When I went to Muniguda, a sleepy-town in the foothills of the Niyamgiri mountains in Odisha, the cold October wind had engulfed the sleepy morning. Through the town, we passed into the dense forest range of the Niyamgiri. As we travelled through the forest, the winter seemed to be coming with us, turning the lush green trees a tangerine yellow.
This forest is home to the Dongria Kondh tribe. The tribe worships the forest as their God and has been tirelessly working to protect the mountain range. The mountain is their source of plenty - bringing them their livelihood. It bears them fruits, spices, mushrooms, pulses and oils.
The tribals gather the produce, come down the hills and sell it to the locals. In the pile of their goods, is one humble item that looks like a heap of leaves. The ubiquitous presence of these leaves made me think that maybe there was a significance attached to the leaves - maybe a medicinal value.
It was only after a few visits to local borrower homes across the town that I understood the real purpose of the leaves. I was told that these were siali leaves and they were used by the local entrepreneurs in Muniguda, some of them Milaap borrowers.
The Niyamgiri hill range and the large produce of Siali leaves
Anusaya is a member of the group, Kalijai. Anusaya and her fellow entrepreneurial members together took a loan to to develop their businesses. The woman of the group make plates from the Siali leaves. These plates are called patra siali in Oriya. “We buy a heap of these leaves at Rs 50-80 from the tribals. A single heap may contain upto 2,000 leaves,” Anusaya explains.
Sasmita Nayak, the president of the group, fills with pride when she gives more insight into their work. A single plate is made with 4-5 leaves put together sideways. The seams cover one another and are then stitched together with thin bamboo shaved sticks called 'lathi'. The leaves are pressed finely to give it a firm round shape. As I try my hand at making one of the plate, she warns me to be careful with the pointed bamboo sticks.
The women involved in the plate making process
These eco-friendly plates are in high demand during festivals when food is served in large numbers. Sasmita and her group produce 200-400 pieces of the leaf plates every day. The business loan helped the group members to stock up more raw materials and improve production.
Siali leaves are available only for four-six months a year, right before the winter. But the bounty is enough to last a year when stored properly. Siali creepers are found all about in the forest. The tribals protect and nurture them as they are the crucial source of their livelihood.
Another group named Gangotree are also involved in leaf plate making. The women bought solar lamps through their loan so they can continue working after dark. During rains and construction work, the power cuts get worse. On an average the locals have to face 1-3 hours of power cuts every day. One day of uninterrupted work helps them earn a good profit.
The members of the groups Kalijai and Gangotree
These disposable plates have many takers in the market. The local suppliers buy the plates from these women. A set of 2 plates at sells for a rupee. The women prefer selling the plates in a bulk pack of 180 pieces. Each bulk pack can sell for Rs 60-80, depending on the region they sell to. The plates are also sent to far off areas like Andhra Pradesh - where they are in demand.
The biodegradable plates are have more virtues than just being cheap. They are environment friendly and natural free from any toxic chemicals. Apart for being a much better replacement for the ordinary plastic and styrofoam plates, they are building a means of subsistence for women in the eastern ghats of Odisha.