JAMMU: Family of Pritam Kumar, 26, in the hard-to-reach and hilly Phawwara area of Nallah Mallia’n Village in Ramnagar Tehsil of Udhampur District, has so far not collected Gucchi or Morchella mushrooms from their nearby forests this year. Reason: last year their around half Kg wild produce didn’t get any buyer due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and the travel and market opening restrictions thereof.
“Until 2020, we used to sell our produce to the local traders at the rate of Rs 10000-15000 per kg. But last year, some of the people in our area sold their collection at the rate of meager Rs 3000-3500 to the local buyers owing to the reason that even the latter (local traders) were not sure whether they’ll get any buyer in the cities. So they purchased the produce at lesser rates,” says Pritam.
Gucchi or morels or Morchella mushrooms, found on the foothills of Himalayas, are one of the world’s costliest mushrooms. They’re considered to be good for the heart as they are rich in potassium, vitamin D, and copper. In India’s metropolitans like Mumbai and Delhi, one kilogram of Gucchi costs around Rs 30000-40000 per kg.
“Since 2020, I have been hoping that the price of ‘one of the costliest mushrooms of the world’ will go up someday. But it didn’t happen till May 2021. So this year, my family cooked and consumed the wild mushrooms they had collected last year,” Pritam further says.
His (Pritam’s) father, Subash Chander, 50, says, “I have three children—Pritam Kumar, 26; Baldev Kumar, 24, and Vipan Kumar, 19—all unemployed.”
“Our main source of earning until the preceding year, 2020, was two shops we’d hired on rent in Katra, Reasi—the town where the shrine of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi is located. But after the lockdown was imposed, we—all the four male members of the family—became jobless,” the middle-aged man says.
Three women in Subash’s family, his wife—Makhnu Devi (45), his daughter-in-law, Sushma Devi (23), and his mother, Punni Devi (75)—perform only household chores.
Not only has the pandemic left the family of Subash unemployed by shutting their shops in Katra but it has snatched from them their option of earning from their backyard forests.
Subash’s and other families in Nallah Malliya’n Village would also sell the wild Banafshas or sweet violets or wood violets or Viola odorata (scientific name) and Centella Asiatica (scientific name) commonly known as Brahmi-one of the most revered plants in Indian system of medicines, to earn some income during the sowing of paddy and maize crops.
“But this year, we have been badly hit by the pandemic,” Punni Devi, mother of Subash Kumar says with tension visible on her face.
It is worth mentioning here that the Department of Forests leases out the forest stretches to people on royalty to collect the wild products. Collecting and selling wild products without the prior permission of the Department of Forests is illegal in Jammu and Kashmir.
According to the Global Forest Goals Report 2021, which was released by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations recently, some 1.6 billion people worldwide depend directly on forests for food, shelter, energy, medicines, and income. The report also claimed that of the extreme poor in rural areas, 40% live in forest and Savannah areas, and approximately 20% of the global population, especially women, children, landless farmers, and other vulnerable segments of the society look to the forests to meet their food and income needs.
In Jammu region’s hilly Basantgarh area as well, where the wild products grow in abundance, Kewal Krishan, 40, says: “In our belt, people are having tough times in selling their wild produce, particularly Gucchis, Banafshas and Fiddlehead.”
He explains: “Earlier people used to sell their produce in local shops or to traders at the Tehsil headquarters in Ramnagar or directly in the Mandis at the District headquarters in Udhampur or Jammu. But since transport is off the roads, business establishments are shut, people have no option but to dump their produce.”
What is the overall scenario in J&K?
In the Union Territory of J&K, forests account for 47% of the geographical area. As per the census of 2011, over 12% population of the Union Territory is tribal, which, by and large, rely on forests for sustenance and generation of income either through the sale of dairy or wild products.
Ravi Kalsotra, a prominent trader of Jammu and Kashmir, who used to purchase the wild produce in bulk from villages and later sell the same either in the spice market of New Delhi, Mandis in Amritsar and Jammu or to private traders across the country, says: “Our trade has hit an all-time low.”
“90-95% people who would either sell us their wild produce directly or to the local shopkeepers in their villages, have not sold anything this year,” he says.
He attributed the massive losses this year among other reasons to the strike announced by local transporters and general travel curbs in view of the law enforcement during the COVID pandemic.
Pertinently, on April 21 this year, TS Wazir, Chairman All J&K Transport Association, had announced that no vehicle shall be allowed to ply on J&K roads until and unless the J&K government withdraws a “controversial order” that allowed movement of vehicles with “only 50% passengers”. To date, the Jammu and Kashmir government has failed to convince the transporters to resume the transport in the UT, hence problems to the people, particularly in the hilly regions.
As per a rough estimate, Kalsotra says around 100000-1,20,000 people in Jammu and Kashmir rely only on the sale of wild commodities, particularly Gucchi, other wild mushrooms, Anaardaana, wild garlic, Amlook (Date plum), Banafsha, Brahmi, Kasrod (Fiddlehead fern), natural incense among other wild products, for earning the daily bread.
“And this year, these people (referring to those collecting and selling the wild produce) and their family members are in stress as the government is not reaching out to them,” he adds.
Why have these people not jumped the ‘sell it online’ bandwagon?
Journalist Pallavi Sareen, who writes for The Wire and heads The Straight Line, a digital media platform in Jammu and Kashmir, attributes to lack of knowledge amongst the Pahari people (those who reside in mountains) about the government’s welfare programmes and governments’ and the community leaders’ “abject failure” in putting these people in touch with the e-commerce conglomerates like Amazon and Flipkart.
“These are the times when most people are doing businesses through an android phone and internet. Here comes the role of government officials and community leaders to sensitize these people about how they can sell their produce directly to the consumers,” Pallavi suggests further.
What are the government’s plans?
A senior J&K government official said on condition of anonymity: “Due to the travel issues this year, people selling the wild products have definitely got affected.”
“Earlier, we used to facilitate the sale of their produce in government Mandis or by putting them in touch with some private players who would purchase their produce in bulk. But we’re planning something for them and very soon, their problems would be mitigated.”
Where is the solution?
According to Pallavi, during the first wave of the pandemic, tribal Gujjar community members in Jammu and Kashmir had a tough time selling their milk and milk products as people were boycotting them (Gujjars) fearing that they might be the potential carrier of COVID.
“At that point, the government facilitated the tribal people and some social organizations also intervened. Only after their efforts, the milk produced in bulk by the J&K’s herding community was procured by a dairy. If a similar mechanism is established where the government could procure or facilitate the procurement of wild produce, the people in need could be helped.”