Upen Bhakta begins work as soon as he reaches the okra plantation. The chainra poka-as the insects are known locally—which he collects for the pharmaceuticals industry in Kolkata are eating away at the leaves in these farms.
Bhakta gets to work, picking the striped creatures off the okra leaves, depositing them into a packet. Around 2 hours yield just over a hundred insects, weighing a total of around 50g. A kilogram of chainra poka now fetches Rs 1,100.
Bhakta is a member of the forest-dwelling Lodha-Sabar tribe in the Nayagram block of West Bengal’s Paschim Medinipur district. Their interest in the chainra poka dates back 30 years, when a businessman first promised to pay for them. After that, the chainra transformed from being an insect best avoided because of its sting, to something that had potential for generating income.
The number of those harvesting these insects in Nayagram has grown to around 100. Some left the trade midway owing to attendant problems such as the non-availability of insects during certain months. Also, the insects can only be collected in the early morning hours—they can’t be seen when it gets too sunny.
But an entire economy has developed around the insect—with collectors, middlemen or mahajans and pharma firms.
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During the season—May-December—close to 800kg of these insects are collected by the Sabars, says Poltu Dey, one of the many “chainra poka mahajans” in the area. The mahajans are conduits between the collectors—paying them rates determined by the demand in Kolkata—and the pharma trade.
The insects are used in the manufacture of medicines for dog bites, Dey says. Anything above a package of 10kg makes the journey to Kolkata viable for the mahajans, he adds.
For the tribals, it is a meagre existence. Bhakta’s mud hut, with its leaking roof and peeling walls, is indicative of the continuing dire circumstances of the 1,100 Sabar families in Nayagram block. Bhakta himself, diagnosed with oral cancer at a local facility a year ago, is unable to fund the journey to Kolkata for treatment.
The insect-collecting work is unpredictable, and not evenly remunerative. Collecting a kilogram of insects can sometimes take up to two weeks; most workers sell the insects once they have gathered anything above 250g. They usually spend this money on buying essentials. Since most Sabars are known to have only one full meal a day, usually dinner, the income from insect collection has helped them somewhat.
In the months when Bhakta cannot harvest chainra poka, he does odd jobs, such as cutting wood or collecting Sal leaves from the forest.
All the families in the tribe fall into the BPL (below poverty line) category, says Bankim Bhakta, president of the local non-governmental organization, Lodha Sabar Kalyan Samiti. They were given BPL cards after reports in 2004 of the death from starvation of five Sabars at Amlasole, Paschim Medinipur, Bankim adds.
Categorized as a “criminal tribe” by the British under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, the Sabars have since been denotified. The stigma, however, remains.
Just a few of them have managed an education of any sort. Bankim is the first Sabar to have graduated from college. But between 2000-10, only three Sabars cleared madyamik (class X) and only one graduated. All this happened against the backdrop of growing Maoist influence in the Nayagram area.
Even as Bankim speaks, a long line of Sabars, including women and children, head for the forests, ignoring a steady drizzle. The sickle and axe they carry are indicative of their dependence on the forest for livelihood.
Bhakta, in turn, lays out his collection from the previous day: A heap of dead insects lie stiff on the muddy ground, waiting to be transported to Kolkata. Some day, he hopes, the insects will fund his journey to Kolkata.
Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint