The Might Of Mahua: How Adivasi Women In Chhattisgarh Are Using A Flower To Fight Covid-19 

by Sumati Mehrishi - May 13, 2020 12:34 PM +05:30 IST
The Might Of Mahua: How Adivasi Women In Chhattisgarh Are Using A Flower To Fight Covid-19 Mahua on the ground in Jashpur, Chhattisgarh. 
Snapshot
  • The mahua flower has helped place Jashpur on a chapter of indigenous pride in India’s fight against Covid-19.

    It is now being used in the making of the much-in-demand sanitiser.

The sun has been gentle during this flowering season of mahua in Chhattisgarh. The heat needed to make the blooming mahua flower fall from the tree by itself, after the spurting of fragrant pale petals, was missing this season.

It was unexpected. Karuna Bhagat, an adivasi woman who lives in Jashpur district, is feeling a bit disappointed.

She has a folk song for the situation, just as she has many for the mahua . The song is addressed to the mahua flower. In the song, the gatherer woos the flower to make it fall like raindrops from the tree.

Suddenly, the flower gatherer's mood takes a turn. She gets a bit cross with the mahua flower and says that it must drop in abundance, soon, or she will return home — without it.

When Bhagat spoke to Swarajya from Jashpur, she seemed to be in a similar mood. Returning home with baskets full of mahua is an annual event that leaves a Chhattisgarhi adivasi woman such as Bhagat, fulfilled for the entire year. Then, a slightly better fall of the mahua flower would have given more muscle to Bhagat's task in the fight against the looming threat of Covid-19.

Her morale is high

The mahua flower has helped place Jashpur on a chapter of indigenous pride in India's fight against Covid-19.

Bhagat has a role to play in it. She is garnering the best from van dhan — wealth from the forests — of which mahua is an exquisite and powerful representative in adivasi life.

The mahua flower, which has stood by her community in birth, marriage, needs, festivals, livelihood and death, is steering Jashpur's contribution to India's collective fight against the coronavirus.

Bhagat and women of her community had never thought that their mahua would become a tiny weapon through its heady brew — in the production of a sanitiser.

The sanitiser producer using mahua flowers.
The sanitiser producer using mahua flowers.

The sanitiser has been given a name: Madhukam. The packaging proudly carries the ‘Made in Jashpur’ mark.

She grew up conserving mahua trees and soaking the flower's powerful role in her community's life and needs. As an adult, she has spent years processing the flower, and soaking the smell of the brew — the spirit — which is made from the mahua flower at their homes.

The birth of Madhukam

On 2 May, her training session under the guidance of scientist and researcher Samarth Jain, began. Jain has paved the way for developing the hand sanitiser from the base of the traditional mahua brew, which is an integral part of adivasi life and culture.

Now, she is one of the many people who are contributing to the production of a herbal sanitiser to fight the virus.

Jain sensed that there was a growing demand for sanitiser in the state. This prompted him to use mahua, which is found in abundance in Jashpur, for producing affordable hand sanitiser.

Jain decided to rope in adivasi women from the SHG after the initial success of using the mahua brew base for producing hand sanitiser. The women would bring their natural skills, traditional knowledge, respect for the main ingredient (the Mahua), and familiarity with the traditional brew and its properties.

Bhagat told this author that even though only three women are currently being trained under the initiative, the women in her community are looking at it as a turning point in their lives, livelihood, and domestic happiness.

A Chhattisgarh government feature of the mahua flower and the life around it.
A Chhattisgarh government feature of the mahua flower and the life around it.

This is how it began. With the Covid-19 threat looming over the state, Jain wanted the employees working at his petrol pump to take precautions during their work hours. He could not obtain the quantity required for them.

A scientist who also works as a consultant, Jain turned to the mahua brew. His knowledge in using minor forest and agricultural produce for making herbal products would derive the maximum from the new ingredient.

Jain wanted the SHG to lead the sanitiser-making drive with help and a vital role played by the district forest department and the district administration.

District magistrate and collector Nileshkumar Kshirsagar backed it with every possible support.

Pushing the alcohol away from home

Earlier, the mahua brew prepared by the women would be used for domestic consumption. This is done following the traditional method of making the alcohol which has been passed on to them over generations.

The availability of the brew at home, and its consumption would often lead to unpleasant situations, confrontations with their husbands — which would turn violent.

Bhagat tells me that the part — that women would make the brew and face domestic violence at times — does not go down well with women. Mahua brew is part of their lives and identity. Yet, the women are happy to see it being shoved away from homes for a cause. At least until the Covid threat is looming.

Owing to Jain’s initiative, the brew is moving out of homes for the production of sanitiser, towards a laboratory and a sanitiser-production set up.

This gives the women added income.

Bhagat says that this is the ‘sahi upyog’ (the appropriate use) of the brew. “Women have welcomed the Van Dhan Scheme (an initiative of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and TRIFED seeking to improve incomes of the adivasis) which helps us draw out the most from the van upag (forest produce). The use of mahua brew for making sanitiser has come as a turning point,” Bhagat adds.

Each year, after the flowering season ends, the drying and soaking of flowers takes place for domestic use besides a huge portion of the gathering, that is sold to wholesale buyers in the market. The traditional process of making alcohol out of mahua is catching pace in Jashpur. Five litres of alcohol per household is what the community is allowed to brew. This year, the domestic alcohol production is set to achieve a new meaning.

Bhagat adds, “At home, we derive five litres of the brew, say, in two utensils of 2.5 litres each.” Jashpur sits at the tri junction of three states. What could be better than helping a local product spur in these tough times? When Jain derived the first samples of sanitiser from the mahua brew in his lab, he shared the news with some of the adivasis. Some of them got so excited knowing about the success of Jain's experiment that they cycled down in the evening to meet him.

Jain told them in brief about the process. They could grasp it. This opened up a possibility of training them into the process. The first lot of samples prepared was offered to the policemen who are part of the frontline force fighting Covid-19. The sanitiser is packed in 100 ml bottles.

The team led by Jain is determined to get the certification and licence for the product for mass production — to strengthen the SHG and local economy resting on Mahua.

He says, “We are adding a number of herbs to the sanitiser to subdue the strong smell of alcohol in the sanitiser. We were afraid that not subduing the alcohol in the mahua sanitiser would lead to its consumption by people addicted to alcohol.”

The Forest And The Gatherers

Forest officer, Jashpur, Shrikrishna Jadhav tells Swarajya that the forest area sees the mahua trees dominated by the Sal trees.

Outside the forest, too, the mahua tree is the centre of tribal life in Chhatisgarh. He says, “The mahua flower covers the adivasis’ food and nutrition needs. Children are fed laddoos made of the flower. The flower is part of the delicious meals, it is used for making edible oil. The elders brew it for alcohol. Women are the lifeline of all the activities.”

The adivasis revere the tree and intensely protect it. Each family is assigned a number of trees. The mahua is their heritage. During the flowering season, families set out early morning to collect the flower — to avoid the sun, to gather their entire share and to avoid losing it to another family, and to avoid bear attacks.

“Bears love the mahua flower. The elephants love it too. The elephants ransack the adivasi huts for rice and can smell the mahua brew from afar. It is a part of the adivasi life,” Jadhav adds. Picking the mahua is a celebration in itself. Families set out to pick the flower after a small meal. Deft fingers pick the pale ball of fragrance from the ground. Sometimes, songs accompany this beautiful activity. In one such song below, the adivasi is depicted singing about a not-so-good flowering season.

In the song, the adivasi man says that the mahua flower hasn't fallen as it was supposed to, and so, he would be unable to find a bride for himself.

The song explains it: unless there is mahua, there is no brew, unless there is no brew, there won't be a bride.

From Ground To Bottle

The first step of the process is focussed on the collection, selection and segregation of the raw material — the mahua flowers. This is where the participation of tribal women will count the most.

Their pace and eye for the right bloom makes the adivasi women powerful units of an economy dependent on a minor forest produce.

“For the making of the sanitiser from the Mahua brew, the collection, selection and grading of the flower will have to be done with utmost care. Bacterial or fungal contamination in the flower will interfere with the fermentation process,” Kshirsagar tells Swarajya.

The second step is fermentation. The adivasis are aware of the process owing to their familiarity with alcohol and alcohol-making.

For the production of the sanitiser, the tribal women will be trained to follow the required process and dos and don'ts. Machines are being developed for the process to meet the scale and demand. The third step is based on a technique developed at the lab.

It will focus on the purification and distilling required for the alcohol to arrive at the required alcohol content (mahua brew was easily giving 60-65 per cent ethanol content) for the hand sanitiser.

Covid-19's knock at the Indian arena was no reason for cheer. But the disease's threat has surely given Jashpur the opportunity to find the maximum advantage from this year’s mahua flowering season.

As per Jain, there is demand in the state. Meeting it will be smoother once the set up firms its feet via the required machines, training and production flow. Team Jashpur sounds decently ambitious to go for the bigger pitch.

Jain adds, “It can be a game changer. The industry is huge. Not only in India, but even abroad. The involvement of the local SHGs will spur local economies.” The participation of the tribal women SHG will even help the government in bringing down the prices, a team member states.

After the initial trials that went into producing sanitiser from the mahua alcohol that took place with Jain's efforts, the team thought of another idea — of directing the alcohol being produced by adivasi families towards the lab.

This helped them pool nearly 50-60 litres of the brew initially. The step has paved the way for achieving targets on a few fronts.

One: it will give families money for the alcohol they produce. Two: it was a win for the adivasi women in particular. It will improve their income. Three: it will help team Jashpur widen the target of production per day.

The possibility of grain being diverted towards alcohol production was not an exciting thought for some team members. Jain also wanted to give out another message by using mahua for the sanitiser production: that using the flower for the production of alcohol towards a sanitiser, instead of grain, is a better option for the adivasi community and the society at large.

Covid-19 came as an unpleasant excuse to make a beginning. Team Jashpur's success with Madhukam will make adivasi women like Bhagat explore more folk songs to the mahua, and give a deeper meaning to “Aatmanirbhar Bharat”.

Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 

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