Down Memory Lane: Handling Salseeds, Tamarind & Rowolfia-Serpentina

In 1975, I joined the Tribal Development Cooperative Corporation of Odisha (TDCC) after my assignment as Collector and District Magistrate of Sundargarh. The new assignment was both interesting and challenging. The corporation was a state instrument to safeguard the interest of tribals against exploitation of traders. This objective was sought to be achieved through TDCC purchasing from tribal farmers surplus agricultural produce (SAP) that includedcrops like maize, ragi, jowar and bajra; oilseeds like niger, mustard, sesame; pulses like katting, blackgram, greengram; turmeric etc.

TDCC used to run over 200 fair-price shops as well where essential commodities ranging from edible oil to soap, umbrella to pen and pencil,  rice to kerosene, dhotis and sarees to trousers used to be sold. TDCC was also a lessee of minor forest produce in some forest divisions of the state and collected produce like sal seeds, neem seeds, karanja seeds, myrobalans, nux vomica, gums of various kinds, roots of rauwolfia-serpentina, tamarind, hillbrooms etc. A major responsibility was to keep the show going with responsibility and retaining the trust of the tribal producers, pluckers and consumers.

When I joined the corporation, it had suffered severe erosion of capital and incurred huge loss in trading maize. The organisation was operating a cash credit account with the state cooperating bank with a strict Managing Director, one Mr Panda, who started breathing down my neck demanding regular repayment; but I had stepped into the organisation while it was gasping and was not generating cash. With great efforts and a lot of convincing, could I make the Tribal and Rural Development department of the state government agree to sanction Rs fifty lakh towards share capital. The erudite Deputy Secretary, Mr J K Dash, who wore very thick glasses, helped me a great deal.

In the meantime, the cash credit arrangement also got renewed and I put  the organisation into a working mode. I kept the princely sum of Rs fifty lakh I received from the government, as a fixed deposit in a nationalised bank – an action not to the liking of my Chairman, Mr K Ramamoorty, an officer of the 1948 batch of the IAS. He wanted the money to be deployed in trade rather than sit idle in a bank. I however felt safe and confident with the money in the bank which I could depend on on a rainy day and run my usual business on borrowed capital. The Chairman was not impressed; but he did not pursue the matter either.

Sal seeds used to be a politically-sensitive commodity. In the past, some industrialists having political support were keen on the commodity. TDCC got the lease for salseeds in a few forest divisions while the State Forest Corporation had lease of a much larger area. The government formulated a policy that local industries would  get salseeds with a price preference of 15%. I acted fast because I needed my capital to roll. I ascertained the market rate through an open tender and sold the entire stock to a local solvent extraction plant who wanted the stock with 15% price preference. The entire stock got marketed before even the Forest Corporation took preliminary action towards disposal. Our salseed deal raised many eyebrows and the government wanted to know the details. I sent an elaborate report and explained how government policy had been followed scrupulously. The matter was referred to the Forest department. I spoke to the Forest Secretary, a senior colleague, Mr D K Chatterjee, a pleasant person. He smiled and said, “ Oh, Salseed !! It is a hot potato.” I was not impressed. The Forest department then referred the case to the Finance department. The file, I learnt, landed on the table of a Deputy Secretary, Mr Bira Kishor Kar, reportedly a stickler for rules and a no-nonsense man. The Deputy Secretary examined the matter and found the decision absolutely fine. The file then moved fast and everyone agreed. My action stood vindicated. More important issues for me were how one managed the working capital and how one had a higher turnover.

We used to procure a good quantity of tamarind from many areas but Rayagada and Paralakhemundi regions contributed more. Iraq then was importing tamarind and they had got a few consignments from Girijan Corporation of Andhra Pradesh. I thought we could as well export some tamarind.from Odisha. But  I had no experience nor did the organisation. One had to do the entire job almost single-handed. The first job was to obtain a code number from the RBI to be an exporter I travelled to Kolkata. The code was obtained. I got in touch with the office of the Iraq Board in Kolkata and offered 150 metric tons of tamarind on condition that the consignment would be exported from Paradip only as no other port would be convenient to us. They agreed.

Our preparations commenced in the field with great enthusiasm. The tamarind would have to be without fiber but would have seeds. They needed tamarind in one kilogram blocks. While processing of tamarind was going on – a job that generated many jobs for local women for defiberring the tamarind and putting the tamarind into one kilogram moulds – it was raining heavily in the R Udayagiri area. The importer had deputed a surveyor whose job was to ensure quality, packing etc. The surveyor visited many processing centres, accompanied by an elderly official of TDCC, Mr Radhanath Dwivedi, who was a retired Joint Registrar of Cooperative Societies. The surveyor detected that a few tamarind blocks had been infected by worms. Mr Dwivedi immediately stepped into the brewing crisis with admirable skill and promptly got defective packets segregated. The surveyor inspected again and found the stocks fine. Fully packed in cardboard cartons of the specifications prescribed by the importers , stocks started arriving at Paradip Port warehouse. The state commercial transport corporation was appointed by us as the handling agent. I saw with pride hundreds of packets of Odisha Tamarind in the warehouse, ready for sail to Iraq. We tasted success.

We had a good collection of roots of Rauwolfia-Serpentina , mostly collected from forests of  Kalahandi district. The Branch Manager at Bhawanipatna was a young Forest Officer who was dynamic and helped TDCC with a huge collection. One day a merchant from Delhi who handled natural products with therapeutic properties for preparing Ayurvedic medicines came to my office and looked for the roots of Rauwolfia-Serpentina. When he knew we had an inventory of over a hundred quintals, he was surprised and said, “You must be then the largest stock-holder in the country.“

In those days we did not have expertise to collect market intelligence on many forest produce and therefore tried to ascertain market rate from traders through hard bargaining. Once I was negotiating with a trader on various types of gums we had. I checked up our past records and found a particular gum we had sold for around Rs 400 per quintal. I quoted Rs 5000 per quintal. The reply I got was quite revealing. The gentleman said the rate I was asking for could be paid if we did careful screening and cleaning of the product. It was a learning process for us in TDCC particularly in respect of minor forest produce. The experience was quite enriching. It made me conscious of  the huge resources our forests have. Unfortunately, few are now keen on scientific management and marketing of these products.

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