It’s USP? Well, it’s
a natural product,
disposable, biodegradable
and light weight

by Upagupt Mohanty

o u  couldn’t have missed noticing, It was that common a s e r v i n g accessory !

It would definitely be connected with your childhood memories of gorging on junk food or a wedding feast. It’s just that the KFCs & the McDonald’s hadn’t yet taken the junk food world by storm and it was still ruled by our good old Gupchup, Dahi-Vada or BaraGuguni.

The object of discussion is ‘khalipatra’, the Odia name for a plate or a bowl made out of leaves stitched together very craftily by thin twigs! A disposable, yet biodegradable container, it was also widely used during wedding banquets and festivals.

So, what could have taken it out of vogue ?

Deforestation, the cost of development and the advent of urban foam and plastic plates and saucers? No doubt they did, but the biggest contributor to my mind was the lack of foresight! We often create a problem and take pride in our endeavours to rectify it.

Khali made from Siali (Bauhinia vahili) and Sal(Shorearobusta) leaves was the perfect recipe for an industry to flourish, an industry that would engage the rural tribal population while catering to the urban masses–it had the perfect balance!

Over the years, the awareness about the ill effects of plastic products on the environment has gathered steam and has led to the resurgence of the khali plates and bowls.

Leaf plate making is an extensive activity in 127 tribal pockets in Kandhamal, Sambalpur, Angul and Deogarh in western Odisha as well as Brahmankunda, Dengajhari, Majhiakhand and Darpanarayanpur in Nayagarh district on the eastern side.

The eco-friendly leaf plates have a huge domestic demand and are also sought after in international markets. With an estimated revenue in excess of Rs.350 Crores in Odisha, it is hard to believe that the industry is predominantly unorganized.

Women folk from these tribal pockets, collect large amount of siali leaves along with tamarind and nutritive mahua flowers from the woods. Back by noon with a daily collection of 1,000- 1,200 leaves, enough to make 150-200 plates they sit down in the smoothed mud yards to stitch the leaves into round plates with little bamboo twigs. The plates are further stitched by machines to add strength. The semi made plates are dried out in sunlight. Finally, each plate is made by pressing two rounds of leaves together in a machine, mainly done by the men. The entire process is labour and time intensive but entire families and villages thrive on the income it generates. It would not be an exaggeration to say it is more of a tradition in these tribal pockets.

‘Siali Utsava’, a community celebration of annual plantation of Siali seeds as a relationship with mother nature plays a role in increasing Siali plant base as well as protecting forests. Each year, the Utsava is celebrated on the eve of Deva Snana Purnima in remote pockets of Nayagarh.  Scores of Gram Panchayat women, venture into the jungles with pre-made earthen balls made out of ant-hill clay, cow dung and cow urine to house Siali seeds. Emerging out of the earthen balls by now the seeds are sown in the soil and prayers are offered for the healthy growth of Siali climbers. The celebration of Siali Utsava endorses environmental conservation as well as livelihood creation for the rural poor.

The leaf plate has carved a niche for itself in far off geographies like Europe, wherein high end hotels are eager to serve their diners on Siali leaf! It’s USP? Well, it’s a natural product, disposable, biodegradable and light weight.

The international market demand seems to be growing exponentially in tandem with the crusade against the use of plastics and other inorganic products. Hence, it is imperative that this industry gets the patronage from the government to open more avenues for organized players to get involved without upsetting the existing delicate sourcing channel, since it is vital to the sustainability of these trees and the associated families and villages around it.

Gone are the days when there was yawning gap in the awareness levels around eco-friendly policies adopted by developed and developing countries . Hundreds of products deemed harmful by the elitist nations have been pushed into third world nations to quench the thirst of Multi National Corporations.❏

Cheers to a brighter future for this green-fection!

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