Column: Sal Leaf Can Be An Effective Substitute For Plastic

By Ashutosh Mishra

Bhubaneswar: A section of the media has reported that Keonjhar district administration has decided to use sal leaf plates and disposable paper cups in a bid to reduce the consumption of plastic.

Sal leaf plates, popular known as “ khali”, have been part of socio-cultural life of Keonjhar and Mayurbhanj districts. They are used on festive occasions when large feats are organised. However, the arrival of plastic took its toll on the tradition and the use of ‘khali’ took a knock. Disposal plastic cups and plates have become fashionable.

The district administration’s move, thus, would not only ensure a healthy environment but also help restore the glory of an old tradition. More importantly it will boost the tribal economy as majority of sal leaf collectors happen to be scheduled tribe members.

For decades sal leaf has been a major source of income for forest dwellers in Odisha, especially in the districts of Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar, Kandhamal, and Nayagarh. Plates and cups made out of these leaves after primary level processing provides livelihood security to hundreds and thousands of tribals who inhabit forest villagers.

In some quarters there was a belief that commercial exploitation and unsustainable methods employed in the collection of Sal leaves was largely been responsible for gradual but consistent depletion of Sal forests in the state. Sal leaf was made a lease-barred item by the NTFP policy of March 2000 on grounds of sustainable forest management. The policy stated that Sal leaf collection on a commercial basis affected forest health and hence only in exceptional situations, government corporations and field outfits of Forest Department based on sound assessment of silvicultural scenario could be allowed to procure Sal leaves.

Though commercial exploitation of Sal leaf was the trade continued in a clandestine manner with government officials often conniving with businessmen. This happened on a largescale in districts like Mayurbhanj.

The policy obviously triggered resentment as it clashed directly with livelihood. Hence the focus shifted to finding a middle path whereby both livelihood and sustainability of forests could be protected. This was the path of controlled commercialisation.

Later restrictions on Sal leaf collection and trade were withdrawn locally in forest divisions like Baripada, Karanjia, Keonjhar and Nayagarh where Tribal Development Corporation and Odisha Forest Development Corporation were asked to procure Sal leaves through Van Suraksha Samitis.

Eversince there have been turns and twists in the story of sal leaf trade with private parties also playing a big role. What is important, however, is that forest dwelling tribals and even people residing close to the forests in districts like Mayurbhanj and Keonjhar have been making a living out of this trade. Even a factory for making plates out of sal leaves had been set up at a cost of Rs 20 lakh.

The trade, thus, has helped empower the tribal and opened an avenue for income generation. However, forest officials must ensure that the trade does not become an obstacle to forest protection and does not result in the degradation of forests. If that happens that will be an irreparable loss.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)