September 12, 2018

Women farmers suffer due to unequal land rights

Although they are often the actual cultivators, the lack of land rights among women farmers in Odisha has resulted in chronic distress because they are unable to get government loans or compensation over crop loss
Since her husband migrated out of Odisha for work, it fell upon Remati Majhi (25) of Dhamnaguda village in Nuapada district to cultivate rice in the fields owned by her husband. But she could neither avail any government loan nor insure the crop because she didn’t have title over the land. So, she had no option but to arrange the required resources through private moneylenders.

To the misfortune of farmers, a severe draught in Odisha resulted in almost complete loss of kharif (monsoon) crop in 2015. The loss forced nearly 140 indebted farmers across the state to commit suicide. Remati was one of those unfortunate farmers.

“As there was complete crop loss and she had borrowed money from private sources to fulfill farm needs, she might have committed suicide, fearing pressure from the moneylenders for repayment of the loans,” Umashankar Majhi, Remati’s husband, told VillageSquare.in.

However, because she didn’t have title over the land she cultivated, the local administration didn’t record Remati’s case as a case of farmer suicide. As per norms of the Odisha government, anybody not having title over the land is officially not counted as a farmer and cannot claim benefits of security coverage or financial assistance schemes intended for welfare of state’s food growers.

Unequal landholdings

Despite this, small and marginal farmers have no option but to grow crops in the fields of medium and large landholders because of the inequitable nature of land distribution in the state.

According to the Odisha government’s report on the status of agriculture, per capita availability of cultivated land in the state has declined from 0.39 hectares in 1950-51 to 0.13 ha in recent times.

Out of total 46.67 lakh operational holdings in the state, marginal and smallholdings account for 72.17% and 19.68%, respectively, according to the 2010-11 agriculture census of India. The total cultivable area in Odisha is 48.52 lakh hectares, out of which 33.68 lakh marginal holdings cover 19.22 lakh ha, and 14.98 lakh ha go to 9.19 lakh smallholdings. The remaining 14.32 lakh ha come under 3.81 lakh medium and large holdings. The latter, with a number of only 6,000, holds 1.32 lakh hectares of land.

Of the total, 1.42 lakh marginal and smallholdings covering 1.05 lakh ha and 11,000 medium holdings covering 39,000 ha belong to women.

In such a land distribution scenario where most of the medium and large landowners happen to be absentee farmers, their land is usually cultivated by marginal and small farmers, who rent the land on conditions of sharing the harvest or against a fixed volume of crop to be grown.

Even though leasing out agricultural land is banned in Odisha, with a few exceptions, farmers continue to do it unofficially with the hope that agriculture on more land would bring them more harvest and make the activity economically viable.

Sharecroppers at risk

“Things go well when the harvest is good. But, with calamities like droughts and floods, a good harvest has remained only in the aspirations of farmers, which has never been realized, at least during the last decade or so,” Sanjay Tiwari, convener of Nuapada-based Krushak Shakti Sangathan that raises issues faced by the farmers, told VillageSquare.in.

In the view of Himanshu Banchhor (40) of Durkamunda village in Nuapada district, “The share cropper or tenant farmer is always at risk.”

“When a marginal farmer like me takes land owned by others for agriculture, I know it well that I don’t have title over it to claim benefits of government facilities like loans, input subsidy or crop insurance,” he said. “I need to meet all expenses through private loans with higher rate of interest and the commitment for timely repayment even in an adverse situation.”

In case of severe crop loss, tenant farmers face strong pressure from moneylenders for repayment of loans, whereas the government pays compensation money against crop loss to the landowners, who in fact do nothing on the field. Placed as a loser from both ends, many of the tenant farmers finally sacrifice their lives. This has been the case in most cases of farmer suicide in the state since 2014.

No bill for sharecroppers soon

Explaining the objectives and reasons of the Model Agricultural Land Leasing Act 2016, the NITI Aayog envisaged it as an “Act to permit and facilitate leasing of agricultural land, to improve agricultural efficiency and equity, access to land by the landless and semi-landless poor, occupational diversity and for accelerated rural growth and transformation; provide recognition to farmers cultivating agricultural land on lease for enabling them to access loans through credit institutions, insurance, disaster relief and other support services provided by Government, while protecting fully the land rights of the owners; and matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”

Under pressure from farmers’ organizations and in response to the NITI Aayog’s recommendation, the Odisha government, in November 2017, announced that actual cultivators, including sharecroppers, would be paid agriculture input subsidy and compensation against crop loss.

Since absentee ownership of agricultural land is illegal in the state, identification of sharecroppers remained a challenge for the government because the landowners may not come forward to declare their tenant farmers.

So, in order to make the system of leasing out of farmland legal, the existing Land Reform Act needs to be amended, which doesn’t seem to happen soon, after the recent statement of Odisha’s revenue minister which said that “legislation for sharecroppers being a sensitive issue, it needs to be finalized keeping in mind the rights of landlords and sharecroppers.”
“Government will deal with it cautiously,” the minister added.

Women face the brunt

In any case, women are the most to suffer, said Ahalya Patel (50) of Khasbahal village in Khariar administrative block.

As most of the male members of Khasbahal migrate outside as laborers, many women of the village look after agriculture.

“Due to the patriarchal land title system, we are not considered farmers even while growing crops in our family owned fields because our name doesn’t feature in the title papers. We are unable to claim our rights and avail any benefit of government policies because of having no title,” she told VillageSquare.in. “The title remains an issue for women throughout the life, on different occasions.”

The issue, however, is not an isolated one limited to Odisha. In India, more than 70% of women work in the agriculture sector. The percentage is even higher when confined to rural India. Involved as farmers and agricultural laborers, women contribute significantly to food production in the country.

Despite the fact that women represent about half of the global population, produce the majority of global food supply, and perform 60% to 80% of the agricultural work in developing countries, women own less than 20% of land worldwide, according to the World Bank.

Shockingly, women are generally excluded from official data because most do not have title to land. “A woman is not classed as a farmer. She is a farmer’s wife, and her suicide is not included in the figures,” Graham Peebles, Director of the Create Trust noted in his piece Indian Farmers Trapped and Desperate, expressing concern over the miseries women farmers encounter.

Need for social action

Land transfer in India occurs mostly through inheritance and women face severe discrimination from their families in this respect. Several studies show that families are most likely to deny the married daughters, widows and unmarried women their land share. This results in abysmally poor land ownership of women in India varying between 9% and 13%, according to an Oxfam policy brief.

“The issue needs political attention and action in order to bring changes in existing policies to safeguard the rights and interests of women in agriculture sector,” said Vidhya Das of Odisha based non-profit Agragamee, who was an advisor to Supreme Court Commission for Right to Food.

In order to give equal right to women on the land, as Das urged, “Society has to change the mindset towards women and members in a family should come forward to protect the rights of its women folks.”

 This piece first appeared on the VillageSquare.in, on September 10, 2018.

August 09, 2018

Warning for Odisha Govt: 56K Adolescent Girls Drop Out of School

Two ministries of the Odisha government are at loggerheads over the dropout rate of ‘adolescent girls’ from school, in the state. Last week, based on a baseline survey, the department of Women and Child Development and Mission Shakti (WCD-MS) claimed that nearly 56,000 girls, in the age group of 11-14, are out of school.

The survey was done to trace out the number of beneficiaries to be included under the central government-sponsored Scheme for Adolescent Girls (SAG), which has been universalised in the state since 1 April 2018. A letter from Anu Garg, Principal Secretary of WCD-MS department, to her counterpart in the School and Mass Education Department, specified that 55,868 girls of 11-14 years, were out of school.

Hours after the WCD-MS survey results were made public, Badri Narayan Patra, the School and Mass Education Minister, claimed only 1,060 girls in the aforesaid age group were out of school till September 2017. The minister was citing the figures from a survey done by the School and Mass education department.

The Conflict Over Data
The unimaginable gap between the data provided by two different government departments has left many intellectuals and educationists scratching their heads.

“This is just a joke from the minister. If the department has given him this number then its survey is either too limited,or it’s hiding the reality to save its face,” said Anil Pradhan, Convener of the Odisha Right to Education (RTE) forum.

However, the minister has been showing old data (of September 2017) and his department might have collected it from the schools, particularly on dropouts. It doesn’t have a system to go to communities to gather data. On the other hand, the data provided by the WCD-MS department includes girls who never enrolled, enrolled but never attended school, and girls who dropped out of schools, explained an official from WCD-MS department on condition of anonymity.

Somehow, because of its presence at the grassroot level, through the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) network, WCD-MS data seems more reliable, said Panchanan Mishra, a community development practitioner based in the tribal district of Kandhamal. He said, “The mass education minister should realise this fact instead of challenging the latest data.”
The minister should understand that his figure, which is completely at odds with the latest numbers, would deprive a huge number of adolescent girls from receiving the benefits of SAG, the source at WCD-MS said.

SAG aims to address the multi-dimensional needs of out-of-school adolescent girls between 11 and 14 years, and to motivate these girls to join formal or informal school systems for a better future.

Policy Failure of Naveen Patnaik Government?

With so many policies and schemes like the Odisha State Policy for Girls and Women, the Biju Kanya Ratna Yojana, and programmes specifically designed for adolescent girls, the School and Mass Education department of Odisha government has been claiming a high rate of success in the education of the girl child. But the aforesaid survey results from the Women and Child Development and Mission Shakti (WCD-MS) department has opened Pandora’s Box.

“The Education Minister should believe that the data collected by WCD-MS is even less than the reality,” insisted noted human rights activist and lawyer Biswapriya Kanungo, who has filed a case with the National Human Right Commission (NHRC) citing the issue as a gross violation of the fundamental right to education of every Indian upto the age of 14.
The Odisha government, however, claims a huge success in the enrollment of girls and bringing back girl dropouts to schools under the the State Policy for Girls and Women and the Biju Kanya Ratna (BKR) scheme in specific districts.
The State Policy of Girls and Women envisages an expenditure of about 500 crores over a period of time to ensure development and empowerment of girls. Besides, with a budget of 3.5 crore rupees between 2016-2017 and 2018-19, the Biju Kanya Ratna Yojana implemented in three districts of Angul, Dhenkanal and Ganjam works to address gender bias and issues related to the girl child.

Ironically, the tribal populated KBK (undivided Koraput, Bolangir and Kalandi districts) region has the most number of out of school girls with Koraput claiming top spot, with 10,599 such girls. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s home district of Ganjam has 4,296 out-of-school girls, despite the implementation of Biju Kanya Ratna scheme.

“It completely reflects gross failure of policies that have more become vote-centric than development-centric. This could be attributed to the fact that children of none of the ministers and political leaders, bureaucrats and policy makers go to a government-run educational facility,” Kanungo said.

RTE activist Anil Pradhan told The Quint, “There is no dearth of funds but a huge lack of political will, bureaucratic interest and involvement.

A Chance at a Better Life

“It’s a warning call. It seems that the future of such huge numbers of adolescent girls is bleak. Most of these girls would be forced to marry early which would lead to more child marriages. Many would become labourers and several would be vulnerable to various types of abuse,” Rukmini Panda, a Bhubaneswar-based commentator on gender said.

Panda asked, “How can the state achieve the goals of development by depriving so many girls of their basic right to education, which would force them towards early and unsafe motherhood?”
It’s globally accepted that at least 10 years of education among girls would reduce 64 percent of child marriages.

“And, when we are not addressing the issue of trying to get these girls back to schools and allow them to complete at least secondary level education, we are making their lives vulnerable — to child marriage, and to sexual and physical abuse,” Pradhan said.

“The government and civil societies must take it as a serious call for action to help these girls improve their lives. Instead of fighting over a discrepancy in data, all government departments should rather come together to ensure the best coverage of SAG in Odisha, and offer these adolescent girls from marginalised communities, a chance at a risk-free, healthy life, Rukmini Panda said.

This piece first appeared on The Quint.

July 26, 2018

Act now to spur urban climate resilience

Like most cities in India, Bhubaneswar is being driven to its knees due to extreme rainfall and intolerable temperatures, underscoring the urgent need for climate-smart urban planning 


After intense overnight showers, Bhubaneswar woke up on Saturday, July 21, morning with half the city under water. The situation at the capital of the eastern state of Odisha in many ways typifies poor urban management in India that is crumbling under adverse climatic conditions.

Residents in many parts of the city were stranded in their homes and the condition was so dire in some parts that the state’s disaster response team has to start rescue operations. Roads in the state capital looked like gushing streams. Disaster response forces moved to waterlogged areas with floating pumps to drain out water.

“Such situations have become annual events for the city of Bhubaneswar with heavy downpour becoming normal during rainy seasons,” Arun Samal, an accounts professional, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

Delayed monsoon

“There was only scanty rain since the onset of the monsoon till middle of July. Then, suddenly, we get two months’ rain within a week,” Samal said. “Such heavy rain for a short span would hardly help agriculture or serve any purpose but to make life miserable.” Within 24 hours till 8.30 AM, July 21, Bhubaneswar received a rainfall of 195 mm, according to Skymet Weather.

As the onset of monsoon was delayed this season, rain deficiency during June was 27% over Odisha. “As the rains continue to evade the state even during the first few days of July, thus until July 7, the deficiency mounted to a whopping minus 30%,” Skymet said.

According to India Meteorological Department data, rainfall in Bhubaneswar’s home district Khordha was deficient by 19% as on July 7. But, by July 21, the district received 29% surplus rainfall because of a few days of heavy rainfall. Although this cannot be directly related to climate change, untimely and intense rainfall is considered as one of the impacts of climate change.

Rise in the daytime ozone-mixing ratio due to high temperature during June could be provoking favourable conditions for higher ground level ozone formation and resulting in shifting the monsoon activation time to July, a study on surface ozone variation at Bhubaneswar suspected.

“Such pattern of a dry monsoon with a few days of extreme rainy days is induced by the phenomenon of climate change,” Prasanna Mishra, a retired bureaucrat and long time city resident, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

Summer heat

Even as extreme rainy days bring the city to a standstill, the heat on summer days is also becoming unbearable. This year in February, the highest temperature in Bhubaneswar reached 35 degrees Celsius, 7 degrees above normal. In March, the city remained the hottest in the country with 39.8 degrees. The mercury in the city touched 45.8 in April and continued to remain above 40 degrees during the next two months, with a lingering heat wave in the month of June, the month of monsoon’s onset.

“With high temperature and humidity, Bhubaneswar converts into a heat island during summer months almost since the past two decades,” Akshaya Pradhan, a physics teacher at the city based Biju Patnaik College of Science and Education, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

According to research, if wet bulb temperature (wet bulb temperature is a combined measure of temperature and humidity in the ambient air) exceeds 35 degrees Celsius, metabolic heat in humans can no longer be dissipated. Exposure to it for six hours would result in death even for the fittest of humans under shaded, well-ventilated conditions.

A sizable part of the Indian subcontinent is likely to experience more frequent and intensified heat waves and associated physical stress during the extended period covering the pre-monsoon to monsoon seasons, the research indicated.

Unruly expansion

Even though climate change is responsible for the extreme weather conditions experienced in Bhubaneswar, the impacts can be minimised through proper land use, said Mishra.

“Unfortunately, the city is expanding in an unruly manner. The natural channels for rainwater drainage are chocked at all ends and water bodies in the city have vanished to make space for housing and other commercial activities,” he said. “Despite strong guidelines, plans for high-rise buildings and apartments are being approved indiscriminately, without considering aspects like water drainage, sewage and waste management.”

Since most of the city is covered by concrete, there is no scope for the rainwater to seep into the soil, which would also recharge groundwater, said Niranjan Sahu, a tent house owner. “Because of this, groundwater level is continuously depleting,” he said.

Planned for a population of 40,000, Bhubaneswar now accommodates nearly a million people. As it expanded, things went erratic and now people face the problems, said Brundaban Dalabehera, a real estate developer.

Need of futuristic planning

“As the city now aspires to become the sports capital of India, it needs to address the issues that are vital to offer quality life to its denizens,” Dalabehera told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

In order to protect the environment and avoid such man-made calamities, the city needs to restore its natural drainage systems on a priority basis, said Ramesh Swain, an architect and Bhubaneswar’s leading town planner.

“City planning needs to be futuristic considering what the city would be 20-30 years ahead and what would be population pressure and possible issues. People also should be educated to partner in the process,” he said.

Climate change impacts are being experienced globally and cities across the world are facing issues induced by it. Building resilience should be the priority to ensure sustainable urban growth.

Already ranked as a smart city, Mishra claimed, with two rivers and a wildlife sanctuary surrounding Bhubaneswar, Odisha’s capital city can become climate-smart and a model eco-friendly city if it is allowed to grow in harmony with nature and a bit of green is added to its development planning.

This article first appeared on the India Climate Dialogue, on July 23, 2018

July 18, 2018

Araku Valley takes baby steps to address maternal health

An initiative to reach healthcare services to pregnant women and new mothers in the underdeveloped Araku Valley, bordering Odisha's Koraput district, has seen a measure of success in tribal communities ruled by superstition and regressive practices

In a lively anganwadi or daycare center in Godiguda village, an auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM) conducting health check up of over 10 women, some pregnant and others lactating, reflected the changing scenario in maternal and child health in the Araku Valley of Andhra Pradesh.

Traditionally, delivery cases handled by a dhai, elderly women from the village or the community, being the practice, and pregnant women visiting a medical or a doctor considered an act against norm, pregnant mothers had to submit themselves to their fate despite high rate of maternal and neonatal mortality in the valley, Malati (35), who has decided to go for an institutional delivery for her sixth child, told VilageSquare.in.

Since undergoing family planning surgery, using contraceptives and an abortion by choice are all considered sins against humanity, multiple pregnancies up to five-six children is quite common across the valley inhabited mostly by tribal people.

To add to the plight of women were the rough terrain and lack of communication facilities to reach the government primary and community health centers in times of urgency.

Awareness the key

“In a predominantly tribal society ruled by stigma and superstitions, influencing behavior to make these women folks attend regular health check up during pregnancy and opt for institutional delivery was a herculean task,” Pramila, a girl from the Araku Valley who works as ANM in the Asara tribal health project of Piramal Swasthya, told VillageSquare.in.

Piramal Swasthya works in coordination with the government system to make health services available to tribal communities, particularly pregnant and lactating mothers and their newborns, in times of need. “Despite being from the local communities, we were threatened initially by a few male members for misleading the pregnant women by suggesting them to go for medical check-up and institutional delivery,” Pramila said.

If the mothers and their newborns were to be saved, bringing awareness on maternal and child health, possible complications during pregnancy and benefits of institutional delivery were essential. This idea drove Pramila and her colleagues like P. Padma to reach out to people, trace pregnant mothers and motivate them as well as other family members, such as the husband and elderly members, to avail health services for a safe delivery.

Now, most of the pregnant women like Malati of Godiguda and Vasanta (35) of Muliagalagu are not only coming for health checkup and consuming iron folic tablets as well as other nutrient supplementations, but also have decided to go for institutional delivery. “Earlier, we were unaware of the benefits of institutional delivery,” Vasanta said.

Making services accessible

However, accessing public health facilities was an issue for most hamlets. One had to walk miles through rough terrain to reach a paved road and get an ambulance to a health center. The time required to reach a hospital always remained crucial to pregnant mothers.

In order to make the facility reach people in need, a mobile hospital service with all facilities to handle a delivery case has been started under the Asara project. “Many pregnant mothers from remote hamlets who were at the last stage have delivered their babies in the mobile hospital vans,” T. Swarnalatha, program manager of the project, told VillageSquare.in.

While the ANMs visit every hamlet to attend the pregnant mothers, the telemedicine centers with necessary equipment, nurses and a doctor work as the points for periodical health checkup, necessary treatment and expert consultation through teleconferencing. Mothers diagnosed with diseases that need further treatment are referred to government health care centers or district hospitals.

“Most mothers come with anemia and diseases like malaria and hypertension,” said medical doctor Sanmukha Reddy of Dumbriguda telemedicine center.

Nutrition-related challenges

As is the case with tribal communities of India, “anemia is most common among pregnant mothers and children of the Araku valley,” nutritionist Sweta Kuralla of Nandivalasa nutrition hub, a center under the Gosthani project to deal with nutrition-related issues, told VillageSquare.in.

About 88.9% of adolescent girls are anemic, 17.8% being severely anemic. Highest prevalence was seen in the age group of 12-13 and 14-15 years that is 85% and 86.5% respectively, says a study on anemia among adolescent girls in the tribal areas of Visakhapatnam district in Andhra Pradesh.

According to National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NFHS-4), 60% of women in Andhra Pradesh have anemia. Malnutrition being particularly common in the younger age groups of the scheduled tribes, 59% of children between the ages of 6 and 59 months are anemic. Girls are more likely than boys to have anemia.

While tribal mothers have high rates of anemia, and girl children receive less than the desired nutritional intake. All told, the whole tribal community is deficient in adequate food intake, says a report on reproductive health status, issues and concerns of tribal women.

Nutrition hubs

The nutrition hubs work to address the issue of undernourishment among pregnant women and children. Apart from advising them to take iron folic acid tablets during pregnancy, as provided by the government, “mothers are told to consume variety of vegetables, leaves and ragi in different forms for adequate micro-nutrient supplementation,” Kuralla said. “The nutrition hub trains the community on how to grow leaves and vegetables and prepare different types of foods for better nutrition.”

After years of efforts, “during pregnancy, women are now taking iron folic tablets,” Golleri Lakshmi, the accredited social health activist (ASHA) at Godiguda village, told VillageSquare.in.

However, there are many issues to be overcome for sustainability of the changes that have come after the interventions.

Child marriage

The primary social issue in the valley is child marriage. As per NFHS-4 data, in rural Visakhapatnam, 34% of women between 20-24 years of age married before 18, and at least 10.5% of women between15-19 years of age have either become pregnant or become new mothers.

The scale of child marriage and early motherhood could be higher in tribal population. At least three in every five marriages involve brides below 18 years of age. “Normally girls in the communities marry after 14 years of age,” B. Abhiman, a political worker in Araku valley, told VillageSquare.in.

It is established that girls aged 15-19 are twice as likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s, and girls under 18 face a higher risk of pregnancy-related injuries such as fistula. Infants born to early adolescent mothers have a three-fold higher risk of post-neonatal death compared with adult mothers, studies found.

Need for education

Promotion of education among girls of tribal communities can address the issue and minimize the risk of child marriage and early pregnancy, says UN report, The Girl Child. In Visakhapatnam, female literacy in the tribal population has remained 34.67% only, according to the statistical abstract of Andhra Pradesh government. Rate of girls completing 10 or 12 years of education is abysmally low.

In regard to nutritional status of newborns, it is believed that the newborn must not be fed with the first milk of the mother, which deprives the child from highly nutritious colostrum and the antibodies the first milk contains. Apart from this, the tribal people of the valley do not consume cow milk, believing that it’s for the calves only.

Encouraging outcomes

Changing customary and normative beliefs and practices take time, said Vishal Phanse, Chief Executive Officer of Piramal Swasthya. “However, through the interventions so far in coherence with the government and district administration and by making use of technology for social good and development in public health sector, maternal mortality rate in all registered cases in the valley has come down to zero,” Phanse told VillageSquare.in.

This is despite the fact that Visakhapatnam district has a maternal mortality rate (MMR) of 115 per 100,000 registered live births. “Our focus is now on improving the status of health of adolescent girls,” he added.

Once restricted to their communities, pregnant tribal women are now showing interest in medical check-up, taking medicines and nutritional supplements, and in institutional delivery for their own safety and the health of the child, Vasanta, a pregnant mother of Muliaguda village said.

“Covering 181 villages under the Asara project, we deal with 250-300 cases of pregnant mothers almost every time,” said T. Swarnalatha, the program manager.

Changing scenario

Overall, the scenario is changing. Women have understood the benefits of modern healthcare facilities. As the women and others in the communities are changing their minds, the government mechanism has also become active to respond to health related issues of women, B. Abhiman said.

“Tribal women in the valley have become conscious about their health during pregnancy, a safe delivery and the health of their babies,” Sanmukha Reddy said.

Other than the issues like child marriage, education of girls and normative beliefs left to be addressed through a holistic approach to make the impacts sustainable, results of intervention in the arena of maternal health and nutrition in Araku valley, on the northern edges of Andhra Pradesh bordering Odisha's Koraput district, have no doubt made it a model for wider replication across tribal India.

This report first appeared at the VillageSquare on July 16, 2018.

July 11, 2018

Community protection holds hope for climate change affected Similipal sanctuary

Impacted by climate change and human activity, hope for the Similipal biosphere reserve in the eastern state of Odisha has come from protection offered by area residents. 

 Standing in the backyard garden of his thatched house near the core area of the Similipal national park, Shyam Ho (50) of Kusumi village recalled his childhood when the forest around his village was thick and the primary source of food for his tribal community.

“We used to get everything, from tubers to leafy vegetables and a variety of fruits and berries, in the forest. Honey was abundant available in the hedges, the mud walls of our houses, and in the nearby forest. They all have become rare these days,” Shyam Ho said. “Today, we have to buy honey from collectors whenever we need it even for medicinal use. We don’t see so many varieties of honeybees around our villages these days.”

Although the forest is no longer bountiful, the impoverished people living around it have been spared from the spectre of acute hunger through a welfare scheme of the Odisha government that provides them rice, a local staple, at INR 1 (1.5 US cents) per kg, said Makara Ho (35) of Gudugudia, another village within the forest limits.

“With the pattern of rain becoming erratic and scarce most of the years, growing food through agriculture has become a risky affair,” Makara Ho told indiaclimatedialogue.net. Droughts have become more frequent in recent years, agreed Laxman Ho, a friend of Makara.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Simplipal biosphere reserve, a treasure of flora and fauna, and an important factor in regulating the local climate of Odisha, is facing the brunt of climate change.

Plant species affected

Famous in this part of the world as a habitat of big cats and elephants, among a variety of other mammals, birds and reptiles, Similipal is a thickly forested hill range in Odisha’s northern most district of Mayurbhanj. Its name is derived from the simul (silk cotton) tree and the hill range is referred to in Odia literature as Salmali Shaila (Hill of Simul) by eminent authors.

“At present, one can hardly find a simul tree in this forest,” said Arjun Mahakud, a forest guard at Chahala in the Similipal Tiger Reserve (STR). “Phanphania (Oroxylum Indicum or the Damocles tree), among one or two other species, which were common to this forest during our childhood, are almost extinct now.”

Sal (Shorea robusta) being the dominating tree, Similipal Biosphere Reserve (SBR) is a treasure house of 1,076 species of plants from 102 families and 96 registered species of orchids. “We have identified 94 orchid species but most of them have become rare,” Dharmeswar Naik, a worker at the Orchidarium in Karanjia division of STR, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Vanda Tessellata (Grey Orchid) is becoming rare and the endemic Dendrobium Regium, called the Queen of Similipal, is shifting to north Similipal, where atmospheric temperature is relatively lower.”

A threatened species in the IUCN Red list, the decline of Vanda Tesselata has been attributed to changing environmental conditions, habitat loss and degradation.

Climate change has not only impacted orchids. “The other endemic plant species, Piasala, or the Indian Kino (Pterocarpus marsupium) is under attack from new diseases,” Arjun Mahakud added.

Deficient rainfall

Defining the climate in Similipal as wet tropical monsoon, Faunal Resources of Similipal Biosphere Reserve of Zoological Survey of India, Kolkata, notes, “The cyclones from the Bay of Bengal bring copious rains during July to October from low pressure at Bay of Bengal, which passes over north Balasore and strikes at Similipal Meghasan range. If the range were absent, then Odisha would have been a desert tract like Rajasthan,” the report says.

Similipal functions as a watershed, giving rise to many perennial rivers like Budhabalanga, Hadkei, Khairi, Bhandan, Salandi, etc. The rich water sources facing drought conditions more frequently is surely something odd to imagine, thus a matter of serious concern.

Rainfall data of the past five years (2013-17) for Mayurbhanj district shows a declining trend. Rainfall trend analysis for Mayurbhanj, done by scientists of Keonjhar-based regional research station of Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology, concludes: “Any year receiving rainfall less than or equal to 1,609.14 mm will be drought year.” The annual rainfall in the years 2015, 2016 and 2017 being 1,332.4, 1,424.6 and 1,504.1 mm respectively, the host district of Similipal forest has faced drought for three straight years.

“The precipitation behaviour in recent years reflects the rising trend of less precipitation and is expected to receive 70 cm (700 mm) average precipitation by the middle of next century,” cautions Faunal Resources of Similipal Biosphere Reserve of Zoological Survey of India, Kolkata.

Extreme weather conditions

An analysis of temperature data in the winter month of January and summer month of May over a period of 20 years (1995-2015) shows that Mayurbhanj district, the climate of which is completely influenced by Similipal, is slowly marching towards extreme temperature conditions.

While the average maximum temperature in the district in January has increased by 2.02 degree Celsius over the past two decades, the minimum temperature has fallen by 2.26 degree. The trend for May shows an increase of 1.42 degrees and a fall by 3.3 degrees in regard to average maximum and minimum temperatures.

“Though this is not yet an alarming change, it indicates more extreme temperature conditions in the future if no precaution measure is taken immediately,” Yugal Kishore Mohanta, a microbiology research scholar at Baripada-based North Odisha University, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Such conditions may badly impact the rainfall pattern and alter the ecosystem.”

“Warmer temperatures lead to increased water losses from evaporation and evapotranspiration and can also result in reduced water use efficiency of plants,” Says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report on climate change impact on forest health. “Longer, warmer growing seasons can intensify these effects resulting in severe moisture stress and drought.”

Deforestation trail

Being the major food source for its human population and hunting ground for the local rulers, Similipal forest has been facing anthropogenic pressure since centuries.

Timber harvest to earn revenue was a practice during the British colonial rule. In the northwest region of Similipal, Badampahar remained a deforestation hotspot for years due to mining activities. With agriculture promoted among tribal communities to minimise pressure on the forest, deforestation took place to convert forestland into farmland. The southern part of Similipal witnessed large-scale deforestation for agriculture.

“There was 23% (946.1 sq. km) of reduction in the forest cover between 1930 and 1975. Within a period of 82 years (1930–2012), the forest cover decline was 970.8 sq. km (23.6% of the total forest),” according to a study based on satellite remote sensing data.

Analysis using Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) found “significant negative changes” in the core areas of a few large protected areas of India including that of Similipal wildlife sanctuary.

“After relocation of villages in the core area of STR in the name of tiger protection and forest conservation, forest around those deserted villages are being wiped out to raise grassland,” Maheswar Nayak (61) of Balipaka, a village in the buffer zone of Similipal, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

“Such grasslands are being raised under meadow development scheme” implemented by the STR authorities, villagers said. The objective of the scheme is to maintain the existing meadows and improve those that have shrunk.

Carbon emission

Other than deforestation, forest fires have been the major culprit behind degradation of forest in SBR. As estimated by a study, the total area affected under forest fire in the SBR has been 23.7% in 2004, 11.5% in 2005, 24.8% in 2006, 23.5% in 2007 and 18% in 2008, 27.9% in 2009, 16.4% in 2010, 16.3% in 2011, 27% in 2012 and 14% in 2013.

The buffer and core zones of Similipal have been emitting more carbonaceous gases than the transition zone, the study found.

“Warmer climate means more fires, and more fires mean more greenhouse gases,” cautioned Odisha’s State Climate Change Action Plan, while suggesting necessary actions to evaluate the long-term effects of climate change on forests and determine what to do to respond to this threat.

Community management 

The Forest Right Act (FRA) of 2006 has recognised the rights of tribal and other communities traditionally living in Similipal sanctuary and empowered them with community forest rights to protect the forest and its critical resources — wildlife and biodiversity — within their respective dwelling areas. So far, community rights over forest resources of people living in 44 villages in Similipal have been recognised.

“We are entitled with community forest right (CFR) over 3,000 acre of forest in the buffer zone of Similipal sanctuary since 2015. During the last three years, sal and other local trees have regrown. We not only guard this forest from poaching activities but also allow it to rejuvenate to fulfil our food and livelihood demands,” Maheswar Naik, president of the Forest Right Committee of Balipaka village, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

According to villagers, they have collected a good amount of honey and fruits this year from the forest under their protection.

“These tribal people are worshippers of trees, forest and the nature. The heritage trees and sacred grooves, which are more than 300 years old, are testimony to this. They only were to be taken into confidence and entrusted with responsibilities to protect and conserve forest resources, and promote sustainable use of it in their communities,” said Bijaylal Mohanta of Jashipur-based non-profit Centre for Regional Education, Forest and Tourism Development Agency (CREFTDA), which helps tribal communities in filing community right claims, forming FRCs and functioning as per FRA guidelines.

The scenario is now changing. “As communities are protecting forest in the buffer area, human interference in the core area has drastically come down,” said Arjun Mahakud, the forest guard at Chahala in STR.

With community engagement in conservation activities, green cover is spreading over the barren edges of southern Similipal, raising hope about rejuvenation of the degraded forest to face and mitigate the challenges of climate change.

This article first appeared on the India Climate Dialogue, on July 9, 2018, under the title: Community protection holds hope for Simlipal Sanctuary.

May 30, 2018

Enterprising Odisha women take to selling fish to improve lives

Women in Odisha’s coastal fishing villages have turned to selling fish and value-added fishery products after eliminating middlemen and abolishing the home brewing of country liquor, the root cause of their problems.

Selling fish at the local fish market, Dulana Das (40) of Rambha village in Odisha’s Ganjam district took pride in introducing herself as a businesswoman instead of a fisherwoman. “I buy fish every morning from fishermen who fish in Chilika Lake and the nearby sea,” Dulana told VillageSquare.in.“With a designated place for me in the market, and a 20% profit, I earn a good income.” 

“Women like Dulana have not only contributed to economic progress of their families, but to improvement of their social status too,” said A. Kaleya, a young man engaged in community development work. An ignored lot, the women rooted out problems one after the other, and emerged as successful entrepreneurs. “We are now treated like human beings,” said 75-year-old B. Chittamma (75) of Kotturu village.

Disregarded women

Decades ago, families and the community ignored their women. “Boozing being common among male members of almost all fishing villages, women didn’t get any respect, but always bore the brunt of alcoholism,” Chittamma told VillageSquare.in.

Despite standard catch, the income was low because middlemen siphoned off the profit. They never paid the fishermen on time. The fisher families had to struggle for survival under economic pressure. Whether it was lack of money or the men’s frustration caused by paucity, women were the victims.

Chittamma came to Kotturu village as a young bride from neighboring Andhra Pradesh. “She suggested mobilizing fisherwomen to end their plights,” Mangaraj Panda of Ganjam-based non-profit United Artists’ Association (UAA) told VillageSquare.in.

Women band together

As a first step, nine groups of fisherwomen, with 20 members in each group, were formed under Kalyani Nari Shakti Sangha in Kotturu. The number of groups soon increased to 14, when women formed five groups in an adjacent village named Arjipalli. The women first fought against brewing of country liquor and succeeded.

Their success in abolishing country liquor production in the villages encouraged the fisherwomen to address their financial problems next. They pooled in money and ventured into fish business in local markets.

The women paid cash immediately for the fish they purchased. They demanded outside vendors and middlemen to pay likewise while lifting the catch. “Though the vendors resisted initially, since they had to supply fish to the markets as per commitment and since our men supported us, they paid up,” said Chittamma.

Federating women’s groups

“This was the game-changer,” said Mangaraj Panda. “With this positive development, women in other villages across coastal Odisha formed groups and they too fought to end exploitation by middlemen.”

There were still some issues. Every group did not have equal access to the market to sell their stock. Prices of fish differed from place to place. In order to bring all the fisherwomen under one umbrella and develop common market linkages, they formed a federation named Samudram.

Started with 68 marine fisherwomen self-help groups (SHGs) having 1,360 members in 1998, Samudram now has 149 SHGs from 52 fishing villages of four coastal districts, namely, Ganjam, Puri, Jagatsinghpur and Balasore. The women conduct business individually as well as through groups.

In order to empower the fisherwomen as entrepreneurs, Samudram organized training sessions for them on hygienic methods of producing dry fish and other fishery-based products. “It opened up new earning opportunities for us and fetched better profit than the raw fish,” K. Eramma of Nolia Nuagaon village told VillageSquare.in.

Samudram has set up fish procurement and processing centers equipped with refrigeration and drying racks for fresh fish, besides weighing and packaging machines at different places. Women own and manage the facilities.

Sustainability

“Even though income was important, catching and selling fish was not all, because the catch was falling day by day,” said Chittamma. “Instead of overexploiting this marine resource, we had to ensure long-term availability.”

“We didn’t know this resource is limited and the catch may fall further, and make us go out of business,” P. Kaumudi (50) of Nolia Nuagaon told VillageSquare.in.“As experts explained the reasons for dwindling catch and actions needed, we changed our fishing practices.” The fishermen started using nets to spare the seeds and fingerlings. They declare no-fishing days periodically.

“Women also took up poultry and goat-rearing as alternate livelihoods during no-fishing months,” Kaleya told VillageSquare.in.This helped them make a living during the fishing ban from November to May, in the coastal seas of Ganjam, Puri and Kendrapara districts for the protection of Olive Ridley sea turtles during their annual nesting phenomenon called arribada.

According to fishermen, government and regulating authorities turn a blind eye to trawlers that violate norms and pose bigger threat to the ocean, its ecosystem and fish population. “Living on the coast and depending on the sea for livelihood, we have to protect the marine ecosystem and the visiting turtles to keep our sea healthy and dependable,” fisherwoman Kaumudi told VillageSquare.in.

Tax hurdle

Samudram now faces the toughest hurdle since the implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST). “As GST mandates 12% tax on packaged dry fish items, prices have increased, and so many of the wholesale buyers have stopped buying,” said Panda.

This has led to a halt in businesses by the groups and the federation. “The fisherwomen work individually now,” said Kaleya. The members contend that they are not educated enough to keep accounts and file GST. Some advised the women to hire a professional.

“It’s not feasible since we are not a corporate business, but make a living out of it,” said Chittamma. “Our progress will stop if community development and livelihood activities do not get tax exemption.”

Beyond business

Notwithstanding the let up in business due to GST, Samudram has not only helped the women earn, but has also empowered them to identify their potential and dream a better future for their children.

The women claimed stopping brewing of country liquor and stopping child marriage as their biggest achievements. They have helped construction of schools in villages to educate their children. “Girls go to college now, whereas they were not allowed to complete primary education earlier,” said Chittamma.

Undergraduate students like S. Puja and A. Kamla of Nolia Nuagaon are proud to be the first girls from their village to have joined college. “Our aim is to pursue higher studies and find jobs,” they said.

The groups have become sources of support to members in time of emergencies. “Samudram and the SHGs helped us overcome the damages caused by two major cyclones, namely, the Phailin in 2013 and the Hudhud in 2014,” B. Mahalaxmi (40) of Huma village told VillageSquare.in.
The report first appeared on May 28, 2018, at the VillageSquare.