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Living through the great drought

By Yana Bey

Yana Bey travels through the poverty-stricken Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput region of Orissa, meeting villagers with long memories of hard times and starvation

In mud huts and paddy fields all over Orissa's poverty-stricken KBK -- Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput -- region, the talk of every village is about the Great Drought ('maha marodi') that has struck yet again, reminiscent of 1965, 1979 and 1996. The government of Orissa has declared 28 of its 30 districts drought-affected and has asked the Central government for assistance to the tune of Rs 5000 million (US $1=Rs 48). Is it mango kernel time again? Time for Orissa to hit the headlines with sensational bad news stories?

Gaunt, elderly villagers with long memories of hard times and starvation deaths mumble despairingly that they will wait until end-August for food-for-work programmes by the government or for employment as agricultural labour for there is hope that some of the crop might yet be salvaged. Otherwise, entire families will migrate to urban areas to work at construction sites or brick kilns where 1000 bricks fetch Rs 65 and a woman is kept back to complete the contract if her husband dies.

Even in a year when the monsoons are normal everywhere else in the country, death and shortage of food are virtually routine in this region. Drought strikes every two to three years across large parts of western Orissa. The average monsoon rainfall in this region is over 1500 mm; but if the rains are delayed by even a fortnight -- which happens nearly every alternate year -- the crops are damaged.

Added to this are ancient traditions and the grip of certain sections of society on economic and political power -- factors that keep village people mired in poverty, backwardness and illiteracy.

Tradition, not poverty, was behind most of the deaths last year in Kashipur block in Rayagada district (the other districts that form the KBK region are Kalahandi, Nayapara, Bolangir, Sonpur, Koraput, Malkangiri and Gajpat). In the summer of 2001, Kashipur became infamous as the area where starving tribals were driven to eat gruel made from mango kernels and where 17 starvation deaths occurred. A visit to the area reveals that not 17 but seven deaths were actually cases of starvation.

In fact, mango kernels are part of the local diet for both the landed and landless classes. The gruel was not a last-ditch attempt to survive, as made out by the media last year.

The remaining 10 deaths were simply cases of food poisoning due to tribal living habits, explain townspeople in Rayagada and local NGO workers. So does Pabitra Majhi of Musuripadar village in Kashipur block. He is literate, works for a local NGO and also uses his knowledge of traditional tribal medicine to help his community.

He says, "The real reason for the deaths last year was food poisoning, probably due to fungus formation. The tribal custom is to keep gruel made from ragi -- a pulse and the staple diet -- in a large earthen pot in a small, dark room. Leftovers stay in the pot after every meal. When fresh gruel is cooked, it is added to the same pot and mixed with the old stuff. The food runs down the sides of the pot or falls on the floor but the pot is never washed. The ladle, made from a gourd shell, is also never washed. Both the pot and ladle sometimes get infested with grubs that get eaten with the food. It's only when someone dies in the village that every family takes out its pot and cleans it."

This year though, the main concern everywhere is the delayed monsoon. "In June, it rained just one day," says Siba Majhi of Sanamatikana village in Kashipur block. Despite the fact that delayed rains spell drought, there is, paradoxically, no actual shortage of water. Perennial water sources (a feature of bauxite-rich areas) abound but there are very few water harvesting projects that divert the water to irrigate fields. Needless to say, NGOs have shown more initiative in this than the government.

According to Pabitra Majhi, 60 per cent of this season's upland paddy -- cultivated by tribals while the lowland crop belongs to the mahajans -- has been destroyed but the rest might survive now that the rains have finally come. As far as maize goes, a maximum of 25 per cent of the crop might be saved.

"The mango harvest was none too good probably because of the natural cycle of the trees, so the tribals don't even have mango kernels to eat," says Majhi wryly. Mango is a valuable crop in the area. "For two to three months, we live on mangoes. Besides, we sell 'aampapad' (mango papad) in Cuttack, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal."

Vegetables and pulses are grown in the area and nearly all the produce from the land is sold. "We sell all the food we grow to buy fodder for animals. We only stock ragi for ourselves for the entire year. It's our main food," says Siba Majhi.

There are 40 to 50 families in a village, and an average of five members per family. The gruel pot notwithstanding, tribal homes and villages are traditionally clean. Courtyards are spotless, village streets and drains well maintained, cowsheds and chicken pens clean.

"Tribals have dignity and pride. They tend to stick to their traditional way of life. They don't beg easily, they try to subsist. This is also one reason why migration from Rayagada is far less compared to other KBK areas," points out P Venkata Rao of the Orissa Professional Development Service Consultants, a Rayagada-based NGO.

Displacement due to the invasion by mining companies since 1992 is transforming the area. Companies have acquired land at prices as low as Rs 21,000 an acre. In many cases, the money goes in drink. In others, even if a valiant attempt at getting into business is made, factors militate against a tribal trying to make the transition from farming to commerce.

Biranchi Paikray of the Lakshman Nayak Society for Rural Development, an NGO working in the area, recalls the case of a man who received Rs 5 lakh. He used it all to buy an old bus, paying a middleman Rs 80,000 in the process. The bus had an accident after plying for just a fortnight. "There was no money to repair the bus so he was left with no source of income," he says.

Paikray also points out that illiterate villagers are often swindled by people they depend on to operate their bank accounts. "The companies put the money into a bank account for the tribal but he needs someone's help to draw the money. Sometimes, he does not even know how much money there is."

(Women's Feature Service)