Friday, December 29, 2017

As climate change alters agriculture, forest food could be the answer. Odisha's indigenous Kondhs prove it

India's indigenous Kondh community has relied on forest food for millennia. As climate change reduces agricultural yields, this source of nutrition could be crucial for food security. 

As agriculture and climate change are victims and causes of each other, with effects such as drought affecting land productivity, reaching the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals which include achieving global food security and ending hunger by 2030 has become even more challenging.

In view of this, forests can play a crucial role as the basis of a sustainable food system – as has been the norm in the Kondh community, an indigenous group spread across the forests and hilly regions of the south of India’s Odisha state, for millennia. 

The forest in the Kondh community

The forest is central to the life, culture and food system of the Kondhs. “It’s our god, our mother who takes care of us and fulfils all our needs. Had there been no forest we wouldn’t have existed,” Nanda Mambalaka, a Kondh woman from Tada village in Rayagada district explains.
“For these people trees, food in the wild, flora and fauna make the forest an eco-socio-cultural universe that sustains life and meaning,” says Debjeet Sarangi of Living Farms, a non-profit engaged with tribal communities to promote ecological agriculture as the foundation of food security and sovereignty. 

Perennial food source

“Except for the staple crops like millets and rice, the rest of our food comes from the forest throughout the year,” Lachhna Paleka of Leling Padar village in Rayagada points out. In such forest dependent communities, “between 12 and 24 per cent of cooked food is comprised of food harvested in the wild. This doesn’t include fruits and berries that are eaten raw”: these are the findings of a study conducted by Living Farms in collaboration with a team of scientists from the Basudha Biotechnology Laboratory for Conservation.
“It’s an uninterrupted food supply because wild food species are more resilient to climatic vagaries than any cultivated crop,” says ecologist and lead scientist of the study, Doctor Debal Deb. “During my 50-year lifetime, we’ve never experienced a situation of acute food scarcity. When a crop is damaged, the forest is there to feed us,” Landi Sikoka of Khalpadar village explains. 

Source of nutrition, forest products

So in the face of climate change, forests provide nutritional security to the Kondh people. Honey is a rich source of amino acids, minerals and enzymes, and some of the leaves, mushrooms and tubers harvested in the forest have high amounts of beta-Carotene, minerals like iron, manganese and zinc, soluble proteins and antioxidants, the study finds.
During the year long investigation, “we found that households consuming at least 20 per cent of their cooked food from the forest on average show no signs of malnutrition, prima facie, at all,” says Doctor Deb while urging for further quantification of data on this. “The households that consume a smaller amount of forest food, and are more dependent on the market and cultivated foods show more signs of malnutrition,” he adds.

Nutritional analysis, as shown in the table below, shows high mineral content in forest food consumed by the Kondhs of Odisha. 

Filling the nutritional deficit

Minerals in forest foodWorldwide, malnutrition is on the rise with 815 million people going hungry every day, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017. Projections show that agricultural yields are set to drop up 20 per cent in some areas as a result of climate change and the world population is to reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050.
In a scenario such as this one, forest food is another crucial element to fill the nutritional deficit caused by the impact of climate change on agriculture. The relationship between the Kondh community and the forest testifies it.

This report first appeared on December 27, 2017, at the LifeGate

Friday, December 15, 2017

Forest food ensures nutritional security of Odisha’s tribes

Access to naturally grown forest produce would go a long way in protecting tribal communities in Odisha from the worst impacts of climate change and supply them with all that they need for sustenance

Sunamai Mambalaka, a Kondh tribal woman in her 50s, is not bothered about the vulnerability of cultivated crops to climate change. She believes that she and her community will never experience hunger as long as the forest, their perennial source of food, exists. “I was born in the forest, I grew with the forest. Forest is our life and soul,” she said.

To the Kondh community living in Tada village of Rayagada district in Odisha, the forest adjacent to their village has remained the source of food, nutrition and livelihood since generations. Recent studies confirm that forests not only meet the nutritional needs of the communities, but also would play an important role in helping them face vagaries of nature and achieve some of the sustainable development goals.

Perennial food source

“We are never short of food because the forest has plenty to offer us,” 40-year-old Kalia Mambalaka told According to Padmavati Paleka of Leling Padar village, they get a variety of mushrooms, tender bamboo shoots, fruits like custard apple and several kinds of leaves and edible insects during the rainy season.

“Honey and many tubers are harvested throughout the year,” Paleka told While some tubers are harvested during winter, the food items specific to summer include leaves and fruits of mango, kendu, jackfruit, amla, bel and tamarind among others. Except rice, the staple food of Odisha, as 35-year-old Biswanath Sarakka puts it, “Three fourth of the rest of our food comes from the forests.”

The average daily intake of uncultivated forest food ranges between 12% and 24.4% of the total cooked foods, according to a study by Living farms that promotes agro-ecology as the foundation of food security and sovereignty. The study was carried out in Rayagada and Balangir districts, with predominant forest-dependent tribal population.

Key source of nutrition

Conducted in collaboration with Basudha Biotechnology Laboratory for Conservation, the team of scientists led by ecologist and champion of traditional rice Debal Deb studied the link between the biodiversity and ecology of the forest to availability of food items. “This is the first time that we have studied the nutritional properties of available wild foods,” Deb told “It’s not just about food security, but about nutrition as well.”

For example, edible leaves such as gandheri sag and ambgili sag available in the forest have very high content of pro-vitamin A (Beta Carotene), anti-oxidants and soluble protein. The research found that the leaves are rich in digestible iron, zinc and manganese as well.

Some of the tubers and mushrooms also have high iron, zinc, vitamins and anti-oxidant content that are vital for nutritional security. “We found that the households consuming about 20% of their cooked food from the forest have no signs of malnutrition,” Deb said, urging for further studies with quantification of data.

Critical for future food security

Being such storehouses of food with rich nutritional value makes forests critical for future food safety. According to Deb, the forest species are more resilient to climate change than any of the cultivated crops, thus assuring the villagers of nutritional security.

While mentioning that forests are fundamental for food security and improved livelihoods, State of the World’s Forests (SOFO) 2016 released by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) notes, “The forests of the future will increase the resilience of communities by providing food, wood energy, shelter, fodder and fiber; generating income and employment to allow communities and societies to prosper; and harboring biodiversity.”

SOFO 2016 also highlights that, given their multi-functionality, forests can play significant roles in achieving about six of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets set by the UN. Such contributions are usually poorly reflected in national development and food security strategies. Coupled with poor coordination between stakeholder sectors, forests are mostly left out of policy decisions related to food security and nutrition, FAO observes.


Forest foods are in high demand in haats or tribal community markets and nearby rural markets. Forest produce such as honey, amla and several fruits are in great demand in urban malls. Though this may appear as an opportunity for economic empowerment of the tribal communities, this may lead to degradation of the forests, hampering availability. “When there’s greater density, diversity of tree species and basal area (total base area of trees in the forests), the availability of food, not only plants but also animals, is much higher,” Deb told

Though total forest cover in Odisha has increased from 48,903 sq. km in 2011 to 50,354 sq. km in 2015 as per the State of Forest Report, Odisha, very dense forest (VDF) and moderately dense forest (MDF) in the traditional forest boundaries have come down from 7,060 sq. km to 6,763 sq. km and 21,366 sq. km to 19,791 sq. km, respectively.

The other threat is from commercial monoculture plantation on forestland under afforestation and social forestry programs. According to FAO, monoculture plantation totally affects the organic productivity and reduces the natural stability of the soil. “The forest department wanted to plant eucalyptus in our forest land. We didn’t allow,” 52-year-old Landi Sikoka of Khalpadar village told “We plant trees of our choice in the forest periodically.”

Way ahead

“For the tribal communities, forest is not just a source of food, but it’s also a part of their identity,” Debjeet Sarangi of the Living Farms told “Tribes such as the Kondhs’ way of life is respectful of others including nature and recognizes diversity in its different manifestations.” The tribal community’s relationship with the forest is one of belonging rather than ownership.

Community forest management is good for the health of the forests. When local users have long-term rights to harvest from the forests, they are more likely to monitor and sanction those who break the rules, resulting in better forest conditions, according to Nobel laureate economist, the late Elinor Ostrom, who advocated for common rights over land and forest.

The study conducted by Living Farms corroborates the theory. According to the study, ecosystem of the forest is likely to be much improved in terms of number of tree species, density and food availability, when managed by the communities. “Forest gives us food, fodder, firewood and everything we require,” Sunamai Mambalaka told “It’s our god, our mother.”

The report appeared first on December 11, 2017, at the VillageSquare.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Community radios in Odisha help improve gender parity

Broadcasting programs on gender inequality and against stigmas suffered by women in Odisha, community radio stations have effected a positive change in rural communities where girls are still the ignored population
As news of rampant female feticide in the Nayagarh district of Odisha broke in July 2017, it shocked Usha Patnaik, a social activist and president of Gania Unnayan Committee, a non-profit organization, as it did the rest of India.

Working for more than two decades on issues such as trafficking of girls and women, child marriage and gender-based discrimination, the news made her wonder about the very existence of females in society. “Being a female, I was scared,” she told “How can a society imagine its future by eliminating a sex selectively at the fetal stage?”

However, 10 community radio stations are working in Odisha on changing the mindset of the people, to enable a better environment for the safety of girl children and women.

Endangered sex

Indicating decline in the sex ratio, female population in Nayagarh district has come down from 938 per 1,000 males in 2001 to 915 in 2011, as per the 2011 census report. More worrying is the sex ratio at birth during the last five years — the population of girl babies is 725 for every 1,000 male babies born, as per the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NFHS4). As per the 2001 and 2011 censuses, the sex ratio of children below six years in Nayagarh dropped from 904 to 855.

Apart from declining sex ratio, Nayagarh district has remained the epicenter of trafficking of girls under the guise of marriage since the 1990s. According to NFHS4, it is the sixth district of Odisha with high prevalence of child marriage. In the district, 31.3 % of women between 20 and 24 years of age got married before the age of 18.

“Nayagarh has a conservative patriarchal society where girls are still the ignored population. The indications of it are that many are killed selectively at the fetal stage, many are given in marriage at an early age and many are being trafficked to other states in the name of marriage,” Patnaik told

Change through official machinery

With statistics indicative of the status of the female population, Nayagarh is included in the list of 100 districts covered nationwide under the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (Save a Girl Child, Educate a Girl Child) program. The Government of Odisha in association with United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and other agencies has taken steps to strengthen implementation of the PCPNDT (Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques) Act, 1994 to check pre-natal sex determination and female feticide in the state.

In accordance with the state policy for girls and women and the state policy for youth, several other programs have been implemented to address gender-based issues and to create an enabling environment for girls.

As a result of the programs, administrative dynamism has improved. Sex ratio at birth in Nayagarh has increased to 883 by September 2016, as per the District Child Protection Unit (DCPU) reports. Through various campaigns, girls are encouraged to enroll in schools.

“The situation is changing. But to address the issues related to gender inequality, what still remains a challenge is, changing the behavior of people, despite the proactiveness of the administration and government machinery,” Pritikant Panda, District Child Protection Officer (DCPO) at Nayagarh, told

Communicating achievements and awareness

Making its contribution to address the issues facing the female population of the district, the Daspalla-based Radio Surabhi, the only community radio station in Nayagarh, has started a program named Suna Jhia — the golden girl.

“The objective of the program is to tell positive stories highlighting small as well as big achievements of girls in the district through radio so that the parents feel proud of their daughter,” Sisir Kumar Das of Indian Institute of Education and Care, a non-profit organization that promotes Radio Surabhi, informed

Prompted by the poor status of the girl child in the district, Suna Jhia program aims to bring awareness and build scientific temper in the communities while sensitizing the local administration on the ground realities, Das added.

“Now I realize that the two abortions I suffered and the several illnesses I suffer from are the results of my marriage at an early age. Now that I have learnt from the Suna Jhia program, I will advise girls not to marry early and have an ill fate like mine,” 55-year-old Kainta Gadatia of Adakata village in Daspalla administrative block told

Appreciating its objective and reach, though within a radius of about 15 km, “The DCPU is supporting the program from the beginning,” said Panda, the Nayagarh DCPO, adding that Suna Jhia has tremendous impact at the community level.

“In many cases, young boys are consulting officials and deferring their marriage when they find their bride-to-be younger than 18 years,” Sanjukta Dasgupta, a Daspalla-based social activist, informed

Change through community radio

With 10 Community Radio Stations (CRS) operating in Odisha at present, issues related to social justice, gender equality and community development have got a stronger voice in their respective areas of coverage.

The Balianta-based Radio Kishan has successfully changed the mindset of betel leaf farmers who restricted women from working in the betel vine farms because of the women’s natural monthly menstruation. Women are now allowed to work in the betel leaf farms.

“Initially we faced resistance from the community. But things changed in favor of the women as our campaign was based on scientific facts and evidences,” Pradeepta Dutta of Radio Kishan told

In Nuapada district, the Khariar-based Radio Swayamshakti has its focus on issues reflecting gender inequality and health problems in the community. Talking to, Biswajit Padhi, chief functionary of the CRS said, “We strive to make the radio an open forum, facilitating free convergence between communities and the Nuapada district administration.”

Way ahead

CRSs in Odisha have done tremendously well in keeping people as well as the administration informed during natural disasters, besides highlighting issues encountered by the grassroots communities. But there are several challenges to be overcome to keep the CRSs running and acting as an effective medium for community level convergence and development.

According to CRS managers, the primary issues include sustainability of the non-commercial radio serving the communities and its limited reach within a 10 km radius. Limited reach makes it difficult to achieve desired goals because geographically, communities do not live as a concentrated population. As the habitations are scattered even beyond the coverage area, community-focused radio programs do not reach all the intended audience.

Highlighting that government support is limited, Padhi in a note of dissent said, “UNICEF, which could support CRSs offers to broadcast content produced by it in association with BBC Media Action free of cost. If reputed global institutions start such practice, how can the CRSs sustain?” However, no comment on this could be obtained from UNICEF, despite attempts.

“Some international NGOs (iNGO) have started networking with local CRSs with their own agenda. If they push issues of their interest into the radio content, some of the issues concerning communities would be ignored by the local CRSs,” Sisir Das told, referring to a recently held national level consultation on community radios, organized by an Odisha-based CRS in partnership with an iNGO in Bhubaneswar.

“Such networking with iNGOs can help develop new models of sustainable community radio stations. This would be possible if the iNGOs support capacity building in the sector to identify and present issues that concern the community instead of interfering with the content,” according to him.
Padhi highlighted that minimum support for sustainability and capacity building would encourage more CRSs to be established in the state and energize them to be catalysts of change at the community level.

This report first appeared on October 18, 2017, at the VillageSquare.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Time’s Up, Age-Old Beliefs! Odisha Is Saying No to Child Marriage

Post-2008 riots in Odisha’s tribal populated Kandhamal district, when Rashmita Bagarti (now 27) started the Antarang (literally meaning intimate) Club in the Phiringia block to spearhead peacebuilding activities in the community, she had about 45 members. But to her worry, the number went down to 20 in about a year. As she looked for the reason behind such a drop in membership, she found that at least 12 young girls of the club had got married at an early age and left their villages.

"It was alarming! Because early marriage was the practice in tribal and Dalit communities and it was difficult to ensure long-term participation of young girls in the club. So, I decided to fight against child marriage alongside our peace-building activities," said Rashmita Bagarti, Social Activist.

According to Indian laws, marriage of a girl before the age of 18 and a boy before the age of 21 is child marriage.

Age-Old Beliefs

Home to 62 tribal communities, including 13 particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTG), making 22.85 per cent of the state population, child marriage is still a norm in the tribal-dominated districts of Odisha, as in Kandhamal.
"This is an age-old practice. Again, having a girl for a longer time at home after puberty is a big risk. While it’s always difficult to get a groom for a girl who doesn’t fit the conventional concept of being young, there is also the risk of love relationships and elopement" - Sanmati Durua (65), Resident, Chanchraguda village, Koraput
"Poverty, deep-rooted gender discrimination and dowry system increase the vulnerability of girls to early marriage" - Puspashri Debi, Member, ActionAid India, Bhubaneswar
According to Jitendra Pattnaik, a Nuapada-based social activist, “Girls are married off early to rid the family from their burden. Parents believe, delay in marriage of a girl would cost more dowry and cause difficulties in getting a groom.”
"Parents in left-wing extremism (LWE)-affected areas are almost compelled to get their children married to save them (the children) from being picked up by extremist groups, who are on a look out for new cadres regularly, said a development activist of Kalahandi district on conditions of anonymity."
The 2015-16 National Family Health Survey (NFHS4) indicates that the top five child marriage prevalent districts are all tribal dominated and affected by LWE. While the percentage of married women in the age group of 20-24, who got married before they turned 18, remains 39.3 percent in Malkangiri, it is 37.9 percent in Nabarangpur, 35 percent in Mayurbhanj, 34.7 percent in Koraput and 34.4 percent in Rayagada.

Statewide Prevalence

Of other districts, Nayagarh has 31.3 percent of married women in the age group of 20-24 who married before 18. In Khordha, of which the state capital of Bhubaneswar is a part, it is 18.1 per cent.
In Odisha, nearly 21.3 per cent of the currently married women in 20-24 age group married before 18. It was 37.2 percent during NFHS3 (2005-06). Similarly, 11 percent of married men within the age group of 25-29 got married before 21, as per NFHS4, which was 22.2 percent during the NFHS3.
Although child marriage is more prevalent in rural and tribal hinterlands, its presence in urban areas is equally concerning. The difference between urban and rural prevalence is only 2.2 percent for women and 3.6 percent for men of the aforesaid age group.

Health Issues

“Child marriage violates children’s basic rights to survival, development, protection and participation,” said Laxminarayan Nanda, Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF, Odisha.
"It limits the freedom of girls and boys and narrows down the scope of dreaming a future of choice. Child marriage also results in the loss of lives and hampers any effort of reducing IMR (infant mortality rate) and MMR (maternal mortality rate) as it leads to malnutrition among mothers and children" - Ghasiram Panda, Activist, ActionAid India.
Another flip side of child marriage is the higher risk of contracting HIV, along with domestic violence and teenage pregnancy, which are among the leading causes of death in girls aged between 15-19.
A World Bank-ICRW joint report has warned earlier that child marriage will cost the developing world trillions of dollars by 2030 because of discontinuation of schooling, health issues, malnutrition, maternal and infant mortality etc.

Ray of Hope

Odisha, however, has been successful in scaling down the prevalence of child marriage in many districts between NFHS3 (2005-06) and NFHS4 (2014-15).

Due to the actions and interventions by both government and non-government agencies, young girls like Daimati Santa of Koraput, Phulmani Raita of Gajapati, Minakshi Guru of Jajpur have stood against child marriage. Many boys have also said no to marriage before turning 21.
"This has become possible due to the transformation of girls into change agents. Having their own space in the form of adolescent girl clubs so that they can discuss their issues freely, is enabling them to spread awareness across the community, thus ensuring an appropriate environment for a smooth transition to adulthood" - Sanjukta Tripathy, Activist, PREM (UNFPA-supported programme).
PREM is a non-profit organisation that manages the UNFPA supported programme under its Action for Adolescent Girls (AAG) initiative in Gajapati’s Gumma block.

“Communities that were hesitant to talk about this issue earlier are now discussing it. Many have even resolved to stop child marriage in their respective communities,” Ghasiram Panda observed.

Need to Spread Awareness

“Yet, the mindset of people who believe in it, promote it and encourage the practice. It has to be changed through reinvigorated action and intervention,” said Laxminarayan Nanda.

According to Dr Amrita Patel, State Project Coordinator of Odisha State Resource Centre for Women, “Community awareness, building on girls’ education and capacity building of families are necessary. Alongside, implementation of the law and awareness are also needed.”

Raising the issue of almost nil registration of cases under the Prevention of Child Marriage Act, Dr Patel urged, “Prosecution has to be strong.”
"On the other hand, prevention is also a critical strategy. However, in today’s world, skill building and making the girls economically independent will take more than curbing the problem of child marriage" - Dr Amrita Patel, State Project Coordinator, Odisha State Resource Centre for Women.
Bringing to fore the issues of dowry as exploitation leading to an unsafe atmosphere for girls in the society, Puspashri Debi sought proper implementation of the Dowry Prohibition Act.

Anticipating growing incidents of elopement due to media exposure from childhood, she insisted that “priority should be on creating a safe space for the adolescent to discuss sexuality and personal issues in a free environment.”

The report first appeared on July 25, 2017, at The Quint

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Tribal women of Sundargarh make organic farming a life-changing economic activity

Tribal communities in Sundargarh district of Odisha have revived the traditional practice of growing food without the help of chemical fertilizers and made it viable economically by making pragmatic changes.

Nirmala Barla (40), a passionate farmer of Sundargarh district’s Brahmanamara village, is a proud woman because she feeds her family with a variety of safely grown food, and not just cereals grown by using lots of chemical fertilizers that are available in the market. In her 14 acres of land, both upland and relatively plain, she grows rice, millet and vegetables without using any inorganic fertilizer. After meeting consumption needs of the family, she is also able to earn a bit by selling the surplus farm produce.

Though keeping account of income and expenditure has never been the practice in her community, she has recently bought a power tiller and managed to meet all expenses of her elder daughter’s marriage without seeking a loan. Her present family of six members, after the marriage of a daughter, makes a good living out of organic farming alone.

Nirmala is not alone in Brahmanamara. All other residents in the village are into organic farming and the soil covering nearly 100 acres of farmland around the village has never been fed with any fertilizer that is inorganic. “We use our own seeds and grow them without applying any fertilizer available in the market. We even don’t use inorganic pesticides to save our crop,” Jagannath Kaudi, a farmer, told

Jagannath and his wife Mahargi had a bumper oil-rich white mustard crop last season. They have harvested 85 kg of the crop from 20 decimals of land by adopting the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) method for mustard cultivation. During implementation, they maintained a 2ft gap between plants while planting saplings of 20 days.


Explaining how such production is possible, Jagannath says, “We planted onion saplings between the plants. Because we face water scarcity during summer, we used the method of mulching in case of onion. The moisture stored in the mulch also supported other plants in the farm. This apart, we planted maize in the farm to make opportunities for predatory birds who can feed on pests and insects that could damage the main crop of mustard.”

With more than 2,000 farmers from 30 villages engaged and 3,000 acres of land covered, organic farming has now become the popular and viable agricultural practice in Balisankara and Sadar blocks of Sundargarh district.

Big change

Although organic farming is the tradition in parts of this region, economic viability of it has increased in the past few years, after some modifications in practice. “Earlier, we used to add cow dung compost to the soil and sow the seeds in the fields,” 35-year-old woman farmer Soharmati Topno told “The production was very low. In some years, it was not even sufficient for our own consumption.”

The local residents have knowledge of the best practices, which includes soil as well as climatic conditions. They only need to bring in some modifications to it for better production as well as viability, says Nata Kishore Mishra, chief functionary of Centre for Integrated Rural and Tribal Development (CIRTD), a local non-profit working to popularize organic farming and promoting indigenous seed banks by farmers.

“The role of CIRTD has been to popularize organic farming in the region by converting it into a viable economic activity,” Mishra told “Realizing that the production has to increase to fetch the farmers more benefit, we have connected the farmers with experts like Subhash Palekar, the agriculture scientist famous for his idea of zero-budget natural farming.”

Zero-budget natural farming

Stressing upon his argument that all things required for the growth of the plant are available around the root zone of the plants, Palekar insists that there is no need to add anything from outside in the model of zero-budget natural farming because it means producing crops at zero or near-zero cost.

Palekar has visited the place and offered training to farmers on production of organic fertilizers named Jeevamruta (both in solid and liquid forms) using cow dung, cow urine, jaggery and besan (lentil powder) and organic pesticides using neem (Azadirachta indica) leaves, karanja (Pongamia pinnata) leaves, calotropis leaves and garlic in different compositions.

The farmers, mostly from the Munda and Oram tribal communities, further modified the composition for organic fertilizers and pesticides by using molasses rich mahua instead of jaggery as the former is available in plenty in their vicinity and in the nearby forest.

“As mono cropping was the traditional practice, we suggested the farmers to go for multi-cropping and adopt the SRI method in cultivation of millets and other crops like mustard,” says Ashok Das, who coordinates with the farmers on behalf of CIRTD.

Success from modifications

Such modifications, added with application of organic fertilizers, have done wonders for these tribal woman farmers. “Earlier, I used to get only one quintal of ragi (finger millet) from the two acre land near my house. This year, with application of SRI method and organic fertilizer, my harvest has gone up to 12 quintals. To talk about expenditures, we gave our labor and spent less than Rs 200 on fertilizer,” says a happy and contented Nirmala. “Apart from ragi, we also grew several vegetables in the same field.”

The best part of the story is that the women folks prefer to grow food crops against cash crops because meeting food and nutritional requirements of their respective families are their priority.
Such stories are spread across the region. Anita Lakra (30) of Gidhpahadi village got 1130 kg of rice from her one acre of medium land by implementing the SRI method. In another one acre, she grew pulses like black gram and vegetables like tomato, brinjal and cowpea.

“With the modifications in place, even my small piece of agricultural land is sufficient to earn adequate livelihood for my family and to meet expenses for the education of my two children,” Golapi Sa, 40, of Patkijore village who pursues organic farming in nearly two acres of land, told

From individual to collective farming

Now the women folk of these tribal communities do not keep themselves limited to individual farm activities in their own lands only. They have now formed groups comprising landholders and landless poor and take up patches of land on lease to grow variety of nutrition-rich food crops including millets, pulses and vegetables.

This model is developed in lines of the traditional tribal system of Panch, where a team of tribal males from the households work together for terracing, bounding and leveling the sloped land in the hilly terrain to make them farming ready and building small water-harvesting structures for limited irrigation.

One of the best features of these collective models of woman farmers is that even the landless poor member of the group has equal share of the harvest. So, this concept has got wide acceptance and, as of now, 48 woman farmers’ collectives operate in different villages.

The group of eight woman farmers from Oram tribal community of Budajharan village, named Oliva Women Farmers’ Collective, has received several accolades for growing about 12 crops including brinjal, chilly, onion, tomato, cow-pea, watermelon, beans, bitter-gourd, ladies finger, sunflower, pumpkin and leafy-vegetable, in one season by dedicating one row for each crop.

These groups are affiliated to the larger front of tribal communities called Athakoshia Adivasi Ekta Manch, which fights for their rights on forest land and the commons to expand the area under organic farming.

Need for market linkages

According to Nata Kishore Mishra, 1,500 acres of land to be farmed by 1,370 farmers from 30 clusters are to be added for organic farming under Paramparik Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY) of the government of India.

But, despite growing demand for organic farm produces, farmers of Sundargarh are yet to fetch the benefit of it. “Even though buyers get interested in our vegetables and other farm produces, we sell our products at the same price the inorganic farm produces are sold at,” says Nirmala, who is not quite aware of the real value of her crops and vegetables grown through the organic method.

As a value-addition initiative, CITRD has started units to produce biscuits and cakes from ragi produced by these farmers as they are in demand for nutritional value. It also takes catering contracts to serve food made with everything organic. A separate space is also given to the organic farmers to sell their produces in the local market. But the benefits are still away from the farmers as prices are the same as normal farm produces.

“Reliable market linkages and procurement of the organic farm produces from these woman-farmers by government agencies at a genuine price would boost their income and mobilise more farmers to take up organic farming and become safe food suppliers,” says Rajendra Barla, Nirmala’s husband.

The report first appeared on July 12, 2017, at the VillageSquare. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

11 Yrs Later, Govt Washes Hands Off Kalinga Nagar Tribals’ Deaths

Eleven years after the police firing in Kalinga Nagar of Odisha’s Jajpur district where a dozen tribal people and a police personnel died at the spot, the communities were hammered again when the report submitted by the commission of inquiry under retired High Court Justice Pradyumna Kumar Mohanty did not indict any government official for it.
The incident took place on 2 January 2006, when trigger-happy police sprayed bullets against people agitating against land acquisition for the TATA Steel project.

“So many adivasi people died in the incident. Who killed them and by whose order? And even dead bodies were mutilated by chopping off private organs of both male and female bodies! Who did that? Did they all happen while tribal people were dancing or making fun?” asked Sini Soy, mother of Bhagaban Soy who succumbed to his injuries on the spot from police firing.
"Has the commission ever pondered upon these questions while preparing this report?" - Sini Soy
Biren Jamdua, a long-time project supporter, feels let down by the commission’s report.
"Not making anybody responsible for the killing of 14 tribal persons [the community claims that two of the injured died later] would lead to mass killing of tribal people in the future. And this is probably what the government wants" - Biren Jamdua
The inquiry report of the commission along with the action report will be tabled during the monsoon session of the Odisha assembly.

As per government sources, the Commission submitted its report to the Government on 3 July 2015. The government accepted it on 8 June 2016.

Government’s Claims

According to Suryanarayan Patro, Food and Civil Supplies Minister of Odisha, the recommendations of the commission included the formulation of a beneficial and comprehensive scheme for land losers and the displaced, suitable employment for one member from each of the deceased families, and additional ex-gratia to persons injured in the incident.
Claiming that the recommendations made had already been complied with, the minister said that at least one member from each of the deceased families had been offered employment by the beneficiary companies in Kalinga Nagar Integrated Industrial Complex.
Further, to justify the rehabilitation works of TATA Steel, Patro said that the schemes adopted by the company are similar to the Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy of the state.

Contrasting Reality

Recent visits to Kalinga Nagar, however, give a picture that is in contrast to the claims made by the minister.
Many turned homeless to make space for TATA’s expansion dreams. Recently, the parental houses of Chhabi Badara and her sister Durgabati have been demolished by the local administration in the presence of the tahsildar, without compensation or any arrangement for their immediate stay.
"We are neither given any compensation nor any alternate piece of land to build our new home. With my young daughter, I am now living in open in the place where our parental house used to exist." - Chhabi Badra
A letter issued from the Additional District Magistrate’s office said it considered married daughters to be separate families, not eligible to receive rehabilitation benefits as they had married into another family.
“How lawful is it for the government to make someone homeless like this?” asked Durgabati, who happened to be a primary school teacher as well.
“Who will be held responsible if anything unpleasant happens to any of these ladies while staying in the open?” questioned Biren Jamuda.
“The company has even occupied the land, building and hostels of the tribal welfare department-run Gobarghati High School, that houses 300 tribal students,” Jamuda said, wondering, “How could it be done?”
TATA company continues to acquire forest land without any official allotment from the government or approval from the environment and forest ministry, said Binod Nag, Chairman of the Ho Munda Development Society said citing to information he acquired by applying the right to information (RTI) Act.

Employment Scenario

“The promise of employment to the youth of the affected community remained largely unfulfilled. In many cases, the company cites insufficient education of the youth while in many other cases, qualified youth have been harassed and denied employment,” said Harischandra Haibru, who has been affected by the project.
Despite being selected through an interview and medical test, MBA graduate Biswanath Banara of Baligotha village still awaits a job in the company.
"Though I have cleared the tests, the company asked me to give up another patch of forest land I possess in order to get the appointment."
While more than half the youth from the affected communities haven’t received proper employment yet, the company has engaged several youth for a meagre monthly remuneration of 3,000 rupees just to come to the aid of the company in times of trouble with affected people and communities.
“They are not entitled to get the benefits attached with a company employee and may be removed anytime,” said Biren Jamdua.
"As the new trend, the company is now offering one-time money to the youth against regular employment in the company. Once the money is spent, what the youth will do?" - Biren Jamdua

Misery Doubled

The dreams projected during the acquisition of land are now shattered and people who sacrificed their land and lives of the kin are disillusioned. They are now forced to live their lives only as permitted by the company.
“We lost our land – the perennial source of our livelihood, we lost the houses with backyards. In the new setup, there is no space for our cultural and traditional utilities. To summarise, we as a tribal community have lost our identity” - Harischandra Haibru
“We were landowners and laborious people. Nobody from our tribe used to be a beggar. But now, the government and the company reduced us to that level by taking away our land, by destroying our forests and by forcing us to live a life that we never desired,” said Sini Soy.
“Everyone is interested in uprooting the tribal communities, throwing them out and grabbing their land in the name of development and industrialisation. Nobody ever tried to understand our culture and how integrated it is with nature,” she said.
"Now, after the commission report is out, we are forced to realise that killing of tribal people has no more remained unlawful in the state." - Sini Soy
The report first appeared on May 30, 2017, at The Quint.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Interventions to stop child marriages raise hopes in Odisha

The practice of underage marriage is acute in the tribal-dominated southern and southwestern parts of Odisha, but interventions on the ground are planting the seeds of change among adolescent girls and their parents

The pensive look on the face of three-year-old Devati Durua of Chanchraguda village in Koraput district could very well change to distress if she is married before she comes of age at 18. That remains a distinct possibility in the underdeveloped area where indigenous people are known to widely practice child marriage.

Although India has laws to prevent child marriage, it remains prevalent in many parts of the country. The country is said to lose $56 billion (Rs 3.6 trillion) a year as a result of adolescent pregnancy, high secondary school dropout rate and joblessness among young women, according to the State of World Population 2016 of the United Nations Population Fund. As per the Indian laws, marriages of girls before the age of 18 and boys before the age of 21 are considered child marriages.

Pan-Odisha problem
The situation is particularly alarming in the eastern state of Odisha. As much as 21.3 percent women between the age of 20 and 24 years married before the age of 18 and 11 percent of men between the age of 25 and 29 married before attaining the age of 21, according to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NFHS-4) report. Unsurprisingly, the number of child marriages is more in rural Odisha. However, “there is significant variation amongst districts,” Amrita Patel, State Project Coordinator of Odisha State Resource Centre for Women, told
The prevalence of the practice is wider in the tribal populated backward districts of the state. “Over 50 percent of marriages in the tribal communities are underage or child marriages,” said Gopi Durua, 25, of Devati’s family who too had married before the age of 21.
“This is a pan-Odisha issue although the practice is further acute in the tribal-dominated southern and a few southwestern districts of the state,” Ghasiram Panda, communication in-charge at ActionAid, Odisha, and an advisor to Odisha Child Right Commission, told

An adult girl child being considered a burden on the family in most tribal and backward communities, lack of awareness and a host of socio-economic problems including abject poverty and a poor female literacy rate are often blamed for such wide prevalence.

“The tribal communities also believe that early marriage is their tradition. When you ask them to stop the tradition, they think you are trying to mobilize them against their traditional practices,” said Bhanumati Santa of Gamkapadar village in Koraput district.

“As cases where boys and girls falling in love and opting to marry in elopement have been increasing, most of the parents also see a kind of social risk in allowing their daughters to continue studies instead of getting married at a tender age. They believe that marrying the girls at an early age is the safest way to escape such risks that would otherwise demean the social status of the parents and the family,” said Sanmati Durua, 60, of Chanchraguda village.

Possibility of change

Basanti Jani, 16, of Janiguda village in Koraput district, however, sees greater possibilities with continuous awareness programs. “Our parents must be made aware of the possible impacts of early marriage on the health of their daughter and the future of her family. They must be explained how they are putting the lives of their daughters at risk by marrying them at an early age,” she told

Talking about the social fallout of child marriage, Panda stated that “such a practice not only affects the health, education and status of victim women in the society but it also endangers the future generation in many ways while affecting their physical and mental health.”

“Unless child marriage is stopped, it would be difficult to achieve the goal of controlling infant and maternal mortalities in the state,” he added.

In order to stop child marriage, recent initiatives by Odisha’s Women and Child Development department include facilitation of interdepartmental convergence on the issue of child marriage. The government also has plans to conduct training programs for Child Marriage Prohibition Officers, gender sensitization of college and University students across the state and orientation of high school students in 12 tribal districts, according to Patel.

Changing scenario

Interventions from the government as well as non-government agencies to stop the practice have brought in some changes.

Sensitized by Adivasi Ekta Sangathan or Ekta, a Koraput-based non-profit, on the ill impacts of child marriage and the importance of education for a girl, Daimati Santa of Gamkapadar village has dared to stand against the proposal of her marriage when she is only 16-year-old.

Daimati has been successful in convincing her parents and the groom’s family to defer the marriage til she turns an adult and, also, to allow her to continue with the higher secondary studies.

Though sporadic, such cases of girls opposing early marriage and expressing their desire to continue with education are being seen in different places of Koraput and other tribal populated districts of Odisha.

Some regions like the Gumma block in Gajapati districts have even made them free from child marriages where the practice was rampant a few years back.

After intervention by the United Nations Population Fund, “child marriage has almost stopped. Dropout students go to school again and girls from this tribal populated block are now working outside and make an earning,” said Mariyam Raita, a local woman leader.

“The change has been possible due to the engagement of the community and all other stakeholders in the process of change. Adolescent girls participating and taking the lead to bring in the change in their lives remained the key to the success achieved,” said Sanjukta Tripathy of the Berhampur-based non-profit People’s Rural Education Movement (PREM) who works as the project manager of the UNFPA supported intervention.

More action required

“The changes that have come in the tribal dominated regions raise hope about addressing the problem. The tribal communities have started realising the bad effects of early marriage and are now discussing the issue,” said Ghasiram Panda.

In order to stop the practice, “more community awareness, building on girls’ education and capacity building of the families are necessary. But, alongside, use of the law and awareness about the law is also needed,” said Amrita Patel.

Insisting that the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006 should be made more stringent and enforceable, Patel highlighted that “in today’s world skill building and making the girls economically independent will go a long way in curbing the problem of child marriage.”

This report first appeared on April 24, 2017, at the VillageSquare.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Conserving rainwater in subsurface soil to fight water scarcity

Indigenous communities in India's Rayagada district mitigate the challenges of water scarcity by storing rainwater in subsurface soil. A cheap and concrete solution to a global problem.  

With a population of over 1.2 billion people, India’s per capita water availability has decreased substantially over the years. From 5,200 cubic metres (m3) in 1951 to 1,588 m3 in 2010 according to the Water Resources Information System (WRIS). This may shrink further to 1,401 m3 and 1,191 mby 2025 and 2050 respectively. To note is that the average volume isn’t available everywhere because of temporal and spatial variations in rainfall.
With deficient rain years becoming frequent and water demand rising non-renewable aquifers are being overexploited and states are engaged in disputes over river water sharing. Crop loss due to water scarcity has become a regular occurrence. The general decline in the conditions of agriculture is one of the reasons behind the over 300,000 farmers suicides that have taken place between 1995 and 2015 as National Crime Record Bureau data shows.
Nearly 30 per cent of India’s extension is threatened of desertification reveals the Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India. To face these challenges the Indian government has planned a 165 billion dollar river linking project to connect about 37 rivers with 15,000 kilometres of artificial waterways to relocate 174 cubic kilometres (km3) of water, reports The Economist. 

Rainwater in subsurface soil

“The success and impact of this project on basin ecosystems are still in doubt. India can instead go for simpler solutions like conservation of rainwater before it runs off to rivers and the sea,” says Banamali Naik, an agriculture engineer and irrigation expert who works on conservation of rainwater in subsurface soil. India, in fact, receives annual precipitations of the volume of 4,000 kmof which only 1,123 kmis utilisable. 1,869 kmof water flows through rivers whilst most of the rest for evaporates according to WRIS data.
Instead, “for most of the rainwater to be stored in the soil subsurface you don’t need sophisticated technology nor do you need to tamper with the geography. Its the runoff time that needs to be extended,” explains Bimal Chandra Sahu, an agriculture engineer in Naik’s team, “the speed of water in the soil is about two inches per hour but over a mile on the surface”. “To increase the runoff time, straight down flow of rainwater has to be checked and managed to move in a lengthier serpentine path within the landscape”. 

An idea that works

“We created small earthen bunding [a containment wall] down the hill to check the rainwater and defined its flow path so that it takes hours of time to run off the landscape after filling all our fields,” says Phulka Khanjak of Sikapai village in Odisha state’s Rayagada district. Now as the water flows for longer, over 60 per cent of rainwater gets absorbed into the soil, claims Sahu.
The villagers explain the impact this has had on their agricultural activities: “It’s been a year since we did this. Our fields used to remain fallow between rainy seasons but are now producing vegetables during winter and summer,” says Para Khanjaka of Sikapai. “We never thought of growing anything in this arid region after the rainy season. But it’s early summer and I’m now growing tomato and vegetables,” says Majibani Praska of Chichimi village, “some even cultivate rice now”. Another woman farmer, Almati Praska, says “production has also increased by 50-100 per cent”.
This is because rainwater stored in deep soil evaporates during dry seasons and adds moisture to the soil subsurface to support plant life. It keeps the groundwater streams alive too, Naik explains. “The idea has been implemented in the Keonjhar and Rayagada districts of Odisha and parts of Madhya Pradesh. It’s a cheap solution costing 150 dollars per hectare only,” he says.

Raising hope
On the entire planet less than one percent of freshwater is available for human consumption, the Water Scarcity Factsheet shows. Meanwhile, climate change has taken on global dimensions and affects water quality in various ways says UN-Water. “By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. And ecosystems around the world will suffer even more,” cautions the World Wildlife Fund. At such a crucial moment, the intuition of conserving rainwater in subsurface soil bears enormous hope for humanity and the world to escape the dangers of water scarcity.

This report first appeared on April 7, 2017, at LifeGate.

Friday, March 24, 2017

After defeating Posco, farmers turn to reclaim betel leaf economy

The formal closure of Posco’s steel plant project in Odisha is seen as a victory of agrarian economy over unwanted industrialization and the betel leaf farmers of Jagatsinghpur are rejoicing, although those who lost their land face new challenges.

In a unique case of victory of the agrarian economy over mineral-based industrial economy, betel leaf farming in the Jagatsinghpur district of Odisha proved to be more dependable and promising than the proposed $12 billion integrated steel plant project planned by one of the world’s largest steel producer POSCO.

The betel leaf stood firm against steel and forced the South Korean steel major out of its Odisha project. POSCO confirmed the withdrawal of its project by requesting the Odisha government to take back the land transferred in its name, according to a statement by Odisha’s Industry Minister Devi Prasad Mishra made on March 18.

POSCO had suspended its the project in July 2015 and, later, by deciding to temporarily freeze the project in 2016. Experts say POSCO had to drop the idea of investment in Odisha as the project couldn’t make any progress over the years due to strong resistance by local people. Since signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Odisha government for the project on June 22, 2005, POSCO faced consistent opposition from local people, many of whom were betel leaf cultivators.

Betel leaf economy

It’s important to realize the economic importance of betel leaf in order to understand the factors behind people’s fight against the gigantic project that would have attracted largest investment by a foreign company to India.

“This is not just a leaf, but the soul of our life and economy and the source of income that any industry can hardly offer to us,” said Ramesh Chandra Pashayat of Govindpur village, who had lost his betel vineyard for the POSCO project.

“After meeting all expenses and making the labor payments, I used to earn around Rs 50,000 a month from my vineyard on nearly 40 decimal of land. This apart, the cashew plants around it fetched me be Rs 30-40,000 in a season. This apart, the mango and moringa trees in the vicinity always supported our food and income,” said Sridhar Swain of the same village, while asking: “Given the fact that I don’t have any formal education, can POSCO or any other industry offer me an opportunity of this kind?”

“This is the reason why we opposed POSCO and wanted to protect our land and the dependable source of livelihood — the betel vines,” Sridhar told

Stronger than steel

According to the farmers, the vineyards raised by the villagers had the potential to employ thousands of people from this locality and even from outside. The daily transaction in the betel leaf business in the area exceeded Rs 5 million.

“The cultivation of betel leaf generated significant income. Destruction through the project development promised little compared to the social, economic and cultural benefits of existing livelihoods,” notes the Routledge International Handbook of Criminology and Human Rights, based on facts collected on the ground.

As per rough estimates, a vineyard raised on an acre (100 decimal) of land usually fetches the farmer a profit over Rs 1 million every year. This means every decimal of land pays the farmer at least Rs 10,000 a year. This economics probably made the betel leaf stronger than steel and a better choice for people.

“While acquiring land for POSCO, the government offered us Rs 11,500 per decimal of land as one-time compensation money. How could a farmer sacrifice the land permanently for such a meager compensation?” questioned Bishnu Das, a betel leaf grower.

Forceful demolition

Despite strong opposition from the farmers, the government didn’t heed to their voice and demands. Going by its unilateral decision in favor of POSCO, the local administration demolished hundreds of acres of vineyards by force. “Some of the vineyard owners were forced to accept the compensation money and vacate their land while at least 32 farmers didn’t get any compensation for their vineyards,” said Nibha Samal, a farmer.

“I had spent nearly 3 lakhs of rupees to raise my vineyard on 60 decimals. The administration demolished it but didn’t pay any compensation money. The list of farmers published by the administration listed many who never had a vineyard while several of the real farmers didn’t feature in the list,” 60-year-old Shiba Bardhan told “We have filed cases against such injustice done to us by the administration.”

“They did not only destroyed the betel vines but also cleaned the area by cutting trees around and made our green surrounding look like a desert,” said Gouri Das, a woman farmer.

Battle won, but challenges remain

Despite all efforts to curb the people’s movement and acquire the land, POSCO is now a lost dream for the Odisha government.  On the other hand, though the people’s movement came out victorious so far, it’s only a lose-lose situation for the people who lost their land, livelihood sources and everything for POSCO.

Their betel vines were demolished with promises that the upcoming project would provide an alternate livelihood. As the industry didn’t come, their livelihood is now completely lost.

“The compensation money they paid has been exhausted by now because we had to live without any immediate employment. The project didn’t happen. We are now reduced to daily wagers. How will we survive with a daily wage of 200 rupees?” asks an angry Gouri Das who has lost his land.

“The government forgot all its promises like an interim stipend, alternate livelihood etc. So, once farmers, we live like beggars today,” said Ramesh Das, who has not only lost his land but also has broken his hand in the conflict between people and the government over the POSCO project.

Those who extended whole-hearted support for the project and submitted their land are living a more miserable life. “The government betrayed us. We surrendered all our resources to see the industry in our area and enjoy the benefits of industrialisation. But the government couldn’t make it possible. Nor has it returned the land to us to continue our traditional economic activities like raising betel vines to make a survival,” said Tamil Pradhan, leader of people who supported the government.

The most pathetic story is of the people who sacrificed everything for POSCO and were kept by the government in a transit colony. “They were the first supporters of the project. But as POSCO decided to freeze the project, we suddenly became a burden on the government. The administration threatened to disconnect electricity and lock the houses unless we vacate the transit colony immediately and return home,” said Chandan Mohanty of Patana village, who was also the president of the POSCO Transit Colony Association.

“The administration even didn’t bother to shift us to our village safely. So, we had to negotiate with people who opposed POSCO project and came back to our village to live our own destiny,” he said with agony.

Sounds of another battle

As the plights of people keep increasing since POSCO has shown indications to withdraw its Odisha project, the discontent among people of the project area is simmering too. “Since POSCO has scrapped the Odisha project and the government has not taken any responsibility of the affected people and the land losers, the lands must be returned to people immediately,” said Tamil Pradhan who also hinted that the affected people and land losers are to hold a meeting soon to decide on the issues and to re-occupy their land.

“If the government was not sure about the intentions of POSCO, why did it take away and ruin our guaranteed sources of livelihood? Even if we get the land wherefrom we shall get money to re-raise our vineyards?” asked Jayanti Pashayat and many other farmers who have lost their land has been acquired for the POSCO project.

Even the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), which opposed the steel project, has announced to start a mass repossession drive in the affected villages.

However, there is very little chance for the land losers to get back their land because, as per Odisha government’s revised policy for land acquisition notified on 7th February 2015, “Land acquired and possession taken over but not utilized within a period of five years from the date of possession shall in all cases revert back to the State and deposited in the Land Bank automatically.”

“The acts of the government are highly questionable because it destroyed the sources of people’s livelihood and couldn’t bring the industry to fulfill its promises of alternate livelihood. Putting people in such a miserable state is purely anti-people and against the very spirit of democracy. We won’t allow this to continue and, also, won’t allow the farm lands to be converted for any other use,” said Abhay Sahu, president of PPSS.

“Shortly, we are going to start another movement against the government and mobilise people to repossess their farm lands and reconstruct their vineyards for the cultivation of betel leaves,” PPSS Spokesperson Prashant Paikray stated.

The sounds of another war to reoccupy the land and revival of the betel leaf economy have started reverberating in the villages surrounding the land acquired in the name of the POSCO project.

This report first appeared on March 20, 2017, at the VillageSquare.