There is a local song that poignantly captures the reality of the tendu leaf gatherers of Orissa’s Nuapada district: “Chho chhoko, bhunji loka, patar tudle laagsi bhoka (we are Bhunj tribals/while plucking tendu leaves, we feel hunger).”
I watch 55-year-old Pahane Majhi of Mahagaon village, located in the Sinapali block of Nuapada district, gathering tendu leaves while singing this song. The summer heat in the shade is unbearable, yet this frail elderly woman keeps plucking the leaves without flagging. It is her only source of livelihood.
“There are just no employment possibilities in the village. My two sons have migrated with their families some months ago and haven’t returned home. Now, I try to feed myself and my husband by doing this work. But I don’t know for how long I can continue. I am getting old,” remarks Pahane.
There can be no disputing the fact that tendu leaves support not just Pahane but innumerable others in this impoverished region. But the money to be made is minimal and labour involved intense. It means climbing to the tendu forests on the hill tops and working for at least five to six hours in the heat, with no drinking water and no food.
Says Pahane ruefully, “I hardly manage to pluck one ‘chatta’ (2000 leaves).” That’s not all, after she returns home, she has to sit down and make smaller bundles of 20 leaves each – known as a ‘kerry’ – which could take another two to three hours. And that’s still not the end of the story. These bundles of tendu leaves will have to then be taken to the ‘phadi’, or the centre where villagers deposit the leaves they have plucked during the day.
So how much does Pahane make for all this effort? “We get only Rs 35 per ‘chatta’ (2,000 leaves), which works out to less than two paise per leaf,” she laments.
The tendu tree (Diospyros melanoxylon), which is really a large shrub, is found in abundance in the forests of western and central Orissa. Its leaves are used to make ‘beedis’ (indigenous cigarettes). It is one of the most important non-timber forest produce in this region, not just for the tribal communities dependent on it to eke a living but for the state government as well.
The total turnover of the tendu leaf trade is in the region of Rs 200 crore annually in Orissa alone, and according to the forest authorities tendu leaf plucking provides employment to millions of families across the state during the lean season, especially in the drought stricken districts of Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput.
Says subsistence farmer Hemant Majhi of Patnagargh block of Bolangir district, “We do not get any work in the village except odd agricultural jobs, which is also limited because families here have small holdings that they cultivate themselves with the help of their family members. So the requirement for wage labour in the fields is very limited, except during the time of paddy transplantation. That is why collecting minor forest produce, like tendu leaves, is so important for our survival.”
Uncertain rainfall has also contributed towards making farming here something of a gamble. The family finances of Radhanath Rout, a 55-year-old marginal farmer from the Boden block of Nuapada, graphically illustrates why tendu leaf gathering is so crucial. Because of persistent drought over the last few years, all eight members of his family have turned into tendu leaf gatherers. In the two months of April and May, they can together earn a sum of about Rs 2,000 from plucking the leaves.
Multiply this story across the state and tendu leaf plucking emerges as one of the most important sources of livelihood for the poor. About 4.5 lakh quintals of tendu leaves are produced annually in Orissa, generating, on an average, more than one crore man days of employment for some of India’s poorest communities.
Most of the leaf gathering is done by tribal and Dalit women. Explains Minketan Pradhan, head-checker of the Sinapali ‘Phadi’, “Plucking these leaves is a tedious job that demands a lot of patience. Each leaf has to be plucked, one by one, with care. This could be one of the reasons why men generally prefer to stay away.”
The official data bears out his observation. According to Orissa’s forest department figures, about 7.5 lakh leaf pluckers are involved in the trade. Out of these, more than 80 per cent of them numbering about six lakh are female, while the men make up about 10 per cent of the workforce and the children, another ten per cent.
The tragedy is that while these women spend the whole day plucking the leaves, making bundles out of them and carting them to the centres, they receive much less than the statutory minimum wage. They also have no protection while they work. There have been instances of attacks on them by bears and wolves.
To understand the life of a tendu leaf plucker, I spent time with 30-year old Subhadra Majhi, of Sinapali village in Nuapada. She has two small children – a baby in arms and a three-year-old. Subhadra makes her way to the nearby tendu forest at around 5 am every morning and plucks leaves until 1 pm, carrying her baby with her.
These leaves are then put into a basket and brought home. There she starts sorting them into bundles, occasionally assisted by her husband. She does this while finding the time to serve lunch – usually fare she had cooked the night before – to her children and husband. At about five in the evening, she finishes with the bundles and makes her way to the ‘phadi’ to hand them over. Back home, she gets down to cooking the family dinner and the next day’s lunch.
“I don’t get time to cook food during the day, so I have to cook at night. Then there are other household chores to attend to, like ensuring that the household has water, which has to be brought in pitchers from distant water sources. The water I usually collect early in the morning, or while returning from the ‘phadi’,” says Subhadra.
This is the harrowing routine followed by almost all the women pluckers. Purnami Majhi, 45, also from Sinapali village, has been plucking tendu leaves since her childhood. She began by accompanying her mother for plucking when she was an eight-year-old and has continued plucking till date. In her husband’s home, all the women and children in the family go for plucking, although the men avoid it. When I ask Purnami why this is the case, she smiles, “We have never asked them why.”
The authorities profess to be concerned about the welfare of these women. Says K. Jude Sekhar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, “We are concerned about these pluckers, who are mostly women. Every year we increase the rate per kerry. In 2006, it was 0.215 paisa. Today, it is 0.35 paisa.”
What is left unsaid is that while the tendu leaf trade is filling the state government’s coffers, poor women like Pahane, Subhadra and Purnami, can work from morning until night over the years and still live in hunger and abysmal poverty.
(This article is written as part of the Panos South Asia fellowship on tobacco.)