Leaf Plates: A Sustainable Link Between Urban and Rural Populations

By Ranjit K Sahu, Sanjukta Panda and Ravi Shankar Behera

Leaves and leaf plates have been used as utensils from times immemorial  before the advent of disposable plastics. Plates/bowls made from leaves and leaves of  plantain/bananas  were the main serving surfaces during feasts and festivals in the Indian subcontinent. From the hills of north India to the plains of the south,  serving food on leaves and/or leaf plates is both a culture as well as norm during rituals and ceremonies. While  plantain leaves are commonly  used in the south, it is the leaves from trees and vines that are often stitched together into plates or containers and predominantly used in the north as well as  parts of the Deccan  plateau. The local  tribal populations involve in collection, manufacture as well as sale of the leaf plates to the Urban  and semi urban consumers.

In parts of Odisha,  Chhatisgarh, Maharashtra and other parts of the Deccan, the predominant source of such leaf plates and containers are Sal (Shorea robusta L.) a tree and siail (Bauhinia vahili L. ) a vine with big leaves. These two are found in the deciduous forests of the region and form an important source of income for the tribals especially women who engage in the manufacture of such plates. The wood as well as seeds of sal and seeds of sail have commercial values.  At times the twigs of sal trees are also used as tooth brushes.  Compared to fresh cut banana leaves, the leaf plates have better keeping quality and are easier to store. Also in terms of water consumption, banana plants require more water inputs (It is a different aspect that these can be an economic  byproduct from the banana farms). The various economic benefits of these two forest species should not being overlooked, the emphasis on propagation, maintenance, and protection of these in the hinterlands as sources of leaf plates is essential.

It is in the interest of both the environment as well as the local population to consume leaf based products instead of plastic utensils. Though plastics look lucrative and easy in terms of utilization but  their  use has  long term negative implications for economic and environment sustainabilty. Considering leaf products as inconvenience not only jeopardizes the new age mantra of “Made in India”  but unequivocally renders the efforts of developing local enterprises based on NTFPs ineffective.  This would render  the Forest rights advocacy meaningless. If forests do not supply products for consumption in a sustainable manner  and do not employ the forest dwellers in an economically sustainable manner, no amount of forest rights will ever empower these populations. Meagre noise and hullabaloo by so called activists may not have a net positive development effect in the tribal pockets if such small processes of providing sustainable means is not given due importance.

The tribal  areas have a positive attribute in that many places still have a healthy female to male ratio and by tradition women are involved in both the social and economic activities of the household.  Leaf plate/bowl manufacturing  is  a time  consuming activity but requires less physical labor making it  a suitable economic activity for  women. In effect it can help  to provide employment  for women with children or in family way who are restricted within four walls.

A visit to the local market in the town of Nabrangpur which traditionally sees both buyers and sellers of leaf plates actively engaged throughout the year in transactions showed that leaf plates are not being sold as a product in demand as earlier. Both the cost as well as the ability to procure, store and utilize leaf plates seems less attractive to the urban dwellers. However the urban dwellers need to be alerted about the plastic pollution in their neighborhood as well the possible consequences of consuming toxic plastic components indirectly and in a cumulative manner to help them understand the benefits of leaf plates, Leaf plates when disposed will ultimately help to add organic matter to the soil enriching it further while plastic will only add to misery of the soil systems.

Photos Coutrsey: Sudarshan Sahu & Dr.Sanjukta Panda

Rapid deforestation for  real estate, industries as well as a low demand have resulted in a low interest in production of leaf plates among tribal population. An area that witnesses heavy migration of rural population and laborers has an importance source of economic sustenance in the form of such leaf plates. It would not only help engage the male population in collection but also help women who stay back earn extra remuneration during seasons when active field labor is unavailable.

Efforts to help in increasing the cover under these species require out of the box thinking  among local authorities entrusted with the responsibility of clearing forests for other economic activities. Transplanting mature trees to other spots where they can be nurtured , a practice that is well prevalent in the western world to escape the long reiteration capacity of trees can be a feasible alternative. Similarly limiting economic activity inside forests where these sources of leaf plates exists can help protect the source of raw materials. The importance of these species to provide employment and economic support to large number of people as opposed to plantations where a few benefit can be driven home to gram panchayats.

There has been an increasing awareness of the health benefits of consuming food from leaf plates as compared to plastic in the western world with countries like Germany now interested in the procurement and production of such leaf plates, This opportunity should be well utilized to promote  leaf plate manufacturing in these areas and create a steady market for the product.

Urban dependency on rural resources is often based on the awareness among urbanites about health benefits of consumption of items procured from rural areas as opposed to imported stuff. Therefore while addressing the issues of increasing the production of leaf plates, it would be also wise to create a sustained market demand among urban population for the same.

Author Bio:

Dr. Sanjukta Panda,  is Head of Department of Education at Nabarangpur Women’s Degree College, she has active interest in social issues though she predominantly works in teaching and education.

Dr. Ranjit K. Sahu is a Research professional and freelance writer with over a decade of experience in biomedical research , currently located in Virginia, USA. His interests include education, environment, sustainability and health care in the underprivileged regions of the world.

Ravi Shankar Behera is a free lance consultant in the development sector and affiliated to several organizations, currently based in New Delhi.

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