Another non-starter

The government seems to have failed to realise the futility of raising the minimum support prices (MSPs) of crops without their effective enforcement. It has now hiked the floor prices of several minor forest products and added17 more items to the forest produce covered under the market support scheme. This move, too, is likely to provide only cold comfort to the forest-dwelling tribes who rely heavily on income from minor forest produce. Coming soon after the drubbing the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) received in the tribal-dominated areas in the recent Assembly elections, this move is bound to be viewed as a political gesture to win back the support of forest-dependent communities ahead of the Lok Sabha polls due later this year. But whether this objective will be served is uncertain, given that the similar massive hikes in the procurement prices of agricultural crops had failed to yield any political dividends in the Assembly polls because of poor implementation.

Though the MSP system for minor forest produce was introduced by the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in the last year of its tenure and has been carried forward by the present National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, it has remained virtually a non-starter since inception. Hardly 25 per cent of the Rs 1,172 crore earmarked by the Centre for this programme in the past five years has been released to the states. Worse still, the bulk of even the disbursed funds has remained unutilised. None of the major forested states has submitted the audited report on funds utilisation. 

The minor forest resources, such as mahua, tejpatta, wild honey and similar others, which have been made freely accessible to forest-dwellers under the Forest Rights Act, have several industrial, therapeutic and cosmetic uses. However, the tribals, who gather them from the woods, do not get the fair remuneration for these articles as they normally have to sell them at meagre rates at local haats dominated by cartelised traders and contractors. Some state governments have acquired monopolistic marketing rights on the much sought-after forest products such as tendu leaves, bamboo, tamarind and others. But, the state agencies nominated to lend price support often prefer to buy the stuff from middlemen rather than creating the infrastructure for procuring it directly from individual collectors. Besides, they also do not pay the MSPs even though the Centre is supposed to bear 75 per cent of the losses incurred on such operations. Odisha, one of the few states which have opted to implement the MSP scheme for selected forest products, is also reported to be considering to discontinue it because of the heavy financial burden. Thus, for all practical purposes, the collectors of the minor forest produce are at the mercy of middlemen.

The need, therefore, is for well-advised marketing reforms in this sector aimed specifically at ending the middlemen’s stranglehold over the minor forest produce trade. Equally important is to encourage direct linkages between forest produce gatherers and end-users of these products, largely the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and food-processing industries. Unless that is done, the mere fixing of MSPs for the minor forest produce will be of little avail.

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