefit from the collection of tendu leaves, that could become an important alternative livelihood.

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