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A case for Van Dhan startups

Van Dhan startups — based on the processing and sale of NTFP — are a potential source for significant economic and social development of tribal India

A case for Van Dhan startups
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Inclusive development (Sabka Vikas) cannot afford to ignore the nearly 8 crore forest tribes-folk. Livelihood for these people must revolve around their traditional skills in forestry, and their traditional habitat, the forests.

Non-timber forest produce (commonly called 'Minor Forest Produce') has a major role in the economy of tribal societies. Annually, around Rs 2,00,000 crore worth of NTFP is gathered by the tribals and traded in the 'haat bazaars'. The potential of this huge capital, grossly under-managed, is yet to be fully appreciated by the Government and planning agencies.

If NTPF activity is strengthened, tribals can become prosperous in their habitat, in the shortest period, with moderate investment by the Government.

The gathering of NTFP from the forests and the primary processing of NTFP at homes are done by the womenfolk. Strengthening NTFP is a sure way towards the empowerment of women in tribal areas.

The need of the hour is a holistic model of NTFP-led tribal development for the scheduled tribes in forest areas. This requires synergy among various ministries/departments and concerted action. TRIFED, the business arm of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India has already made significant moves in this regard.

Tribals have been made owners of NTFP in their areas. MSP has been announced for several NTFPs. But the ownership is still largely notional. It needs to be actualised. MSP scheme needs to become a driver, rather than a mere safety net.

TRIFED, under the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, has begun in right earnest action on Van Dhan setting up 1,126 Van Dhan centres comprised of more than 18,000 Van Dhan SHGs comprising 20 tribal and forest dwellers through the leadership of state government agencies. The initiative will take over three lakh tribal-gatherers on to the road of an enterprise. Van Dhan can prove to be game-changer for the tribals by initiating a cascade of economic activity based on value addition of non-timber forest produces.

Van Dhan is a composite program, meant for forest-based tribes. It aims to lead the MSP for MFP programme to the next level through value addition by tribal SHGs to the MFP procured by them under MSP. The idea is to optimise the tribal income, locally, using non-timber forest produces. This will be done through the establishment of common-use-facilities for value addition, to be called Van Dhan Vikas Kendras. It is conceptualised as a Centrally-sponsored scheme, funded by the Central and state governments in 75:25 ratio. The program covers nearly five crore tribals in 27 states.

This year, the combined efforts of state government and TRIFED has led to the procurement of over Rs 450 crores for the first time in the country. Van Dhan is unique in this, that instead of superimposing new skills for livelihood promotion, it seeks to use traditional skills, upgrading the same through technology and market intelligence.

The income accruing to tribal gatherers in the previous systems business is far below what would be fair and equitable. They would get around 20 per cent whereas they deserve at least 70 per cent of the sale price. This is possible if fair-trade practices are enforced and the long chain of middlemen is curtailed.

The area under NTFP is shrinking because of large-scale supplanting of timber species in the decades after independence. Tribes are the best conservators of the forest, if only so that the forest can sustain them. The symbiotic relationship between tribes and forests needs to be appreciated and encouraged. The area surrounding a forest village (at least 5 km around the village) should be reserved for only NTFP forests and no timber plantation should be allowed in these areas.

The 'haat bazaars' where NTFP is traded by tribals must be brought under effective regulation by the various panchayats to ensure proper weighing and proper payment to the tribal gatherer. As it now, it is a free-for-all domain.

To start, 18,000 villages have been identified. Ultimately every tribal village must have a common facility centre (Van Dhan Vikas Kendra) where tribals can do primary processing in clean conditions for quality products. Presently, many tribals are constrained to primary processing on tarmac roads. Rs 5 lakh is available for setting up a procurement centre in the village 'haat bazaar', Rs 3.50 lakh is available for a godown, and Rs 15 lakh is available for processing and marketing activities, per Van Dhan Kendra.

Processing of NTFP at the local level needs to be promoted to ensure that employment is generated locally. This is especially important when a large number of migrants would be returning home in the present situation.

Earlier, the roads in several parts of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh had mango trees as avenue plantations on both sides of the road. In some other states like Karnataka, tamarind trees were raised along the highways. Thousands of tribals were reaping the benefit of this by harvesting raw mangos/tamarind and selling 'amchur/imli' produced in their homes. These trees have now been cut down to widen roads. This has badly cut into tribal income. A policy decision needs to be taken that all highway and road projects in tribal areas will have avenue plantation of only NTFP species (and not decorative species like Gul-mohar) so that apart from just shade, these trees can also provide more practical income to the locals.

Van Dhan, that is, NTFP-led tribal development, if made into a thrust program, can trigger a domino effect and help achieve several national objectives at once. These include Inclusive development; women's empowerment; tribal aspiration and development; forest conservation; environment; livelihood promotion; skill development for value addition to NTFP; tribal culture; reduction in left-wing extremism; eco and ethnic tourism; ease of living for forest-tribes and assured raw materials for various sectors of corporate industries.

Strengthening of TRIFED, the National Authority for promoting the Van Dhan manned by committed personnel and overarching various ministries/departments would perhaps be the ideal structure in this direction. After all, It would impact the lives of over 8 per cent of our population.

The writer is the Managing Director of TRIFED, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India. Views expressed are personal

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