Help at sight for women, children hit hard by annual floods in Assam’s Dhemaji
Toilet construction at a higher elevation near their homes brings relief to women, whereas child-friendly spaces deal with flood-induced break in learning in students and promote their well-beingDhemaji, Assam: For most of the days between May and September, Mitali Dole of Medhipamua village in Dhemaji district of Assam lives in uncertainty. Residing in one of the most flood-prone districts with a population of over 6.86 lakh (Census 2011), she is on alert day and night, gauging the water level in the Brahmaputra.“We stock dry food and stay indoors. Once the water level or speed of flow increases, we shift to a safer place as our bamboo houses may collapse. In case of severe floods and widespread damage, we spend several weeks at the relief camp set up at a higher elevation,” she says.According to the Council on Energy, Environment and Water 2021 report, Assam ranks first among the climate vulnerable states in India. Medhipamua is dominated by Mising tribals, also known as the 'River People' as they are believed to have migrated from Arunachal Pradesh to settle on the banks of the Brahmaputra. They reside in chang ghors or stilt houses, built mostly from bamboo at a height of six to eight ft.Though houses may remain dry during floods, sanitation is a challenge. The brick and mortar toilets are situated outside their homes at the ground level, and get submerged when the floodwater arrives. The Chang Ghor or stilt houses are constructed at six to eight feet above the ground (Photo- Tazeen Qureshy, 101Reporters)“In extreme situations, we women are forced to relieve ourselves at one corner of our houses as toilets become unusable. We try to take our boats to places that are dry and at a higher elevation, but that is not possible all the time,” admits Sunita Dole, whose house is barely 300 m from the riverbank.“We always have this nagging fear that someone might see us attending to nature’s call. At night, we also feel insecure wading through the floodwaters in the dark,” she adds.Her statement shows that though the state government has been setting up shelter homes/relief camps, providing services of midwives and operating anganwadis in relief camps, there is scope for more work. Flood-only toiletsThe sanitation woes prompted NGO Rural Volunteer Centre (RVC), which has worked extensively with flood-affected communities, to collaborate with UNICEF to offer a solution. After multiple delays during the COVID-19 period, two common concrete toilets and a tubewell were built with the help of villagers in Medhipamua by November last. Located on a raised platform on an unused plot just across the road, it is barely a minute’s walk from the houses. Unless extremely necessary, these toilets should be used only during floods. For the rest of the time, people should use their individual toilets. “We built this common utility as it is not possible to construct an elevated toilet for every house. The raised platform has enough room to accommodate 70 to 80 families when the village faces inundation,” says RVC director Luit Goswami.In Medhipamua village, two toilets have been constructed on raised platform to avoid inundation (Photo- Tazeen Qureshy, 101Reporters)“These toilets give us a sense of dignity. Women and adolescent girls feel embarrassed defecating outside. They are close to our homes, so we do not have to depend on anyone to reach there,” Mitali says. With floods affecting the livelihood opportunities, migration of men in search of work to southern states have increased. Often, women and children are left behind at home, which make them a priority in building community-resilience mechanisms.“In case of an emergency, the first responders are always the community. So, it is important to impart safety skills to them. Women and children need to be empowered to face any eventuality,” says RVC block coordinator Dharam Raj.Medhipamua village in Dhemaji district is dominated by the members of the Mising tribe (Photo- Tazeen Qureshy, 101Reporters)Child-friendly spacesIn Ajarbari village of Mukhtiyaar gram panchayat, Nitul Hajong, a college student, takes classes for flood-affected children. “Schools are shut for weeks or even a couple of months depending on the severity of floods. This hampers studies. To make things easy for primary school children, some of us conduct regular classes,” Hajong says.The classes are held at a Child Friendly Space (CFS) that forms an important part of the flood relief camp in the locality. Launched in Dhemaji and Majuli districts as a pilot in 2017, the CFS has since become an integral part of the relief camp management process in the state. It operates as per the guidelines set by Assam State Disaster Management Authority and can serve as both anganwadi centres and other educational facilities.The CFS helps children to tide over physical and psychosocial distress caused by floods. They are encouraged to learn coping strategies by socialising with others under adult supervision. “The idea is to provide a safe space, so that the trauma of frequent floods and disasters does not hamper the growth and learning opportunities of children. Here, health officials also take care of their nutritional needs,” says Goswami. Sishu sabhasIn 2019, the State Institute of Panchayat and Rural Development, RVC and UNICEF collaborated in Bahir Jonai and Sille panchayats of Dhemaji to organise the first ever gaon sishu sabha, wherein children were asked to rake up the issues they face during disasters.Sishu sabhas were proposed as an annual event to help children, who form one of the most vulnerable sections of the society. The event, to be held in schools in the presence of teachers and panchayat leaders, could not be organised in the subsequent years due to COVID-19 lockdown. The discussions right now are more about the problems they face and less solution-centric because the initial intention is to make them vocal.A similar sabha was organised in December at Lai-Mekuri gram panchayat, where the students highlighted issues ranging from infrastructure to education before the panchayat officials.Kalyum Doley, a student of the government high school in Lai-Mekuri, spoke about how technology can help in improving education. “We faced COVID-19 and we also deal with floods yearly. Our education is affected as classes remain shut for long. So, we (students) suggest a learning app that will help us study even if schools remain shut,” Doley makes her point clear."Drinking water is always an issue after floods. As students, we are taught that unclean water causes several diseases. We urge the elders to commit to clean water facilities all year round," Munu Bodo, another student, was heard saying.“Participation of children is of utmost importance to understand how they feel or react to a situation. We now plan to replicate Dhemaji’s sishu sabha model in other districts of Assam,” says Goswami.Besides sishu sabha, school children in Dhemaji district are also participating in mock drills. In Bera Milan ME School in Rabha Kathani Malbhog, which has 134 students enrolled, one session every Saturday has been dedicated to disaster management and related teaching under the Saturday for Resilience Programme.“Living in a disaster-prone area, it is important that the students learn and understand the practical aspects of dealing with them. So, we conduct mock drills on safe evacuation during earthquakes twice a month. On other Saturdays, we discuss a disaster and impart basic knowledge on it to children,” says Jintu Kumar Gogoi, assistant teacher at the school.Through all these initiatives, the government and other supporting agencies hope to make the next flood season a bit more better for the people of Dhemaji.The cover image is of a mock drill on safe evacuation during earthquake being conducted at Bera Milan ME School clicked by Tazeen Qureshy, 101Reporters.Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli
The guardian angels of Odisha’s Gundalba forests
After living through the devastating Super Cyclone of 1999, the women of this village have been tirelessly leading a conservation movement to protect the region’s mangrove cover.Puri, Odisha: Sitting in her house in the nondescript Gundalba village in Odisha’s Puri district, Charulata Biswal (55) speaks with poetic creativity. A noted environmental crusader, she has received numerous accolades, but the awards and recognitions have not made her shun the simplicity. Her testimonials reflect the culture and aesthetics of her work, more than scientific references.“The cool breeze under the shade of the tree on a hot summer afternoon, the soft ruffling of leaves as wind brushes past, the melodious chirping of the birds nested in the tree… These are the little joys in life that only a tree can provide,” she articulates her emotions in Odia, in a near melodic cadence.For over two decades now, Charulata and a group of 75 women from adjacent villages have been guarding a casuarina forest in Gundalba from timber mafia. Additionally, they protect the mangroves around the coastal belt that lies in close proximity of the village, which comes under Astaranga block.The Super Cyclone and its aftermathThe devastating Super Cyclone of October 1999, which swept away several villages along Odisha’s coast, was their wake-up call. Though inundated, Gundalba, which lies half-a-km from Astaranga beach, was not cut off. "The mangroves saved us. They reduced the pace of the waves entering our village. If not for these trees, our village could have been washed away,” says Charulata.Two years later, under the aegis of Pir Jahania Van Surakhya Samiti — it was named after the spiritual shrine situated near the village— women from each household of Gundalba joined the green drive. Their counterparts from other villages joined in gradually. The areas of conservation were demarcated for the convenience of the participant villages. The thengapalli methodWomen in Gundalba use the thengapalli method to protect the casuarina forest. In local parlance, thenga means a stick and palli means turn. So, armed with sticks a group of 10 to 12 women stay on guard throughout the day. Each week, a group takes up the task of patrolling the woods. They watch out for anyone trying to cut a tree. They work in two shifts: from 8am to noon and post-lunch to sunset.“Sometimes, we also venture out in the dark, if we get information about anyone sneaking into the forest. Those in our village follow the rules, but outsiders cause trouble at times,” says a woman associated with the group.Since the women also have households to look after, their duty hours have to be managed efficiently.The women of Gundalba village in Puri district, Odisha, have been protecting the forest and mangroves for over two decades now (Photo: Charulata Biswal)“In a household where only one member is female, she completes all daily chores before venturing into the forest. If the family has more women, we place them in different groups so that at least one of them is present in the house to manage chores,” says Mehjabeen Nisa, a member of the group. If any intruder is caught, he is usually let off with a warning. But if the situation gets out of hand, the local administration is informed. Nisa recollects one such incident, which took place over two years ago. “A large group of people had come to the forest once to cut the trees down. When we tried to stop them, they behaved violently. We immediately informed the forest department and entrusted them with the matter,” she recalls.Thengapalli is a forest patrolling exercise taken up by the rural women of Odisha to conserve the forest cover (Photo: Tazeen Qureshy)Local residents are dependent on the forest for firewood, but they mostly rely on agriculture to make ends meet. The women on forest duty always allow people to collect broken twigs and dry leaves, but ensure that no trees are touched.A safe spot for Olive Ridleys Women led by Charulata also offer their services to protect the nesting places of Olive Ridley turtles along Astaranga beach. “We all belong to the same village and help each other. The women who protect the forest also clean the beach area regularly. This is an important aspect in the Olive Ridley conservation. Even during the breeding season, they voluntarily help out,” says Bichitrananda Biswal, an Olive Ridley conservationist.Inside the forest, the women keep an eye on water bodies frequented by animals. If the ponds run dry, they alert the local administration.Globally, there are numerous studies that highlight the successful implementation of community-led efforts to conserve local biodiversity. While it is difficult to ascertain accurate statistical data on what impact they make — since most such endeavours are voluntary in nature — studies and surveys by local NGOs report improvement in the overall health of the forests after such initiatives.“Women and forests are dependent on each other. When there is a dip in forest cover, women are the first to know as they rely on forest resources a lot," says Sanjukta Basa, a subject expert from Odisha who has followed thengapalli closely.The nesting site of Olive Ridley turtles near Gundalba, Odisha (Photo: Bernard Gagnon via Wikipedia)A report suggests that the forest cover in Astaranga region is up by 63% — from 2.58sqkm in 1985 to 4.21sqkm in 2004. The women themselves have realised this positive change. “We now spot deer in the forests. Sometimes, they enter agricultural lands and damage crops, but we are still happy to provide them a habitat by protecting the forest,” says Charulata.A helping handThe concept of Joint Forest Management is gaining ground, but there are challenges on the way, primarily due to the lack of coordination between different stakeholders and the conflicts in management.Being voluntary in nature, most community conservation efforts are driven by motivation, often due to cultural resemblances. The villagers of Gundalba also started off voluntarily, but were backed by the forest department since 2009. “We do not get any monetary support, but the forest department supports us in case of a rift with intruders. We are in a way recognised by them for the work we do,” says Nisa.A section of the forest land is said to have been officially handed over to the villagers, but this claim could not be independently verified. However, more than the legal rights, the women believe in doing their duty. “Our work is to protect the forest and that is all what we know. Today, a lot of people are recognising our efforts . We might not understand the technicalities, but we understand the forest and will work to conserve them till our last breath,” Charulata concludes.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.The cover picture is of a group of women keeping a vigil in the forests as part of a conservation movement in Gundalba of Puri district, Odisha, captured by Charulata Biswal.
Odisha Panchayat Polls: TV, Dogs, fish and unique campaigning
A candidate befriends stray dogs for support in panchayat poll campaign.In the wake of curbs announced by the Odisha Election Commission, candidates came up with unique campaign ideas to woo the voters.Ganjam: In Odisha’s Ganjam district, Sweety, Chandramukhi and Odisha Tiger accompanied 23-year old Rojalini Behera on her door to door campaign trail. The trio were ‘friends’ of the Sarpanch nominee Rojalini who contested from Maulabhanja Panchayat in Sanakhemundi block. They wore masks and helmets to attract the attention of the passers-by. What made the trio special is that they are canines and not human beings. The campaigning for the Panchayat polls in Odisha might be over, but the unique campaigning ideas of some candidates are still making waves on social media.The state election commission had announced several curbs in the wake of Covid-19, including roadshows and large gatherings, prompting the candidates to come up with unique ways of reaching out to the voters.Rojalini, a nurse by profession, found it difficult to arrange resources for people to campaign for her. Instead, she befriended the three stray dogs and took her along with them for campaigning. This also favoured her to continue her campaign without breaking any Covid-19 curbs. Initially, the state election commission had allowed only five people to be engaged in door to door campaigns, but later increased it to 20.“It serves two purposes. Along with the election campaign, we are also spreading awareness on Covid-19 appropriate behaviour and also wearing helmets to avoid injuries in accidents,” Rojalini told 101Reporters.Similarly, in Nabarangpur, sarpanch candidate Bhagavati Bhotra walked around with a fresh fish, which is also her election symbol. A Zilla Parishad president, Bhotra is hoping a sarpanch post will help her serve the community more effectively.“Every morning I go to the market and get the best fish. Then, I start my door to door campaign and reach out to a lot of people and interact with them personally, which wouldn’t have been possible in a rally or a gathering,” Bhotra said.A candidate enages with a voter during door to door campaign for Panchayat Polls in OdishaWhile Rojalini and Bhotra have at least their family members tagging along during the campaign, in Cuttack district, Santosh Kumar Sinha had only his two-wheeler as an accompaniment. His campaign trail included roaming around the Barang block with two jars – a ‘help’ jar and an ‘accusation’ jar, gathering the reviews of the voters.“My main motto is to ward off corruption. So I prefer travelling alone and listening to the woes of the poor people. I want to look into the issues of education and ensure welfare schemes reach those in need.”In Koraput, an independent nominee Sashmita Khera campaigned with an LED television set, her election symbol. “Television is a common symbol. Instead of distributing leaflets, I thought carrying a TV set would help people connect and remember the symbol well while casting their votes,” she told 101Reporters.An Ayurvedic doctor Dr. Nagendra Kumar from Balasore district was on a spree of giving free consultations in Basta block of Balasore district, where he is a nominee for the sarpanch post. He roamed around carrying his stethoscope and basic medical utility kit.The polling for panchayat elections in Odisha took place from February 16 till February 24. The results will be announced from February 26-28, 2022.
Odisha Panchayat Polls: Villages’ First Brush with Democracy
As Odisha gears up for the Panchayat polls, a few villages in the state are witnessing the local elections for the first time. We look at how three villages are dealing with the severance of this tradition.Ganjam: For the last few weeks the villagers of Chikrada Gram Panchayat, under Rangeilunda block in Odisha’s Ganjam district, were shocked to see the numerous posters, banners and leaflets adorning the walls of their village, and shocked to realise that the 30-year-old decision-making process of the village committee had failed for the first time.Chikrada Gram Panchayat was carved out from Randha Gram Panchayat in 1992 and since then a village committee had been at the helm of its affairs – taking decisions on anything and everything – from elections to development affairs of the area.This time due to interference from political parties, more residents have sought tickets to contest the elections. Thereby discussions remained inconclusive.“The village committee used to unanimously decide on the sarpanch and ward members and the entire village would abide by their decision. This had become a sort of tradition in the area. Unfortunately, this time we couldn’t reach a conclusion on the candidates and since the nomination filing date was also approaching, we had to agree to hold elections,” said Mamata Mohanty, President of the Village Committee.Like earlier, a meeting was convened to discuss the names of the local representatives. However, disagreements led to conclusion. A second meeting, which was held a couple of days later, also ended in a deadlock.“Some youths objected to the discussions which led to disagreements. We tried to resolve it but had to give in after the discussions reached an impasse. We are extremely upset to break the tradition, but we had no choice,” Mohanty said.The village is experiencing the election process for the first time in 30 years. “I have never seen such posters, banners and campaigning in my village. This feels like an utsav (festival),” says a 52-year old resident.The Indian Constitution implies an electoral process in selecting public representatives, however, many villages unanimously select their leaders, saving the poll expenses. The villages are given incentives of a few thousand rupees to carry out the process. The residents looked at the absence of elections as a means of maintaining peace and brotherhood in the area, instead of disrespect to democracy.“The tradition was more about unity among people. The village committee’s decision was always respected. It is unfortunate to break away from the tradition but we hope the unity of the people stays intact. We hope the elected representatives will focus on the development of the village,” the President said. Two States' Land - Jumdang VillageIn the interior pockets of the Maoist-infested Malkangiri district, Jumdang village will also cast its vote for the first time in Odisha.The village is situated on the Odisha-Andhra Pradesh border and is a subject of dispute among the two states. Residents in the area have two voter ID and Aadhar cards—one for each state.Jumdang village is at the border of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. After voting as residents of Andhra Pradesh for some time now, they will be casting votes in Odisha for the first time during these Panchayat Polls.For years now, the villagers had been casting their vote as residents of Andhra Pradesh. “They (Andhra administration) have provided us with ration cards, drinking water, electricity and schools. So, we used to get involved in every voting process of Andhra Pradesh,” a villager was quoted as saying. This time, however, the Odisha government has facilitated road connectivity in the village. This has made access to essentials easier—especially for medical needs and necessities, prompting the villagers to swing in favour Odisha. They have promised to vote in the Panchayat polls this time. Democracy made accessible - Nagada VillageIn 2017, Nagada village in Odisha’s Jajpur had become the face of malnutrition when reports and photographs of stunted children made headlines. The village, which is situated on a hilly terrain, was difficult to access and development had eluded the area completely.Inaccessibility played a major factor coupled with lack of awareness among the people for conducting elections. The residents of this area are mostly from the Juang community, which falls under the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs).Till 2019, a report says the residents had to trek for approximately 10 kms to cast their votes in the state and general elections. This led to no show by most of the villagers, especially the elderly. The nearest polling booth was at Deogaon school, which could be reached only after a treacherous trek through the hilly terrain. Though a motorable road was constructed post 2017, there were no polling booths in the area and the people were expected to visit Deogaon for casting their votes.This time, however, a polling booth has been set up in the village itself, making the process easy for the 200-odd voters. "The polling booth has been set up at the Project Primary school in our area. So, we don't have to commute anymore and can easily exercise our franchise. I am a first time voter and excited for taking part in the election process," said Desa Pradhan, a resident of Nagada. The Panchayat elections in Odisha began on February 16 and will end on February 24, 2022.
Odisha Panchayat Polls: Journalist and social worker, Koya tribe woman Jayanti Buruda now eyes politics
In a quest to give voice to women from the conflict-ridden Malkangiri district, a journalist-turned-social worker Jayanti Buruda, belonging to the indigenous Koya community, is contesting the Zilla Parishad elections as an independent candidate. Bhubaneswar: A journalist for over half a decade, Jayanti Buruda from Odisha’s Malkangiri district has covered all sorts of grassroots news around health, women and development. But, the tables have turned now, and Jayanti herself is set to be on the other side of the news story. The 32-year old woman from the indigenous Koya community is contesting the Zilla Parishad elections in the state's panchayat polls, which begin on February 16. “As a journalist, I raised issues which concerned the public. As a social worker, I often forced the administration to sort it out. Now, I want to enter the system and bring change. I want to ensure schemes are implemented and people get the required support from the officials,” Buruda tells 101Reporters. A rebel is vindicatedBorn into a family of 11 siblings, Buruda has local politics in her blood; Her father, now retired, had also served as the Zilla Parishad chairman in the past. He was her sole support as she grew up facing discrimination for being a woman and an Adivasi. He wanted his girls to study, even when the objections came from within his family. Her elder sister, she said, is the first graduate from her community. Buruda wanted to pursue higher education at Central University in Koraput, the closest option at 150 km away from her village, Serpalli. The daily commute of nearly three hours was a costly affair and her elder brothers also objected to a young girl staying away from home for too long. “I ran away. There was no other option at that time. My friends helped me a lot those days, even paid for my admission. Since I couldn’t afford a separate house, my friend’s family took me in. I completed journalism and worked as an intern for some time before landing a job at a local, Odia-language Kalinga TV channel,” Buruda said. Buruda knew she made the right choice, taking up journalism. She said she enjoyed the respect and responsibility that came with her role in society. “During my college days, I always felt I was not being taken seriously as I was a woman and came from a less-represented background. Joining the media industry helped me get people’s attention and get them to respond too.”A lone, busy face from Malkangiri district, where Maoist rebels remain active, her work attracted national attention and in 2017, she became the first recipient of the Network of Women in Media, India fellowship. Using the grant, she purchased a laptop and a camera.Jayanti Buruda's past work, and future plans, revolve around the state of health and education and how they impact women (Pictures sourced by Tazeen Qureshy)Problems to solutionsBuruda’s shift into local governance was organic. It seemed like the logical next step and her father too was a huge source of encouragement. But both father and daughter were adamant about one thing – she would contest independently.“I was approached by political parties but I didn’t want to join them. I didn’t want to be a remote control who will have to follow the lead of people sitting back in the capital city. I am a local girl and am aware of the issues. I can handle things well on my own,” she said.Buruda is pitted against seven contenders for the Malkangiri zone-3 which has six panchayats under it. Though she might not have the power and money that her contenders have, she said, her electoral advantage is that she has seen knows the people and their struggles. Her election symbol is a simple image of a boy and a girl. “Everyone loves children. So, people would be able to connect with this symbol easily,” she said. The symbol is also meaningful to Buruda because she does a lot of work with young children, especially girls in health and education under the ‘Bada Didi’ (elder sister) initiative. Buruda conducting public meetings as part of the campaign (Pictures sourced by Tazeen Qureshy)Issues that matterIn the run-up to the elections, she campaigns every day for up to 12 hours. She is out on the roads by 8 am every morning, usually accompanied by her father and two volunteers. She visits different villages and conducts meetings till afternoon and informs them about her plans, mainly focused on health and education. Later in the afternoon, she goes on a door-to-door campaign, meeting mostly women voters and listening to their grievances. By evening, she conducts another round of meetings, before calling it a day.“My main focus is to uplift the women from my community. I want them to have a voice of their own. Women have been a part of the electoral process for a long time now, but it is a known fact that they are dominated by their husbands or controlled by the higher-ups in the party. But I want women to stand for themselves. I have done that for myself and now I want others to follow suit.”Buruda is hopeful of a good show, but she won’t be deterred even if the results don’t favour her. “People from my community don’t want me to give up writing and I will never give up social work. So win or not, I don’t think a lot will change. But I am hopeful for the people who are showing their affection towards me like I am their daughter or sister.”
Poor enrolment prompts Odisha govt. to shut rural schools
Experts fear that the closure of these schools will only exacerbate the problem of drop-outs at a time.Bhubaneswar: Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused severe damage to the education system in the country, the students in Odisha are facing a challenge of a different kind. The Odisha Government has been on a spree to shut schools with a low enrolment of students.It started in 2014 when close to 200 schools with low student strength were shut. In 2019, close to 1000 schools with less than 10 students were either merged or closed down. In fact, the Government had planned to shut close to 14,000 schools in phases, but the number was reduced to half last year after the issue was taken up by the Right to Education (RTE) Forum and opposition parties.Debendra Mahakud (9) of Kaptipada block in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, is a standard fourth student in Saharasahi Primary school, which is barely 100 metres from his house. Prior to the establishment of this school, the village children had to cross a patch of forest to attend the nearest school in a nearby village. To ward off inconvenience in commuting, the state government had established the Saharasahi school a decade back. But now, the primary school faces closure due to low student strength. The next option for Debendra is another school which is 3 km away from his house. Though the classes are currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his father, a daily wage labourer, is sceptical of continuing education when the classes resume.“I am not sure if my son can continue his education. The new school is far away and I can’t let him travel alone. When he was studying in the old school, I could keep an eye on him and ensure he attended classes. But it will be difficult to keep a watch on him if he goes to the new school. He is a young boy and there are chances that he might skip classes. Also, I am not very convinced about his safety as he has to cover a patch of forest to reach the new school,” said his father.Debendra Mahakud with his parents in Mayurbhanj (Picture courtesy: Tazeen Qureshy)While his parents remain undecided on the future course of action, the pandemic has added to their worries. “He has already lost one year of proper study lessons even though he has been promoted to class IV as per the guidelines. There were some students in our village who took tuition, but since we couldn’t afford it, my son will remain behind them.”Grassroots level activists who have worked in the field of education believe these changes will only encourage drop-outs.“In remote areas, the people are usually not into educating their children. The kids start work at a young age and contribute to the household income. It had taken a lot to convince the villagers to send their children to schools and provide them with education. By shutting down schools, accessibility will become an issue and it will lead to drop-outs especially among the girl children,” said Amar Ranjan Bhoi, associated with a local organisation.In its defence, the government says that closure is inevitable in some cases as it is practically difficult to implement mid-day meal schemes and appoint teachers in schools with low student strength. But, parents and experts say the reason has to do with the quality of education.Shehnaz, a VI standard student explained the low enrolment problem. She used to study in Raghunathpur primary school in Dharmashala block of Jajpur district but opted out in 2018. She said the school had only one teacher and they didn’t have regular classes. Like her, many other students withdrew their admission and got themselves enrolled in another school 2 km away from their village. In 2019, the school was shut down due to low student strength.“My previous school was 200 metres away from my house. But, the teaching was not good. One teacher had been appointed and he would take classes at his own convenience. I informed my parents who then decided to change schools. Many other students from the area followed suit. So, the strength of Raghunathpur school came down and was shut. The problem is with the education quality,” she said.While Shehnaz is among the fortunate ones whose parents have agreed to send their daughter to school despite the distance, other students have not been so lucky. Either the kids are too young to be sent to school alone or the transport cost is higher. To address the issue of commute, the government had proposed a ‘transportation cost’ based on the attendance of the students, but experts say that won’t solve the problem.The shuttered Raghunathpur school in Jajpur district (Picture courtesy: Tazeen Qureshy)“The problem is the government is trying to look into solutions without looking at the actual issue. The issue here is low enrolment in schools and why it is happening. Without addressing this, the government is focussing on transportation. The reality is that there are no adequate teachers nor proper classes. So, it is obvious that the students are dropping out. Even if the government bears the transportation cost, how it can be sure that students staying in tribal areas will attend classes. In tribal areas, the terrain is not easy, so even if they get money, they will have to wade through forests and rivers just to attend school. Practically, this won’t be possible and they will drop out,” said Anil Pradhan of RTE Forum.After protests by activists and political parties, the government has ‘officially’ put the school closure decision on hold. But field workers say, on the ground, the implementation is on.“It is difficult to gauge the exact situation due to the pandemic as all the schools are closed. But, our field officers have informed us that in several parts, the school has been shut down and the school furniture and supplies have been removed. This is a very unfortunate step,” said Pradhan.
Odisha farmer distributes free vegetables, appeals on social media to help needy
MicrosoftInternetExplorer402DocumentNotSpecified7.8 磅Normal01111Bhubaneswar, Odisha: "All we need is money to eat and money to cover our skin. These are basic human needs. Other expenses can be taken care of. That’s why I continue to help others without thinking too much about saving money [for myself]."These words by Chhayarani Sahu sum up her charitable side, one that she wears lightly despite being praised by Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and former cricketer VVS Laxman, among others, on Twitter. The 57-year-old farmer from Odisha shot to fame last year for distributing vegetables and milk to villagers who had lost their jobs to lockdown — free of cost. She handed out 60 quintals of produce across 15 villages.The decision to give away the farm produce for free was not easy. Her family used to make a profit of roughly Rs 2.5 lakh every year by selling vegetables. Moreover, Chhayarani had to sell most of her 20 cattle because of her poor health during the lockdown. This depleted their income further but the family decided to carry on the initiative.The lockdown might be long over but Chhayarani continues to help others in need even today, thanks to social media. Her children have created a profile for her on Twitter to post appeals on behalf of distressed families and find donors.For instance, this January, Chhayarani urged netizens to raise funds for the surgery of a 30-year-old man who had broken his spinal cord. She had shared the account details and contact number of the patient but whether her intervention helped the man or not, she doesn't know. But her son Manas, who operates her Twitter account, is happy to inform 101Reporters that “many directly reach out to the families in need.”Dressed in a cotton saree and hair tied in a loose bun, Chhayarani says she used to help others even before the pandemic. “But my work got highlighted during the lockdown and people now know me. My responsibility has increased. I know I am just a farmer and I have several constraints. But I will continue to help others in my own capacity till my last breath,” she says while pottering around her family’s eight-acre farm in Kuruda village in Odisha’s Basudevpur block in Bhadrak district.Farmers across the country suffered huge losses during the lockdown as the supply-chain had got disrupted. Then how did Chhayarani manage to feed her family and that of others in 15 villages in Odisha?It so happened that Chhayarani and her husband Sarbeswar had harvested approximately 15 quintals of vegetables before the lockdown was announced on March 25. With local markets shut, they had nowhere to sell their produce. That’s when Chhayarani thought that it would be better to distribute the vegetables among villagers than let their hard work rot away. “Vegetables are perishable [items] and we knew they would go waste in a matter of days,” Sahu recalls the tough decision she had to make.With the help of her youngest son, a student who was visiting her from Bhubaneswar, she loaded the vegetables in an auto-rickshaw and drove to the neighbouring Ward 11 in Basudevpur Municipality. As she went from house to house and witnessed the hunger and misery the pandemic had unleashed, she knew she could not stop what she had started. During the lockdown, Chhayarani Sahu distributed vegetables to 15 villages around her home. Courtesy: Tazeen Qureshy“Four days into the lockdown, I was shocked to see the condition of the villagers. Many of them were daily labourers and the lockdown had snatched their income away. They had no money for food. My heart ached to see their distress. So I decided to help them throughout the pandemic,” she shares.She would give vegetables from her farm in packets weighing 2.5kg or more. These included tomatoes, brinjals, carrots, ladyfingers and other leafy greens. Occasionally, she would distribute oil or even milk reared from her cattle.As their agricultural income plummeted, the family subsisted on the earnings of the elder son Santosh, who works in a company in Gujarat.Manas, the younger son who’s just completed his MPhil, says, “My mother always had a soft corner for people in distress. She was born into a farmers’ family and is married into one. She has seen the difficulties [farmers have to face] and so she doesn’t want others to go through the same phase.”The vegetable drive was going smooth until the monsoon arrived and their yield declined. “By then, our work had gained attention. People started showing up outside our door to seek help. We could not turn them away,” Chhayarani recalls.That’s when Manas told her they could post these pleas on social media to reach out to other good samaritans. So far, the family has put up about 10 requests on Twitter.Chhayarani now divides her philanthropy work between online and offline, besides toiling in the fields to grow food for her family and for others. Most recently, she visited a 19-year old Manas Jena from the Brahmanigaon village. He suffers from kidney-related ailments and needs money for the operation. She documented his story on Twitter and attached his medical reports as proof.However, she never goes empty-handed. "I always take some vegetables with me or some money, even if it is just Rs1,000,” tells us Chhayarani.The lockdown might be over but she continues her philanthropy work. Courtesy: Tazeen QureshyShe has close to 2,282 followers on Twitter, 1,266 friends on Facebook and many more admirers in her village and beyond. But she remains modest despite the fame coming along her way. “What else should I do? I am a farmer. I have to work every day. Of course, I am happy to receive attention from people. But that doesn’t change anything. Instead, it is an added responsibility. I could have earned more profit by selling vegetables, but the satisfaction that I get now can’t be purchased with money," she says.
Women in Odisha lead forest protection with a stick and undying resolve
Nayagarh, Odisha: Several studies and reports have found that local communities play a big role in conservation, sometimes bigger than the government agencies. A great reminder of this is the Chipko Movement, where women resisted deforestation in Uttar Pradesh (now Uttarakhand). Or, how a tribe in Arunachal Pradesh has prevented the critically-endangered Bugun Liocichla songbird from going extinct. UN Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz explained the effectiveness of community-led conservation in a 2018 study, titled Cornered by Protected Areas: “Many [indigenous people and local communities] share an ethical interconnection with nature through their languages, beliefs and practices, reflecting a commitment to respecting and caring for the natural world.” A case in point will be the tribal women of Odisha, who have been guarding their forests against smugglers for many decades – voluntarily. Armed with nothing but a stick, women go into local forests in groups of three to six to drive the timber thieves away. If they catch one, they issue a warning and confiscate the produce being smuggled. When matters escalate, they either bring these thieves to the village meeting and demand a public apology or fine or involve an NGO to initiate police action.This is thengapalli, a practice where every household takes turns to patrol their community forest with a stick (thenga means stick and palli means turn).‘Smuggling reduced, forests revived’Thengapalli started in Odisha’s Nayagarh district in the early 1970s but became popular in the 1990s when women came forward to protect forests alongside men.Cut to the present. Women are solely responsible for keeping vigil on the forests in at least 300 villages in Nayagarh. In the Gunduribadi village of the district, the women-led forest protection committee has rejuvenated at least 500 acres of forest land because the smuggling of timber and other forest produce has reduced.“We can spot the Giant Indian Squirrel in the Nayagarh belt, which wasn’t the case a decade ago. Even the soil moisture retention has improved,” Manas Mishra, an environment activist who has studied the forest-dwelling communities of the Nayagarh-Khorda belt, talks of the changes these women have brought.Thengapalli has spread to other districts as well. The presence of women sentinels in smaller pockets of the Mayurbhanj district, such as Punasia, has brought down the menace of smuggling, and with that, the need for patrolling at night and carrying sticks as their weapon. They provide an extra layer of surveillance to the forests within the Similipal Tiger Reserve in Mayurbhanj. Dhaneswar Mahanta, who works with Vasundhara in the Reserve limits, explains, “The forest department deploys two to five guards per forest. On that, these committees send at least three volunteers through the day.”The forest in Punasia, Mayurbhanj. Credit: Tazeen Qureshy The practice has also crossed over to the bordering state of Jharkhand and has become a case study that is now studied in the schools of Hampshire in England.‘Women depend on forests more’According to Y Giri Rao, executive director of Vasundhara, a non-profit organisation that documents the forest conservation methods in Odisha, natural resources mean a lot more to women than men. “If the forest cover is depleted, the women would have to walk an extra mile to collect fuel for their daily needs,” he gives an example.This dependence did indeed encourage Sudamani Mahakud to take up thengapalli in her village Punasia. “If I need fuel to cook food, I can take leaves and twigs from the forest. If I need food to eat, the forest can give me greens and tubers. Some trees also have medicinal value. They are a source of food for the cattle as well. What more reasons do I need to protect the forest? I exist because the forest does,” shares the 65-year-old, who has been guarding the forests for over two decades.No sooner did women start protecting local forests, the conflict with the smugglers reduced. “If a group of men would confront smugglers, there were chances [and many instances] of fights. With women, there would only be verbal exchanges. In most cases, the smugglers belonged to neighbouring villages and so they would avoid confrontation with these women,” explains Sanjukta Basa, who runs NGO Sangram in the Mayurbhanj district.But breaking into a male bastion came with its share of pushback. “Since I would visit the police station often, I was labelled an ‘undignified girl’. It became difficult for my parents to find me a groom. But it didn’t matter to me. I had grown up listening to the stories about forests and I did not want to lose them,” says Sabita Naik, who is in her late 40s and has gone from being a thengapalli volunteer to a forest guard in Mayurbhanj. The rules of patrolling are decided mutually, factoring in when women can take time off from their domestic duties. If three women go for the 6am-9am shift, the second group goes out between 9am and 12pm. This continues till 9pm or 11pm. Guidelines to collect the forest produce are also laid down. For instance, a villager can take bamboo only after getting approval from the village committee. Communities await forest titleThese women had taken up forest management long before The Forest Rights Act (FRA) was enacted in 2006. The Act gives these communities the right to use and manage traditionally-held forest lands. Three years later, the Odisha government declared that the forest title holders will get a house under the Indira Awas Yojana (now Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana). “Now people have started getting work under MGNREGA, especially related to forest land development,” Rao informs how the Act has given an impetus to the forest conservation movement in Odisha, thengapalli included.They may have got a push to do better but they haven’t got the Community Forest Rights (CFR) yet. According to the data collected by Vasundhara, close to 32, 570 villages in Odisha have the potential to get CFR but only 2,800 applications have been approved and 2,300 titles given. While the government officials say the delay is mostly due to insufficient documents, activists say the administration is being callous. “We are talking about the rights of people who have been associated with forests for generations. They may not always have the documents. Many of them are not aware of the legalities involved and need guidance,” says Bhagyalaxmi, a social activist in the region.Women in Mayurbhanj have mostly stopped carrying sticks as smuggling has come down. Credit: Tazeen Qureshy Forest protection can be strengthened if these communities get CFR because their understanding of the forest ecosystem is profound and unbiased, says Rao. Or, as Mahakud puts it: “Forest might be an entity for others, but for us, it is our means of survival. We can’t think of a life without it.”A reassuring thought this is because multiple reports suggest that when women are involved in conservation activities, the results show.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.
Once infamous for poaching, this Odisha village is leading example of bird conservation today
Mangalajodi, Odisha: Hunting and poaching are the biggest threats facing migratory birds globally, a report tabled at the 13th Conference of Parties (COP-13) on Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals last year found. Its also called for concerted efforts to stop these practices. “Fortunately, better sense prevailed among us,” 47-year-old Shiba Behera comments on these developments. Behera is harking back to the year 2002, when he and 11 other men took a vow to stop killing the birds that come flying to Odisha’s Chilika Lake from far-off Siberia every winter for nesting. As these poachers turned into protectors, the fate of Mangalajodi, the marshy hamlet on the northern edge of the Chilika Lake that they hail from, also turned around. Today, it’s feted as a leading example of community-led bird conservation in India. From just about 5,000 birds in 2002, the locals estimate that now over 2 lakh migratory birds arrive every year in Mangalajodi. This small village of farmers and fisherfolk now have a new source of livelihood — ecotourism. The success of Mangalajodi has triggered similar initiatives not just in Sorona, Jatiapatna, and Sundarpur villages under Tangi block, of which Mangalajodi is a part, but even in the Puri district, which is over 47km from here. This shift in the collective attitude, coupled with the crackdown on the illegal prawn cultivation by the Odisha government, has had a far-reaching impact on the Chilika wetland system. According to the latest count conducted in January, Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon has attracted a record number of migratory birds at over 11.42 lakhs this season, which began last September. In fact, when it comes to bird sightings, Chilika towers over other districts in the state, Angul and Bhubaneswar included, Susanta Nanda, IFS officer and Executive Director of Chilika Development Authority (CDA), informs 101Reporters. Or, take the case of seagrass, the flowering plant that grows underwater. “Seagrasses play a major role in mitigating climate change and while the area under seagrass is decreasing all over the world, it is increasing in Chilika,” Nanda adds. The seagrass cover in Chilika has gone up by 2% since 2019, a new CDA survey has found. “Policies (regarding conservation) have remained the same all over the state but with Chilika, the case is different. It is visited by varied species [of birds] and that has prompted more initiatives, some even at the local level,” Nanda explains why other areas haven’t seen a similar uptick in biodiversity.Foes to friendsThe Mangalajodi success did not come overnight nor was it the work of just 12 men alone. The year was 1997 when Nanda Kishore Bhujabal, a former wildlife warden, decided to tackle the rampant hunting of birds in Mangalajodi. “In the 1960s-70s, there were so many migratory birds here that when a flock flew, it would paint the sky black,” recalls the 76-year-old.Former wildlife warden Nanda Kishore Bhujabal who inspired the village to protect the birds. Credit: Tazeen QureshyBut it was also the peak period of poaching activities. “Even a child could hunt down birds. Late in the evening we would take a boat in the middle of the marshy wetland, hunt a bird or two, roast it and eat it with local liquor,” Shiba recalls. The area had forest officials and even a few policemen but the hunters held sway. “We would threaten them if they tried to stop us from hunting birds,” Shiba claims. The resentment was understandable. Selling one bird would fetch them 15 rupees or more. This was more than they would make after toiling in the paddy fields for hours and days on end. But this was unsustainable, Shiba began to understand. He recalls his meetings with Bhujabal and village elders, who supported this initiative: “Bhujabal sir told us that hunting would fetch us money for a few years, but if we conserve this area and turn it into a birds' paradise, we would make money every year.” The persuasion paid off. In 2002, Bhujabal took 12 of the most dreaded hunters of Mangalajodi into knee-deep water and asked them to take a vow in the name of Maa Kalijai (the presiding deity of the village) to give up hunting. They then joined Bhujabal’s NGO Sri Sri Mahavir Pakshi Surakhya Samiti and committed themselves to the cause of bird conservation. Jaya Behera, a poacher-turned-tourist guide, says, “We had heard stories from elders that breaking a vow on Maa’s name would bring us her wrath. So we were bound by the promise.” The next challenge was to train the 12 men to identify birds and learn their names, an exercise that was led by Bhujabal’s NGO and CDA. Shiba recalls, “Our tongues would get twisted as we tried to pronounce the English names of these birds. It took me six months to remember one.” On the other hand, patrolling to report the cases of hunting came naturally to them. Their new roles didn’t bring them returns initially. “Bhujabal sir used to provide us rice and pulses sometimes,” says Jaya. A decade later, birds started coming in greater numbers, and soon, tourists followed. The influx opened new employment opportunities for villagers. They could now work as tourist guides, boat-makers, ferrymen, and even assist the researchers who came to study Chilika’s avian diversity during summers, the off-season. Today, 40 villagers are employed in local tourism, and they can make up to Rs 1,200 per boat trip.Tourist guides at Mangalajodi. Credit: Tazeen Qureshy ‘Separate zones for tourists, researchers’Despite their vigil and initiatives such as the ban on speed boating and fishing in the core habitats of the birds, challenges remain. A few cases of hunting still get reported. Booming tourism poses its own risks to the environment. But the Samiti is working on a plan. “We want to demarcate Mangalajodi in two zones — one for tourists and the other for researchers, photographers and bird lovers,” shares Bhagyadhar Behera, who is the secretary at Bhujabal’s NGO. Over 2 lakh migratory birds arrive in Mangalajodi every year. Credit: Tazeen Qureshy They are also cognizant of the threat looming on their coastal ecosystem due to climate change. Jaya says, “A decade ago, most birds would arrive by September. But now, they reach in November.” He is less concerned about how it would impact his business and more about how it would affect his life, which he has dedicated to conservation. Shiba adds, “Had we continued poaching, we would have lost rare species like Australian Stilts. Our kids and grandkids wouldn’t have seen the spectacle of colourful migratory birds that Mangalajodi is known for.” But better sense prevailed and the state backed them. To add strength to their initiative, the Odisha tourism department started the 'Chilika Bird Festival' in 2018, which is now a popular tourist attraction. This article is a part of 101Reporters' series on The Promise Of Commons. In this series, we will explore how judicious management of shared public resources can help the ecosystem as well as the communities inhabiting it.
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