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Unlocking potential

In its endeavour to promote tribal development, Trifed’s ‘Van Dhan Yojana’ seeks to shift tribal economy from supply of raw materials to value-added processing of these materials

Unlocking potential

Mangli, 45, is a thoroughbred Muria-Gond woman. When the mahua season sets in, you can see her going early in the morning with other village women to the deep woods to gather from the forest floor, the yellow mahua flowers with a heady fragrance. She gathers them in a basket custom-designed for it. She can gather about ten kilos of the flower. The to and fro walk, with the head-load on the return walk, is around twelve kilometres. She brings the mahua home and sun-dries it. And then? She smiles back at you. She will sell it to an operative of a trader, locally called a 'kochiya'. She does not know his name but knows him by face. She does not know what 'fair price' connotes. She does not know what the buyer will do with her produce. She does not know what fair-trade practices mean. Years ago, as a little girl, she accompanied her mother to the forest. Now she has a son who is married. Her daughter-in-law accompanies her to the forest. This routine has gone on for ages perhaps. Has there been no change? Yes, there is change, she says, with characteristic simplicity; the forests have thinned out.

That sums up the sad saga of tribal commerce. Once upon a time, tribal dependence on cash was marginal. Now it has increased manifold. But the economics remain at the subsistence level. Why?

Because we have got used to viewing the forest-tribes as raw material gatherers, and the tribal areas as raw material storehouses.

Scheduled Tribes constitute over eight per cent of our population. Successive governments have done what they thought was necessary for the upliftment of the tribes. But they perhaps did not adequately get to the heart of the matter. The forest-tribes are custodians ('owners', under the new law) of non-timber forest-produces, whose annual market value is estimated to be a staggering two lakh crore rupees. But this huge business-potential is yet to be adequately appreciated. And the strengthening of this business is yet to be adequately understood as the best driver of tribal development.

It is for this reason that the idea of NTFP-centric tribal development for forest/tribal areas needs to be pushed.

It took a lot of persuasion and over 200 meetings with concerned agencies and officials at the highest levels. The initiative was aptly named 'Van Dhan', the wealth of the forests. The Prime Minister appreciated the idea and it soon came under his direct patronage as 'Pradhan Mantri Van Dhan Vikas Yojana'. Trifed was the natural choice as the nodal agency for implementation of this scheme.

It needs to be emphasised that commerce and industry involving the tribes is the best form of corporate social responsibility that India Inc. should get interested in. It offers profit with 'Punya'. The huge human resource of the forest tribes and their traditional knowledge bank of forest produces is an invaluable capital that our corporate captains have ignored for long. 'Van Dhan' is hands-on involvement in 'Sabka Vikas', inclusive development.

What exactly is Trifed's role?

It's to provide end-to-end solutions. Trifed has its footprint right from gathering/harvesting the forest produces that include tree-borne oilseeds, flowers, herbs, barks, leaves, honey and a host of natural spices, to their primary processing, product development, packaging, transportation and marketing. Trifed is a facilitator and can help develop linkages between the collectives of tribal NTFP gatherers on the one hand and corporates on the other.

Like Mangli gathering mahua in Bastar, there are thousands of other forest-based women spread over 26 states in India who are the first-point source for over a hundred forest produces. Under the new PMVDY scheme, the emphasis is on improving value addition to the produces rather than a mere collection of the produces from the forests.

Trifed aptly calls it 'Tech for the Tribes'. It is to promote the tribal 'gatherer' to become a gatherer-cum-processor. For such processing, 'Van Dhan Vikas Kendras' are being set up in strategic locations. 1205 such centres have already been sanctioned in 26 States and most of these have become functional. These involve over 3,60,000 gatherers. Some success stories have already started flowing in. The North Eastern States are doing exceptionally well, thanks to some dedicated leaders in Kohima and Dimapur. The Naga 'Van Dhan' entrepreneurs under the stewardship of Kathi Chand are making Nutra Beverages and 'Herbaceuticals' with tie-ups with the Indian Council for Scientific Research. One of their flagship products is the essential oil derived from Van Tulsi, that sells for Rs 22,000 a litre and is in great demand. The 'Senapati Van Dhan Kendra' under the leadership of Gaithaolu Thaimei is making value-added products from apples and gooseberries. SRIJAN led by Ved Arya is making processed products based on custard apples through the 'Van Dhan Kendra' in Jhadoli (Udaipur). Many more stories are emerging week after week.

Trifed has been actively developing new product lines in technical collaboration with IITs and other reputed organisations. 14 such products covering energy-drinks, spices, beauty-care and drugs have already been developed.

What we need is more involvement of the corporates in marketing and tertiary processing of the intermediate products made in the 'Van Dhan Vikas Kendras'. Trifed would like to remain a facilitator, to help the private sector develop sustainable facilities and systems.

Apart from forest produces, Trifed also deals in the promotion of tribal handicrafts. It has 77 TribesIndia showrooms across India. It wants to promote many more through the franchise model. This opens up self-employment opportunities for hundreds of young entrepreneurs.

The author is the Managing Director of Trifed, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India. Views expressed are strictly personal

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