Mahua in full bloom, but the women flower pickers are gloomy
By Aishwarya Mohanty
Kandhamal (Odisha), October 29 (IANS/ 101Reporters) It is 3:45 a.m. and Srimati Mailik (49) is up. In less than an hour, she completes her chores – cleaning the house, washing clothes and preparing lunch – and sets off with 15 other women and their children to the green forest surrounding her village.
Fear of snakes, insect bites and wild animals looms large throughout the journey along the rugged path, with thick bushes engulfing both sides. For the next seven to eight hours, they will harvest mahua flowers, locally called mahuli. Here’s what a routine day looks like for these women during the summer months.
“There is no set time when we return – sometimes before noon or later. In the summer, collecting mahua can bring us good income if the flowers are sold at good prices,” says Srimati.
However, women in Mardigocha village in Kandhamal district of Odisha have been collecting mahuli without any sales for four months. The entire collection of 21 quintals of dried flowers is in a closed room, tightly packed in jute bags.
This year, they claim to have witnessed a bumper harvest. The huge supply has cut prices in half. Without a proper supply system, they could not find real buyers. From Rs 40 to 50 per quintal last year, prices have collapsed to Rs 20.
A time-sensitive product
In most households in and around forests, women venture into the jungle to undertake the labor-intensive task of collecting minor forest products (PFM). “My husband works on construction sites or does odd jobs. The jungle is for us (women). We collect MFPs. We keep what we want for our family’s consumption and sell the rest” , explains Ambika Malik, a villager.
Mahua flowers are eaten as cooked vegetables, or dried and used in bread, made into jam, mixed raw into cattle fodder, and extracted as liquor. It contributes almost a third of the annual income of these tribal communities and other traditional forest communities.
The flowers are dried for three days after harvest. “They should be devoid of any moisture content. Otherwise, the quality drops. But due to continuous rains even in October, storage and drying has become a major challenge this year,” Srimati informs.
Women sell mahua flowers at the nearest market in Khajuripada town, six kilometers from the village. “To get there, we walk with the products mounted on our heads for almost three hours. There is no road to the city. We have to take an unpaved and rocky path that crosses the hill,” says another villager.
Income generated from the sale of mahuli is set aside to respond to medical emergencies or for family functions. “We don’t want to sell it low. But if we don’t sell it on time, the quality might drop. And if we sell it low, we suffer losses,” Srimati recounts in her story of despair.
No price protection mechanism
“We spend all day looking for better prices. However, at the end of the day, if we are unable to sell, we accept the prices offered by traders. In any case, it is not viable to bring the mahuli back to the village,” says Maiti Hansdah from Sanjhili, located in the buffer zone of Similipal Tiger Reserve in Mayurbhanj district. She and her sister-in-law have harvested two quintals of the flower this season, but haven’t sold any yet.
In Burudihi, Kuchinda block of Sambalpur district, traders come to the village to stock up. “One of them bought mahua for 30 rupees per kg from five households and verbally reserved a quintal from different households at the same price, saying that he would come back in a day to buy. Although the villagers had stored the quantity, he only came back after 20 days to offer less than 20 rupees per kg,” says Fuljensia Tete.
In some places, people are forced to barter mahua at local stores. “The flowers I exchanged for groceries will be sold at very high prices. Because we couldn’t sell any for money, we have to exchange them for rations,” says Susham Nayak of the Daspalla block of Nayagarh district.
Rates tend to fluctuate under the direct influence of traders, villagers say. Prices are usually high at the start of flowering, but they gradually drop to the bare minimum. “If we know a fixed rate, it will help us better understand our finances and sell the flowers accordingly. In the absence of a minimum support price (MSP), we continue to struggle,” adds Nayak.
Conflicting procurement laws
Recently, mahua was included in the Centre’s “Minor Forest Products (MFP) Marketing Mechanism through Minimum Support Price and Value Chain Development for MFPs” of the Centre, making it eligible for sale under the MSP. But in Odisha, the storage, possession and sale of mahua are strictly regulated by excise rules, affecting the livelihood prospects of forest dwellers.
The MSP is decided by the Tribal Development Cooperative Corporation (TDCC), which falls under the Development Department of Odisha SC/ST. TDCC does not purchase mahua flowers due to excise law.
“The storage, export and sale of mahua flowers, which are used to make alcohol, are regulated by excise policy. To avoid overlap, mahua flowers are outside the scope of the TDCC. It the same goes for many other forest products, as they conflict with some other state or central laws,” says Chandan Gupta, Director of Marketing, TDCC.
Under state excise rules, “the storage or possession of mahua flowers must remain open for inspection at any time of the day or night by any officer of the Excise or police”. Mahua has always been controlled by state excise laws except for a brief period when it was nationalized in 1991. Its purchases and trade were once again regulated by the excise law in force since March 1992.
The Excise Department issues collection and storage permits by charging a nominal license fee. After the promulgation of the Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) Policy of 2000, the sourcing and trading rights for mahua were transferred to village panchayats, but it continued to be regulated by the Department of Agriculture. excise under the Bihar and Orissa Excise Act 1915. thus making it illegal to store and collect above a certain amount by forest communities.
“Mahua flowers are used for a variety of purposes, but the law defines the product as an intoxicant. As a result, it falls under the control of the Excise Act. mainly to allow the main collectors to earn a better income,” says Y Giri Rao, executive director of research advocacy organization Vasundhara.
“Even the Forest Rights Act of 2006 confers the right to collect, store, process and sell MFPs. As it is a central law, it legally overrides state law,” explains Rao.
“The excise policy regulates the storage of more than two quintals, for which a license is required,” says Rama Chandra Palata, Deputy Commissioner of Excise, Excise Branch. Regarding traders, Palata says, “Many traders from neighboring states are involved, which leads to illegal exports and failure to pay properly. Our teams continue to intercept them during their routine inspections.
(Aishwarya Mohanty is a freelance journalist based in Bhubaneshwar and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of local journalists)