Hanging by the leaves: Overwork, meager income, price rise mars livelihood of these Adivasi women

By Nazish Hussain, TwoCircles.net

Every morning the daily market area of Ranchi is occupied by scores of women coming from rural areas in the periphery of the city.  They put their shops by the roadside selling leaf made items, primarily dona-pattal (a term used for leaf bowls and plates). Women also sell miswak (thin branches used as toothbrushes) which they collect from the jungle. These women sit by roads selling their goods till 8 a.m for two hours, before the city space is occupied by other hawkers and vendors. Women play a very important role in the collection, processing and sale of these items. Making leaf plates and bowls is an important source of income to run their households. While talking to these women, they complain that the income generated by women is meager compared to the labor they put in this work. The state government ban on plastic raised some hope for them to increase their share in the market. However, it died down given the re-emergence of plastic despite the ban.  Currently, in the aftermath of the Covid-19 lockdown, the price rise in services and commodities have only added to their woes.

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Sibya Devi is one of the many women who come to this market from her village Hahe, 20 kilometres away in Angara block. Angara is a community development block in Ranchi district of Jharkhand. This middle aged Adivasi woman has been doing this work for many years now, carrying the leaf bundles to the market to make a living. Sibya informs that it has been the legacy of her family. Her mother-in-law used to do it. Now that she is old and has weak eyesight Sibya has taken over the responsibility. After her it will be taken up by her daughters-in-law.

She has a family of seven people, an old mother-in-law, husband, two sons, their wives and a grandchild. “I raised my children and looked after their education by selling dona pattal only,” Sibya says proudly.

Selling dona pattal has been her only source of income. In her neighborhood few other women also do this work. They go to the jungle together. “We usually go in groups. I am afraid to go alone to the jungle.” When Sibya could not get a group to go with she took one of her family members along. “The other day I took a child along with me. It got so hot, the child was thirsty and we ran out of water. I had to leave my work in between and return back from the jungle,” she explains.

  Sibya Devi walks inside the jungle carrying her sack to collect Sal (Sakhua) leaves.

In the morning she prepared food and had an early morning meal before leaving for the jungle. “Finish your meal quickly, we are getting late!” she says to her husband who is still eating, while she packs large sacks and water bottles. Her husband, who is now sick and unable to do any manual job, sits at home. When no one is there to give her  company she would ask her husband to come along with her to the jungle. “As he is usually home he would come along. That’s a big help for me,” Sibya says. They leave for the jungle early in the morning.

Dona Pattal is made of Sakhua leaf. Sakhua is also known as Sal which is found abundantly in the jungles of Jharkhand. On asking if they make Dona-Pattal or any other leaf as well? “If we use other than Sakhua leaves no one will use it. Sakhua is considered holy, so it is used on every occasion and also considered good for eating in,” replies Sibya.

 Sibya, sweating in the heat, collects leaves of varied sizes from the growing Sal trees in the forest.

Women do this work throughout the year except for winter when trees will shed leaves. “It will get difficult for us to collect leaves after the chatt festival. There will be very few old leaves left. It is only during Holi we will get new leaves again,” she says.

Sibya clears her way into the forest. There is no one else to be seen in the jungle except for these two – wife and husband. The young Sakhua bushes are green and full of leaves. Sibya plucks the leaves of different sizes and fills her sack.  “It is difficult to pluck the leaves from the trees. How could we climb tall trees,” she chuckles.

 As Sibya picks the selected leaves she tries to reach the leaves at the top of the growing trees.

Her husband who is there to help is relatively slow at collecting leaves.  “It would have been easier if I got more help. But usually the male members don’t help. They say we don’t know about this skill,” she comments.

“I usually don’t go deep in the jungle unless we are in a group. Now we are just two of us so I am scared. Other times when we are in a group of 5-6 people all of us go together. We feel scared of animals. Also we have got enough leaves to sell for tomorrow,” she says and adds, “For two days these leaves will be fresh. After that it will start getting black. The black and dried leaves sell for less.”

 Sibya packs the leaves in the sacks as her husband takes rest behind her.

After collecting the leaves they return by afternoon to their home. Sibya puts the leaves in the bamboo basket and right away starts stitching it. The old mother in law joins her.  In between the other female members of the family would join in as well.

It takes all family members to work together. Mother-in-law helps with stitching dona pattal. Going to the forest and selling in the market is done by Sibya. Her daughters- in-law are now taking up the skill by learning with her.  “In order to sell it in the market the next morning the items have to be finished today only. We will work till 10 p.m and hopefully finish it,” says Sibya.

 Sibya stitching the leaves while children of her home sit with her and observe as she works.

Donas and pattals are made in different sizes and shapes depending on the size of the leaves and the utility in the market. “To stitch the leaves we have to buy finely split bamboos which are priced at 5-10 rupees a bundle. Or at times we also have to arrange it on our own,” mentions sibya while stitching.

 Sibya sits with her mother-in-law as they process the leaves into plates and bowls.

On average she takes 30-40 bundles to the market. “For pattal we make a bundle of 12 pieces which we sell for 12 rupees a bundle at maximum. For 100 pieces of pattals (leaf plates) we get 100 rupees. And donas are 50 pieces a bundle which we sell for 5-10 rupees to the trader while we charge 15-20 to individuals,” she says.

“The traders don’t come to our homes. Nearby there are few markets but that is not regular. In a week, two days we go to the jungle and then two days we go to market,” she says. “We go to Ranchi daily market to sell these items. Mostly dhaba wallahs buy from us. Some traders also buy from us and supply it somewhere else. There is a trader who comes and takes all these items at wholesale price,” she says.

She adds that the trader at the city buys from them for 5-10 rupees a bundle and would sell for 20-30 rupees in the city. “While we do all the hard work, he is the one who earns the profit. At times when we could not make any sale we take the items to his home he would buy from us at a very cheap rate,” she complains.

She complains that the auto drivers are charging 100 rupees from from to go to the city as fares have increased after lockdown. After putting so much of effort into earning half the money goes in auto fare. She works hard and hardly gets enough money to buy 2-3 kg rice or some vegetable with it.

“In between when plastic was banned then we would normally get 20 rupees for 50 pieces of dona. But now we could only get 10 to 5 rupees for 50 pieces,” mentions Sibya.

 Sibya sells her bundles of leaf plates and bowls to the trader in Ranchi city the next day.

According to a news report published in Hindustan Times, Jharkhand Government in September 2017 declared the use of plastic carry bags as a punishable offence. The government had put a blanket ban on manufacturing, import, storage, transportation, usage and sale of plastic bags. The initiative was taken to protect the environment. The use of plastic bags declined during that period. However, the ban seems to have relaxed and the plastics are again seen dominating the market.

The old mother-in-law makes a comment on the nature of their occupation. She says, “It is like gambling. Sometimes it would fetch us money otherwise nothing.”

If there is a festival then they would make a good sale otherwise it is meager. “It depends on our sale how much money we make. After deducting auto fares we could barely buy some ration for home. There is no scope of making any savings,” she adds.

“I have heard there is a machine to cut dona pattal as well. I have never seen that machine though. But they buy dona-pattal from us only and when the leaves dry it is cut in the machine and sold. It sells for more prices,” mentions the old lady.

“I get so desperate even to have a pinch of tobacco. I am no more capable of earning. By the time there will be some good earning opportunity for us, I would be dead. The young generation might get some benefit,” she hopes.