Rakhi Ghosh
Rakhi Ghosh
Rakhi Ghosh is an Independent Journalist based in Bhubaneswar, Odisha
Stories by Rakhi Ghosh
 17 Nov, 2021

Caste certificates, and government benefits, elude Odisha’s neglected Kela tribe

The lack of caste certificates has made it difficult for the nomadic tribe to avail government schemes and apply for jobs or stipends, leaving them to stagnate on the margins of society.Puri/Bhubaneshwar: “Amara jati pramana nathibaru ame sarakari sahayataru banchita heuchu (We are deprived of government entitlements because we do not have a caste certificate),” said Meena Das (34) before a gathering of academicians, researchers, and journalists in Odisha’s capital, Bhubaneswar, in late September.Das belongs to Sabakhia Kela, one among 13 listed Kela communities found in Pipili, Brahmagiri and Sadar blocks of Odisha’s Puri district. They have lived for generations as a nomadic tribe. Some members of the community are still snake charmers, while others perform stunts for money and food. Many of them play instruments like the Tingi Khadu as they go door-to-door, collecting alms.Murali Shikari (41) from the Mundapota Kela community said, “The male members of the community bury their heads under the earth and hold their breath while the women beat the drums to attract the public so that they can collect alms. We have also been performing a typical dance form — the ghoda nacha. That was our livelihood.”The Kela tribes have been subject to continuous neglect and social stigma. All because the community has never been entitled to the all-important caste certificates that can open the doors to various kinds of government support, claimed Meena Das. A district official on the condition of anonymity told 101Reporters that it is difficult to issue certificates to the Kela community as they do not have past records or any information about their origins in Odisha.“One of the key problems in placing these communities on India’s developmental map is the unavailability of authentic and relevant data. It is not available as no caste-wise census was undertaken between 1931 and 2011,” said Sandip Patnaik, a researcher studying the socio-economic conditions of Kela communities.Murali Shikari, accompanied by his wife Rupa Shikari, demonstrates a traditional stunt of the Kela community, where the men bury their heads in the ground and hold their breath for several minutes as their wives seek food and money from the public (Picture credit - Rakhi Ghosh)Patnaik added that most of these communities are nomadic and their numbers are not likely to be enumerated in the Census data. “A number of states have not prepared the list of de-notified or nomadic communities,” he said, adding, “the lack of official records has made them invisible in the development process. Many of them are still struggling to get a caste certificate so that they can avail government benefits.”In search of homeThe study revealed that Kela communities have limited access to land, housing and sanitation, forcing them to live in neglect.Murali Shikari said that the government has not been able to provide proper housing for his family either through the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana or the Biju Pucca Ghar Yojana meant for the poor. “We are living in a marshy place and are vulnerable to diseases,” he said.Lata Shikari (65), a widow living in Pipili block, has been waiting for 40 years to build a house through government support. She has attended most of the rallies conducted by the ruling party in Bhubaneswar with the hope that her demand will be fulfilled. She has not succeeded so far.In the past, Meena Das said, the members of the Kela community would eat anything they could find — from dead birds to snakes. But now, things have changed as many look forward to a dignified life.“Now, we either work as seasonal labourers or farm labourers and sharecroppers,” she said, adding that the people of her community would be able to live a better life if they had a home.No jobs, no schoolThe lack of caste certificates, for example, has left the Kela community unable to access job cards that are given under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.This was particularly tough when job prospects were further dented by the coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide lockdown imposed by the government in March 2020. “The meagre income we used to get as labourers stopped. We had to depend on the five kilograms of rice that we got from the public distribution system. It was insufficient,” Meena Das said.Lakhia Shikari (44) of the Beherasahi in Pipili block, who belongs to Mundapota Kela community, said that the pandemic forced them to once again take up their traditional occupation.“The sudden lockdown announcement crushed our livelihood. We lived hand-to-mouth. When there were no work opportunities due to the pandemic, we fell back to our traditional occupation — begging for alms,” she said.Meena Das says the community aspires for better lives now and caste certificates are essential to help towards this; (right) Muna Das rues that a caste certificate would have helped him complete his studies as the high fees forced him to drop out last year (Picture credit - Rakhi Ghosh)Muna Das (21), from Ghusuria Kela community, had to quit college during the pandemic and work at a farm to provide for his family. He was unable to procure a stipend when he was completing his degree as he had no caste certificate. He had to pay regular fees like his counterparts from the general category, ultimately making it difficult for him to continue his studies.“I approached government officials and even the district collector to request a caste certificate, but to no avail,” he said.Muna Das’ dreams of becoming a teacher were shattered due to the lack of caste certificates. “We are so invisible in the eyes of the government that even after so many years of independence we are deprived of a caste certificate. Now, the pandemic has broken all our hopes,” he rued.                        Murali Shikari's children studied for free till Class 8 in a government-run school. However, to put them through high school, he will now have to pay fees. “Due to lack of caste certificates, our children are unable to get a stipend to continue studies. Many children drop out from schools as their parents fail to pay school fees,” he said.  Stigma that follows them everywhereThe stigma attached to the Kela communities has followed them even in dire situations, highlighting rampant discriminatory practices. They were not spared even during natural calamities.When Cyclone Fani killed 74 people in Odisha in April 2019 and caused damages worth Rs 1200 crore, several shelters were built to temporarily rehabilitate those who were displaced. Here, the members of the Kela communities were allegedly subjected to casteist behaviour by people of the upper caste.“In the multi-purpose cyclone shelter, the upper castes had already occupied the space and they didn’t allow us to enter,” said Meena Das. “Thus, we returned and took shelter in a school verandah. Here, the upper caste people did not allow us to use the washroom. We were forced to urinate at a faraway place even when it was raining heavily,” she said.Even in their day to day lives, the women of Kela community have had to face discriminatory remarks, like while foraging for date leaves that they use to stitch mats or make brooms.Rupa Shikari from the Mundapota Kela community said, “People either deny or demand money for the leaves. How will we pay the amount? Moreover, the availability of plastic mats and brooms have made it difficult to sell our traditional skills,” she said, adding that they were now working as construction labourers to make ends meet.  @font-face {font-family:"Cambria Math"; panose-1:2 4 5 3 5 4 6 3 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:roman; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:3 0 0 0 1 0;}@font-face {font-family:Calibri; panose-1:2 15 5 2 2 2 4 3 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:swiss; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:-536859905 -1073732485 9 0 511 0;}p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-unhide:no; mso-style-qformat:yes; mso-style-parent:""; margin:0cm; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:"Calibri",sans-serif; mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-fareast-font-family:Calibri; mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi; mso-fareast-language:EN-US;}.MsoChpDefault {mso-style-type:export-only; mso-default-props:yes; font-family:"Calibri",sans-serif; mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-fareast-font-family:Calibri; mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi; mso-fareast-language:EN-US;}div.WordSection1 {page:WordSection1;}

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Caste certificates, and government benefits, elude Odisha’s neglected Kela tribe

 30 Sep, 2021

In Nayagarh, villagers have begun to assert total ownership over their forests

Tribals and forest-dwelling communities in Odisha seek collective rights over Community Forest Resources to provide them with food and livelihood security while also reviving conservation efforts.Nayagarh: In January 2020, a few villagers in Mitukuli village in Odisha’s Nayagarh, were patrolling the forests — a practise popularly known as thengapalli — when they found nearly 225 well-grown trees cut down by the forest department. Infuriated at the sight, they put forth the issue before the Community Forest Resources Management Committee (CFRMC) (Gosthi Jangala Sambala O Parichalana Committee), formed by the villagers. This kickstarted the process to formally reclaim the forest lands that they have been protecting for generations, and legally petition for the ownership of Community Forest Resources (CFR) under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Believing that this will empower them with rights for protection, regeneration, conservation and management of forest resources, the inhabitants of eight villages (including Mitukuli) in the Dasapalla block in the district met with the Welfare Extension Officer (WEO) On August 16 to submit the petition."Ame ama janglara sima nirdharana karichu aau ame chahunchu amaku ama jangala uapare adhikar milu [we have demarcated the traditional boundary of our forest and demand our rights over CFR]," said Laxmi Mallick (54), pointing to the forest just behind Mitukuli village. On entering this village, comprising 50 homes, mostly belonging to marginalised tribal and Dalit families, one encounters a cement plaque displaying the words — "Villagers protect and manage these forest resources". The final strawLast January, the day after the villages found the fallen trees, they noticed officials from the Forest Department, Forest Development Corporation and a few labourers bringing in a truck to remove the trees. The villagers protested the entry of the vehicle. "We didn't allow them to lift the wood; we sat on the timber. We protested because after all, we are protecting our forest but without informing us, they cut down our trees," Pramila Jani, a committee member, told 101Reporters.Initially, the department didn't agree and tried to forcibly take away the timber. But the villagers were firm in their refusal to move. To diffuse the situation, the District Forest Officer, Ranger and other officials agreed to a negotiation. "We demanded our share of the timber and asked them to not cut any more trees without taking permission from the committee," said Subhas Chandra Jani, President of the CFRMC. Finally, the forest department decided on a compromise and assured to pay the villagers Rs 87,700 against the trees they had cut down. The amount is yet to be transferred to the CFRMC account, but villagers are happy to have claimed their share for the first time. This incident built confidence among the villagers, and they decided to redraw the traditional forest boundaries to claim control over thier entire CFR area. The forest behind the village of Mitukuli (right; Picture credit - Rakhi Ghosh) where villagers discovered hundreds of trees cut down without their knowledge (Picture credit - Nirman)Reimagining borders"Our ancestors have been protecting this forest, and now we continue their legacy. If we establish the boundary, it will empower us to restrict the entry of outsiders,"  Dhaneswar Jani, an active member of Mitukuli CFRMC and representative of the Adivasi Cell in Nayagarh district, told 101Reporters. This already includes timber thieves and smugglers, against whom women like Mallick protect their forests, stick in hand. "But many times the Department itself cuts down and takes away timber in the name of making rath for Lord Jagannath, cutting down siali creepers just to clean the forest and plant trees which benefit them. They never thought to consult us or take our permission,” said Mallick. Ironically, it's the villagers who had to worry about being arbitrarily pulled up by forest guards for venturing into the forest.The community sat together to redraw the traditional boundary line so they can use the resources and impose restrictions. They also invited neighbouring villagers, the Revenue Inspector and officials from the forest department for joint verification and to avoid any conflict in future. "We have considered the cattle grazing land, barren land, streams, types of trees, forest deity and places our ancestors used to visit while preparing the outline of the traditional forest area," said Bhubaneswar Jani, Secretary of the Mitukuli CFRMC. He added that once they finished the blueprint, each family contributed to buying lime powder to mark the boundaries. "Before beginning this divine effort, we performed a puja before our village deity and ventured into the jungle. Since then, we have been awaiting the official claim certificate over CFR," the secretary said with a confident smile.Nirman, a non-profit organisation, took steps to empower villagers about information surrounding community forest rights. Narayan Parida, Programme Officer at Nirman oversaw regular meetings and sensitisation programmes with community leaders, women and youth to guide them about the process. A meeting of some members of the community forest resources committee in Mitukuli (Picture credit - Rakhi Ghosh)Reliance on forest produceBankataila is one of the seven other neighbouring villages that was inspired by Mitukuli to petition for rights over CFR. With a population of 160, Bankataila began as a satellite village and was sharing forest land with the neighbouring village of Munduli. Laxmidhara Muduli, President of CFRMC, Bankataila, said, "When we heard Munduli were demarcating their forest area, we found they had taken away most of our forest land.” But the villagers from both the villages were able to sit down together and amicably redraw the forest borders. "Ame kaani pati bhikhya magilu, ama jangala amaku diya (We begged and requested them to give us our forest land to survive). This touched the hearts of the village elders, and they returned the portion of the land to Bankataila," he said. In Mitukuli, the villagers barely have about two acres of cultivable land on average where they generally grow paddy. To supplement their income and nutrition, they collect sal, siali and tendu leaves, mushroom, fruits, jhuna, honey, mahul, palua, satabari, and odanga from the forest. It is estimated that each family makes at least Rs 10,000-15,000 from forest produce yearly which can be substantially augmented if they have stronger rights over these resources.Dhaneswar told 101Reporters, "In 1999 and 2000 when we faced drought-like conditions, our forest saved us from starvation. Women ventured into the forest to collect siali leaves and stitch them, while men sold these in the market to buy rice for their families. Besides tubers, different types of spinach, potatoes and mushrooms helped us survive." This year too, they expect the sporadic rainfall to produce a below-average yield. "But we are hopeful that our forest will help us," he said.They also believe the restrictions on outsiders will help protect the forest from fires. "Last year, our sanctuary went up in flames. We toiled into the night to extinguish the fire. Though the reason is still unknown, we believe restrictions on access will protect the forest," said Muduli.Mitukuli villagers conduct prayers in front of the cement plaque proclaiming their rights over the forest before beginning the process of demarkating forest boundaries (Picture credit - Nirman)Consolidating community effortsThough these eight villages in Dasapalla are waiting for recognition of CFR, they have already started following the rules formed by their respective committees. Each committee has 15 members with equal participation of women. If villagers require timber or bamboo for the construction of homes or any other purposes, they will have to obtain permission from the committee. "The committee will decide on which trees can be cut and the villager will have to pay for it,” said Sukanti Behera, secretary of the Bankataila CFRMC, showing the receipt book. Till now, the Committee has received Rs 1,800 from villagers. “But the food from the forest has been exempted and we don’t charge for it,” she added. The Bankataila CFRMC hopes to be able to spend the funds collected on the development of the village and community. "We have planned to start a seed bank to collect seeds from the forest. Before the monsoons, we will plant them for the growth and regeneration of the forest," said Nandi Bhoi, a member. If the eight villages fail to get the CFR title in the next three months, they will bring this issue before the Collector. Dhaneswar Jani echoed their common belief, "After all, we are protecting our forests, so we rightfully deserve ownership over forest resources."

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In Nayagarh, villagers have begun to assert total ownership over their forests

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