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The burden of being a Paharia woman in Odisha

Aug 14, 2015

Unlike their brethren in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the Pahrias of Odisha are a landless lot struggling to make the ends meet.

Nuapada: It was evening by the time Champabati Paharia, 40, a widow from Bhaisadani village in Nuapada district of Odisha, got back home. “I have been walking for the last five days. I had gone to the forest to get bamboo and after spending so much time and effort I have managed to return with only six medium-sized sticks. I could not carry any more,” she rues.

Champabati lost her husband a few years ago and since then she has been trying to provide for her five children by collecting bamboo and minor forest produce, like kendu leaves, mahua and random roots and tubers. Every fortnight she hikes for around 15 kilometres to Koruapain dongar (hill) to collect precious bamboo. “As bamboo is not available in the forest area adjoining our hamlet, we are forced to make this trip that, on an average, lasts around eight days. When my husband was alive either he would go alone while I managed the home in his absence or we went together. At least we were able to share the load. Now I am alone and life seems really daunting,” she shares.

Worry has engulfed Champabati’s entire existence simply because she has no land or alternative income sources to fall back on. “I have no land where I can cultivate vegetables or a little food grain for personal use or for sale. The land surrounding our village falls under the forest department and we do not have any access to it,” she elaborates. What she can do is fashion household articles, like baskets, boxes and handmade fans, from bamboo every 15 days and sell them in the weekly ‘haat’ (market) to earn around Rs 500 to Rs 600. “This, however, is not sufficient money to feed all my children. So two have migrated to Bhubaneswar [state capital] to work in a brick kiln,” she adds.

Although Champabati says she had heard that the government was providing ‘pattas’ (plots) to landless families living in the forest, all hopes of getting something from the administration have been dashed ever since she was told that it was only for communities that are officially on the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list. “Some of the forest-dwellers from other communities have got ‘pattas’ but the forest officials have told us that we are not ‘adivasi’ (tribal) so we are not eligible for this benefit. I don’t know what the government’s policy states, all I know is that I desperately need help to scrape together two square meals for my family,” she says, matter-of-fact.

Subhadra Paharia, 55, another resident of Bhaisadani village, home to 22 Paharia families, is facing similar challenges. She says, “There is no viable livelihood available for us here. Our sole income comes from sale of bamboo products. But we have to go as far as the Chhattisgarh border, crossing undulating hilly terrain, to get it. For older people this journey is risky. And after all the hardship, we get in hand a mere Rs 600 to Rs 800.”

According to Subhadra, generations of Paharias in Odisha have been living under severe deprivation. “I remember seeing my parents struggle to feed us and, today, we are suffering a similar fate. Nothing has changed for us. What really disappoints me is when political leaders come during election time to seek our vote and make tall promises that don’t seem to ever materialise into real action. We have been asking for ST status for years. We have been completely forgotten by the government,” she says, her voice heavy with frustration and sorrow.

Such basic struggles for survival may sound unreal in 21st century India but even a casual visit to this region will confirm the truth in Subhadra and Champabati’s words. Whereas the Paharias have a legitimate ST status in neighbouring Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, which entitles them to several government welfare initiatives, particularly access to the forest, in Odisha, the 10,000 Paharias, spread over Nuapada and Kalahandi districts, are yet to get such recognition.

Historical accounts amply reveal that the Paharia lifestyle is firmly linked with the forest. British historians, Richard Temple in 1863 and V. Ball in 1867, have described the Paharias as people who belonged to the wild race and lived in caves. They have also written that “Paharias sustain their lives by hunting animals in the jungles and eating mainly forest products”. In the 1901 and 1911 census, the Paharias were included in the ST category and even the British had accorded Protected Status to them. Things, however, changed in 1936 when Odisha was declared an independent state. Since then, it’s been a never-ending cycle of rough times for this community.

Livelihood is their primary concern. Even now, making knick-knacks from bamboo, collecting minor forest produce and agriculture, in that order, make up the mainstay of their life. Yet, neither brings in money enough even for sustainability let alone prosperity. For starters, not only is bamboo difficult to source – as Champabati’s account reveals – the finished products fetch little money at the weekly markets. There are no larger marketing networks for them to tap for retailing these handcrafted creations at a competent price.

As far as living on minor forest produce is concerned it is at best a seasonal solution. Gathering mahua is a common activity and during the summer each family can get at least two to three bags full that sell from anywhere between Rs 2,000 to Rs 2,500. However, the challenge involved in gathering these flowers is greater than getting bamboo. Most families have to temporarily set up base deep in the jungles – at least 20 kilometres from their settlement – to pick the blooms. Agriculture, on the other hand, is also a distant dream as most of the land falls under the forest area. In what little is free, and that is mostly the upland reaches, there are serious issues of irrigation that make it impossible to cultivate.

“If we had community rights under the Forest Regulations Act (FRA) then we could have planted bamboo in the nearby forest area instead of trudging 15 kilometres. Though we are forest dwellers and have been so for generations the government does not recognise us as ‘tribal’. Many of our relatives in Chhattisgarh are tribal and are getting all the benefits meant for them. We have demanded the ST status several times in the past but our voices have simply gone unheard,” laments Budhuram Paharia, a resident of Bhaisadani.

In 1980, the demand for inclusion of the Paharias in the ST category was formally put in the State Assembly. In 2000, the Paharia Vikash Manch was formed to fight for their rights. Then, on July 27, 2005, a proposal for their inclusion was sent to the Centre but things have not moved forward since.

Ajit Panda, a Nuapada-based activist, observes, “It is unfortunate that the Paharia community has been converted to a landless clan due to the government’s apathetic attitude. Earlier, they were fighting to get the ST status and now they are struggling to get rights over the land they have been living on since their forefather’s time.”

On its part, the government is asking for more time. A.B. Ota, Director, Tribal Research Institute, says, “The inclusion of any community in the ST list is a long process. As far as the Paharias are concerned, the file has already been processed and is with the Centre, in the last phase of clearance.”

According to the Campaign For Survival and Dignity (CSD), the problem being faced by the Paharias is acute because the state is not being able to implement the FRA properly for the non-tribal forest-dwellers. So, for now at least, it seems like the ST status is the only thing that can give some much-needed relief and hope to the Paharias.

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