Betul (Madhya Pradesh), June 9,2023: Nisha Bele (37), a Korku tribal from Ratamati village in Betul district, distinctly remembers waking up at the crack of dawn and engaging in work till the sun was over her head in the sweltering summer to gather about 25 to 30 kg of mahua flowers every day.
The fear of wild animals also preyed upon her as she toiled on the forest floor, a part of Bhainsdehi forest range.
“The flowers had to be picked up one by one from the ground. The earlier we reached, the better chance we had of finding a tree that had not been marked by someone else for picking,” she told 101Reporters.
Now, she can gather the same quantity in about 15 to 20 minutes, thanks to the Madhya Pradesh forest department’s initiative to encourage net-quality mahua, wherein nets are spread around the trees to catch the flowers as they fall naturally from the tree.
The small, yellowish-white flowers of mahua (Madhuca longifolia) trees are known for their sweet fragrance. The flowers usually fall between 4 a.m. and 12 noon from mid-April to May. The tribals not only collect the flowers but also protect the trees as they are venerated in the community and hold a special place in their culture and customs. They do not cut or harm these trees.
The Korku tribals have received community forest rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. They also have protection under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996.
Net-quality flowers are considered to be of a higher grade as they do not fall on the forest floor, thus significantly reducing the risk of contamination. The purity of flowers is also assured. They are used to produce oil, food products and beverages such as mahua tea. “They fetch us a higher price, too,” added Bele.
In fact, impressed by the quality of mahua flowers collected by the tribal communities in Madhya Pradesh, OForest, a UK-based company, had reached an agreement by which the forest department will procure 200 tonnes of the minor produce to fulfil the commitment by year-end.
The company will process the flowers to make mahua tea, which is said to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and can relieve stress. The flowers will be dried and roasted to brew tea that has a slightly sweet and nutty flavour.
Like in Betul, nets are used in Hoshangabad and Sehore districts as well. “Our district bagged half of the 200-tonne order as the mahua flowers found in the forest ranges here are of excellent quality,” Vijay Nantam TR, District Forest Officer (DFO), South Forest Division of Betul, tells 101Reporters. However, this time, the tribals were not very successful in delivering the committed volume due to less flower production triggered by climate change.
The collectors’ collective
This is the first time that the villagers of Betul district are dealing with such a large order for mahua flowers. Together, Rateda Kala Samiti of Amla range and Chandu Van Samiti of Bhainsdehi range collect flowers from 1,250 trees by involving as many as 500 people. Four and eight villages coming under these respective ranges are part of the project.
The collectors sun-dry the flowers, allowing them to wither naturally. This step is crucial to preserve the flower’s aroma and flavour. Once done, they are carefully packed and sent to the head office of the forest department in Bhopal, from where MP State Minor Forest Produce Federation takes charge of shipping the items internationally.
Explaining how the high-quality mahua order came about, Nantam says Narmadapuram DFO DK Vasnik had sent a sample of 24 quintals to OForest Limited last year. “They tested the sample in their lab and made the purchase at a rate of Rs 110 per kg.”
Subsequently, during the van mela held in Bhopal last December, the company entered into an agreement with the forest department for the supply of 200 tonnes high-grade mahua flowers. “We are pushing for Rs 120 per kg this year, though last time we got Rs 110,” he added.
Nantam claims the forests of Madhya Pradesh are fully organic by default and no chemicals are used during any stage of flower processing. “The flowers are sourced through designated committees. The department helps them collect it by providing nets.”
Besides gainful employment, the initiative ensures competitive prices for the flower pickers. Earlier, they used to sell it for Rs 25 to 30 per kg to local buyers or community members, who would consume it directly or use it for brewing liquor.
As providing mahua flowers to the designated committees is more lucrative now, the villagers are no longer inclined to brew and sell illegal mahua liquor in rural areas. This could have unforeseen positive effects in the form of reduction in crime rates and migration in search of employment.
To prepare for the rainy season, some members of the households would usually migrate to neighbouring Maharashtra and Rajasthan in summer to work as farm labourers or at construction sites. The new initiative provides them with employment back home. Though tendupatta is also collected during summers, more tribals are involved in mahua flower picking due to its lucrativeness and the scale of the order received.
“The forest department has assigned 200 mahua trees to 68 people who are part of Chandu Van Samiti in our village. The nets were also provided on behalf of the committee. We have been told that the flowers will be initially bought for Rs 35 per kg. Later, we will get a bonus,” said Ratamati resident and flower picker Hansraj Dahikar.
(Nandkishor Pawar is a Betul-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)