Distress: A way of life in Kalahandi

Over the last several decades, drought in western Orissa, and Kalahandi in particular, has been repeatedly in the news. Beyond the sensationalism of news headlines and the reports of distress and starvation, is the tragedy of a population that has been consistently deprived of its rights and entitlements. Be it long term unemployment, drought and crop failure, or displacement and chronic hunger, 'everything' in one of the poorest, yet resource rich, districts in India, 'is a struggle'. Development assistance is ill-conceived and perpetuates inequity and corruption, says NIRMALA LAKSHMAN after a visit to the region.

IT is a blazing April morning as we drive out from the Raipur airport road in Chattisgarh towards Kalahandi, Orissa. Already at just before eight o'clock, the air hangs heavy and still. We see the bent diminutive figures of men and women shielding their faces from the sun as they wend their way to their work places. The hoardings on either side of the road announce the presence of country clubs and farmhouses to soothe the nerves of the frazzled rich. "Welcome to Dream City" says one - "Pollution-Free Zone". Another one invites you to visit "Ambrosia", a hotel with props and sets for video shoots. Just a little beyond this lies one of the poorest districts of India. Much of Raipur's wealth has been built on the labour of impoverished western Orissa, particularly from Kalahandi. "Almost all the rickshaw pullers on the Raipur road are from Kalahandi and Bolangir," says P. Sainath whose book

Everybody Loves a Good Drought has meticulously documented the devastating effects of government corruption and complicity in the creation of drought and deprivation in this region.

We meet a casual wage labourer and his elderly mother who tell us that they are paid Rs. 22 and Rs. 20 a day to work in one of the large farms off the road owned by a former Union Minister. "Please don't mention my name," he says, "I will be in trouble" His daily wage is less than half the minimum wage, but at least he has a job. Further down the road, stretching for several hundreds of yards are the Food Corporation of India's godowns. Vast tracts of grain overflowing into the large compound are piled high on top of one another. "The healthiest rats in India live inside," says Sainath. The irony of huge stocks of rotting grain in the midst of a chronically hungry population epitomises the politics of deprivation in India.

Over the last several decades, drought in western Orissa, and particularly in Kalahandi, has been repeatedly in the news. Beyond the sensationalism of news headlines and the sporadic reports of distress and starvation, is the tragedy of a large population that has been systematically and consistently deprived of its rights and entitlements. Jagdish Pradhan, President of the Sahabagi Vikash Abhiyan, which is a collective of over 20 community-based organisations that have been working in the area, points out that "everything in this area is a struggle". Whether it is private bauxite mining, where a pittance is paid for hard labour, or the attempt to oust adivasis from their homes in the name of preserving sanctuaries, the daily life of the poorest men and women of this region is extremely precarious. Pradhan points out that problems in the area range from long term unemployment to drought and crop failure, compounded by displacement and chronic hunger.

In the village of Birunpadar in the Komna block of the district, Kadar Chana and Agasthi have a meagre two acres where they cultivate a little paddy and vegetables. This is a village of malis, people who have always made a living from selling vegetables. This year, a freak hailstorm in February followed by prolonged water shortage means that they have no produce to market. The paddy that they grow is barely enough to sustain their large family. "I don't know what we are going to do," Agasti says. The sale price of whatever vegetable produce they can salvage is also subject to a great deal of fluctuation. One day she may make Rs. 20 a head load and another day she may only make Rs. 5. The houses in this village are built with red earth, bamboo and grass from the surrounding area and very little comes from outside. The quiet desperation in this village is palpable. The people have no illusions about the Government. "They are not worried about us. You see we are not animals," says one woman in Birunpadar, implying that animals in the region get the greater attention from the authorities. The children study up to the fifth standard in the small village school. The middle school is several kilometres away in Komna town. Most children stop after the fifth class, as they have to work in the fields to help their families. Thilothama Patel is an exception. She studies in standard six in the middle school in Komna and walks several kilometres a day through the forest to get there. "My favourite subject is Oriya," she says her smile lighting up her face. "I want to be a 'master' when I grow up." Children like Thilothama are rare. Most of them from Berunpada and the neighbouring villages do not go to school beyond the first few classes. Their families need them to take care of younger children, do household tasks and in many cases they work in the fields to supplement the family's diminishing income. Seventeen families in this village are landless. Ironically, the landless in this region are called sukhbasis (literally meaning the happy ones). The implication of course is that they do not have the "cares" that "property" brings on its owners.

Just four months ago, a man died of starvation in this village. His wife Ukkiya mortgaged the one decent saree she had for Rs. 50 to buy him food rather than beg from her neighbours. Ukkiya's tiny one room hut has very few possessions. A couple of tin plates, a bowl and one faded saree. She looks ill, her original beauty and obviously graceful bearing crushed by the burden of suffering. For people like Ukkiya who are landless, even going to the moneylender is not an option. And of course there is no assistance from the State. Pradhan is trying to organise a job for her in one of the community-based projects nearby. The spectre of chronic hidden hunger stalks the entire Kalahandi- Bolangir area. In preparation for the long season of deprivation, people begin to eat less and start practicing this early, so that little by little their systems can learn to cope. According to Sainath, "rotating hunger" within adivasi families is not uncommon.

Scarcity of water is one of the biggest issues here. The only tank in Birunpadar village is almost drying up and the pump put in sometime ago by the government is broken. In the other nearby villages, water is also a matter of politics and corruption. Thakurdas Mahanand, a village leader and long time social worker, is the President of the Jagrat Shramik Sangathan. An icon of struggle and resistance in numerous villages in the region, Thakurdas's quiet gentleness belies a great reserve of inner strength and nerves of steel. He has been repeatedly assaulted and set upon for trying to organise the digging of an old partially disused well to augment local water supply. Cases have been foisted on him and the threat of violence hangs constantly over him. But Thakurdas is not fazed and quietly says he will resist corruption and oppression particularly of petty forest officials and their henchmen who demand hefty payments from him and his neighbours for trying to locate a local water supply source for their own needs.

The village people who gather here to meet under Thakurdas's stewardship are vociferous in their complaints about water scarcity. They present petitions to Pradhan and Sainath asking them to intervene in their struggle for water. "We walk as far as five and 10 kilometres a day in search of water," says one woman. We have to carry head loads of clothes to wash and carry back whatever we can for our domestic use," she says. "We have to use water like oil," says another woman. Malia Dharua from Gurunda village says that in their village, 50 families have to share water from one tubewell. Their only open well is slowly drying up. Most of the villages in this area have not been "settled" by the Government, although one village had a document of recognition dating back to 1918. The Central Government's promise to settle land on villagers who have lived in these areas prior to 1980 remains unfulfilled. Meanwhile, as many areas here have been declared as forestland, the villagers are not permitted to sell any produce from these places. Tendu and Mahua cultivation, which is itself only a seasonal activity, also gives them very little, as traditional irrigation systems have collapsed. While the government price for a kilogram of tendu is Rs. 5, these people get only Rs. 1.20 a kg. Sewing leaf plates out of the sal leaf and making brooms are other low-income avenues that the village people desperately turn to, but marketing these products is another big hurdle.

As both Jagdish Pradhan and Sainath explain, water scarcity in these regions has very little to do with poor rainfall. Ramnad and Pudukottai districts in Tamil Nadu have much less average rainfall, less natural resources and yet the population does not go as hungry as it does in Western Orissa, says Sainath. Pradhan points out that Kalahandi's annual rainfall is as much as 1,250mm on an average, and the region, naturally rich in terms of resources, produces more food per person than Orissa and India as a whole. In a study on drought in Western Orissa done in October of 2000 by the Sahabaghi Vikash Abhiyan, Pradhan says that even during years of insufficient rainfall, the farmers used to save the paddy crop with one or two irrigations using traditional sources like tanks. They also grew a large variety of crop, some of which could at least be salvaged when rainfall was less. He also mentions the fact that water retention in the soil was higher earlier, due to the use of organic manure and compost. Cattle rearing was a supplementary source of income during times of stress, but such security is scarce these days and the lack of money and assistance from the Government means that the people of this region cannot access groundwater, which is available at even five to 10 feet below the surface in large parts of the region. The extra funds and schemes for drought alleviation made since the first major drought of 1965-66 when Indira Gandhi visited the area, and the subsequent visit of almost every Indian prime minister to survey the drought affected regions, have simply not reached the people.

A large tank project (which the local people call mahabund) where we saw nearly a hundred men and women digging a vast tank (a Rs. 7.50 lakh contract) is an example of the kind of drought relief assistance that the Government practices. This tank is meant to ultimately provide water for at least seven or eight nearby villages. The soil is hard and there has been a serious mistake in choosing the site, as the villager people do not expect to hit water there. Every night, they have to "soften" the dug up area on top with water brought from elsewhere to make next day's digging easier and to loosen the earth. The people are paid less than Rs. 10 a day, sometimes only Rs. 7 or Rs. 8. Some of them have not been paid even this for over a month. A little further up the road, we witness another kind of effort. The Banbasi Sangha has supported a local initiative where people have got together to dig a tank to serve the needs of a 100-family village. The cost of this entire project is in the region of Rs. 45,000. The men and women who work here are paid Rs. 25 or Rs. 30 for the four and five hours they spend here. They maintain a register and a record of work. Jaga Maji has donated an acre of his own land for the benefit of his village, as water was available only there.

The seasonal migration of people to neighbouring States, and particularly to Andhra Pradesh, is a regular phenomenon especially during seasons when work is unavailable locally. Over the last couple of years this has become a more permanent kind of migration with families often losing track of their loved ones, and in many cases never hearing from them again. Jagdish Suna, a young Oriya journalist and Kuto Ram Sunani, also a journalist and the Joint Secretary of the Sahabagi Vikash Abhiyan, recounted incidents of accidents, injuries, illness and even starvation among those who become migrant workers. One incident that Suna narrated had a tragic ending. A man and his wife and his brother who had gone to work in the brick-kilns of Andhra Pradesh were forced to return within a few months, weak from lack of food and with no money at all. The man fell ill and died in the train on the way back. The wife and brother were too terrified to remove the body off the train, as they knew they would be questioned by the police and feared extortion by exploitative elements. The body had to be abandoned in the train. When Suna went to Hyderabad on the trail of local migrants to lodge a complaint about ill treatment and exploitative conditions, he was told by the Labour Commisioner's office that they had no jurisdiction over migrant workers from other States. The lives of the poor are easily expendable it seems.

Sunabeda plateau, 3,000 odd feet above mean sea level, is a remote interior region in the Kalahandi district. Bijaya Sahis, another young journalist explains how the tribals in this area have become victims of the Sunabeda Sanctuary. Sanctuary is a word that every adivasi here seems to know. It is a word that invokes fear, anger, and of course despair. At a gathering of adivasis who came to Sunabeda village we hear the anguish of the local people who say that the sanctuary has made their lives miserable. The entire region, which has around 3,000 people living in scattered isolated villages, has been declared a sanctuary and the adivasis are not allowed to take anything from the forests. Traditionally these people have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with their surroundings. They use only dry wood and sticks for fuel, and other forest produce for consumption. They market minor forest produce as well as non-forest ones like the tendu leaf and the Mahua flower. In 1983, the area was notified as a sanctuary, putting a stop to the tribal people's access to the forests. While a later amendment questioned the validity of declaring this particular area as a sanctuary, the issue has not been resolved even though the district Collector has taken up the cause of the adivasis against the forest department. The Collector has also been very proactive in other matters too, according to Pradhan and his friends, defending local people in the Kalahandi region against exploitation whenever such issues have been raised. But, as they point out, this kind of lone effort is obviously not enough.

In the meanwhile, forest officials have constantly victimised the adivasis. Violence and extortion in the name of sanctuary protection is a routine matter. We hear cases of people who have been dragged off to jail and incarcerated for months without a hearing. The tendu leaf and Mahua cultivation and collection which fetched about Rs. 4,000 over the course of a fortnight for a family of four people often helped them tide over difficult times. Now that too is banned. Kuntibai who walked several kilometres through the forest to attend this village meeting says, "The Government must give us work. They have prevented us from doing our own work and taken our lives away. Let them give our lives back." Dujay Bhoi, a sukhbasi was promised documents for his land by a forest guard if he paid him Rs. 2,000. Dujay Bhoi has not heard from him again. Others at the gathering spoke of having to make regular payments in cash and kind (chickens, goats and sometimes cattle) to ward off harassment. When they build their own houses they have to pay the forest department a sum of Rs. 500. When they get loan assistance from a Central Government housing scheme, this rate gets hiked up to Rs. 1,000.

Jagdish Pradhan says that the main issue in the entire Kalahandi- Bolangir-Koraput blocks is the lack of attention to local conditions and systems by the bureaucracy and government. The empowering of gram sabhas by giving them control over non-timber forest produce was promised by the State Government but has not taken off, he says. However, the Paschim Orissa Krushijeevi Sangh, an organisation that brings small farmers and landless labourers together is making some headway in this region, says Pradhan. The stranglehold of moneylenders, the lack of agricultural credit assistance and a skewed and unjust pricing policy contributes enormously to the deepening impoverishment of the region. Poorly conceived irrigation projects, and in many cases inefficient planning and corruption exacerbates water scarcity in the area according to Pradhan. He is also concerned that the plans for large dams such as the Thikali Dam project portend disaster. Already local resistance is building up against this dam. We heard from men and women who live in the proposed area of submergence who say that they will die rather than be displaced. As if lessons in dam building across the country have not been tragic enough, the Government of Orissa seems to be bent on going ahead with the project.

Most of the development assistance in this region is not only centrally controlled and ill conceived, but perpetuates inequity and corruption. Using drought conditions as flash points for action highlights the seriously flawed nature of development strategies in these districts. The appalling sight of huge stocks of unused and rotting grain in the midst of a chronically hungry population must mean that crucial links between food production, pricing, controls and the access to the poor who produce the food are being ignored.

The real needs and concerns of the poor cannot be addressed if they are deliberately and systematically excluded from making decisions about their own resources and livelihood. When adivasis in Sunabeda are cut off from the forests and women in the Nuapada villages have to walk for miles to collect water and the children of Berunpada village have to go to bed hungry because their families can no longer grow or buy food, it is a tragic reflection of the real nature of the development processes in the country today.

Referred by: Mukundan CM
Published on: May 12, 2001
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