Name of NTFP: Sal leaf: Shorea robusta
Distribution in India: The Sal (Shorea robusta) tree belongs to the Dipterocarpaceae family and found in the forests of central and eastern parts of India. It is one of the 6 species found in India; worldwide there are about 160 species of Shorea. Sal is seen in India, up to the Himalayan foot hills; the southern boundary around Sukma in Chhattisgarh.
Trade: Sal leaves and seeds are among the widely traded NTFPs. The trade of sal leaves originated from a small village in Odisha. Sometime in 1965 a trader from Betnoti, in Mayurbhanj district, started the business of sal cups (dona) which were round in shape. This product became popular in Bihar, Bengal and Delhi. In 1973, another trader innovated the molding machine for leaf-up making and subsequently the market for pressed cups grew and many more traders got involved in this business. By late ‘70s the product got popularity in the northern Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and UP, and different dyes[M1] in the machine began to fulfil the need for new designs of cups and plates. As the demand for sal-leaf plates and cups increased during 1980s, the leaf collection and plate making spread to other districts of Odisha like Balasore, Keonjhor, Nayagarh, Deogarh, Phulbani, etc. At the same time trading activities expanded to undivided Singbhum district of Jharkhand and undivided Midnapur district in West Bengal. Now, these cups and plates are transported to all major cities of the country and the products are used in eateries, temples and used during ceremonies. By 2003, researchers estimated that the sal leaf business was worth one thousand crores (126 million euros).
In 2017, the sal leaf business observed little growth in trade. In many Indian cities and states the use of Styrofoam and plastic plates are banned and at the same time the awareness about the ill effects of plastic materials is growing. Again, there is growing demand for sal leaf plates and cups which brings in hope among the tribal people and the local traders.
Uses: Tribal people use sal leaves in many ways. Platters and leaf cups are fashioned from the leaves; they are also used as a layer in rain-hats, especially during the weeding season in the monsoon. The collection of sal leaves for income is an age-old practice, particularly in the northern part of Odisha. Sal leaf products (cups, platters) are prepared by stitching leaves together with bamboo splinters. The leaf collectors are primarily women. The products include the “khali” (plates) made from 7-8 leaves, and the “dwiparti”, items made from 2 leaves. The festivals and rituals very often are observed according to the availability of sal leaf in the region.
Status: Sal is the dominant species in the central and eastern Indian forests.
Policies: The government of Odisha restricted sal leaf collection during January to March and July to September as the tree is vulnerable during these periods. The government of India included sal leaf in its Minimum Support Price programme and increased its price by 14% (from Rs 21-24/kg. However, there is little chance of the tribal people to benefit from this programme as the leaf is collected and sold in numbers (primary collectors are not acquainted with the practice of selling in weight). After public demand the GST from sal leaf has been scrapped recently. Similarly, the government of Odisha declared in January 2019 that sal leaves were exempt from royalty, which was Rs 72/100 kg.
Ecology: The tree belongs to the family of Dipterocarpaceae; the genus Shorea comprises of 357 species, some of which are the most important timber species in the tropics, mostly of the rainforest. Sal in India is found in the moist tropical belt and the tree is evergreen with associates such as Anogeissus, Terminalia, Diospyros, Mangifera, Dillenia, Bridelia, etc. Nurseries and plantations have usually been unsuccessful. Pollination of the flowers is by insects or it is cross-pollinated.
Other facts: Sal occupies a significant place both in the ecology and economy of the adivasi people and plays a crucial role in their cultural life. The beginning of the flowering season of the sal tree is celebrated as phul puja “flower puja” or, as they say in Santali,“bahaparab”. For the ceremonial fire small pieces of sal-wood fuel is used.
The dependency of the villagers on the sal leaf as an important means of livelihood was one of the driving forces that initiated a community-centred and community-owned forest conservation movement. The movement that began in the late ‘70s and spread to hundreds of villages in Odisha and led to employment-generation and benefits to millions but also had good environmental consequences. The bio-degradable leaf plates and cups minimized the garbage pressure of the cities and tourist places across the country.