Transforming the lives of Tribal Women through Lac

Socially excluded households from rural areas have very limited opportunities to improve their livelihoods. They are inhibited by their socio-economic status, their small and underproductive landholdings as well as the pronounced lack of systems that permit access to inputs, credit or market services. Livelihood interventions for Socially Excluded Groups (SEGs) need to address the twin challenge of bridging the resource gap as well as the tougher task of alleviating the discrimination SEGs face in accessing resources, inputs and assets.

This is what PACS, an initiative of the UK Government’s Department for International Development [DFID] has been implementing in partnership with civil society organisations in 90 districts across 7 states namely Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. PACS empowers socially excluded groups (SEGs) – Scheduled castes, Scheduled tribes, Muslims, Women and People living with disabilities to claim their rights and entitlements in an effective manner, so that they receive a fairer share of India’s development gains.

Here is how PACS worked with Udyogini, a women livelihoods building organisation, to develop an inclusive business model for tribal women producers through Lac. [This is a Sattva-written in-depth case study for PACS in 2014.]

‘Lac’, a resinous secretion from a scale insect called Lac Insect (Laccifer Lacca) feeding on host trees like Kusum, Palash and Ber that are found in abundance in main forests in India, is one of nature’s most valuable gifts. Processed Lac has a dizzying number of uses in industries that span from aircrafts to confectionary, food products, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, paints, varnishes, electrical insulation and even in the food industry as an accepted shinier coating for fruits.

Lac and other Non-timber Forest Produce (NTFP) play a significant role in the lives and livelihoods of the indigenous populations that live inside dense forests spread across the country. In India, for example, more than 30 million people are employed in the non-timber forest product sector.

NTFP also plays an important role in the sustainable management of forests by tribals who seek produce for consumption and sale as well as fuel and fodder and have an intimate understanding and respect for the social and ecological importance of forests. Yet, the tremendous livelihood enhancement potential for socially excluded tribal populations through resources like Lac is completely underutilised due to the great distance that separates these people from the markets that currently import raw Lac to feed their processing units.

The Challenge: Creating a Sustainable Source of Livelihood for Tribal Communities

The tribal communities in Gumla and Jharkhand are disadvantaged due an inherent lack of knowledge of contemporary cultivation practices, low literacy levels, limited access to organised markets coupled with deep-rooted cultural biases that challenge any improvement over basic sustenance. Women in these tribal families play key roles in agriculture and forest produce collection yet have remained invisible due to gender based cultural norms, physical limitations and male dominated market systems. Women are involved in all parts of the Lac extraction process, from scraping Lac with their primitive tools to sorting impurities in winnowing baskets and processing the Stick Lac. Yet, women have traditionally been associated with all the low-end processes and are completely disconnected from the trading of lac.

Their lack of scientific knowledge, low awareness on how to operate in and negotiate markets as well as the absence of organising structures that can ensure long-term support from government has led to women being unable to get back value from Lac and become contributors to the household income.

The Opportunity: Lac for sustainable livelihoods

A highly remunerative crop, Lac prices are set globally and can bring significant economic returns to growers, processors and the industry. Lac has the potential to serve as a sustainable source of employment and subsistence for farmers besides playing a vital role in environmental conservation.

Being the largest producer of Lac, India contributes about 70% of the world’s needs for the resin. The domestic demand for Lac is only 30% of overall production6 giving significant scope for exports: in 2012-13, the total export of Lac and its value added products was 4,362 tons and valued at INR 4,803 million.

Jharkhand has the largest number of host trees and ranks first in the country in the production of Lac – out of the 20,000 tons of Lac produced in India in 2013, 11,000 tons came from Jharkhand alone. Yet, there is a current gap of 21% between demand and supply, which can potentially employ at least 0.3 million more producers in the State.

Women’s role in Lac has traditionally been restricted to post-harvest work like preparing bundles and taking them to local markets. Despite contributing to over 50% of the labour, women’s work has always been undervalued as they are only peripherally involved when it comes to final quality of produce.

Gumla being the third leading district in Jharkhand in terms of the number of trees and production potential presents a unique opportunity to revive Lac as a livelihood means for socially excluded communities and women producers by establishing a wholly integrated inclusive value chain in an area where cultivation stopped more ten years ago due factors such as climate change, unsustainable production practices and lack of scientific knowledge and access to profitable markets.

Implementation Model: the PACS-Udyogini Lac livelihoods project

The project in Gumla works based on a partnership between PACS and Udyogini, a social organisation with over two decades of experience in providing business development services to poor women in the backward and remote regions of India. Udyogini facilitates the development of agriculture, non-timber forest produce, artisan and service retail micro-enterprises where women are not only producers but also managers and entrepreneurs involved in a variety of value-added tasks.

To revive Lac in the region and bring about participation of women in Gumla, Jharkhand, a 5-step model is implemented that encompasses the entire value chain – from skill development for women to helping them assume strategic positions through service provision and entrepreneurship. In the PACS area, the livelihood model has established the following:

Creating skilled women producers for Lac

Introducing scientific Lac cultivation: One of the foremost innovations in the Lac program has been the Package of Scientific Cultivation of Lac (PSCL) developed with the help of scientists from the Indian Institute of Natural Resins and Gums (IINRG) to overcome uncertainties due to climate conditions and ensure uniformity of cultivation through Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

Accessible tools for women: Earlier the women could not participate in pruning due to a heavy, blunt axe; secateurs are medium-sized scissors that they can handle deftly.

Flemingia Semialata, the women-friendly tree: Climbing trees that were more than 10- 15 feet in height to inoculate and harvest Lac has been a huge hurdle for women – many of them were forced to depend on men to harvest their produce. In Gumla, semialata, a short bush (natively from Assam) is being used for cultivation – It grows only to 6 feet in height, matures much faster and gives significantly more returns than Palash or Ber.

Creating an ecosystem for proliferation and scale: brood farms, BDSPs and the community exchange model

Ensuring a regular supply of brood through Brood Farms: While the PSCL helps increase the productivity of the Lac crop itself, host trees take 3-5 years to get cultivation ready, necessitating the bringing in of brood farms to ensure long term sustainability. In Gumla, the PACS project has identified 40-50 trees of good quality close to each other and encouraged the households owning this land to develop ‘brood farms.’

Business Development Service Provider (BDSP): Quality production requires constant follow-up and a trusted member of the local community who can promote the model, facilitate reliable supply and develop crucial linkages with the ecosystem. Business Development Service Providers (BDSPs) from the community are the key to proliferation of the Lac model and scaling it across the region.

“In Jharkhand, we found Lac to be the most lucrative means of livelihood, yet the most deficient in terms of quality and technological applications in the face of newer challenges like climate change and disruptive insurgency. The PACS project has given us the opportunity to work in Gumla with women producers from the excluded communities. It gives us confidence to attempt innovative long-term solutions.”

– Dr. Vanita Vishwanath, former CEO, Udyogini.

Development of fair markets

The Lac market is fraught with price unevenness and a complete lack of platforms where women can negotiate their produce or make value-added products.

To ensure fair returns, women are being taught in Gumla, through regular awareness sessions and baithaks, to refrain from distress sales, to keep back produce for subsequent seasons and to go only through trusted sellers.

To enable business activity around Lac, selected women have been trained in a standardised entrepreneurship curriculum and taught how to set up small service stores called Village Level Service Centres (VLSCs). VLSCs are ‘village level’ market and livelihood hubs which serve as a one-stop local aggregation, value addition centre and fair-price shop for NTFPs and agri-products.

Why the Lac Livelihood project is so unique

The PACS project in Gumla has undertaken several new initiatives to provide a platform for women producers from socially excluded communities to take up Lac production.

Revival of a traditional livelihood: Lac has the potential to significantly increase the income of producers belonging to the socially excluded tribal communities in a short period of cultivation and harvest of six months. It leverages the inherent skill of the tribal communities to revive a way of livelihood that has huge market value and potential to scale.

Establishing a strategic role for women in Lac: Through a women-friendly value chain, that has introduced flemingia semialata and other innovations in production, aggregation, value addition and marketing, the model enables more women to take up Lac production, enabling them to be contributors to the household incomes for the first time in the area. Going beyond inclusion, the model also allows women to take up strategic roles across the value chain and tap into their entrepreneurial ability and interest, through on-field training, promoting Lac SHGs, creating Village Level Service Centres and forming women co-operatives.

Creation of community owned and managed village service hubs: The Village Level Service Centres provide a model for creating self sustaining local enterprise that help women realise the market value in their produce as well as provide a hub for the introduction of several other beneficial products and services.

Envisioned Impact of the project
The PACS-Udyogini Lac inclusive livelihoods project leverages the local population’s inherent skills in Lac to create a sustainable and equitable value chain that can integrate into mainstream markets. While the project is catering to 8,000 women producers, the institutions established through the model like the VLSC and the BDSPs can help percolate the impact to various neighbouring regions.

How to Reach

By Air:
Ranchi is the nearest airport which is located 97.6 kms far and it takes nearly two hours to reach Gumla city from the airport. If one is driving down from the Birsa Munda Airport, Ranchi, one can take the NH 23 head towards Kathal More, after crossing Dharamshalla to the left, after driving about 85 kms one can reach the city limits of Gumla. State-run non-stop buses too are available from the ITI bus stop of Ranchi.

By Rail:
Gumla does not have a railway station of its own. Nearest railway stations located closer to Gumla are Bano Railway Station, which is located 56 kms from Gumla city, the other one is at Ranchi which is around 100 kms from Gumla.

A tourist after alighting at Bano can catch a bus or take a cab and drive down NH23, pass the Kolebira Hospital and then take a left turn after crossing State Bank of India to reach Gumla.

A tourist opting to alight at Ranchi railway station can take an auto or a local bus to ITI bus stand in Ranchi and from there board any bus to Gumla. Generally these buses run non-stop from Gumla and the frequency of buses too is more.

By Road:
Gumla lies on NH 23. But if one is driving down from Ranchi then one can also reach Gumla via NH 75 and it takes nearly two hours to reach the city. For either of the national highways one needs to take a left turn after crossing Dharamshalla to reach the city.

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