Last November, 0ver 100 guests got to sample the tribal cuisine of the Bhil tribe during the annual three-day conference of the Institute of Rural Management in Anand. Lunch was drumstick flower and pumpkin curries, mithalo (maize flatbread), dal and rice and teatime snacks were urad and makai (maize) dal vadas.

The catering was done by eight Adivasi women from eastern Gujarat’s Dahod district where 74.32% of the population is tribal. Led by Savitaben Bachubhai Nayak, the women were taking a significant step into entrepreneurship. Till then they had run micro businesses, selling pickles, tamarind-date pops and ladoos and chikkis made of Mahua flower and ragi at fairs.

The Ratanmahal Adivasi Mahila Sajiv Khet Utpadak Ane Vechan Mandal (RAKSUM), as the collective calls itself, consists of women farmers and forest produce gatherers. Mostly referred to as Ratnamahal Mandali, the event’s success has brought the team bigger and more regular orders.

“When they started asking us about the menu, we knew we had done a good job,” said Raveenaben Nayak, a group member recalling the anxiety and excitement of the first venture. “The garlic pickle we served became so popular we have decided to sell it.”   

The mandali and its members can now manage meal orders for upto 200-300 guests. Two 20-member kitchen teams, one each in Ghoghamba and Devgadh Baria, manage these kitchens. In 2019-20, the collective received 57 orders and earned a profit of Rs 97,896, according to the annual report of Area Networking and Development Initiatives (ANANDI), a non-profit that enables women to find farm-based livelihoods.

The kitchen is just one of the mandali’s many activities. Set up over 20 years ago, it began by training women from Dahod’s villages in vermicomposting for both sale as well as consumption. As the group grew, several other products such as organic pesticides and crops such as maize and millets were added to its sales list. The group now has over 650 members or shareholders from 43 villages in the district.  

Given the area’s massive forest cover (24.27%), the team eventually added forest produce to its merchandise.

BehanBox has been reporting extensively on the land rights of women in Gujarat, especially those from marginalised and forest-dwelling communities. We reported that despite a law to regularise land ownership in forested regions, Adivasi women have to wait for a long time for official sanction to use their lands and then have to deal with harassment and violence at the hands of officials. And at the end of this struggle, patriarchal practices allow them very little control over the marketing of the produce they grow and collect.

We have also reported how men corner most of the revenue from forested lands, leaving very little for the women, who do the bulk of the work of collecting the produce. In this context, the Dahod collective is a significant initiative because it shows women from marginalised social groups how to collectivise, innovate and market the agricultural and forest produce of the area.

Struggle for livelihood

Dahod is primarily a rural district and around 74% of its population consists of Scheduled Tribes. Upto 70% of the tribal population is illiterate and 90% is engaged in agriculture. But given the nature of the land – dry and drought-prone – poverty is rampant: the district has the highest poverty rate in the state (40.1%). Among Adivasis, this results in high dependence on forests, a situation which often results in ownership disputes with forest authorities, as we have reported.

Adivasi men from this region migrate in large numbers, especially to Saurashtra for construction work, leaving women behind to struggle for land ownership, earn a livelihood and sustain families. 

The family of Raveenaben Harijan, a 32-year-old Dalit woman from Sagtara village, was among these. She joined the mandali four years ago after the village primary health and childcare centre where she worked closed down. This work had helped her support her family of five and educate her two children.

But the family’s primary income came from farming and the sale of forest produce such as Mahua and Tendu leaves. Except for the sowing and harvesting seasons, Raveenben’s husband travelled to Saurashtra for construction work, bringing in a meagre income.

The mandali’s initiatives have made some difference to the family’s economic status. 

“Now we manage better. My husband is not obliged anymore to go out to seek work. The salary I get from the mandali and the fair price from selling Mahua flower and Tendu leaves during the seasons is enough for us,” said Raveenaben, a board member of the mandali.

The collective began the collection and sale of Mahua flowers in 2020 to provide income support to forest dwellers. Four collection centres were set up for 413 households near the Ratanmahal Sloth Bear sanctuary. Two of these centres host extractions facilities for Mahua oil, which is used for its therapeutic properties – it is popularly believed to ease rheumatism and headaches. The residue from the extraction process is used as biopesticide. 

Raveenaben says this collective entrepreneurship has improved her bargaining skills and confidence. It has helped her assert herself as a woman farmer and produce collector, and helped her break the cycle of poverty her family was trapped in and also ensure its food security. 

Gap in community forest rights

Collection of minority forest produce was added to the mandali’s list of activities recently, after it sensed the absence of a formalised structure of procurement and fair price, said ANANDI’s project manager Geeta Oza. 

Dahod district has a large forest cover and bountiful forest produce. Around 883.74 sq. km, or 24.27%, of the district’s terrain is covered with forests but 98.52% of this forest cover is categorised as reserved forest. The district’s forests account for 4.62% of the state’s total forest area and is thick with trees and plants with commercial potential such as shisham, gum, grass, madhuca-indica (Mahua), hognut, soapnut, and diospyros melanoxylon roxb (Tendu).

Under the Forest Rights Act 2006, villages and families living in forest areas have the right to collect, manage, replenish, and sell such minor produce either individually or as a village group as a part of Community Forest Rights (CFR). But the record for CFR approvals in Dahod district has been poor. 

A December 2020 study by the women’s land rights network, Working Group of Women for Land Ownership (WGWLO), shows that the CFR in Dahod is significantly low at less than 20%.

The study noted that the tribal population needs to be “sensitised for their active participation in the FRs related activities and processes”. As per the study, five community rights claims were applied for, largely related to village infrastructure, and these were processed quickly and approved. But this was not the case with CFRs.

The study added that although women cooperatives were active, women did not participate in village committees and mostly acted as proxy members in Forest Rights Committees (FRC). The committee is appointed by the Gram Sabha to analyse the CFR needs of the village and collate documents for these. It then submits the documents to the Sub-divisional Level Committee for its approval. Once approved, villages can form CFR groups and manage and use forest resources. 

In villages with CFR, forest produce is sold collectively to either the Gujarat Forest Development Corporation (GFDC), or to private companies, or open markets. But in areas where such groups have not been granted approval, individuals collect and sell minor forest produce directly to contractors or retailers in exchange for very little cash or for food items such as maize or sugar. In most cases, the responsibility of collecting and selling the produce is borne by women.

Power in numbers

Women’s collectives such as RAKSUM offer an empowering platform where women can negotiate and sell their produce at better rates, said ANANDI’s Oza. “It is not the GDFC’s mandate to collect from individual sellers, so many women lose out on the opportunity to get fair prices,” she said. Besides, associating with a cooperative helps the women enhance their technical knowhow and adopt better farming and cultivating methods. 

Members of Ratanmahal Mandali at a meeting in Sagtara village, Dahod district

In its 2021 report, National Association for Farmer Producer Organisations (NAFPO) noted that  women were largely invisible in agriculture and allied activities even though they play a very important role in it: “They lack access to information, resources, land, extension services, credit, technology and local institutions compared to men, further restricting their agency and impacting the overall economy with productivity losses and reduced workforce participation.” 

However, as incomes rise in these sectors and new enterprises emerge, the role of women becomes even more invisible. 

“There is a need to promote women only FPOs to ensure better participation of women, enhance access to resources and services and sustain better income,” the report said.

Adding value to forest yield

One of the biggest achievements of the Ratanmahal Mandali was to add value to the Mahua flower as a forest produce. Earlier the women would simply collect and sell the flowers, but now thanks to the mandali’s extraction machines, they can sell its oil and use the waste. The mandali has also discovered that there is a market for traditional tribal snacks.

Products such as Mahua laddoos and chikkis are a staple in tribal homes, especially during local festivals. The collective introduced these products to a larger market.

What holds back the expansion of Mahua products is the stigma attached to the flower because of its intoxicant elements, said Oza. The mandali is now working on addressing this issue in its marketing initiatives. It is also exploring value addition to tamarind and Giloy seeds, abundant in the area. 

Champaben Hirabhai Nayak from Ankli village has grown into a farm entrepreneur through a decade of her association with the group. She started by making vermicompost at home, and then went on to create a kitchen garden and nursery whose produce she sells to the mandali. From February to August, she collects timber, and Tendu leaves from the forest bordering her village, adding to the family income. The yield in her 3-acre farm is now better and she has learnt to conserve rain water. 

“Joining the mandali was one of the best decisions I have made,” she said. Her family of four is engaged in raising maize and pulses. The mandali also introduced her to six productive varieties of maize, six of them developed by the Anand Agricultural University.

The government, meanwhile, is trying to promote women-centric farm producer organisations through the Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana (MKSP), a sub-component of Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana – National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM). The MKSP is aimed at empowering women in agriculture by making systematic investments.

[This reportage is part of the WGWLO and BehanBox fellowship on women’s land, forest and farming rights in Gujarat]

  • Rosemary Marandi is an independent journalist who reports on Indigenous rights and India’s business and economy. Her bylines have appeared in such media outlets as Al Jazeera, Financial Times, Nikkei Asian Review, and The Banker, among others.

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