May 31, 2020

Odisha's forest-dwelling communities survive on nature as many struggle for one meal during COVID-19 lockdown

Pramila Sahu of Kantabahal village comes with basketful of mushroom collected from the forest © Basudev Mahapatra

Mother of two, 32-year-old Laxmipriya Sahoo had never imagined she had to live such a difficult life as during the lockdown in the wake of COVID 19 outbreak. Living in a rented house in an upcoming cluster of Bhubaneswar city, she had to face lots of difficulties to offer a standard food plate to her children and husband.

Started from March 23, the phase one lockdown was imposed for 23 days in Odisha, till April 14. To ensure that people don’t face food scarcity during the lockdown, Odisha government allowed standalone grocery shops to carry out their business and vegetable venders to sell vegetables in the city while complying with the norm of social distancing. “As adequate amount of vegetables couldn’t come to the city from rural areas, vegetable prices skyrocketed. With grocery stocks exhausted in few days, we had to buy other food items at a higher rate. At a time with no work and income, standard food became unusually costly for us,” Sahoo said.

Worse in rural areas

While middle class people living in the city had to deal with a similar situation, it was worse with wage earners and poor people living in rural Odisha. Abhimanyu Sahoo, 52, a betel shop owner from Dadhapatna village of Cuttack district, had a heartening story to share. A father to two adult children, Abhimanyu suddenly turned jobless as the lockdown was imposed.

Even though the government provided rice for three months under public distribution system (PDS) and one thousand rupees, this didn’t turn out to be a relief as everything out of the house changed – food prices went up, availability of food was scarce because food materials couldn’t reach local markets in absence of transportation. “We could get some food from the market for some days. Then, food seemed like the biggest burden. We had never faced such situation before,” he said.

Since the major employer of the area, Durga Glass factory, has been shut down, most people of the block have lost their jobs and survive on vending different in the market and tourist places like Nandankanan Zoological Park. “With markets and all business activities were closed, almost all faced food scarcity during the lockdown,” Abhimanyu told.

In interior Odisha, situation was bitter. Dependent on wage-based labour for survival of his family, 47-year-old Anandeswar Bhukta of Barapada had to live on rice only for many days because with limited amount of cash in hand he couldn’t spend adequately on vegetables and other food items. “We live on daily wages. The government gave us 1000 rupees with PDS rice and that was the only cash available with us. How could we spend more money to buy foods from market at higher prices?” – he questioned.

Lockdown exposed hunger

Citing a survey conducted by the Health Ministry, reports said that around 44 per cent of the respondents reached for the survey either had reduced their daily food intake or were skipping a meal.

“Tribal and poor people depending on market for food items lived a miserable life with inadequate food. Without vegetables, greens and pulses, the food they consumed had least nutritional value,” said Panchanan Mishra of PAHAD, a Phulbani based non-profit working for development of tribal and forest dwelling communities.

As observed by Sudhir Patnaik, editor of Samadrusti magazine, “Be it with stranded migrant workers or those who were moving towards their home states, or with people living in villages and urban slums, we saw hunger everywhere during the lockdown.” He, along with a few other likeminded persons, runs a WhatsApp group to help migrant workers stranded or were in distress in different parts of India.

“Hunger was there even before COVID 19 outbreak. The lockdown only exposed its prevalence in such a large scale in India and in states like Odisha where nearly 32.6 percent of the population live below national poverty line,” Patnaik emphasized.

Guarded by forest

However, in villages inside or on the edges of forests, it was a completely different picture. While people living in Dangulu, Barapada, Dutipada and Dutimendhi of Kandhamal district depended completely on the market for food items, forest dwelling tribal communities of Janameni, Kaliamba, Jakireju, patiamba and tikarpada villages had least dependence on the market.

“Market is far away from our village. We occasionally go to the market to get essential items like salt, oil and a few other things,” said Brundaban Mallick, 48, of Janameni village.

Apart from the rice they get under PDS, these tribal people grow pulses, dal and turmeric in their fields. “We get most other food items from the forest, which is a perennial food source for the tribal people. Anytime we go to the forest, we get something in it to fulfill our food needs,” 30-year-old Anasuya Mallick said.

According to Kailash Dandapat of Jagruti, a Kandhamal based non-profit engaged in tribal development works, forest is the major source of livelihood for the indigenous communities of Kandhamal. “They collect Siali (Bauhinia vahlii) leaves, used for making leaf-plates called Khali, throughout the year and sell it in the market. The leaf makes more than a fifth of the total income.”

These forest dependent communities have very less dependence on market. Decades back, they used to go to the market to buy salt and kerosene only. These days, dal, oil and a few other items are added to the buying list. With regard to fruits, vegetables and other food items, “at least 128 types of uncultivated food items are available in forests of Kandhamal, which includes several flowers, leaves, fruits, tubers, roots, yam, honey etc.,” Dandapat mentioned.

A Kondh tribal community leader, Ranjit Kumar Pangi of Karanjaguda village in Koraput district sees forest as the second mother of the tribal people. “Even though our forest is degrading fast, it still saves us whenever we are in trouble. During the lockdown, we got variety of edible leaves and roots to add to our food,” he told.

Botanist Hemant Kumar Sahu, a forest enthusiasts and researcher working with Vasundhara NGO, affirmed that the practice of consumption of wild edible plants, roots, fungi and fruits is still alive among the tribal communities. These forest produces are taken as food supplements and further to fill the gap of food deficiency during critical periods.

Forest and agriculture have been integral to tribal life and food systems. “Our agriculture is also inspired by the forest rich with biodiversity. We grow more than 60 varieties of crops including millets, pulses, leaves, vegetables, legumes, tubers etc. in one patch of land called Dongor,” said Alla Tuika of Paika Takulguda village in Rayagada district. During the lockdown, she had enough of millets and legumes in her store. After getting rice under PDS, the forest added several items to her food plate fulfilling her food and nutrition requirements.

“We can’t think of a life without the forest. It’s not only part of our life but it also protects us from all difficulties,” said Pramila Sahu of Debgarh’s Kantabahal village while coming with a basketful mushroom collected from the nearby forest.

Odisha’s forests are a rich source of wild or uncultivated food and biodiversity. Describing the richness of the famous Similipal forest, Botanist Sahu told, at least 228 species of wild edible plants are consumed by the ethnic groups living in the forest and the biosphere.

A lesson for all

 This is the reason why the tribal communities are in love with their forest and they have been conserving it, said Debjeet Sarangi of Living Farms, a Rayagada based non-profit. “If nature is the whole, they consider themselves as part of the whole to cohabit with the rest.”

In return, the forest provides food, nutrition and livelihood security to the tribal communities living in areas where administration and its services hardly reach. The villages in and around existing forests are a testimony. The system call them outreach villages. Had there been no forest what these poor communities would have done? – Sarangi asked. “We need to learn from the experience of these people, and document their knowledge on the forest, plants and biodiversity.”

Future of agriculture in the wake of climate change being uncertain, and with predictions that disease outbreak and situations like the COVID 19 pandemic would occur more frequently with more strength, ensuring food and nutrition security stands as the biggest challenge for the humanity.

In any of these situations forest and biodiversity bear enormous hope as rich sources of food and livelihood while regulating climate as well as mitigating the effects of climate change.

An edited version of this article first appeared on the FirstPost.

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