To avoid visiting vaccination teams, tribal villagers in Odisha often escape into the forests
Fear of the unknown, misinformation-fueled anxiety, lack of trust, a cautious local community and a paucity of effective awareness campaigns mar vaccination efforts in the remote tribal villages of Odisha.Bhubaneswar: Orda, a tribal village under the Gobara panchayat in Cuttack district, is unplottable on any digital device. Neither Google maps nor any other search engine could tell you where exactly the village is. Last month, when a health department team reached Orda to inoculate the villagers, many fled into the bordering forests to avoid the injections.Most members of the local community here are now opposed to the mass vaccination drive. They are apprehensive about the government's medical intervention in an otherwise healthy community.“We have seen in the past that several healthy people when given injections became sick and some have even died. We do not have any faith in injections when most of us are quite healthy and without any disease,” said Kundia Hembram, a tribal villager from Orda.“Recently we saw a man from our village that took some injection and died after that. We do not want to invite trouble by taking the injection,” Singha Sundi, another villager told 101Reporters during our visit there. Spending some time with villagers reveals how unexposed they are to the world outside their hamlet. This, in turn, contributes to the overall lack of trust and increases fear among the locals. The village is still not connected with a proper road and is easily cut-off during monsoons, making travel difficult even on a two-wheeler. The nearest health centre, Gurudijhatia Primary Health Centre, is around 12 km away from the village.An uphill task There are several other tribal-dominated areas like Orda that face similar challenges. Here rumours about COVID-19 and its prevention spread faster than authentic information. Pangapada in Tumudibandh Block of Kandhamal district is another such remote tribal village. There is barely any mobile network coverage and the lack of good roads adds to the villagers' woes.The houses here in Orda are all kutcha homes and farming is the primary occupation of the people living here (Picture credit: Manish Kumar)Surath Patmajhi, who is a youth from the Dongria Kondh tribe in the village, has been vaccinated after being persuaded by some voluntary organisations. But the majority of the population of Pangapada remain elusive. He attributed this to several rumours doing the rounds in the village that are influencing villagers against vaccination. It is important to note that Dongria Kondh is among the thirteen Primarily Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs). “There are around 30 households in my village but till now not more than 10 persons have taken the vaccine. There are several myths in my community regarding the covid vaccines. They believe that these injections could make them sick; it could be used as a birth control measure and may make them infertile; while some also think that this could be a means to eradicate the tribal communities,” said Surath. He also added that there had been very few attempts by the government to create awareness about the vaccines among the local community. Meanwhile, a few voluntary organisations are trying to bridge the communication chasm through the mobilisation of local communities. Many of the organisations claim that the remoteness of these villages, the lack of telecom connectivity and the dearth of proper, accessible roads pose insurmountable challenges that prevent conventional media and government outreach programmes from helping these villages.(left) Government outreach has been largely ineffective and restricted to such messages related to COVID-19 on the walls of Dengajhari village in the Nayagarh district. (right) The Gurujhatia PHC is situated over 12 km from Orda village that is often cut-off from surrounding areas due to bad roads (Picture Credit: Manish Kumar)According to a written statement provided by the Ministry of Communication before Lok Sabha in the last Budget Session (March 2021), Odisha hosts a maximum of 6,099 villages with no mobile connectivity which is around 24 per cent of the unserved villages of India.“In tribal areas, the local community is more likely to believe their local leaders than the outsiders. There is a huge digital divide. Unlike urban areas or well-connected villages, these villagers are not exposed to the best practices. However, they continue to be under threat as many of them come to weekly haats or markets but many do not follow covid-appropriate behaviour,” said Ruchika Kashyap, Executive Trustee of Atmashakti Trust, which is working in tribal areas of Raygada and Malkangiri to create awareness among the local communities. She also said that the condition of women and differently-abled people are more worrisome in tribal communities as they do not have a voice in the decision-making process of the village.Ineffectual planning Y Giri Rao, a tribal livelihood expert from Vasundhara, Bhubaneswar, said that the way the vaccination drive was initially undertaken, rendered the whole exercise futile. “The tribal communities in the state are very simple and isolated and not exposed to the ideas and experiments on the covid front. They hardly see people with PPE kits, masks, gloves and other protective gear except in hospitals. The visits of health teams wearing such attire, without taking the local people in confidence first, led to opposition and reluctance among the community and affected the vaccination drive,” he told 101Reporters.Vaccination in tribal areas across the state ran into several operational hiccups due to the shortage of vaccines and the indiscriminate and innumerable closure of drives in several districts. Tribal areas remained the worst-affected as the closures were compounded by vaccine hesitancy and opposition from the community. Moreover, these areas had the least teledensity, smartphone penetration and lack of literacy making it harder for communities to register the fast-dwindling slots online.Experts also claimed that in several tribal villages, different members of the households often visit forests to collect minor forest produce or for farming, and unscheduled visits by health teams in such areas failed to evoke a good response. Some also suggested creative means of communication like skits and folk arts to win the trust of the communities and spread the message. The condition of women is more worrisome in tribal communities as they do not have a voice in the decision-making process of the village (Picture credit: Manish Kumar)Gautam Mohanty, Programme Officer at Odisha Tribal Empowerment and Livelihood Programme (OTELP), which was the nodal agency responsible for vaccinating PVTGs, said that at least 20,346 members of the PVTGs above the age of 45 years have been vaccinated till now and a total of 2,342 persons in the 18-44 age group have also been vaccinated. Mohanty said that although OTELP and the health department faced several challenges, it has worked on special plans to counter them. “The situation was challenging initially, where we saw many people fleeing to forest areas in tribal villages to avoid vaccination but this has changed and we are proving successful now. We started taking the local leaders and volunteers from such areas into confidence and used them to create awareness in their own language and local beliefs.” Mohanty also said that village-to-village awareness campaigns with microphones, incentives to visit quarantine centres, special covid-kits for the villagers, etc. helped them to garner their support and that the situation is likely to improve soon.
COVID-19: Panic in Surat triggers flashbacks for migrants from Ganjam
In Odisha's migrant hotspot of Ganjam, the second wave brings back memories of last year's exodus from Surat. Ganjam: When the second COVID-19 wave started to emerge in Gujarat’s textile hub Surat in early April, mill worker Ashok Behera was among the Odia migrants who panicked and returned home to the coastal district of Ganjam. The 35-year-old man from Bishnuchakra village feared a repeat of last April's lockdown, when he was left jobless for a month and could find a bus to come back home only in May. “This time, I returned to my village on April 14. My family and I didn’t want to suffer like last year. There are several others who have returned like me, but many have also stayed back as industries are still operational,” he says.On April 29, the Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) started imposing curbs on shops, malls and other outlets in the wake of the threat from COVID 19. Curbs on textile workers in the city were also imposed. The business associations from the city claim that 25 per cent of the textile workforce has migrated. The Gujarat city meanwhile has crossed the mark of 81,000 cases of COVID 19. Any long term lockdown and shutdown in the city is likely to trigger a massive influx of migrants back to Ganjam akin to 2020, experts opine. Behera is not unlike the lakhs of Odia migrants who head to work in Surat’s textile mills in the hope of a better future but end up living and working in squalor. “Working in the mills of Surat has become a traditional occupation of sorts now for migrants there,” says Debraj Jena, a skilled worker in Surat who hails from Ganjam’s Beljhari villageBehera has been working in a textile mill in Surat for more than a decade. His job is a tough one. He works from 7 am to 7 pm daily, but his pay is based on the day’s output, rather than the number of hours worked or a fixed monthly salary. Jena says they can make up to Rs 700 a day, depending on the length of cloth they produce. Archive photo of migrants taking the bus in Ganjam district to reach their final destination. (Photo credit: Ganjam DM Twitter)Same time last yearThe district administration of Ganjam claims that reverse migration this time has not been as bad as last year, when the return of migrants from Surat led to a spike in COVID-19 cases and political backlash. “Till April 25, only 11,000 migrants have returned,” Ganjam collector Vijay Amruta Kulange tells 101Reporters. Last year, the number of returnees was 20 times higher. State labour minister Sushanta Singh, in a reply in the Odisha legislative assembly in November 2020, said 10.07 lakh migrants came back to the state during the 2020 lockdown. Around 2.25 lakh of them returned to Ganjam, he stated.In May 2020, when lockdown curbs were eased and inter-state movement allowed, Ganjam saw an influx of migrants from Surat. This spurred COVID cases too. The first case was reported on May 2, when an 18-year-old tested positive. This number rose to 307 by May 18. Within no time, the district accounted for one-third of Odisha’s 876 cases. Ganjam, which had not reported a single case till May 1, had surpassed the state capital of Bhubaneswar.This spike in COVID cases created a stigma around Surat returnees and their families. Congress leader and Jatani MLA Suresh Routray threatened to organise protests if migrant workers were allowed to get down at Khurda Road railway station, around 22 kms away from Bhubaneshwar. Archive photo of the administration's sanitisation drive in a railway station in Ganjam. (Photo credit: Ganjam DM Twitter)Many fear that this influx of workers, and a subsequent rise in cases, could happen again this year. The collector acknowledged that Ganjam is home to around 4 lakh migrant workers, many of whom had returned to Surat to work after the first Covid wave eased. The actual numbers of Ganjam migrants could be around 7-8 lakhs, according to activists. The status quo remainsUmi Daniel, the director of migration and education thematic unit at non-profit charity Aide et Action South Asia, points out why a repeat of last year is very likely. “These migrants are most vulnerable in the event of a pandemic or an emergency situation. Their jobs are not regular and they have to rely on daily wages. Implementation of labour laws is minimal.” Many of the young Odia workers who work in the textile sectors in Surat talked about the harsh working conditions and lack of social security for the marginalized workers. This despite the fact that mill workers from Ganjam who work in the Gujarati city earn considerable wealth for the state. Daniel calls them the “backbone of the economies of Odisha and Gujarat”. “By a moderate estimate, their annual remittance to the state is close to Rs 5,000 crore,” he says. According to Bibhu Prasad Sahu, the secretary of Ganjam-based Youth for Social Development (YSD), a group that works for the welfare of such migrant workers, several Odias employed in Surat’s textile units work on multiple machines at a given time to earn as much as possible. “Most of them send money to their families in Ganjam. To minimise the cost of living, 20 of them live together in a one-room house which could otherwise accommodate just 10 persons. They manage as they work in shifts,” he says.Archive photo of returning migrants given dry food during their arrival at a railway station in Ganjam. (Photo credit: Ganjam DM Twitter)Sahu says this is the very reason why many migrants could not stay in Surat during the lockdown last year. “Many of them did not have any space to stay. Living in such congested places also put them at a greater risk of contracting the virus,” he adds.Even apart from the spectre of lockdown, Loknath Mishra from ARUNA (Association for Rural Uplift and National Allegiance) says many migrants also come back to the district in April each year for the 21-day festival of Dandamatch. “Families also celebrate or observe other auspicious occasions, like marriages and mundans, during April and May,” he says.In 2020, the Odisha government tried to engage Surat returnees in the rural employment scheme, MGNREGA. However, the attempt was a failure. Families here have seen migration for the last 3-4 generations and it was tough to engage them in farming activities. "Most are used to the financial security of working in the textile mills of Surat," says Mishra. They chose to return when the lockdown eased.While it would take decades for the government to be able to boost jobs and industries here in order to curb migration, MGNREGA could have at least provided a temporary respite. But in February this year, allegations of misappropriation of wages were levelled in Khallikote block of Ganjam — a charge rubbished by the district administration. “The administration has failed to generate enough job cards. There are several bogus cards issued against migrant workers who do not live in their villages. A probe is needed,” said a development agency partner who works with the government on the scheme, but did not wish to be named.In any case, the district administration is ramping up infrastructure to handle more COVID patients. Ganjam Collector has said that right now the district has two COVID-19 hospitals but within a week it is likely to host a total of six COVID-19 hospitals with a total capacity of 6000 beds. As per the COVID dashboard of the Odisha government, Ganjam till now has seen a total of 24,177 cases of the pandemic and witnessed 258 deaths till now since 2020. Currently, it has a total of 1,149 active cases.Archive photo of the Ganjam administration undertaking thermal screening of returning migrants at Berhampur railway station. (Photo credit: Ganjam DM Twitter)
Villages in Odisha grow mini forests over 50 acres to fight climate change
Jagatsinghpur, Odisha: According to a research paper published in Science of the Total Environment last year, flood hazards in the Jagatsinghpur district of Odisha will increase from the current 12.55% to 27.35% by 2040. Things for Jagatsinghpur look as grim on the ground as they are in the air. That’s because, in its 2018 report, the Central Board of Pollution Control had flagged the port city of Paradip in the district as "severely polluted". And so, about 10 kms away, the residents of the Kujang Block in the district are trying to address the twin issues with one solution — mini forests. In the last two decades, 20 villages here have grown trees in clusters. These forests are spread over an acre or less across different pockets and they add up to 35 acres in total.The residents hope that these mini forests will protect their coastal habitat against riverine flooding and give them cleaner air to breathe.Their concerns aren’t misplaced. The Mahanadi river flows to the north of the Kujang block while the Bay of Bengal lies just 10 kilometres away to the east. Owing to its proximity to the river and the sea, the block is in a constant grip of floods and cyclones. Loss of life, damage to property, and disruption of electricity, Internet and road connectivity, the residents have faced these several times. “Low-lying areas such as Ersama and Kujang are at greater risk of flooding,” Mohit Mohanty, a researcher from Odisha, confirms to this journalist over a call from the Western University, London, where he is at currently. In 2018, he had done a study on the floods in the Jagatsinghpur district. Making the right choicesThe residents have mostly planted locally-grown species such as Indian pongamia, lebbeck, teak, samara, jamun, guava and banana. Bhubaneswar-based environmentalist Jaya Krushna Panigrahi weighs in on the community initiative and says, “These trees will hold the soil firmly in place and reduce the impact of the cyclones and floods that these areas are vulnerable to.” A 2011 research paper also states that pongamia (Milletia Pinnata) are planted along highways, roads and canals to check soil erosion. Another study talks about the soil-holding ability of the lebbeck.These trees have been planted along the sides of the roads and canals and barren lands to make them “resilient”, informs Surendra Tarai, a resident of Ucchabanadapur village. He is referring to the ability of the woodlands to prevent soil erosion during flooding. A small patch of forest created by the villagers in Kujang block (Picture credit: 101Reporters)The villagers have also planted Casuarina, Acacia and Eucalyptus but in fewer numbers. Amresh Naresh Samanth, who started this afforestation drive, explains why, “On the one hand, these trees grow fast but on the other hand, these are invasive species that prevent the local vegetation from thriving. That’s why we haven’t planted them much.” This report by Down To Earth also critiques the plantation of Casuarinas as ‘bioshields’ along the coasts, something which the Tamil Nadu government had undertaken on a large scale after the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004.One man, many volunteersThe afforestation drive in the Kujang block kicked off from the Biswali village in 2000 and spread to adjoining areas subsequently. This is thanks to Samanth, who was 25 years old at that time. Concerned over how barren and fragile his village looked, he decided to re-forest it. Twenty years on, Samanth, who works as an electrical engineer at Paradip Port, has come to be known as the Brukhya Manab (Forest Man) of Jagatsinghpur. Today, his afforestation movement has crossed over to other districts too. In Kendrapara and Dhenkanal, these mini forests total up to 15 acres.Now 46 years old, Samanth says he could not have achieved this without the support of the local communities. “It took time but slowly like-minded youth started to volunteer with me – for free. Each of them became advocates/ambassadors of the drive and brought more people in. Today, I have a network of 110 volunteers. We create awareness about the importance of forests [in mitigating climate change] among villagers, and arrange logistics for the plantation drives,” he talks about the group, which goes by the name of Baba Baluenkeswar Gramya Bikash Parishad.Sukhadev Tarai, a 37-year-old volunteer from Paradeepgarh, tells us why he joined the cause. “In school, I had studied about the importance of trees in maintaining ecological balance. After I saw the threat our area was [continually] facing from the cyclones, I decided to help improve the green cover.”Once the villagers came on board, everything from the plantation of saplings to their upkeep and protection was done by them. Except for the occasional aid provided by the forest department, there was no external intervention.“We promote afforestation in revenue wastelands [as done] by the villagers in Kujang. We gave them subsidised seeds for Re1 per seed. We had also provided free seeds under the Green Mahanadi Mission. We had distributed seeds of several tree species including the fruit-bearing ones,” Rajnagar Divisional Forest Officer Bikash Kumar Nayak informs 101Reporters.A villager stands outside the mini forest in Kujang Block in Odisha (Picture credit: 101Reporters)'Coastal villages should grow forests'It was the harsh memories and learnings from the 1999 Super Cyclone that convinced the people to reforest their villages. Dilip Kumar Palai, a resident of Biswali, explains, “During the cyclone, 90 per cent of the trees in our village got uprooted and damaged. But had these trees not been there [as a barrier], we might have suffered greater losses of life and property.”Men and women, everybody participated in the afforestation actively. “We removed the weeds and watered the plants regularly to make sure the trees grew faster and stronger. We also organise afforestation drives regularly -- on occasions such as the International Women’s Day (March 8) -- to rope in more women," says homemaker Sabitha Sethy from the same village.Safeguarding the mini forests came next. Sarat Chandra Malla, deputy sarpanch of Biswali, says, “There is no threat to the forests from the villagers because they have grown it after years of toil and they understand its importance. Still, we have installed barricades of barbed wire around the patches. The villagers living nearby also keep an eye out for any intruder.”Applauding their efforts, SN Patro, a Bhubaneswar-based environmentalist, says, “If more coastal villages see a rise in forest cover, the potential to fight floods and erosion will strengthen.” Forests keep on givingToday, these mini forests have become more than a ‘natural buffer’ that Samanth had envisioned.The residents take firewood, fruits and fodder away from these patches and “distribute it to the poor members of the village first,” says Malla about his village. That’s because many families in his village do not use gas cylinders for cooking — they depend on firewood. However, the fruits such as mangoes and bananas are distributed equally among all, he informs.Since the forests are small, produce fewer, and often seasonal, the villagers can't fully depend on them as a source of livelihood. Most of the villagers either do odd jobs at construction sites or work at the Paradip Port.On the pollution front, some villagers feel that the air quality has improved. A case in point is the village of Paradeepgarh, which is 10 km away from Paradip city that is home to one of the 12 largest ports in India, Paradip Port. The latest Comprehensive Environment Pollution Index of Paradip is 69.26, which the pollution control board deems “severely polluted”.Mihir Ranjan Sahu, sarpanch of Paradeepgarh, told 101Reporters, “Since our village is close to the city highway, the dust coming from the vehicles used to engulf our village earlier. Thanks to the trees now, that problem has visibly come down.” The residents of the Kujang Block are happier today but Samanth, who set the afforestation drive rolling, feels that his work is far from over. He wants to "keep creating awareness about the importance of forest and planting trees" in one village after another.This article is a part of 101Reporters' series on The Promise Of Commons. In this series, we explore how judicious management of shared public resources can help the ecosystem as well as the communities inhabiting it.
Women’s reproductive health, dignity suffers post cyclone hit-Odisha
Puri, Odisha: “It is horrific when I think about clearing the debris and reconstructing my house all alone,” said Shashi Behera, an inhabitant of Arakuda village in Puri district, and a mother of three kids. She is currently living in a shelter adjacent to the Marine Police Station after Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm Fani ravaged the coastal areas of Odisha on May 3, 2019. The amount of destruction that the state has faced is still being assessed, Arakuda village in Puri district is one of the remote areas in the state which is struggling to return to their normal state of affairs. For a lot of people like Shashi, there is no other option but to rely solely on the cooked food available at the community kitchen erected by a political party leader for a temporary period. While the government seems to be working on restoring the physical infrastructures, the reproductive health of the affected women has seen little attention.Many women in Arakuda, narrated sordid tales of how the young and middle-aged menstruating women are struggling during their menstrual cycles.“I had to tear my only saree to bring out a piece for my daughter to use it during her periods. Besides, I had to spare my only blouse for the same reason,” told a woman in her 40s, while requesting anonymity.While it is just another cyclone for the people of Arakuda, who had faced the Super Cyclone in 1999, Phailin in 2013 and Hudhud in 2014, for the hapless women and adolescent girls of the village it is a lot worse than other cyclones. A majority of women and girls of the village wake up hours before the break of dawn to finish their bath as each of them has to manage with a single pair of clothing. They are on their toes to manage time – take a bath, wash the only pair that they wear to ensure that it dries before the crack of dawn – so that they can wear it before the men wake up. The reason is that all their clothes, along with other belongings, have been buried under the debris of their houses which have been entirely flattened by the destructive gale. This has become their routine since the cyclone hit the state.“I walk with my mother to the Chilika mouth in the dark twice daily, once before dawn and once after dusk, to wash the used period rags. The place is deserted and dark, the water is saline, but I have no other option but to wash and reuse the clothes in brackish water in an unsafe condition. I cannot wash them in the flowing artesian wells (there are at least ten such wells in the village from where water flows continuously and automatically) even when it is dark as it is considered inauspicious,” said a 15-year-old girl of the village, who refused to be named.However, all the women of the village are concerned for each other’s safety, and all of them have chosen to sleep at one place and preferably on an open space adjacent to the Marine Police Station that is in their village. While the vast open space with the cemented floor is the primary reason for choosing the place, the presence of police for safety is another reason for preferring the site.Activists believe that the government should focus on women’s health and hygiene as part of its relief plan. Bisakha Bhanja, a member of the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations (NAWO), said that during disasters, the impact is much higher for women than for the men. She emphasised on the development of gender-sensitive programmes in disaster intervention. While welcoming the state government’s move to supply sanitary napkins, Bhanja said that the government, while providing Rs 2000, a polyethene sheet and 50kg rice to each affected household, should have made a point to include clothes, at least for women.“So far as the safety of women is concerned, there should have an immediate temporary arrangement of shelter for women, where they can take rest with dignity. In several places I had visited, men occupy the village community halls and chaupals (village meeting place) while women have no place to spend the muggy afternoons. The condition of pregnant women and lactating mothers is beyond expression,” added Bhanja.When asked about the inclusion of clothes in the immediate response package, Special Relief Commissioner Bishnupada Sethi told 101Reporters, “It is tough to buy clothes for all as it depends on gender, size, religion, age and other factors. Also, the possibility of a scam in procuring clothes can’t be ruled out.”Ranjan Panda, a climate crusader, said that a lot of thought needs to go into post-cyclone relief, restoration and rehabilitation efforts. “Such cyclones are going to be frequent in future, and their intensities to increase due to climate change. We need to revamp our strategy on such issues of women’s health and hygiene, sanitation and drinking water,” he added.
Odisha farmers making more money, spend on tractors
Bargrah, Odisha: Ground reality of Odisha's villages shows there is some truth to recent reports about rural India's improving economic condition. Better facilities and integrated farming are among the main drivers of growth, which reflects in increased spending, though not for small farmers.In the last one year alone, the sale of tractor and farm equipment in the state increased by 40% and 30% respectively, informed a representative of a leading farm equipment showroom in Bargarh district's Attabira block. Requesting anonymity, an officer working with a leading national bank in the same block shared that their branch has been sanctioning 35-40 automobile loans a month on an average.The location of the branch, with no urban or semi-urban area nearby, indicates disposable income of people of the region has increased. Ekeswar Meher, branch manager of Bank of India's Attabira branch, believes rural spending capacity has increased over the past few years.Likewise, shopkeepers who sell electronic items and mobile phones informed that the demand for costly products has increased in villages. Lalit Pradhan, who owns a mobile shop called Lalit Recharge Centre in Lachida village, said that while earlier people would ask for phones in the range of Rs 2,500-Rs 3,500, now they are comfortable shelling out Rs 10,000-Rs 12,000. Catering to the nearby villages Bansipalli and Dumberpalli too, he said sometimes he also gets customers seeking to a buy a phone priced at Rs 15,000-Rs 20,000.An electronic goods supplier whose showroom is near Rengali Camp on Sambalpur-Bargarh Road made a similar observation. He said demand for luxury items, especially air conditioners, has increased.Growth statisticsA recent study by the Bloomberg Economics on Rural Output Index and another survey by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) hinted at an increase of income of rural India. Likewise, Economic Survey of Odisha 2017-18 says the state recorded a real growth rate of 10.39% in 2016-17, its first double-digit growth.According to the report, per capita income for 2017-18 is expected to increase by 6.06% over the previous year. The projected poverty ratio for 2017-18 (26.9) was lower than that of the previous fiscal year (28.86). Also, Labour Bureau's figures show that the state's unemployment ratio in 2015-16, at 3.8%, was better than it was during 2013-15 (6%).Sushrita Sahu, head of Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Bargarh, said higher paddy yield is behind improving financial status of the villages. Bargarh district is known for the highest paddy output in Odisha. The district is situated on the banks of Mahanadi river, eliminating hassles of irrigation. Odisha's rural economy depends primarily on agriculture. According to the state agriculture department, more than 90% farmers in Odisha are small or marginal farmers. 101Reporters spoke with 15 farmers, bankers, shopkeepers and showroom owners and gathered that though the villagers' income has increased, this growth is neither sudden nor manifold. Steady rise Tikamani Sahu, who practises integrated farming on 10 acres of land in Adagaon village in Bargarh, said his income started increasing and becoming stable when he started growing mushrooms and vegetables and rearing fish and goats. He said though paddy is the main crop of the region, they can't rely on it solely. He shared that about a third of the villagers now practice integrated farming, a trend he said is catching up.Sahu informed that he and most of the farmers in his village have utilised the additional income to buy tractors and farm equipment, rather than luxury products, to make agriculture easier. His statement is in conformation with the latest NABARD survey on financial inclusion, which studied rural India’s behaviour in 2015-16. The report stated that in Odisha, there is a higher tendency towards saving and lesser on investments, unlike other states.Drivers of changeSubranshu Padhi, managing director of state-run Agricultural Promotion and Investment Corporation of Odisha Limited, explained that practising horticulture and pisciculture, besides getting involved with agro-based industries and food-processing units, has helped farmers multiply their income and minimise the risk associated with farming.A senior official in the state agriculture department, requesting anonymity, concurred and highlighted that crop diversification too has been helping farmers. He said area under paddy cultivation is declining as other crops are also being sown now, making the same piece of land more profitable. He said the state government's initiative of Millet Mission, started in 2018, aims to take it further. Better storage facilities are also proving helpful, he said.Further, timely procurement of crops at Minimum Support Price (MSP) by government agencies has also proven helpful. Tulasiram Sahu, a farmer from Birmal village, said about 98% farmers in his village sell their crop to the state government at MSP. He said they receive payment within a week, adding that hardly anybody else can give them better rates in the market. The agriculture department official said more than 50% farmers in Odisha are selling paddy to the government at MSP.Room for improvementThe official added that while sale of equipment and electronics might have increased, it would be premature to conclude that rural Odisha and its farmers are flourishing. He said a lot needs to be done before one can say the villages here are well off.His remark conforms to the observation of electronic item sellers, who noted that small and marginal farmers aren't the ones seeking their products. Then there is the issue of farm labourers' uncertain income. Shyama Pradhan, a labourer from Dumberpalli village, said while their daily wage has increased to Rs 250-Rs 280 from Rs 180, which they used to get until two years ago, they don't get work regularly. He said illiterate and landless labourers are particularly helpless as they have no way to earn other than the unreliable manual labour. Banking officials and villagers informed that about 30% of the borrowings in these areas involve private lenders. A farmer, Hemant Behera, said the incentive of no paperwork and easy availability lures people to borrowing from lenders. Bankers tell that despite undeniable signs of growth, the situation is not all hunky dory, as evident by borrowers often defaulting on payment of vehicle loan's installments. That's why some banks don't sanction automobile loans. Jagabandhu Meher, branch manager of Utkal Grameen Bank, Kathadera, said they sanction mostly crop loans and often end up with borrowers who default on payment and wait for loan waiver from the government.
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