Crossfire in the fields
But for podu chasa (Oriya for slash and burn cultivation), five people would not have been killed in the tribal-dominated Koraput in the recent floods. The podu system has made the hills of the district almost completely bald, with the rain water cascading down, killing people in the lower reaches in a flash. Further rains can play more havoc not only in Koraput, but in the 12 districts where this kind of destructive farming is being practiced.
The experience underscores the need to combat podu on a war footing but the Government, notwithstanding an ambitious scheme launched a few years ago for the purpose, appears to be floundering.
The Government's plan, formulated under the Chief Ministership of Mr Hemanand Biswal, over two years ago,envisaged reclamation of the land degenerated by podu, and weaning away of tribals from this practice by providing them viable alternatives.
The scheme sought to train them in the cultivation of cash crops, including fruit, which guarantee stable returns.
However, the alternative seems to have left the tribals cold, as there has been little effort on the part of the Government to either debunk the myths surrounding podu or to implement agrarian reforms which could make better cultivable land available to farmers.
Even Government officials agree that but for poverty and scarcity of land, tribals in districts like Koraput, Rayagada, Malkangiri, Sunderarh and Mayurbhanj, would not have resorted to slash-and-burn agriculture, which not only destroys greenery but also the fertility of land in the long run.
The majority of tribals are either marginal farmers or landless people for whom agriculture is a secondary vocation, resorted to only when they run out of work on Government projects as daily wage earners. But when they do try to engage in farming, scarcity of land becomes a major handicap, forcing them to go for clearing the hill slopes by burning down lush green vegetation.
Forest and agriculture department officials have been battling in vain to curb the practice which is deeply ingrained in tribal culture. The tribals have a quaint belief that podu adds to the health of the forests and fertility of land instead of having any deleterious impact on them.
In districts like Koraput, Malkangiri, Rayagada and Gajpati, the cultivation begins with a lot of fanfare and ceremony which indicates that it has become part of tribal ethos.
Equally significant is the fact that podu farmers are being backed in a big way by the People's Way Group naxalites, active in the tribal districts bordering Andhra Pradesh.
With PWG cadres supporting the cultivation, mainly to win the sympathy of poor tribals who have been shielding them from police, it has become all the more difficult for the Government to do away with podu. If the Government hopes to win the battle, it will have to win the confidence of the tribals and combat their superstitions