Pavan Dahat

From the Field

A year after 48 villages in the tribal-dominated district decided to throw out contractors and deal directly with companies, the rebels have cause to celebrate
Bandu is a member of the Madia tribe. He lives in Kiyar village in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district. For Bandu and a few thousand others of his tribe, collecting tendu leaves for beedi-making is a major source of income.

Since last year, though, Bandu has been a worried man. Earlier, he and his companions would collect and sell tendu leaves to contractors in return for a daily wage. Then, early last year, 18 villages in Bhamragad division began a revolt against the contractors’ monopoly and decided to sell directly to the beedi companies. With the contractors out of the picture, the villagers stood to earn three times as much as before. Obviously, though, the contractors were not going to quit quietly and tried their best to break the rebellion.

Several villages left the tendu revolt but several others joined in, and today, 48 villages from three blocks in Gadchiroli are triumphantly looking at the final stages of negotiation with beedi companies, and the sale is expected to be finalised any day.

In the tribal-dominated Gadchiroli district, tendu leaves are Gram Sabha property, and contractors have to pay a royalty to villagers. As Sukhram Mandavi, also from Kiyar, says, “Every year, the contractors ask us to collect the leaves, and pay us daily wages and a small royalty. They sell the leaves to the beedi companies at much higher prices for huge profits. This time, we demanded ₹16,000 per labourer for the season. We also demanded an increase in royalty. We deserve it. The contractors earn in lakhs but we who work hard collecting the leaves get only about ₹6,000 as wages during the season.”

Not surprisingly, the contractors refused these demands.

This only steeled the resolve of the villagers. In March last year, many Gram Sabhas met up and unanimously decided to sideline the contractors and sell the leaves directly to beedi manufacturers. Says Shatrughna Yerme of Mohgav village, “Forty-eight Gram Sabhas from Bhamragad, Ettapalli and Dhanora blocks decided to take control of what already belonged to them.”

Uncharted territory

But with one big difference. So far, the villagers had to only collect the leaves. Now, they had to also store them safely and transport them to the nearest town. This was uncharted territory. But, as Mandavi, who was recently elected chairman of the Bhamragad Panchayat Samiti, says, “We decided to go ahead with collection and storage even though we knew nothing about it.”

The residents of the 48 villages formed units and applied for e-tenders to the State Forest Department. They began collecting tendu leaves of the best quality and together cut and collected 13,350 bags. The value of the stock is estimated at around ₹13 crore.

The first thing the villagers realised now was that they needed a large warehouse to store the leaves, and trucks to transport the leaves to the warehouse. By now, some CPI leaders and activists from Gadchiroli had come to their support.

Says Yerme, “The cost of transport and storage was estimated at ₹20 lakh to ₹30 lakh. There was hardly any money in the Gram Sabha accounts.”

That’s when Lawari Gram Sabha in north Gadchiroli stepped in. Lawari had recently earned over ₹1 crore as royalty for allowing mobile phone towers to be set up on village land. “The Gram Sabha agreed to lend ₹50 lakh to these villages for processing, transporting and storing tendu leaves,” says Amol Marakwar, CPI leader.

The Gram Sabhas rented two large warehouses near Mul town in neighbouring Chandrapur district at ₹6 lakh a year. Then began the Herculean task of getting 20 trucks to transport the bags to the warehouses. “Around 70 trips were made by 20 trucks and it cost us ₹16.92 lakh,” says Marakwar. It was mid-June by the time all the bags were safely stocked in the warehouses, just about escaping the monsoon.

But their difficulties were far from over. In going independent, they had challenged the might of the powerful tendu contractor lobby based in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh. Says Mandavi, “Officials in the district administration and the police department are close to these contractors, so our tendu leaves were in danger. A single fire could reduce all our efforts to ashes. In fact, two police inspectors demanded a ₹20 lakh bribe from some of us. We refused and complained to the District Collector, but there was no action against the policemen.”

It was at this stage that they came up with a new idea: insurance. They approached some insurance companies and managed to get a cover of ₹20.87 crore for the leaves in the warehouses for an annual premium of ₹2.8 lakh. “Now, even if someone tried to damage our stock, we were assured of some redress,” says Lalsu Naroti, a lawyer and Gadchiroli Zilla Parishad member.

Final negotiations

The only challenge was to convince the villagers to wait patiently until the tendu leaves were sold. Already, the fact that they would not get any income immediately had made many villagers return to the contractors, who had also increased wages for those cooperating with them. But most of the original rebels stayed adamant: they wanted to retain their new-found control over tendu leaves. “The problems were many, but we were firm on not letting the contractors profit from our labour,” says Yerme.

Now, a year of work and worries later, they are busy trying to sell their precious stock. Says Mandavi, “We are in the final stages of negotiations with some tobacco companies. We are waiting for the right price as our produce is the best you can get in Central India.”

Mahesh Raut is a village activist who has worked to mobilise the villagers against the contractors’ stranglehold. He says, “The final sale to the beedi companies is going to be a landmark one, but the process has already created history. If we succeed, every village in Gadchiroli will revolt and take control of the tendu leaves business.”

One contractor based in Gadchiroli, who is also a prominent politician, concedes that if these 48 villages succeed, the contractors will have to leave the industry. The threat is clear, and not one of the villages dares to let its guard down. They are not depending on the government to provide security, but have formed 40-strong groups of strong young men from each village to protect the warehouses.

Says Mandavi, “We never thought we would come this far but we have. It was a gamble, and uncertainty still looms large as the contractors throw every possible hurdle at us. They are powerful, but we have decided to stand up to them. Let’s see how we fare