By Pooja Yadav
Khandu Suhane (56) a resident of Basner Kalan village of Betul district in Madhya Pradesh, inherited from his father the art of making dona-pattal, and he worries that this art is the only thing that he will be able to leave behind for his future generations.
‘I have spent my life making pattals. Now, my wife, son and daughter-in-law are also involved in this work. We not only sell our products locally but also to some areas in Maharashtra…’ he tells 101Reporters.
‘You hear people saying that dona-pattal is eco-friendly and it is a great alternative to plastic but you never see anyone do anything to promote it or even try to find out the hard work that goes into making it. The orders that we get are also infrequent and when we get them we have to work through the day and night to fulfil it,’ he adds.
Dona pattal is made from the leaves of all-weather creepers mahur or Bauhinia Vahlii, which thrive in the forests of Madhya Pradesh.
‘We have to wake up early in the morning to go to the forest to pluck them by hand to ensure that they do not break. In the forest, we are alone, traversing tricky terrain amid fear of wild animals. Crossing through shrubs we often wound ourselves. If the creeper has reached a height with the aid of the tree there is fear of falling and slipping. All of this we have to do no matter what the weather is,’ he says.
No leaves for this art
According to Suhane, his family of four can together make 1,000 pattals or 1,000 donas in a day. ‘The number varies on the availability of leaves. Four to seven leaves are used for the small pattal or dona and six to eight for the big pattal. For 1,000 pattals, I get Rs 1,200 and for 1,000 dona it is somewhere between Rs 400 to 800,’ he says.
‘If the cost of transport and packaging is included we manage to make a profit of Rs 800 on every 1,000 dona-pattal,’ he says.
Suhane is worried that his marginal profits are also at risk due to increasing difficulty in procuring Bauhinia Vahlii leaves. ‘The forests are shrinking and the existing ones see frequent fires in the summer due to which leaves are not easily available,’ he adds.
Mulla Singh Kakodia, from Baghwad says that earlier the leaves were available easily. ‘You could get ample leaves, even for big orders, nearby,’ he says.
‘If the leaves are exhausted in surrounding forests, one has to go to nearby forests like Sawalmendha forest, Jaridhama near Khedisaoligarh, Tahali, Kumhali, Bhimpur forest, Badgaon near Bhainsdehi, Kaneri, Koylari — all about 50-70km away. The cost of travel is not included in our profit,’ Suhane adds.
According to environment expert Rashid Noor Khan, a resident of Bhopal, forest fires are prevalent in this area during the summer season. After harvesting rabi crops, farmers usually set fire to their fields which ends up spreading in the forest area…”
Betul Chief Conservator of Forests Praful Fuljhele explains that instances of forest fires tend to occur during the summer months, prompting efforts by forest department ground staff to contain them. ‘Given the expansive forested area and challenges associated with round-the-clock monitoring, we also depend on forest committees and social information systems. These tools, while not pre-emptively prevent fires, aid in post-fire reporting and facilitate prompt local responses to control the blaze if you see in comparison to other districts, Betul has experienced relatively fewer fire incidents.’
Regarding the decline in mahur trees — an environmental concern in the area — Fuljhele highlights that their reduction stems not solely from fires but also from the impact of climate change. Talking about the assistance extended to families engaged in eco-friendly pattal-dona production, he says that forest access has never been restricted and will continue to remain unrestricted to the village residents.
Need government support
‘The real work starts once we get the leaves. Sometimes we start working at 5 am and only get up to eat lunch and dinner. There are times when we have worked till 2 to fulfil the orders. I remember stopping only when I could not keep my eyes open and the back pain was getting unbearable. We are not machines, but we work like one…’ Suhane tells 101Reporters, adding that they already operate in difficult circumstances and get little support from the government.
Baghwad Gram Panchayat consists of Baghwad, Bodi and Pahawadi villages. The population of the panchayat is around 2,500 and the voters are 1,700. Earlier, 50 families used to make pattal dona here. Now only 18 families are engaged in this work.
Mulla Singh Kakodia (65) of Baghwad says, ‘I learnt this from my father. He used to fetch leaves from the jungles. Later, we started going together. We would pluck leaves and carry them back home on our heads. Then we would sew it to form dona and pattal and that is how I learnt. This is a part of my life now. When the demand comes, I do this work from morning till night. If there are enough leaves, I can make 500 plates from 10 am to 2 pm.’
‘In one year, from 50,000-1 lakh dona pattals are made here,’ says Bhadoli Bai Kakodiya (62). ‘Villagers come to the village and buy and take the products from us. Sometimes we get Rs 500 for 1,000 plates and sometimes we get Rs 700. If we had access to the market, we would have got Rs 1,000 for 1,000 plates, because that is the market rate. But we do not have time to go there. There is also the added cost of going to the market and we don’t know whether we will be able to sell 1,000 in one go.‘
‘Demand has increased in the last year, but we are still earning the same amount as before. If the government is promoting and encouraging then why don’t we get a good price?’ Turri Kasdekar of Baghwad along with other villagers have the same question.
Manai Kasdekar, a young villager living in Baghwad says, ‘Making pattal-dona is our ancestral work. We do not get any government help or formal training. Maybe some government help will do us good.’
‘The government has said that single-use plastic is harmful to water, forest and land then why is it not helping us as our product is a good alternative,’ says Khandu Suhane a resident of Basner Kalan village of Bhaisdehi tehsil of Betul.
‘If the government wanted to encourage us they would have also provided the leaves to us at low cost like it provides bamboo to the Basor community,’ he says.
Basor community of the Madhya Pradesh area is eligible to procure bamboo from the forest department depot at nominal rates for which cards have been issued by the government. The Basor community is engaged in selling handmade bamboo baskets, winnowing fans, and baskets among others.
Kamla Pandram, Sarpanch of Gram Panchayat Bhagwad says, ‘Such good work is being done in my panchayat and it is not happening today, but for years. I or the Gram Panchayat never thought in detail about the future of these Pattal-dona makers. I will work in this direction in future. Will talk to senior officers of Betul district. If needed, the collector of the district will be contacted. We will make a proposal regarding the welfare of the villagers who make eco-friendly pattal-dona, and they will get whatever support they can get from the government.’
Pooja Yadav is a Madhya Pradesh-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters