Living off leaves

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STATUS: Generates 2.5 million jobs in Orissa alone

POTENTIAL: High capacity for employment because India has several sal forests. Can generate another 2.5 million jobs in Orissa alone

HURDLE: Forest laws restrict plucking of leaves

For a mere Rs 300, 27-year-old Somnath Mohanta sells a cycle-load of sal (Shorea robusta) leaves to agent Kathia Naik. Mohanta is least concerned with how much money others will make from his efforts. He is only anxious to somehow earn Rs 1,500 in a month from the leaves he collects from the nearby forest to make ends meet. The leaves are processed into disposable cups and plates and sold all over the country.

After the transaction, which takes place in Mohanta’s thatched house in Jamuguda village of Mayurbhanj district in Orissa, Naik takes the leaves on his cycle to Betanati town, barely seven kilometres away. He will make a profit of about Rs 50 when he sells it to manufacturers of sal cups and plates.

At one such processing unit, owner Ambarish Mohapatra is busy doing some calculations. He’s satisfied to find he will make a profit of Rs 5-6 on every sack of leaf plates and cups he sells. The merchandise ends up in the godown of a businessman, who will send out truckloads on receiving “anonymous” calls from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, New Delhi or Haryana.

This is how the flourishing but unorganised sal leaf trade completes a full circle in one pocket of the forest-rich Mayurbhanj district. More than 1.2 million of the district’s 2.2 million people