Celebrating Mahua and livelihoods: How to reap benefits from Indian forests

A carpet of sweet yellow floral delights fill the grasslands. Village courtyards are packed with small and big cane baskets. An intoxicating aroma swells the air. And a camouflage of rusted brown leaves laced with sporadic Mahua beauties sprawl on the pathways. The Teak and Sal forests of central India are a treat to visit at this time of the year, especially during February through April.

If Semal (Cotton tree/Bombax Ceiba) and Flame of the forest (Palash tree/Butea Monosperma) are not enough that paint the skies with orange and vermillion, the resplendent Mahua (Madhuca longifolia) florets fill in the gap. A dry deciduous tree, Mahua, is largely concentrated in forest ranges of Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra and Bihar. Tribal communities such as Gond and Baiga tribes in Madhya Pradesh collect Mahua flowers, fruits, seeds and leaves during these months for their economic importance.

The Mahua economy

This survival tree has economic, cultural and geographical importance and dominates farm economy, as it is an important source of livelihoods to forest dwellers. During these months, men and women engage in seasonal employment as neither Rabi nor Kharif crop seasons (agriculture cycles are on during summer, and works related to MGNREGA, informal work such as construction or brick kilns are at peak. Consequently, Mahua flower and subsequently Tendu leaf (used in making Beedi) collection, in addition to other non-timber forest produce (NTFPs) provide means of alternate livelihoods to farmers before the onset of Kharif season.

Villagers start collecting these blooms full of sweet nectar, from February to April beginning as early as 4am and continuing till about 10am. A typical village household has courtyards full of Mahua blossoms, fresh and sun-baked, which women carefully pick and leave under the sun to dry. Since flowers and fruits are recognised as non- timber forest produce (NTFP), forest dwellers collect seeds and flowers, sell it to forest departments at a price set by them. Once the flower collection is over by April, the tree begins to bear fruits from May until June. Locally called ‘Gulli’, it is used to extract edible oil, which is also known for its bio-fuel properties, therapeutic qualities and economic value. Mahua leaves are used by villagers to prepare plates, cones and bowls that they sell and use during traditional festivities.

According to Tribal Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (TRIFED), the current market price in 2018 is between Rs 25-30 in Madhya Pradesh. According to the MP State Minor Forest Produce Department, Mahua fruit and its blossoms are classified under ‘other non-timber forest produce.’ On an average, each Mahua tree sheds over 200 kg and a household is able to make anywhere between Rs 1,000-2,000 annually, depending on how much one can gather and is able to sell. Similarly, price of Mahua seed fluctuates between Rs 15-16 per kg, with a Minimum Support Price (MSP) of Rs 20 per kg.

In order to facilitate collection of these humble forest produce, different state governments take initiatives through provision of Mahua nets so as to assist flower collection (flowers are not plucked and are gathered from earth, so nets make the collection process easier), construction of Mahua storage godowns and plantation of trees to empower tribal economies. Mahua, therefore, is a very important source of forest-based livelihoods with immense significance in socio-cultural norms of tribal societies.

From cultural reverence to alternate livelihoods

Several folk dances and songs celebrate the resplendent Mahua. Florets of the tree are preserved for festivals, important occasions and rituals. The tree is showered with prayers and love before the onset of flowering season and is culturally revered across tribes and states. Mahua blossoms are also preserved (using some special method so as to avoid fungal contamination), to be used as essential culinary ingredients for sweets such as flavourful Mahua ‘laddoo’, ‘halwa’ and ‘kheer’ prepared with sesame seeds, jaggery and other garnishings. Roti and sabzi made of these flowers are also fairly common delicacies. Sometimes rice is also boiled with Mahua flavours. Additionally, oils from the fruit have medicinal properties and Mahua oil cakes are used as eco-friendly manure.

In fact, realising its cultural and economic importance, forest departments of Maharashtra, Bihar and other state governments have ventured/explored into making jams, squashes, biscuits and jellies from these flowers, according to reports, thus taking the traditional tribal delicacies to the next level with good commercial scope. TRIFED mentions a tamarind Mahua candy and pickle that is being explored as well. Additionally, private organisations such as one, ‘Unexplored Bastar’ in Chhattisgarh boasts of a nutritious Mahua ‘laddoo’. Such initiatives aim at livelihood diversification while curbing menace from illegal consumption of local drinks made with flowers. What’s more, it also helps tribal economies flourish economically and builds rich cultural capital of indigenous communities dependent on modest forest wealth.

At this point it is important to note, that dry Mahua flowers have been used traditionally to make local drinks/country liquor through distillation, the process; and production, consumption, sales of which is capped by state governments (with some states even prohibiting it, according to reports) so as to avert any unwanted social consequences and promote healthy usage of these flowers. However, states have different policies and the excise policy of states govern these limits along with provisions of Panchayat Extension Scheduled Areas (1996) Act. For instance, making Mahua liquor is illegal in most states such as Chhattisgarh. But because of its traditional relevance, tribal homes in Bastar can keep upto five litres of Mahua at home meant for only consumption and not for sale (as cited in The Scroll by Arefa Johari and Ipsita Chakravarty, 2017). However, over time many states have regulated transactional exchanges in Mahua and started to focus more on alternate uses of Mahua.

Way forward

While the world observes International Day of Forests every year on March 21, commemorated by the United Nations, it is important to understand the role agroforestry can play — especially toward initiatives like doubling farm incomes by 2022, utilising the scope of non-timber forest produce and simultaneously contributing to green wealth under objectives of schemes such as Green India Mission and Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA). Similarly to promote alternated livelihoods gram haats, organisation of self-help groups and farmer producer groups can be encouraged further to increase herbal produce.

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