Surrounded by mountains and dense forest, Titahi Tola in Chanaro village, Churchu, Jharkhand is home to Parwati Tudu, her husband, Cheto Manjhi, and their three children. Traditional methods of cultivation on their 1.5 acres of land did not provide them with enough to meet their needs. So, they supplemented their income through pig rearing, while Ms Tudu also worked as a daily wage labourer in a local brick factory. Despite all this, the family continued to live in dire poverty. It was difficult to manage two square meals a day, let alone dream of an education for their children. The family would have been in trouble if not for a serendipitous intervention.
Through a self-help group, Ms Tudu came into contact with the Churchu Nari Urja Farmer Producer Company Ltd. (CNUFPCL), which is supported by the Tata Trusts’ Collective for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives’ (CInI). CNUFPCL introduced Ms Tudu to CInI’s Lac Programme, a part of the Trusts’ larger ‘Lakhpati Kisan’ initiative.
Empowering tribal women to become productive members of society
Sirshendu Paul, Regional Manager, Tata Trusts, says, “With its singular, large-scale focus on women farmers from scheduled castes and tribes, the Lakhpati Kisan initiative is a concerted effort to fight institutionalised oppression, empower tribal women to become leaders in their community institutions and help them bridge the gender and caste gap. It is part of a convergent ecosystem where multiple stakeholders including communities, governments and private sector players align towards the common goal of making a sustainable difference in the lives of disadvantaged communities in the region. A majority of the programme’s participants are tribal women with small land holdings.”
Thus, the programme places women at the centre of its strategy, planning, implementation and monitoring. It includes them in decision making and execution and ensures that they are equipped with the relevant skill sets and knowledge to sustain the initiative at the end of the five-year intervention period. In Jharkhand, for instance, women have begun playing a dominant role in the largely agrarian state where livelihoods depend on agriculture.
How lac supplements rural livelihoods in India
The cultivation of lac, a high-value non-timber forest product, has been a traditional practice and a significant source of income for approximately 4-6 million households in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. The product, used in paint, electrical, automobile, cosmetic, adhesive, leather, wood furnishing and other industries, is produced from a resin secreted by the insect Laccifer Lacca, which inhabits the twigs of specific host plants like Ber, Kusum and Palash.
To cultivate this resin, a stick that contains eggs ready to hatch is tied to the tree to be infested. When the eggs hatch, the tree is colonised by thousands of lac insets which secrete the resinous substance. The branches coated with this resin (called ‘sticklac’) are cut and harvested, crushed and sieved to remove impurities, and then washed to remove insect parts and any other foreign material. The resulting product, known as ‘seedlac’ is processed into shellac by heating or by solvent extraction.
Mr Paul adds, “With its cultural heritage, rich natural resources, greenery and eco-friendly environmental practices, Jharkhand provides much scope for lac cultivation; indeed, it is the country’s biggest lac producing state. Through its work with Jharkhand’s rural tribal communities, CInI’s Lac Programme aims to foster a three-part ‘Lac-Value Chain Market’. These comprise: lac/laah cultivation by the farmers; lac processing to get the raw material for jewellery; and lac jewellery and handicraft-making. To that end, short exposures to training as well as training camps were conducted to introduce farmers to scientific methods of lac farming.”
This training helped the women develop their skills in cultivating both Kusumi lac and Rangini lac. Kusumi lac is cultivated bi-annually, in two cycles of six months each on Kusum and Ber trees. Rangini lac is cultivated on the Palash and Ber trees. Farmers are assisted to obtain good quality brood lac and trained to cultivate them for a higher yield maintaining proper package of practices (PoP). Once inoculation takes place following a major PoP, lac can be harvested in six months, depending on the production.
Despite the risks involved, farmers were mostly enthusiastic and 1048 potential lac farmers were groomed in the five-year period. The cultivation of Kusumi and Rangini lac in two cycles or seasons has generated a new source of income for farmers in the area.
Ms Tudu, who also attended one such training and exposure visit for lac cultivation, says, “I decided to begin lac cultivation by planting seven Kusum trees in the forest near my village. My first year of engagement netted an additional income of Rs12,300 from just lac cultivation.”
Giving lacquer artisans a platform to learn and earn
“Lac cultivation is not the only alternative source of income offered under this initiative. CInI also set up a lac processing unit at Kajri village in collaboration with CNUFPCL. The harvested branches are scrapped at this processing unit regulated by a village organisation called Anjana, either manually or with the help of a scrapper machine, and graded. Depending on market demand, the scrapped lac is sold via the FPC, or is washed, winnowed and stored for future sales,” says Mr Paul.
What’s left of the processed lac is further processed by the FPC, which employs tribal women to make jewellery and artifacts. This provides a secondary source of income, further raising the morale of the women who were previously unable to provide for themselves or their families.
In October 2017, four experts from a partner organisation trained 25 tribal didis as lac artisans through a 15-day training programme. Post-training, a lac bangle unit was inaugurated in Kajri so the didis could begin manufacturing lac bangles.
CNUFPCL played a lead role in the aggregation, scouting for the best quality raw materials from Kolkata, which were centrally purchased and provided to the lac bangle unit. A lac bangle entrepreneur was also trained to establish the business.
In January 2018, lac artisans participated in the Saras Mela at Morabadi Maidan, Ranchi, selling bangles worth Rs48,000. In April that same year, a handicraft mela at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, netted the artisans Rs24,000. Trainers from Khunti district gave the didis a refresher course in December 2018.
In January 2019, CNUFPCL hired a designer from the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) to assess the quality of the lac products and discuss how they could be marketed on different platforms. The designer was also responsible for the building the artisans’ capacity, providing support, introducing new verticals and products apart from bangles, and grading the different products. The artisans were soon making pen stands, flowerpots, statues, idols, photo-frames, etc.
Mr Paul says with pride, “The diversity in products gave CNUFPCL a platform to demonstrate the artisans’ skill on different crafts platforms like exhibitions, stalls, melas, etc., selling approximately Rs90,000 worth of products in 2019-2020. By selling these products during Diwali and Chhath Puja, the organisation netted a further Rs60,000 between April and December 2020. Further progress has been made in 2021. A Lac Handicrafts e-Catalogue has been designed and printed, to create an identity for artisans on various stakeholder and social media platforms. Three new handicrafts units also are yet to set up, employing 45 artisans who have been trained to work on Garam Lah, another variety of lac.”
Turning rural women into lac entrepreneurs
The impact has been both real and visible. CNUFPCL has created employment opportunities for forty-five rural women in their own village. Two of them, Rani Pradhan and Reena Pradhan, have become master trainers themselves, providing training to other didis and newcomers. Their daily production of lac products includes 40 sets of bangles and other handicrafts and utility items.
But CInI’s Lac Programme is not resting on its laurels; the aim is to generate employment opportunities through artisanal work for 100 rural women, who are either landless or reverse migrants. The programme is also hoping to link lac products to different retail platforms like Amazon and Flipkart. The diversification of products and their aggregation with the help of a designer, depending on customer demand, is in the pipeline. Going forward, they also hope to establish lac products as a separate business vertical of the FPC, with a target of Rs1,000,000 as annual turnover.
Overwhelmed by her family’s success, Ms Tudu says, “Over the years, I have been able to increase my income from lac cultivation to over Rs65,000 a year in 2019-20. My husband has also diversified into lac entrepreneurship, and now sells good quality brood lac, further augmenting our household income.”
CInI’s Lac Programme is helping tribal women like Ms Tudu in India’s central belt to become decision makers in farm management and marketplaces, and overcome oppressive barriers of caste and gender in the process.