Kendu leaves: 29 Odisha villages win complete autonomy, but still a long way to go

Most villagers earned more than Rs 15,000 this year, over seven times their past earnings
Kendu leaves: 29 Odisha villages win complete autonomy, but still a long way to go

Ghasiram Majhi’s joy knew no bounds as he earned Rs 22,000 this year selling kendu leaves. Majhi sold 6,769 kerries (a kerry has 20 leaves) of the minor forest produce (MFP) — the highest he ever did. 

This was possible after his village Jamjharan in Golamunda block achieved complete autonomy over the MFP under the Schedule Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA), along with 28 other villages in Odisha's Kalahandi district.

The autonomy puts an end to the cap on the volume of kendu leaves these 29 villages could sell, to the government or to private firms. Also, the Gram Sabhas of these places can now issue their own transit permits (TP) for the produce and no longer have to depend on the forest department for the same. 

The leaf, also referred to as tendu leaf in some parts of the country, is used to roll tobacco into bidis (local cigarettes)

Kalahandi Zilla Gram Sabha Samuha (KZGSS), the federation of all the Gram Sabhas in the district, inaugurated its TP book at a function in Kelia village July 17 in the presence of state ministers and Gram Sabha representatives. “This marked our complete autonomy over the produce,” said Kunja Bihari Chandan, KZGSS president. 

Residents of Kelia village sending off the first truck carrying kendu leaves with their own transit permit. Photo: Laxman Pujhari

Odisha-based forest rights activist Sudhansu Sekhar Deo termed this as the shift of ownership to the true owners of the forest and hailed this as a major step towards empowerment of Gram Sabha. “The move was long pending.”

The genesis

In 2017, the Odisha forest and environment department had announced deregulation of collection, sale and management of kendu leaves in six Gram Sabhas of Kalahandi: Kanakpur, Kalipur, Kasturpadar, Jamjharan, Jamgudabahal and Khasiguda. 

The department, however, continued to conduct systematic strip sampling to decide how much kendu leaves can be plucked and sold by a particular Gram Sabha, and exercised its authority to provide TPs, said Deo. 

The Odisha government has been exercising its statewide control over kendu leaves even in community forest rights (CFR) areas, according to the activist. This is a violation of Section 3 (i) of FRA that vests in forest dwellers the “right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage any community forest resource which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use,” he added.

Jayanti Majhi of Jamjharan was among the 150 families in the cluster of six Gram Sabhas, who could not sell the produce as they did not have kendu leaf cards.

“We could not sell our produce even after our villages obtained CFR in 2011 under the FRA,” she related. It was in 2017, on the suggestions of some volunteers, that they started asserting their rights over kendu leaves, she added. “Following this, the forest department complied with our demands the same year.”

Jamjharan Gram Sabha president Laxman Pujari said:

Despite the deregulation, the forest department continued to exercise its control. We struggled to achieve the sole rights over kendu leaves. We wrote to the forest department, chief minister, state chief secretary, the Union government and almost all authorities, and finally 29 villages got the absolute power. As many as 36 other villages are still struggling.

Boost to tribal economy

The ownership over kendu leaves has boosted the economy and agriculture of people, said Chitta Ranjan Pani, a forest rights activist who works for livelihood enhancement of forested communities.

“This year, the six-Gram Sabha cluster has sold 1,009,060 kerries of leaves and received Rs 3,279,445 at Rs 3.25 per kerry. In none of the previous years, we could sell more than 3.5 lakh kerries,” Laxman said. 

The government this year offered Rs 1.20 per kerry, according to Gadadhar Patra, divisional forest officer (DFO), kendu leaf department, Bhawanipatna. 

Most of the villagers have earned more than Rs 15,000 this year. Before 2017, their earnings never crossed Rs 2,000, Laxman added. 

A truck loaded with kendu leaves ready to start from Durgathenga village. Photo: Laxman Pujhari

The forest department was paying Rs 0.80 per kerry in 2017 while private firms were offering Rs 2.50. Besides, they receive the money from the traders instantly and in cash, whereas the forest department credits the amount to the accounts of the pluckers after three months of purchase and the bonus is paid after a year, he added. 

Goutam Majhi, the president of Kalipur Gram Sabha, pointed out: 

The sum of the bonus and the cost of kendu leaves as given by the government is around two-thirds of what we get from private firms. Transfer of money to the bank accounts also puts us in trouble.

Patra, however, claimed tribals would have benefited more had they gone by the government system. He added the transfer of ownership to Gram Sabha is a fiasco created by the traders for their own benefit. These traders pay less to the people and evade taxes, causing loss to the government. 

Besides, by selling the stuff directly to the private firms, people are getting deprived of the government benefits such as death insurance amounting to Rs 2 lakh, higher education scholarship of Rs 7,000-12,000 for their children and Rs 25,000 as support towards the the wedding of their daughters. 

Apart from the bonus, there are also other incentives like provision of chappals, water bottles and umbrellas for the kendu leaf pluckers, the DFO added. 

Chandan disagreed. “Not more than 4-5 people of a village are eligible to get the government benefits. Besides, choosing the buyer is at the discretion of the Gram Sabha. It chooses the trader who offers the highest price.” 

The instant money they get from the private firms in April-May comes handy during the sowing that begins in June. They invest this money in agriculture and it prevents them from borrowing at high interest rates, pointed out Pani. “The private firms also process the product locally and it creates employment for the villagers.” 

A long way to go

“It is unfortunate that the state government is yet to issue a circular for the whole state, recognising complete autonomy of the Gram Sabhas in kendu leaf management,” pointed out Pani. The forest department only complies with the pressure from the ground in a few places, he added.

Maharashtra is the only state that gave the sole rights of MFPs like kendu leaves to forest dwellers in CFR areas way back in 2013. But in Odisha, the third largest producer of kendu leaves after Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, there is partial deregulation, said Tushar Dash, an independent forest rights researcher. 

The existing circular also carried myriad mistakes. It entitles the people to collect and sell leaves only from CFR areas and those collected from command areas need to be sold to the forest department. It goes against the Act, said Deo.

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