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Lok Sabha elections 2019: In Odisha’s hunger hotspot that votes tomorrow, primitive tribe cries for livelihood

The deaths of the children from malnutrition in July 2016 jolted the state government, prompting CM Patnaik to form a task-force for Nagada.

lok sabha elections Updated: Apr 28, 2019 13:17 IST
Debabrata Mohanty
Debabrata Mohanty
lok sabha elections 2019,lok sabha elections,lok sabha
In Odisha’s hunger hotspot that votes tomorrow, primitive tribe cries for livelihood(Biswajit Mohanty/HT Photo)

It’s only 162 kilometers from the state capital Bhubaneswar to the foot of the Kumudeithala hill and the winding road that meanders through towering sandstone and granite mountains is flanked by forested slopes and in good condition. But both road and landscape change sharply after Kaliapani town. Chromite mines dot the land on either side and suddenly, there are no local tribals to be seen anymore. This is Odisha’s Sukinda valley, famous for its deposits of chromite, used to make chromium to coat and protect cars and appliance from corrosion. Major companies that have chromite mines here include the Tatas, the Jindals and the Odisha Mining Corporation.

But Sukinda is also infamous: both as one of the most polluted places in India and for the deaths of 19 children of malnourishment and disease in 2016.

The road ends at Deogaon at the foot of the Kumudeithala hill, where polling booths are being prepared for the election for the Sukinda assembly constituency on April 29. But the road going up the hill to three hamlets about 100 meters from each other and collectively known as Nagada, badly needs a fresh coat of asphalt.

Posters of political party pasted on the house of a Juanga tribal in Nagada. ( Biswajit Mohanty/HT Photo )

Up in forested Nagada, there is only one small shop selling basic utilities. It is run by one of 293 Juanga tribals who live here. At first glance, things seem idyllic up here. Juanga women dry their harvested paddy, their kids are at a lunch of rice and boiled moringa leaves. There are sheep and chickens that nuzzle and peck at the ground.

But the noisy rallies and fluttering billboards that mark Lok Sabha elections all over the country are missing here. There are a few faded pictures of Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik on the walls of a few huts and very little enthusiasm for the poll. With no government or private bus service plying between Nagada and Deogaon any more ostensibly for a lack of passengers, auto rickshaws are the only recourse.

“A trip down to Deoga by rickshaw costs Rs 40 per head,” says 60-year-old Monga Pradhan, one of Nagada’s 141 voters. “But even if my wife, daughter and I saved Rs 120 and walked down the hill just to vote, what would I get in return? Will any leader take care of my livelihood?”

Pradhan says that he voted for CM Patnaik’s ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) at the last election but that he is not bothered this time. “I can neither go to the forest nearby to collect firewood, nor to cultivate potatoes or maize. The government has shut us out of the very forest that kept us alive for so long,” he says.

With no livelihood options available, Juanga tribals in Nagada sit idle while thinking of next meal. ( Biswajit Mohanty/HT Photo )

The deaths of the children from malnutrition in July 2016 jolted the state government, prompting CM Patnaik to form a task-force for Nagada. That’s when the road to connect Deogaon to Nagada was constructed. The state government also provided pucca houses to each of the 61 Juang families that reside in Nagada, built anganwadi centres, dug wells and ensured regular medical check-ups and vaccinations for kids and pregnant mothers. Solar lights went up in the village while an 11 KV electrical substation was built and electric lines drawn to Nagada. A 100-seater hostel for tribal students was promised in Deogaon.

It’s been three years since that flurry of activity, and the promised better future seems to have bypassed Nagada. For Pradhan and others in the village, a pucca house is no substitute for being shut out of the forest.

“Only a handful of people from our village work in chromite mines.The rest of us continued to live off the forests. We used to grow maize, paddy and vegetables on the hilly slopes. We would dig out roots to make liquor and with the money we earned from selling it in Deogaon, we’d buy oil and salt. But for over a year now, the forest department has fenced off the forest and will not allow us inside. I have a pucca house now, but what do I do with it? How do I make ends meet with the Rs 500 old age allowance that I get?” asks Monga.

Ugunia Pradhan, a neighbour, says that cases are being lodged against those villagers who try to sneak past officials into the forest. “Though we get rice at Rs 1 a kg, we need access to forest for other things like firewood. In the past year, at least six Nagada villagers have spent months in jail after being arrested for entering the forest.”

Juanga housewife Sadhabani Pradhan, whose two daughters succumbed to malnourishment in the July 2016 tragedy, said things have improved a little since the anganwadi centres came up in the village. “But when my children come home, I have nothing to offer them except boiled rice and moringa. We have to go all the way to the market in Kaliapani town for all else. “Besides, even our cattle can’t enter the forest to graze, since there is barbed wire. Where can they go?”

SMT Rehman, divisional forest officer of the Cuttack city division that oversees Nagada, says that the problem really lies in the tribal custom of slash-and-burn cultivation. “We tried to educate them several times not to set fire, but they wouldn’t listen. So we had no other way than to fence the forest and lodge cases against those who disobey,” he says.

However, noted environmental activist Biswajit Mohanty says that the forest department has access to a huge budget allocated for afforestation, but is clueless about how to spend the money fruitfully.

“Earlier, they were fencing with bamboo twigs, which, was environment-friendly at the least. But now this hare-brained idea of barbed wire fencing is not only alienating the tribals but also posing a danger to wildlife,” Mohanty said.

The tribals retort that they would have kept away from the forest, had the government kept its word on allocating 10 acres of land for community cultivation outside the fenced-off forest. “Instead, the officials decided to build a tank on the earmarked land. Which land can we cultivate now?” asked Binod Pradhan, a Juanga who spent a few months in jail for violating the ban on entering the forest.

A senior police official said on condition of anonymity that jailing tribals for entering forests could give a fillip to Maoist activities in the area. “The Maoists had some presence here till 2010. If innocent tribals are jailed for entering forests, we can see a re-run of troubled times ahead,” warned the officer.

There is other tardiness on display. Electricity lines were drawn to the village more than a year ago, but there is no supply yet. The wells that were supposed to provide clean drinking water to the villages are being choked by dry leaves while the last couple of monsoons have worsened the condition of the road to Deogaon.

In addition to the community land for cultivation, tribals are also entitled to individual patches of land allotted to them under the Forest Rights Act. But Nagada’s resident have no idea or information on that land either, since plots are yet to be demarcated.

Jajpur district collector Ranjan Kumar Das says that electric supply will start after the polls. “We are also thinking of providing long-term livelihood to the tribals and resuming the bus service,” he said.

Saroj Mahakud, who runs Aspire, an NGO in the area, said Nagada has seen more promises and fewer deliveries.

“Three years is enough to change the face of a place. The residential school is yet to start. Now, even a sustainable livelihood in the forest is out-of-reach for them,” Mahakud says.

Sukinda Valley is surrounded by the Mahagiri and Daitari mountains and spread over an area of 50 square kilometers.

The Damsala flows through Sukinda, joining the river Brahmani further away from the valley. For all its hardships and dust and pollution caused by mining, it is a beautiful part of Odisha and not everyone is unhappy.

Katakia Pradhan is one of 12 Juanga tribals who has found a job as a loader in the IMFA chromite mines. He says his life is a lot better now.

“Even though it’s a temporary job, I now earn around 7000 rupees a month,” Pradhan says. “All I need is a permanent job for my life to change permanently too.”

First Published: Apr 28, 2019 12:45 IST