Biodegradable leaf cutlery would be a game changer to Tribal in #Odisha during #Covid 19 outbreak

Gomati Jhakar stitching Siali Leaf Plates, Photo taken by : Ipsita Behera, Vasundhara

By Chitta Ranjan Pani, Bhubaneswar: Gomati Jhankar, tribal lady in her mid 40 age from Bamandagarh, tribal dominated village of   Kuchinda, Sambalpur, Odisha, is one among a section of people who eke out a living from selling of Siali leaf plates to distant traders of south India through their women Union named Banaja Banijya Sangha. She earns more than Rs 30,000/- through collective trading of Siali leaf plates in both summer and winter season. She realizes Rs 1/- for each stitched Siali leaf plate of 18 inche. She heads as President of the Banaja Union (Collectives of around 2000 Women Minor Forest Produce Gatherers), Kuchinda, Sambalpur.  Unfortunately she has suffered financial loss because of not finding any buyers due the Covid-19 lockdown. Unlike she and others women members of Banaja Union  were unable to sold more than one lakh of fine hand stitched Siali leaf plates in last two months. The leaf plates are now on deteriorating condition due to not having storage facilities at village level.

Similar tale is almost same for Jamuna Pradhan of Dengajhari village in Nayagarh district. Jamuna’s entire family completely depend of Sal leaves and other forest produces like Char Seed, Tamarind, Mohua Flowers, Kendu leaves for their livelihood sustenance. She used to supply stitched Sal leaf Plates and bowls nearby hotels, dhaba and roadside eateries. She along with others also receives order to supply Sal leaf plates and bowls for social functions like rituals, marriages. But all these are suddenly became a mirage for them due to lockdown restriction, shutdown of hotels, dhaba’s and roadside eateries. Even the celebrations of social functions were completely restricted which further pushed them to financial losses and in a state of misery. Both Gomati and Jamuna are not sure when would they able to sell their leaf plates.

Sal leaf (Shorea robusta) and Siali leaf ( Bauhinia vahlii) , one of the major income generating activities of the tribal and other weaker sections of the community living closed to the vicinity of forest areas. More than 10 millions tribal and other traditional forest dwellers of Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar, Sambalpur, Sundergarh, Deogarh, Anugul, parts of Balasore, Nayagarh, Kandhamal , Rayagada, Koraput, Nabarangpur districts of Odisha have done collection and stitching of leafs plates and cups to meet their livelihood needs.

On an average day, men and women from thousand villages of Odisha used to go deep forest to collect the leaves, then dry and stitch them together to make plates as per the order of the buyers. Close to five million people in Odisha are directly depending on Sal and Siali leaves for their bonafide livelihood. Leaf plates-making is a cottage industry for these most vulnerable sections predominantly tribal.

Since 25th March 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi enforced the nationwide lockdown to combat spread of Corona, there have been no marriages and festivals, no movement, shut down of weekly markets, hotels, dhaba’s and subsequently demand for the leaf plates have come down dramatically.

Photo 2: Bundling of Siali leaf Plates for sell, Photo Credit: Ipsita Behera, Vasundhara

Menace of single-use plastics, a shift to biodegradable cutlery:
On 2nd October 2019 last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pledged to Indians to ban single-use plastics has given the much required boost for the leaf plate industry to grow faster as a possible alternative. The prime minister had talked about the menace of single-use plastics in his radio programme, Mann Ki Baat and asked citizens to participate in putting them off use. Approximately 22,000 metric tonnes plastic waste is generated every month by all the food delivery aggregators in India combined. Odisha government has also banned single use plastics in the State to promote leaf-based cutlery which will be a huge step towards decreasing and ultimately, finishing plastic waste.

Economic obligations:
Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, parts of Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh have huge potential of these leafs in the forest. The market for leaf-based cutlery in India is worth Rs 2,000 crore. The forest region of Betnoti in Odisha alone produces Rs 400 crore worth of sal leaf cutlery. The central government has fixed a minimum support price of Rs 35/- per kilogram for sal leaves. The government has also removed the Goods and Services Tax (GST) on sal leaves, siali leaves and their products in its 28th meeting of the GST Council on late July 2018. On August 21, 2017, Shree Shashi Bhusan Behera, Finance Minister, Odisha had written to the Union Minister of Finance, Late Arun Jaitley, requesting him to exempt Sal leaf and its products from the purview of GST. Earlier also in January 2019, Odisha Government had waived off the royalty of Rs 86/- on Sal leaves with a hope to benefit about 25 lakh tribal communities who collect the minor forest produce and make plates from it.

Photo 3: Tribal Women are stitiching Sal leaves Plate in Nayagarh district, Photo Credit: Bhagyalaxmi Biswal, Vasundhara

Why not use of leaf cutlery instead of Polythene and Stroyfoams in the TMCs for serving food:

Odisha Government has been managing more than16,000 Temporary Medical Camps (TMCs) and housing 3.5 lakh migrants in safe quarantine centers across the state as twitted by Shree Naveen Patnaik on dated 26th May 2020. 29 districts out of 30 districts in Odisha have already been conformed corona positive cases. Each day shows new cases reported since the previous day. Similarly the no of migrant workers return to the state has been increasing. The forthcoming month, i.e, June and particularly the coming 15 days will be more challenging in handling the COVID-19 situation in the state, with opening up of flights and railways,. The state is now thinking to restrategise corona response based on the learning’s of the last two months lockdown to bring normalcy in economic and livelihood activities,

Odisha government has been bearing the full cost of stay of returnees from other States at the TMCs during the quarantine period. The Special Relief Commissioner (SRC) has issued a letter to the Principal Secretaries of Panchayati Raj & Drinking Water and Housing & Urban Development Departments regarding food expenditure, personal hygiene kit etc per person during his/her stay in the TMCs. The Food expenditure of Rs 120 per Adult Per day and Rs 100 per Child below 14 years per day for the quarantine period from the date of report in the Gram Panchayat (GP)/ Urban Local Body (ULB). It is reported that massive use of paper plates, stroyfoams and polythene are being used to serve food in the TMCs. Use of polythene for packing foods, use of stroyfoams has its negative effect not only in the health and hygiene of the quarantined persons but also the sanitation of the TMCs.

Odisha Government should use advisories to all the TMCs to use leaf plates and bowls to serve food for the quarantined persons and to ban on single-use plastics. The use of biodegradable cutleries would also help to maintain the sanitation of the TMCs by keeping the periphery neat and clean. The government should directly procure leaf plates from tribal people at village and Panchayat level through its district level line departments responsible for management of TMCs. Self Help Groups (SHGs), Cooperatives, Primary Procurement Agencies (PPAs) under the MSP for MFP Scheme should be given the responsibilities to buy leaf cutlery directly from the producers. The biggest advantage of using leaf cutlery at this Covid 19 pandemic time at TMCs, dhaba’s would be however, beneficial to millions of tribal and other traditional forest dependent communities, who have traditionally dependent of leaf based activities for sustaining their livelihood.

About Author: Chitta Ranjan Pani
Team Leader, Livelihood, Vasundhara, Bhubaneswar,
Coordinator, Minor Forest Produce Sub Group, India
Email: [email protected]

Mobile No: 9337136922