Clash over ‘Green Gold’: Chhattisgarh tribals to file FIR against forest official over tendu leaf collection

The official had seized tendu leaves collected by tribals which they wanted to sell on their own instead of to the government  

By Avdhesh Mallick
Published: Friday 10 June 2022
Photo: Avdhesh Mallick

Tribal residents of 50 villages in Chhattisgarh’s Rajnandgaon and Kanker districts have decided to file an FIR against an official of the state forest department after he confiscated the tendu leaves that they had collected.

This will be the first time that an FIR will be filed against a department official. The development has brought to the fore the tensions over tendu leaf collection between the forest department and tribals.

Read Down To Earth’s coverage of tendu leaf collection

The villagers have claimed that the Gram Sabhas of 13 villages had passed a proposal to collect and sell tendu leaves on their own earlier this year. Advance notice was also given to all the concerned government bodies and departments in this regard.

Despite this, the forest range officer seized 250 sacks of tendu leaves and had them taken from the government godown at Kheragaon in Manpur block to the Sharda government godown.

Documents related to the confiscation of these goods have not been handed over to the tribals. The villagers, who are enraged by the development, have consequently decided to lodge an FIR against the officer.

Why is there a dispute?

Tendu (Diospirus melanocaylon) is also called ‘green gold’ and is a prominent minor forest produce in India. In 1964, the trade in tendu leaves was nationalised in then-undivided Madhya Pradesh. Until then, people were free to sell tendu leaves in markets across the country.

Maharashtra adopted the same system in 1969, undivided Andhra Pradesh in 1971, Odisha in 1973, Gujarat in 1979, Rajasthan in 1974 and Chhattisgarh in 2000.

Under this arrangement, the state forest department collects tendu leaves, allows their transportation and sells them to traders.

In Chhattisgarh, tendu leaf is collected through the state minor forest produce federation. There are more than 10,300 collection centres or phads where tendu leaves are collected from collectors. About 1.37 million families collect tendu leaves every year in Chhattisgarh.

According to government data, 1.57 million ‘standard sacks’ of tendu leaves have been collected so far this year. Some Rs 300 crore of the total payable amount of Rs 630 crore has been paid to tendu leaf collectors so far.

The dispute is essentially about who has the right to sell the leaves. State governments say only they can do so due to nationalisation.

On the other hand, tendu leaf collectors cite The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 and the 2013 Supreme Court verdict in the much-touted Niyamgiri case to say private collectors can sell them on their own.

Tendu leaf collectors allege that the government gives them a lower price for the leaves, while it fetches a higher price in the open market.

The tribals, after having obtained forest rights leases under the FRA 2006, now want to sell tendu leaves on their own, with the permission of Gram Sabhas and make good profits.

Sarju Netam, a tribal leader from Rajnandgaon, said there is gross negligence on part of the administration. “Tribals, who have been considered illiterates, have started reading the Constitution and understanding the importance of the Gram Sabha. That is what is getting the goat of government officials,” he told this reporter.

Netam added that many types of minor forest produce like Mahua, Salbeej or the seeds of the Sal tree (Shorea robusta) and Chironji or Almondette kernels (Buchanania lanzan) are collected and sold by tribals. Hence, there should not be a dispute over tendu leaves. “Does the state government want to force tribals to remain mere collectors?” he asked.

Jalku Netam, chief of Dotometa village in Kanker district, said if the people of his village were able to sell tendu leaves in the open market this time, they would win another battle against tribal exploitation.

More than 50 villages in Kanker and Rajnandgaon have announced their intention to sell tendu leaves in the open market instead of to the government.

A senior official associated with the state minor forest produce federation said on condition of anonymity that collecting tendu leaves and selling them directly to traders would harm collectors.

This was because they were able to avail many facilities as well as honorarium, bonus, insurance and other benefits, which they would be deprived of if they sold to traders.

“I think there are some traders and non-profits who are constantly instigating tribals. Anyway, collectors cannot sell directly to traders unless the rules are amended,” the official said.

Dilip Gode, executive director of the Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society in Maharashtra, pointed out that the tussle over tendu leaves was meaningless.

“In Maharashtra’s tribal-dominated Gondia and Gadchiroli districts, we have proved that even if tribals trade in tendu leaves by forming a federation through the Gram Sabha, they will be in profit,” he said.

He claimed that work on the business model was being done with seven Gram Sabha Federations in more than 170 villages in five districts.

The rate of tendu leaves had gone up to more than Rs 10,000 per standard sack. “The committees floated their own tender and also sold the goods to traders and distributed more than Rs 1.54 crore among 1,684 families in 2016 with a bonus,” Gode claimed.

Instead of the controversy, the Chhattisgarh government should encourage these tribal collectors and give them a chance to grow, social activist Vijendra Ajnabi said.

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