Since independence from the British in 1947, India has relied heavily on forest resources, including extraction of tendu leaves, to provide livelihood options for its marginalised tribal and forest-dependent communities. Tendu leaves are used to make bidis, an indigenous leaf-rolled cigarette made from coarse uncured tobacco, tied with a coloured string at one end. It is widely smoked in the Indian subcontinent and is gaining popularity globally, especially in USA, Germany, Middle East, Eastern Europe and Japan (Tobacco Board of India 2010). Bidis are harmful and pose a serious challenge to the health of youth globally and especially in the US where a health advisory warns of the potential harm.

Curiously the use of tendu to make bidis is more recent, with the accidental discovery of tendu as the most suitable leaf to wrap tobacco and make bidis. The tendu tree (Diospyros melanoxylon or the black or east Indian ebony) grows in degraded deciduous forests of peninsular India, where once sal trees (Shorea robusta) were felled to make railway sleepers. Tendu leaves are available for plucking soon after the tobacco crop is ready and cured, when most other deciduous trees have shed their leaves in summer (April–June).Tendu leaves have all the characteristics of an excellent wrapper material—they are large and pliable, and do not crack on rolling when dry; their leathery texture is also more acceptable than the veins and rough textures of other leaves; and they match well with and augment the taste of tobacco, without interfering with the tobacco flavour. The first bidi factory was set up in 1911 in Jabalpur in erstwhile Central Provinces (now in the state of Madhya Pradesh), where tendu was most abundantly available. Bidis found wide consumer acceptance especially during the ‘Swadeshi andolan’ (a civil disobedience movement to boycott Imperial British goods during India’s struggle for independence) which was started by Mahatma Gandhi in 1920. This uplifted the prestige of the bidi that even educated Indians started smoking bidis instead of cigarettes. The two World Wars further spurred the use of bidis as they accompanied Indian soldiers to far-flung places (Lal 2009).