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.

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.

Limited Wage Options

The only real chance for wage labor is when it’s time to transplant rice paddies.

That leaves tendu gathering as an important source of family income for some of the region’s poorest people, particularly when threats to family farming appear due to uncertain rainfall.

Radhanath Rout is a 55-year-old subsistence farmer in Nuapada. He says a persistent drought over the last few years turned all eight members of his family into tendu leaf gatherers. In the two months of April and May, they can together earn about $45.

Collecting tendu leaves is physically demanding. Gatherers must climb to the hilltops where tendu are found and work for five or six hours in the intense heat. They have no protection while they work; bears and wolves are known to attack.

Pahane says she barely manages to pluck one standard unit load of 2,000 leaves in a day. After she gets home she sits down to separate them into smaller bundles of 20 leaves, known as a "kerry." That sorting process can take two to three hours. Then comes the trip to market to deposit the leaves. For all of those 2,000 leaves she can expect to be paid less than $1.

A Tendu Plucker’s Day

Thirty-year old Subhadra Majhi, a mother of two who lives in Sinapali village in Nuapada, makes her way to the nearby tendu forest at around 5 a.m. every morning. She plucks leaves until 1 p.m., while carrying her infant.

Back home, she sorts the leaves–sometimes with the help of her husband–while serving the lunch she cooked the night before. At about five in the evening, she finishes with the bundles and makes her way to the market. Back home, she gets down to cooking the family dinner and the next day’s lunch.

She collects water in the mornings or on her way back from the market in the evening.

Purnami Majhi, 45, also from Sinapali village, has been plucking tendu leaves since she began accompanying her mother into the hilltops as an 8-year-old. In her husband’s home, all the women and children in the family go for plucking, although the men avoid it.

When asked why this is the case, Purnami smiles and says, "We have never asked them why."

Minketan Pradhan works in one of the markets, checking over the leaves that are brought in. He theorizes about why the work is mainly done by women.

"Plucking these leaves is a tedious job that demands a lot of patience. Each leaf has to be plucked, one by one, with care. This could be one of the reasons why men generally prefer to stay away," he says.

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This article is adapted from one that was released by the Women’s Feature Service. For more articles on women’s issues log on to:

Sarada Lahangir is an Orissa-based journalist. She wrote this article as part of the Panos South Asia fellowship on tobacco.