Tribal women dare nature
"Where is the drought?" asks Kanti Majhi triumphantly as she gazes at the greenery in her field. She has a reason to be proud. Going up a dusty village road as it snakes along the hilly terrain in Central Kalahandi in Orissa, one gets to see only parched fields, dry ponds and deserted houses. But Majhipara village in the Artal Gram Panchayat is an oasis, where the Kondh tribal women have dared nature.
Since almost all able-bodied men have migrated to Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan or Maharashtra in search of jobs, these women have taken up the task of cultivation and forest protection in this drought-hit area.
Motivated by the need to feed their children, about 20 women of this village organised themselves into small self-help groups and took up cultivation. "But now it has become an issue of self-reliance for us. And the sheer joy of achieving something on our own," says Kanti Majhi.
While a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) provided the seeds, Kanti and her team prepared the fields for sowing and dug wells for irrigation.
"It was a difficult decision for us to start harvesting because we did not have any experience," says Banitadei. "We used to help our men-folk in sowing seeds and transplanting paddy. But we did not have any idea about seeds, bio-fertilisers or the season and type of soil suited for different crops," adds Banitadei. As the land had not been cultivated before, Kanti and her team took one month to clear the weeds and prepare the soil for growing vegetables like spinach, ladyfinger and gourd. Banitadei, along with two others, chalked out a plan for irrigating their two acres of land. They dug four seven-feet deep wells, in the four corners of the field. A piece of wood, about 12 feet long, was put diagonally across the wells. Two wooden poles were fixed to support a bamboo, which could be used to lift a bucket. "The total cost of all this material came to about Rs 150 and we all contributed for this amount," says Kanti. "When the wood and bamboo got spoilt, we used it as fuel," she adds.
These women have also worked out a 'duty chart' to make note of the water they use to cultivate the fields. Divided into groups of five, each group notes down the quantity of water used by it, making it easier for the next group to know what has been done before it took over. The land is being held under common ownership and women will have an equal share in the crops or the proceeds from their sale.
Though the women will reap their first harvest in a few months, they have already worked out their marketing strategies. They will venture out in small groups to try their luck in local village markets as well as the main block market. A certain percentage of the proceeds will be deposited with their thrift fund, which has a corpus amount of Rs 1,000.
With a monthly subscription of Rs 10, the thrift fund is the only source of ready credit at nominal rates of interest in case of illness, marriage or death. The fund is also used to pay wages to the forest protection groups.
Though the forest surrounding the village is the main source of honey, bamboo and other products, it is also a major source of conflict with the neighbouring villages. Therefore, the women of Majhipara have organised a patrolling party by inducting teenagers to protect forest resources.
"We fight the cutting of trees and only take dry wood for our purposes," says Lata, the chief of the patrolling party. "We know forest resources are limited and should be judiciously used," she adds.
The women patrol the approach roads to the forest, check passing bullock carts and sometimes, even face the wrath of the police. "But we can handle such situations better than men because we can keep our cool," says Lata, who claims that women in her village are now more confident and assertive.
Migration of menfolk in search of work is not a new phenomenon in Kalahandi and it is a regular feature in Majhipara. Earlier, the women who stayed back had little choice but to work as agricultural labour. Exploited, they earned as little as Rs 20 every day against the minimum daily wage of Rs 40 as approved by the government. The recurrent droughts made it even worse. Left to fend for themselves and their children, women hit upon the idea of producing their own food and protecting their resources.
"We are now planning to visit the district headquarters at Bhawanipatna and we will request the officials to give us some training. After all it is a question of our survival," says Kanti.
Survive they will, and come out of it stronger and most importantly, liberated.