Tribals in forests caught between official apathy, complexities of law

Lack of roads, schools, electricity and hospitals forces Kolhas lead a primitive life in villages cut off from outside world.

Simlipal(Odisha): Far from the civilised crowd, the Kolha tribals live in the inaccessible tiny villages inside Simlipal National Park in Odisha’s Mayurbjanj district. Nature is everything for them. The tribals, who migrated to this place from the erstwhile south Bihar and now Jharkhand decades ago, care and worship the forests, hills and ever-flowing narrow streams descending from the hills.

These tribals love, protect and preserve the forest as they believe they can only survive in the lap of woods. However, they do not lead a normal life as they have been deprived of basic infrastructure like road, electricity, water, educational institutes, primary health centres and transportation facilities. In the 21st century, they still live like jungle men and women -- ignorant of another world that claims itself to be civilised and modern.

What has held back the development activities is inaccessibility. One has to trek miles to reach these villages. All efforts to build roads and electricity infrastructure have fallen flat due to lack of coordination between forest and revenue departments. The forest department, as for Forest Conservation Act, 1980, considers residents of these villages illegal occupants. This has stood in the way of the villages getting the “revenue village” tag.

Non-recognition of the human habitations as revenue villages prevents the education department to build schools and the health department to establish hospitals. There are about 10,000 people living in 61 villages of Simlipal forests.

“We have no primary and high schools here. The only Anganwadi centre has no government teacher. It is managed by Centre for Youth and Social Development, a development organisation. Since we have no hospital here, people are left to fend for themselves. Last year, we lost two children and a pregnant woman died this year as we could not take them to the hospital which is 12 km from here. We carry the patients on slings and cots and walk down to hospitals,” said Sadhu Makhud of Jharjhari village under Thakurmunda block.

Early-age marriage is seen to be continuing in these villages. This has resulted in both mother and children suffering from malnourishment and other health complications.

Birasingha Ugrasandhi, a resident of Bhaliadal village, said despite repeated requests to the Mayurbhanj district administration, there are no activities related to infrastructure development.

“Besides roads, schools and hospitals, we also fight to get drinking water. Our village does not have tubewells or dug wells. The narrow streams flowing down from the nearby hills shrink in the summer and get contaminated because of overdependence on them by human beings, domestic animals and wildlife. Villagers often get sick after drinking contaminated water,” says Birasingha.

Lack of education has forced the people to continue with their primitive living style - herding goats and collecting firewood to cook their food, besides undertaking poultry activities.

Agriculture has been confined to growing paddy and vegetables, which is at the mercy of rain god.

“Since we have no government mandi or procurement centre here, we are forced to sell our paddy between '1,100 and '1,200 per quintal as against '1,750 minimum support price (MSP) fixed by the Union government,” says Jagabandhu Ho of Bhaliadal.

The villagers are yet to see a television set. For them, radio is the only source of information and entertainment.

Today, the villagers are living a little better life as Oxfam, an international development organisation, in association with Regional Center for Development Cooperation, a Bhubaneswar-based non-governmental organisation, is intervening in those villages. Erection of solar-lighting and solar-irrigation systems has brought about significant changes in their lives.

People are now able to charge their mobile phones with solar battery. They can now irrigate their land with solar water pumps.

With the help of development organisations, the area is coordinating with the district administration. As a result, some villagers have got Individual Forest Rights (IFR) and Community Forest Rights (CFR). This has enabled them to undertake cultivation. Grant of CFR has helped them procure forest produces without hassles, process them and sell them to various government and agencies, including state government’s Odisha Rural Development and Marketing Society (ORMAS). Such activities are slowly improving the local economy.

Dillip Subudhi, a leading researcher who spent over 17 years in villages situated in Similipal and forests in other parts of the state, feels there will be remarkable improvement in the life of forest dwellers once their habitations are recognised as revenue villages and they are given IFR and CFR over their claimed lands as per the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

“Though the Odisha government has a good track record in settling IFR and CFR claims, a lot of activities remain to be done. In villages, people have got IFR and CFR titles over their claimed lands. However, many of them still cannot make productive use of these lands as the lands granted to them are yet to be demarcated by revenue officials,” says Mr Subudhi.

Speaking to this newspaper, state ST & SC development minister Ramesh Chandra Majhi said the government had asked the district administrations to complete the titles of the IFR and CFR claims by March 2019.

“We have asked the collectors of all tribal-dominated districts to settle the IFR and CFR claims by March 2019. Once this process is complete, you will see significant change in the life of forest dwellers,” the minister said.

Of the 4.19 crore population of Odisha, nearly 23 per cent (22.85 per cent, according to 2011 census) is tribal.

In almost all the tribal-dominated districts, the conditions of those living in forests are almost identical, say social activists who have been working among the marginalised sections of society.

Next Story