In a drive to apparently benefit forest dwellers collecting produce from the forests, the Raman Singh-led Chhattisgarh government has decided to procure five minor forest produce (MFP), namely imli, chironji, kosa, mahua seeds and lac from the farmers directly. “The collection of MFPs through MFP co-operative societies will benefit 12 lakh forest-dwelling families to get the right collection prices,” says Chief Minister Raman Singh. “The government will fix the rate before procuring the MFPs. Arrangements will be made for purchase at weekly haat bazaars in regions where MFP is available.”
The State Minor Forest Produce (Trading & Development) Co-Operative Federation Ltd has already started work on the scheme. The CM has announced that the five MFPs will be purchased on the lines of the purchase of tendu patta (leaves) through the Minor Forest Produce Co-operative Society. In a state where 44 percent of the land is under forests, this announcement comes at a time when other states, including Madhya Pradesh, are deregulating MFPs.
In 1988, the then chief minister of undivided Madhya Pradesh, Arjun Singh, amended the tendu patta policy and entrusted its procurement to the government. Although tendu trade had already been nationalised in 1964, the collectors remained underpaid. The policy was changed to directly benefit the collectors. However, political experts believe that in addition to furthering the Congress agenda, it was a means of taking the trade away from the contractors, most of them BJP supporters. Now, Raman Singh’s decision to carry out collection of MFPs along the same lines has miffed the contractors, especially in the Bastar region.
The general secretary of Chhattisgarh Minor Forest Produce Trade Federation, Mukesh Dholakia, sees it as a dictatorial step. According to him, this will disrupt free and healthy market competition and will cause further exploitation of forest dwellers. As the new policy criminalises selling of the produce in other places, the collector will be limited to the local market. Dholakia gives the example of harra. Ever since it was nationalised, the state government has been purchasing roughly 45,000-50,000 quintals of harra every year. Since the total production of harra in the region is around 2 lakh quintals, much of it is wasted.
Bhanwar Bothra, chairman of the Bastar Chamber of Commerce and Industries, Jagdalpur, says that such a policy will end up harming the collectors more. “We want collectors to get the right price of their produce,” he says, “but when it becomes a state monopoly, the collector is exploited.”
According to Chief Conservator of Forests Dhirendra Sharma, the decision was taken because “the government wants to give the collector ownership and appropriate price for the produce”. After 1984, the collector was granted permission to deal in the open market so he could benefit from the competition, but that did not happen. So, says Sharma, the government has decided to procure five MFPs. A support price will be fixed for procurement. If the collectors get a better price in the market, they can sell the goods there. However, the dealer cannot buy it at lower prices because the MSP will go to the collector. The government will arrange for its procurement if the traders refuse to pay the fixed price.
A highly placed official, says on the condition of anonymity that the poor show by the BJP in the tribal-dominated Assembly constituencies during the recent elections, where it lost eight out of 12 seats to the Congress, has triggered this decision. The idea is to appease the tribals by doing away with the middlemen. He, however, says that it must not be looked at through the perspective of politics as the tribals will benefit from it.
Interestingly, Dinesh Kashyap, BJP MP from Bastar, is not very happy with the policy and has decided to raise the issue before the party forum in an upcoming meeting. MFPs account for nearly Rs 450 crore worth of business in Chhattisgarh.