Will finds a way!
Amid a lockdown and a global pandemic, the work of TRIFED continues in earnest, supporting marginalised tribal groups across India in this time of crisis
The social and electronic media today are flooded with Coronavirus content. Endless bites from homemakers, folks working from home, migrant urban labour, children, sports and cine stars. Everyone voicing advice on prevention, fancy cures, statistics, creative use of forced leisure, rumour, and humour!
Far removed from all of these, far removed from the glare of media, is another India. Tribal India. The tribes are not negligible in terms of head-count or the area they occupy. They constitute over eight per cent of our population. A large percentage of the tribes lives in forests. Much of urban India is almost entirely ignorant about their existence. Maybe some vaguely recall from their school days, the names of some tribes: Gonds, Santhals, Bhils. No more. Very few would know that there are nearly a thousand specific tribes within these broad names. The land of the Gonds, Gondwana, once stretched over almost the entire Gangetic plain and Central India. When the plains became war-infested, they withdrew to the obscurity and calm of the hills. Today, they are pushed into pockets in such forested, hilly terrains.
Tribals by their nature do not complain as the urban folk do. And, for this reason, some of their issues get lower priority. While mainstream India is horrified by the threat of COVID-19, most tribesmen take it in their stride. They are familiar with the idea of an invisible enemy: they view it as a malevolent spirit, the striking arm of the mother. And when this spirit strikes, it indicates that the goddess is furious with her children. She needs to be calmed, propitiated, prayed to. She is the protector after all.
In another age, all this perhaps would be a very different and private matter. But not today. The tribes in India (as indigenous societies the world over) are like the mythical Trishanku: suspended between two worlds: old and new. In the new world, the tribes (like others) need cash to survive in the prevailing economic order. There is no escape from this need. Where should their cash come from? From the source that is their sole providence: the forest. While timber of all kinds is nationalised, the tribes enjoy ownership rights over the 'crop' of the forests. These include a wide range of products that are clubbed together in the official lexicon as 'non-timber forest produces (NTFP)' or 'minor forest produces (MFP)'. NTFP covers forest flowers, fruits, seeds, leaves, honey, herbs, etc., that the forests in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra and other states produce. The tribes gather this produce from the forest floor, do primary, rudimentary processing and sell the NTFP to traders in nearby towns or the weekly 'haat bazaars'. They often bear their load to these markets located ten to twenty kilometres away. The cash that they earn from such sale during the season, sustains them for the entire year. How much cash would such 'minor' forest produce generate? It is in the order of Rs 2 lakh crore a year! The end-users for most of the NTFP are corporate giants, mostly in the food and pharmaceutical sectors. Little wonder then that the forests are the hunting ground for traders, whose operatives often adopt unscrupulous, exploitative practices, buying gold from the tribes for the price of brass.
NTFP is not available all-round the year. It is seasonal. The season for most produces is January to April. The cash the tribes earn during this period sustains them through the following year. This year, the season has coincided with the viral threat and lockdown. This is the peak of the season to harvest, process and sell the non-timber forest produces. It is a now or never situation for them. If they miss the business now, the months ahead will be dark for them. This helplessness is precisely what can make them sitting ducks for unscrupulous trade operatives, to come and shoot.
To prevent such exploitation of the tribes by the market forces, the Government of India created a body called Tribal Cooperative Marketing Federation of India, or, TRIFED in short. It is an apex body of the state-level tribal bodies. It implements a scheme of minimum support price (MSP) for select MFP. Realising the gravity of the situation, TRIFEDrose to the occasion. TRIFED motivated its staff and the those of the nodal agencies in the states and UTs across India to gird up their loins to become Corona warriors. A special provision to enable this was included in the MHA Consolidated Guidelines for COVID-19 containment measures.
The restriction on movement of persons and crowding at a market-place and the requirement to maintain social distancing were non-negotiable points. These were hurdles in the procurement process. But TRIFED was determined. Finally, its power of will found a new way. It inverted the mechanism promoted by the Government for the door to door supply of essential commodities during the lockdown. This approach to supply was inverted into 'door-to-door procurement of NTFP'! A simple idea, but one that impacts over five crores poor, voiceless families living in our forests!
The procurement team of the Government of Chattisgarh visits the villages. The families are asked to place their sacks of NTFP at their door-step. The produce is weighed and gathered into the agency's trucks. Payment is made to the tribal family on the spot.
TRIFED has gone one step further. It uses the occasion to promote the ideas of social distancing, use of masks and personal hygiene. Supply of essential commodities is combined with the procurement process. This makes it a composite service.
TRIFED could have just shut shop and relaxed at home because that is what the original guidelines required of us. But a bit of motivation inspired our warriors. They soon were charged with urgency. And today, their reward lies in the satisfaction of having done their bit to a segment of the society that is easily ignored. If TRIFED had not acted, hundreds of tons of NTFP would have rotten away in the forests and villages. More power to the tribes as the march for institutionalising this arrangement continues.
The writer is the Managing Director of TRIFED, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India. Views expressed are strictly personal