Wednesday, 11 July 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 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 “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 “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

“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

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.

Wednesday, 30 May 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“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

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

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

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.


“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“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 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

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
The report first appeared on May 28, 2018, at the VillageSquare.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Yatri Panji: The Database Mystery of Puri

Inspired by the news of celebrities finding mention in the records of the Pandas in Puri, I wanted to verify what these records document and how the database has been maintained.

The curiosity was after President Prativa Devi Singh Patil saw mention in the personal records called ‘Yatri Panji’ of the traditional Panda (People traditionally engaged in various services of Jagannath Temple), Damodar Mahasuara, whose family has been looking after the pilgrims from the state of Maharastra and Gujarat.

Not only the President Mrs. Patil, but her husband also did find mention of his ancestors in the records maintained by the Pandas of Puri. 

Former President Gyani Zail Singh and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee also were amazed to see the names of their forefathers in the database managed by the Pandas of Puri since time immemorial. 

Called Yatri Panji or Yatri Bahi (visitors’ register), the records of devotees from across India and Nepal besides parts of Afghanistan and present Pakistan, form a huge database of Hindus living across the globe and, in most cases, tells the devotees their origin and ancestral history. These registers may not mean anything to us, but they are the most precious property of the Pandas of Puri who have stored these notebooks carefully in steel almirahs and boxes.

‘This process of recording the details about the devotees is still in practice. We are also following this. But neither we nor, even, the old priests have any idea of who started it and when. “Maybe the system of maintaining records started with the aim to keep the city of Puri secured and nuisance free,” says a young Panda Somanath Pratihari describing the system that regulated all the affairs of the devotees in the abode of Lord Jagannath.

Earlier Puri was not a ‘free-for-all-visitors’ city as it is today. There existed a full-proof system to regulate inflow of devotees into the city and keep a watch on their activities. “In the past, the Pandas used to go to different parts of the country to propagate the cult of Lord Jagannath which, they believed, was a part of their services. They used to prepare the document of devotees interested to visit Puri for a darshan of Lord Jagannath. Then the devotees were to come in due process,” said Somanath. 

The Panda had to hand over the document carrying the names and details of the devotees interested to visit Puri to a man designated as ‘Bata Gumasta’ who would bring the devotees to the outskirts of Puri. Then the devotees had to be looked after by the ‘Ghata Gumastas’ in charge of four Ghats – ‘Swargadwar’, ‘Atharanala’, ‘Mangala’ and ‘Balighat’. The visitors had to give details of their plans in Puri to the Ghata Gumasta who was supposed to manage their stay till darshan of Lord jagannath. As, during those times, a limited number of visitors were allowed for darshan a day, the Ghata Gumasta had to confirm the day of visit for the devotees and hand over an approved number of visitors to the ‘Dhulia Gumasta’ whose duty was to take the devotees till the temple. At the temple was ‘Deuli Gumasta’ who was in charge of taking the visitors inside the temple for the darshan. Each Panda had his own Gumastas to carry out the jobs at four stages. So, in the process, all the devotees who visited Puri for Jagannath Darshan were documented and finally the documents went to the Panda. The database kept being updated every year and went on expanding with records of devotees through generations. 

The expanse of the database with the communities engaged in Jagannath temple services can be well-imagined from the limits the Pandas went through to venture out and propagate the Jagannath Cult and make a list of people interested to see their Lord in Puri. The database included visitors from Kabul, Kandahar, Nepal to Kanyakumari. The vast expanse of the landscape was divided into a number of territories putting one Panda or one family in charge of each territory. For example, one Panda looked after Punjab, Kabul and Kandahar; Nepal remained under one Panda; from Orissa’s Berhampur in Ganjam District to Kanyakumari – the southern part of India remained under one Panda. “Members of the community, i.e. the Pandas, used to start their journey to the respective territories after the rainy season and come back by Akshaya Trutiya to attend the first ritual of theLord’s famous Rath Yatra – the Car Festival,” said Madan Mohan Pratihari adding that, “The flow of devotees used to increase after the harvest season only and touch the peak during Rath Yatra and the database of the community recorded each and every visitor’. 

Maintained since generations without any mechanized device, this unique database of the Pandas of Lord Jagannath Temple has not lost its relevance even today. “We have records since hundreds of years with data over ten to twelve generations of devotees. People from distant places come to us, meaning their respective Panda, to get the ancestral tree up to three or seven generations to perform the Shradh – a Hindu ritual meant to pay tribute to the souls of the predecessors,” said Batakrustna Pratihari – a member of the family that has been looking after devotees from Southern Indian states traditionally

There are many other stories based upon this database. To cite an interesting one dating back to the British days in India, Somanath Pratihari said, “The records of a Panda even helped one to get his share of parental property by proving his legitimacy as an heir. The man – a son of the second wife of his father was denied of any share on the grounds that his mother was not married to the father. The son, while visiting Puri, found the name of his mother mentioned as the wife of his father with his father’s signature below. The man went and placed the data in Patna High Court and got his share.” Somanath has heard of the story from old members and his forefathers who were alive when the incident occurred.

To Madhusudan Khuntia, it is disappointing that, “The huge database of Hindus living across the globe is now facing the danger of becoming stale as its updating scope is getting limited day by day. With facilities of communication and hotels, the city has become easily accessible to everyone and visitors stay in hotels and go back after the darshan. Many do not look for their Panda anymore.

For fun and to satisfy your devotional urge, Puri has many things in and around. But, still, if you want to prepare a family tree or are keen to know where you originated from, here in Puri is something that would make you believe that the cult surrounding the temple of Lord Jagannath has many more mysteries to be explored

This article was published in the May 2011 issue of the Eastern Panorama Magazine.

Friday, 23 March 2018

When Political Parties Question Media Neutrality

As the media fraternity in Odisha gets increasingly vocal about protecting freedom of speech and ensuring a free media, a few political parties in the state have decided to stage a confrontation.

While, in the most recent case, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the ruling party of Odisha, has openly declared a boycott of the OTV, alleging that the channel has been carrying news and views intentionally against the interests of the party, nearly a month back part of the media in the state also felt that the Odisha chapter of BJP was planning to boycott another channel, Kalinga TV, for similar reasons. But the BJP didn’t publicly claim a boycott, the way the BJD did on 21 March 2018 through a press conference.

Intolerance for Critical Voices

Being targeted by political parties, the state government, or individuals in power is not a new experience for Odisha’s media. Before this, during the Bijepur assembly by-elections, BJD had lodged a complaint with the State Election Commission against OTV, raising the issue of neutrality and alleging that the channel was broadcasting paid news.
But this is the first time that the ruling party, BJD, has come out openly against a news channel and announced counter-measures.
For a political party to boycott the media or part of it based on accusations that it promotes views against the government and the ruling party is surely an attempt to take the state into an age of limited democracy.
That’s because the primary objective of the media is to play the role of a watchdog and hold those in power accountable by bringing any wrongdoing in any nook or cranny of the state to public attention. The ruling party and its members should have a corrective instead of coercive approach when reacting to news carried by the media.
But political parties governed by their own political interests are in no position to certify media organisations on neutrality or partiality in their views and content.
Instead, they should trust the general public to make up their own minds regarding bias and neutrality of the content published. Failing that, they are also within their rights to approach relevant forums like the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) or the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to express their grievance and seek a fair deal.

The behaviour of BJD towards OTV, which was once the favourite of the party – with BJD leaders even waiting to speak to the media until a representative of the channel arrived – not only reflects its intolerance towards voices that are critical of the government it leads, but also the arrogance of its leaders and disrespect for a free media, which is central for the survival of democracy.

Time for Media to Confess

There is no doubt that a different public opinion about OTV is emerging, based on some particular news that were given too much importance, since Baijayant Panda, the Kendrapara MP and promoter of the channel, blamed V Karthikeyan Pandian, a bureaucrat serving as the private secretary to the Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, for all wrongdoings in the party and all the mishaps he had to face in his constituency while in BJD.

But the media shouldn’t sit quiet now after such an unprecedented incident by terming all allegations baseless and shifting the blame to the party.

Pandian is retained in the position he is by none other than the Chief Minister and we can presume that all his acts come with the approval of the Chief Minister.
But neither Panda nor the leaders who followed him in making similar allegations nor the channel has yet questioned the Chief Minister for retaining such a corrupt official if the allegations are to be believed, in his office.
Finally, on biased news, many of the newspapers, TV channels and portals seem to be naturally aligned to particular political parties and ideologies. There is nothing wrong with this in itself. But the media houses need to be upfront to confess to their readers and audience who they are aligned with.
Because when organisations project themselves in the public as neutral or impartial but carry biased news aligned to a particular party or ideology, that’s the biggest fraud by the media to its readers and viewers.

This piece was first published on March 23, 2018, at TheQuint.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Chronic Kidney Disease Plagues Rural Odisha, but Why?

At 47, G Dharma Rao of Badaputi village in Chhatrapur block of Odisha’s Ganjam district suddenly finds himself becoming a burden on his family. He was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease (CKD) two years ago. Dharma is now unable to do any work and is undergoing dialysis in a Bhubaneswar hospital twice a week.

“We have already spent over 5 lakh rupees for his treatment by taking hand loans from relatives and others at an interest of 2 percent/month,” said G Aimma (42), Dharma’s wife.

The treatment is costly and people in the village have been succumbing to the disease despite medical help. 

Epidemic-like Situation

With chronic kidney disease progressing like an epidemic in Badaputi and nearby villages, there are hundreds of women like Ghima, who are either taking care of those taken ill or have lost their family members to the disease, and are left with a crippling financial burden.

S Santamma (50) and P Savitri (45) lost their husbands to renal failure last year. Thirty-five-year-old G Kasturi is struggling to continue the treatment of her husband, G Krushna Rao, who suffers from multiple ailments like kidney stone, lever malfunctioning and tuberculosis in the brain.
"We have spent nearly seven lakh rupees on treatment of my husband by taking loans at a monthly interest of 3 percent." - G Kasturi
Kasturi sent her daughter to work in a medical company in the neighbouring Andhra Pradesh to help support the family with whatever meagre amount she earns.
"In Badaputi alone, around 100 people were detected with kidney disease and are undergoing treatment and, in three years, over 40 people have died of renal failure." - Gurudev Behera, Local Activist
Total population of Badaputi is somewhere around 3,000.

With the disease affecting people from at least seven villages of three gram panchayats of Kalipalli, Kanamona and Aryapalli, over 200 people from the area are undergoing treatment for chronic kidney disease, while nearly 70 people have died of it in the last three years, he says.
All six members of the family of Gaurang Sahu of the P Laxmipur village died in last four years. “G Apanna of the village committed suicide as he was diagnosed with CKD. With about 15 people already diagnosed with CKD, many are now afraid to go for medical tests fearing trace of CKD and the financial misery following the diagnosis.”
According to Prof Saroj Kumar Panda, consulting nephrologist at Brahmapur-based MKCG Medical College Hospital:
"The disease has been seen among people in this locality since the last 7-8 years. But the disease has progressed mush faster over the last 3-4 years. Most patients come for a diagnostic test at a later stage of kidney disorder, i.e. only when they see unusual symptoms in their body."
No Concrete Reason Why Kidney Disease is on the Rise

“Higher incidence of the disease could be due to the presence of toxic and heavy metal in water and food,” says Prof Panda

These villages are located close to India’s Department of Atomic Energy controlled Indian Rare Earth Limited (IREL) and its monazite processing plant. Villagers blame IREL for their woes.
"Piles of waste dumped is polluting the surface as well as groundwater and causing the disease." - A Venkat, Local Activist
But IREL says their claims are not supported by and evidence or reports of tests done so far. An expert committee report based on the test of samples conducted at Rural Water Supply and Sanitation (RWSS) Central Laboratory, Bhubaneswar, observed that “water quality of the (IREL) periphery area is within the norm and the cause of Kidney disease may not be due to water.”
The December 2017 report, however, recommends a detailed study by NEERI, Nagpur, or National Geo-Physical Research Institute, Hyderabad, to establish the cause of the kidney disease in the area.
A 2015 report based on tests by state public health laboratory also certified that the “water is bacteriologically satisfactory for portability as per the specifications of Indian standard of drinking water under IS 10500:91,” while recommending for high level investigation to delineate the causal relationship.
When approached for a response on the public health issue, Prem Chandra Chaudhary, the Ganjam District Collector, said that “the earlier tests were based on eight parameters. The district administration has planned for a detailed test of water samples on 108 parameters. This may happen sooner within a month.”

“We also plan to supply drinking water sourced from a safe distance to the affected villages,” he added.

Immediate Priorities

“Since it is a public health issue that has already taken over 70 lives and nearly 200 are still suffering, the government shouldn’t wait till the report of the planned expert study comes. It needs to act on an urgent basis and conduct specialised health camps regularly for early detection of kidney disease and provide facilities for treatment of the kidney patients including dialysis,” says the Citizen’s Inquiry Report presented by a team comprising social activists and scientists.
Even as the report was being written, on 22 January 2018, Laxmi Amma (35) of Baginipetta and T. Arjun (38) of Badaputi village succumbed to the chronic kidney disease.
“There is no time to spare as people keep dying. It’s the duty of the State to save lives of people first,” insisted Prafulla Samantara, the Goldman Environmental Prize winner activist who has started a campaign for health safety of the villagers suffering from chronic kidney disease.

This report first appeared on January 24, 2018, at The Quint

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Traditional tribal farming shows way to climate-smart agriculture

The practice of planting a wide variety of crops by Odisha’s Dongria Kondh tribe could hold the key to strengthen climate-smart agriculture in a state that has been buffeted by recurrent droughts and erratic rainfall.

Although crops failed in large parts of Odisha in 2017 due to pest attacks, prolonged periods of dryness and untimely rainfall, farmers among the Dongria Kondh tribe in the south-western parts of the state brought home a rich harvest, primarily due to their traditional practice of diverse cropping to safeguard against nature’s vagaries.

“We hear about the stories of farmers committing suicide in different parts of the state. But we have never faced such a situation when all our crops are lost and there is no hope for our survival,” Raina Saraka, 55, a Dongria Kondh farmer of Leling Padar village in Rayagada district, told

Last year, the famed rice fields of Odisha were hit by drought, pest attacks and untimely rain at the time of harvest. As per government estimates, crop loss was reported in half a million hectares while drought resulted in crop loss of 33% and above in 70 administrative blocks of 15 districts. Over 10 farmers in the state have committed suicide because of the current agrarian crisis.

In the past decade, the state has suffered one natural calamity after the other almost every year. Thousands of disaster-affected farmers have committed suicide. Experts say that the increasing frequency of natural calamities is a result of global warming and climate change.

“Delayed monsoon has become regular phenomenon, resulting in dry spells and drought-like situations during early kharif (summer cropping) season. Again, untimely rain during October-November disturbs the humid and temperature conditions, making it conducive for spreading of diseases and pests like the brown plant hopper that attacked paddy crop in parts of Odisha this year,” Mayabini Jena, Head of Agricultural Entomology at National Rice Research Institute in Cuttack, told

Reality of climate change

Suggesting that climate change is a reality and the impacts of it are going to be worse in future, Bidyadhar Maharana, an expert in agriculture as well as a consultant to the Odisha government, warned: “Severe warming, floods, and drought may reduce crop yields. The ranges and distribution of weeds and pests are likely to increase and cause new problems for the crops previously unexposed to these species.”

The current state of agrarian crisis in Odisha is, however, one side of the story. Indigenous farmers who still rely on their traditional farming practices seem to be free from such distress that motivates many of the plain land farmers to sacrifice their lives.

The Dongria Kondhs, an agrarian tribal community inhabiting the forest villages of Koraput, Rayagada, Kandhamal and Kalahandi districts, raise their farms on lower hill slopes where they grow variety of crops ranging from rice, millets, sorghum, leaves, pulses, legumes, vegetables and tubers throughout the season and harvest them crop by crop from October till the end of February every year.

Crop diversity

Growing over 50 varieties of crops is almost a standard with any single farm of a Kondh farmer. In her nearly five acre area farm, Sunamain Mambalaka, 50, a tribal woman farmer from Tada village of Rayagada, grows over 80 varieties of crops including one upland paddy, finger millet, foxtail millet, pearl millet, barnyard millet, little millet, sorghum, maize, edible leaves, black gram, hoarse gram, pigeon peas, cowpeas, varieties of beans and several types of vegetables. In tubers, she has grown arum, yam, sweet potato and tapioca.

“Our dongor (as the tribals name their farms) is influenced by the culture of the forest around us. As the forest is a diversity of plants, our dongor is diversity of crops. It gives us everything, including the seeds for the next year, which we would be using throughout the year. In case any single crop fail, we have many more to survive on,” Sunamain told “But, so far, I haven’t seen any single year when any single crop grown in the dongor has failed completely.”

In order to grow so many crops in one dongor, the sowing period extends up to five months from April till the end of August, basing upon climatic suitability.

“We broadcast the millet seeds on hill slopes during summer months. Sowing of upland paddy seeds is usually done with arrival of monsoon. Simultaneously, we grow vegetables and other crops as well. While we get spinaches and vegetables from the dongor almost daily, paddy and millets are harvested over a period of five months (from October till February next year),” Kalia Mambalaka, 40, of Tada village told “All the seeds we use are traditional seeds conserved by farmers of the community. The seeds are shared with farmers from the community.”

Resilient to natural calamities

Almost unaware of the scientific debate and discussion over climate change and its impact, the traditional agrarian practice of these tribal communities has evolved in sync with nature having climate resilience integrated with it naturally.

Genomic profiling of millets like finger millet, pearl millet and sorghum suggest that they are climate-smart grain crops ideal for environments prone to drought and extreme heat. Even the traditional upland paddy varieties they use are less water consuming, so are resilient to drought-like conditions, and are harvested between 60 and 90 days of sowing. As a result, the possibility of complete failure of a staple food crop like millets and upland paddy grown in a dongor is very low even in drought-like conditions.

The dongors can also survive extreme and untimely rain because of the traditional cropping pattern the indigenous farmers follow. “Rain water cannot flow in full speed to wash away the plants and damage the crop,” Gani Kumbaruka, 40, of Kandhaguda village in Rayagada district told “The speed of the rain water flowing down the hill slope is broken by the thick shrubby black gram and groundnut plants to protect the millet and other crops.”

The tribal farmers don’t need to do anything for pest control but to raise the dongor as a food opportunity for 10 families (dus parivar) including that of the grower, pests, insects, ants, flies, spiders and birds.

“As we grow crops, pests and insects come,” Landi Sikoka of Khalpadar village told “The ants, flies and spiders eat them. Birds, searching for food, also come to the dongors to eat the flies and insects.”

“This natural system works because they don’t use any kind of chemical fertiliser or pesticide. Rather, they allow pests and insects and their predators to visit the dongor freely,” said Debajeet Sarangi of Living Farms, a non-profit working in the KBK region (undivided Koraput-Balangir-Kalahandi districts) on traditional and sustainable agriculture by indigenous communities.

A lesson for others

For these indigenous farmers, agriculture is not just about the yield or producing more, but growing food without harming nature, the soil and the ecosystem, while creating food opportunities for many other co-existing species.

When the world advocates for sustainable and organic farming to achieve global food and nutritional security in the wake of climate change, the traditional agrarian practice by these indigenous farmers make it a case of success to be studied and followed.

A lesson from these tribal farmers would also strengthen climate change adaptability among distressed farmers and help the state and policy makers overcome the agrarian crisis Odisha is facing today.

The report first appeared on January 8, 2018, at the India Climate Dialogue.

Friday, 29 December 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, Dr 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, 15 December 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, 20 October 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, 28 July 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