Livelihood from Leaves

Sal leaves grow in abundance in the forest fringe areas of Purulia, Bankura and Jhargram districts of Bengal. Other than these 3 districts, Sal leaf based livelihood is also in place in Birbhum, Bardhhman and Paschim Medinipur districts of the state. This natural forest produce is a major alternate livelihood opportunity for the marginalized indigenous community but it is important to upgrade them with adequate skills and market linkage opportunities. Sal leaf plates are used in all districts as well as in other cities and towns of West Bengal. The increased global demand for all things natural has taken the humble Sal leaf plates to restaurants in far away Europe.

Women pick the leaves, stitch and mould Sal leaf plates and bowls. The process was all manual till very recently. Now the women have moulding machines to mould the plates and bowls and stitching machines to stitch the same. As a result these women from the indigenous communities are making these products in their self help groups and selling them in the local market. It is helping the women to support their families, their children’s education and ushering in a change story that is indeed heartwarming.

The craft of Sal leaf plate making has huge potential as its eco-friendly, cheap, light weight and a big booster for green economy.

Bounteous Forests

The humble Sal- found in abundance in forest fringe areas of the generously adorned forsets of West Bengal is now bringing about a silent revolution.

The results are: Women Empowerment, their increased mobility, poverty alleviation, youth are occupied.

In all a wave of innovation is slowly sweeping over the districts of 6 districts of West Bengal – Bardhhaman, Birbhum, Purulia, Bankura, Jhargarm and Paschim Medinipur where the grass grows in abundance.

These districts, known as the Jangalmahal area, have traditionally been deprived- water scarcity, scattered agricultural opportunities and extreme poverty. Livelihood opportunities are few and far between and the thick forest cover has effectively precluded any sustained form of industrial activity.

The crafts community, mostly comprising of women, who knew nothing beyond the periphery of their villages, could barely sign their names are now stepping, participating in fairs and festivals, earning a living as well as passing on their traditional skills to the younger generation. The paradigm shift of them contributing to the welfare of the families has inculcated in them self respect and pride.

Purulia is home to several indigenous communities such as Kurmis, Kherias-Sabars, Santhals etc. Culturally rich and diverse, Purulia district is the breeding ground of various art forms as well. Off late, the local festivals: Tushu, Bhadu, Gajan, Chhata Parab, etc. are attracting local people and outsiders alike.

Jhargram, a recently carved out district, is famous for its endowed forests, ancient temples, palaces, folk music and crafts. It is an ideal destination for individuals who love to bask in the pristine beauty of Nature.

Bankura attracts tourists for its rich bounty of Arts and Architecture: Terracotta temples, dense virgin forests and hills.

The flora and fauna of Paschim Medinipur, Birbhum and Bardhaman districts have been attracting tourists for long. With vibrant culture and popular local fairs and festivals these districts are melting grounds of cultural diversity.

The Making

The making of Sal leaves plates is quite a simple one. The leaves are selected and then picked or plucked from the trees. The picked leaves are checked and then partly dried in the sun. They are then set with tiny sticks, stitched and moulded

Collection of leaves: Sal leaves are collected mainly by women and children from the nearby forest areas and are sorted out in the village.

Stitching of Sal Leaves: The women attach the leaves with tiny sticks and make round plates. Two such plates are then sewn together. Then those plates are put to dry. The same process is followed for making bowls as well.

Molding: Once dried, plates are then put into a molding machine. Care should be taken so that every stitched Sal leaf gets equal heat and moulding and plates with elevated edge are curved out of stitched Sal leaves as a result of the molding process. Moulded plates are then checked for the finish and loose ends and thread are trimmed with a knife.

Packaging: Plates are then set in a bunch. Each bunch contains 30 plates. Such ten bunches of 30 plates each are made and finally packed in sacks. Thereafter these sacks are stitched and stored for the transportation.

Forest based Livelihood

The forest fringe community, working with Sal leaves and making Sal leaf plates, live in abject poverty. Most of them have no cultivable land; some are small time farmers and daily wage earners.

Salpata training has helped communities particularly women earn a living and live a better life. Women now can pay for their children’s education and other related expenses without having to depend on the men of their families.

In the last 2 years, around 1500 Self Help Groups and 15000 beneficiaries in the districts of Purulia, Bankura, Bardhaman, Birbhum, Paschim Medinipur and Jhargram have been trained to enhance their skills for stitching, moulding and packaging of Salpata plates and bowls. The artists are being provided with Sewing machines and Moulding machines for regular production and supply. As a result these women from the indigenous communities are making these products in their self help groups and selling them in the local market.

Success Stories

A Centre of Excellence on Sal leaves is being developed by West Bengal Khadi and Village Industries Board in Jhargram. Over and above, there are women collectives, SHGs, spread across the 6 districts and are working and producing Sal leaf plates and bowls.

Aranya Sundari