At around 4 am, Shamli Devi leaves her home with a water bottle, torch and a clean cloth, walking nearly 5 km to the nearest forest in eastern Madhya Pradesh’s Mandla district. For the next five or six hours, Shamli toils away in the heat, plucking leaves from tendu trees. She carefully collects them in the piece of cloth to avoid breakage because these leaves will be used to wrap tobacco flakes and tied with a cotton thread to make bidis, the poor man’s cigarette.
For generations, the tribal population of eastern Madhya Pradesh has been dependent on tendu leaf collection for their livelihood. The collection season between April and May coincided with the Coronavirus outbreak this year. And, at a time when the country was reeling under COVID-19, tendu leaf collection provided a cushion to the tribals, helping them mitigate the economic impact of lockdown and provide financial support to families.