India's Tendu Gatherers Sing of Hunger and Work

Friday, June 24, 2011

Gathering tendu leaves for India's indigenous cigarettes is supposed to be supplemental work. But as these workers--most of them women--contend with a persistent drought, more families depend on minuscule earnings for survival.

NUAPADA, ORISSA, India (WOMENSENEWS)--Pahane Majhi, an elderly looking 55-year-old native of this district, gathers tendu leaves in the oppressive summer heat and sings a song:

"Chho chhoko, bhunji loka, patar tudle laagsi bhoka." In English that means: "We are Bhunj tribals; while plucking tendu leaves, we feel hunger."

The tendu tree-- really a large shrub--is plentiful in the forests of western and central Orissa, here in the eastern part of India. Its leaves are used to make "beedis" or indigenous cigarettes. It is one of the most important non-timber forest products in the region.

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Forest authorities say tendu leaf plucking provides part-time employment to millions of families across the state, with women the vast majority, or about 80 percent, of harvesters.

Pahane says for her family there is no other work to be had.

"There are just no employment possibilities in the village. My two sons have migrated with their families some months ago and haven't returned home. Now, I try to feed myself and my husband by doing this work. But I don't know for how long I can continue. I am getting old," she says.

One reason there is so little paid employment is that most farms in the area are run by families to feed just themselves.

"We do not get any work in the village except odd agricultural jobs," says subsistence farmer Hemant Majhi, who lives in the Bolangir district. But those agricultural jobs are limited, he says, because families like his own have small holdings that they cultivate themselves with the help of their family members.

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