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India: In tribal Malkangiri, women leaders take on hunger

Jul 26, 2013

Empowering women can lead to food security in tribal areas as women and food security are closely linked, writes Sarada Lahangir.

Malkangiri: “Food security is a big issue in our tribal region. In the absence of proper livelihood opportunities, scores of families here are heavily dependent on the Public Distribution System (PDS) to meet their ration needs. Streamlining the PDS, therefore, is a top priority. We have tried our best to ensure that everybody gets their entitlements on time.” That was Malathi Gudia, 25, sarpanch (village council head) of Nakkamamudi panchayat. Not only is this young woman a popular, conscientious and articulate leader, these days she is determined to ensure that no one goes hungry under her watch.

Gudia’s agenda stands to benefit thousands, considering that Nakkamamudi panchayat is located in the Kudumulugumma block of Malkangiri, one of Odisha most impoverished districts. Most of the villages in the region are geographically inaccessible and poor communication and infrastructure facilities only make it tougher to get things done.

Around 100 villages falling under four panchayats are situated within the Balimela Reservoir Project on the River Sileru. During the monsoon season – from July to September – and sometimes even in the post-monsoon months, these hamlets are completely cut-off from the block headquarters. Almost every year all the cultivable land here gets flooded, destroying the crops and leaving the already severely disadvantaged population famished. Most families live below the poverty line (BPL) and literacy levels are very poor: female literacy is a dismal 26 per cent.

It is under these challenging circumstances that women leaders like Gudia have made an impact, with some help from ‘Thread – Siddharth Village’, a local non-government organisation based in Jatani block of khurda district. Thread is working to empower tribal women in the region, helping them to understand the various ways in which they can better their own lives. Interestingly, it uses the power vested in panchayats in their bid to usher in change.

The process began with the setting up of a tribal women’s organisation, aptly named as Nari Mukti Samaj (society for women’s liberation). This organisation is ‘of the tribal women, by the tribal women, for the tribal people’. It has ensured that several local women sarpanches and panchayat members work for the local community. All of them, incidentally, have gone through a three-phase training programme designed by Thread. In fact, all the women selected to contest panchayat election – Odisha has 50 per cent reservation for women in local bodies – are put through this rigorous, year-long orientation.

While they are already aware of the problems afflicting their people, the training allows them to gain a better understanding of the functioning of the panchayati raj system to enable them to do their job effectively, once elected.

Gudia, who also emerged through this process, has proved her mettle and gained a lot of respect from the villagers. And here’s why. Two years ago, the family of Chanda Sisa, 40, a resident of Nakkamamudi, was waging what looked like a losing battle for survival. Even scraping two square meals a day was proving difficult. She had a BPL card but it was all but useless. Sisa never got the foodgrains at subsidised rate. “While the PDS price for rice was Rs 2, we were being forced to buy from the open market at an exorbitant rate of Rs 10 to 15 per kilo. Whenever I went to get ration the PDS dealer would say that the supply hadn’t come in. Sometimes he would tell me to come back the next day. When I did go back I was told that our entitlement had already been taken. This happened quite often but there was no way to find out who was doing the pilfering,” she recalls.

Once, of course, Gudia became sarpanch things changed for the better. “Now every month I am getting my PDS ration on time which is a bid boon for my family,” Sisa adds.

Today, hundreds of families in Kudumulugumma block are benefiting from the PDS, which is currently the country’s largest food security scheme. And the credit for this goes to the women leaders, who, as part of the Nari Mukti Samaj, have taken on the responsibility of ensuring a properly-functioning PDS.

Gudia and her colleague Maha Devee Sisa, 35, have succeeded in bringing the PDS under the control of the Nari Mukti Samaj-run women sangha’s (groups) in five villages - Dykethri, Godiguda, Nakamamudi, Muduliguda and Arangi - which has benefited over 27 villages in the area. Every Thursday the PDS supply is brought to the five key villages and from Friday onwards the foodgrains are duly distributed across all villages under the supervision of the respective ‘sanghas’ of the villages.

Dayanidhi Majhi from Godiguda village is ever grateful for the activism of these elected women. A landless wage labourer, he has an Antodaya card though it is only from last year that he has been able to derive any real benefit from it. The card entitles him to 30 kilos of rice at a reduced price of Rs 2 per kilo.

He explains, “Earlier, the PDS delivery was very erratic. The ration shop owner used to give us grain once every three to four months and he would tell us to buy our entire quota at one time. It was trick, because he knew that we could not afford it all at once. He used to sell it in the black market forcing us to buy at full rate when the need arose.”

When there was no work available it was difficult to earn Rs 60 to buy rice from the open market. “So many of us had to mortgage our card to the local money lender, who bought the rice using our card and gave us five kilos per month. This system has stopped now,” Majhi adds.

In the last panchayat election in 2012, as many as 2,056 women leaders – who are also part of the Nari Mukti Samaj – contested the polls of which 970 women won the election from different places of Odisha.

Says Gudia, who came to power last year with the support of the Nari Mukti Samaj (NMS), “We are not only involved in PDS but our NMS members in different places in the district have initiated many other activities to ensure food security.”

For instance, there’s the community cowshed and collection of cow dung initiative to make organic manures, in addition to the introduction of collective cultivation for added food security. At present, six community cowsheds have been constructed by the local people in Kodikajodi, Godiguda, Tikarpada, Amilibeda and Muduliguda villages that are benefiting 67 families. Collective cultivation – under which villagers work together on a common land and then the harvest is stored in community grain banks - has also been taken on in a big way. The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) method of rice cultivation is practised to maximise the yield.

From shortage to self sufficiency, these days, community grain banks set up in different villages are stocked up on eight quintals of rice and five quintals of ragi. In addition, there are seed banks where indigenously produced seeds like kanthulo (97 kilos), tho (92 kilos) and biri (145 kilos) have been stored.

According to G. Johns, the founder of Thread, “Our main thrust has been to empower poor tribal women, who are deprived of many key government entitlements. Our women’s groups, which also include panchayat women, not only mobilise the villagers but also local resources to ensure food security.”

Leaders like Gudia and Sisa know that “women suffer the most during a food crisis as they are anyway at the bottom of the family's pecking order”. As Karmi Besra, another progressive local women puts it, “Women and food security are closely linked. So all our efforts are trained at ensuring that tribal villages can become food surplus in the next five years.” Amen to that.

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