Juangs Of Odisha’s Koenjhar Face Hardships Amid Poor Access To Forest Resources, Welfare Schemes
Shooed away from the hills, they are forced to settle down on forest fringes with not much land available for cultivating traditional crops that supported their nutritional needs
Keonjhar: In every sense of the word, Keonjhar district presents a picture of contrast. Once a lush green paradise, it has been turned into a mining hotspot in the last four decades with 64 projects actively dismantling over 1,000 hectares of forests. Similarly, once a quintessential part of the woods, the tribals have been pushed to the fringes and denied access to forest resources.
One of the 13 Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) in Odisha, the Juangs are found in Keonjhar, Dhenkanal, Angul and Jajpur districts. In Keonjhar, they can be spotted in 148 villages in Banspal, Telkoi, Harichandanpur and Ghatagaon blocks.
In Budhighar village of Bansapal block, Juangs live on the slopes of Gonasika hills. Their forefathers resided amid dense vegetation, but the forest department’s entry restrictions after the 1990s forced the present group to settle on the fringes. Their current population is 381 with a total of 84 households.
For years, shifting cultivation inside the forest and collection of minor produce were their main livelihood sources. Traditionally, they changed their place of stay every 10 years, looking for fertile patches that supported rainfed agriculture. However, the forest guards on patrol duty do not allow such activities these days. According to the tribals, even women who go to collect minor produce are threatened.
They think of the days when they could freely collect tubers, roots, edible leaves, fruits and honey. “Our forefathers roamed every nook and corner of the hills. They were stronger and healthier. However, the present generation is extremely thin and shorter in height,” says an observant Madhu Juang (68).
Traditionally, Juangs consumed forest produce and local varieties of millets and pulses. “Cereal-centric food slowly replaced our diverse and nutritious platter. Subsidised rice under the public distribution system eroded the local agrobiodiversity,” claims Jema Juang, the sarpanch of Gonasaki panchayat in Bansapal.
“Gongei (sorghum) and mandia (finger millet) were our staple foods. We used to grow at least 32 varieties of traditional crops. They could sustain less rainfall,” recalls Parmeswar Juang. In fact, the crops they cultivated were suitable for the hilly terrain and slopes that they could freely choose from in the early days.
The present restrictions have contributed to the poor tribal health indices in Keonjhar. Over 25% of women have a below-normal body mass index as against the state average of 20.8%, according to the National Family Health Survey-5. Similarly, 74.7% of women in the district are anaemic as against the state average of 61.8%.
To make matters worse for Juangs, the OMC has unearthed the presence of white soapstones (khadi pathara) in Gonasika hills. “Mining has not begun, but sooner or later, it will,” says Ratnakar Juang, who holds the position of naik, the communicator/messenger of the community.
Though the District Mineral Foundation (DMF) has been initiating development programmes for tribal welfare, several Juang villages do not have access to electricity, potable water, roads or income-generating opportunities. Recent data suggest that Keonjhar’s DMF fund stands at a whopping Rs 8,926.23 crore, possibly the highest such collection from miners in any district of the country.
The district accounts for 26% of the iron ore reserves in the country. It is home to Gandhamardan mines, one of the largest iron ore mines in the state functioning under the Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC). According to a conservative estimate, iron ore worth Rs 5,000 crore has been extracted from here in the last five years.
Her husband Baburam adds that the solar lamp will hardly last for three hours. “The households here got only one such lamp. How can our children study after sunset?”
Snakebites are very common in the area, especially in the rainy season. “Due to poor lighting, people unknowingly step on the snakes that enter their houses,” says Dabanda Juang (64). In 2020-21, the district reported 426 snakebite deaths. Across Odisha, snake poisoning kills around 900 people every year.
The nearest primary health centre (PHC) for villagers of Budhighar is located eight km away in Gonasika. Sarpanch Jema says the PHC, established in 1965, does not have a permanent doctor even today. “Pharmacists manage the centre. The DMF funds were used to build a medical college and hospital in Keonjhar town, which is far away from our habitats.”
The DMF was not ready to comment on why the hospital was built in the town when tribals were mostly based in remote locations.
Queuing up for hours together to collect water is nothing new to the women of Budhighar. Nevertheless, most of them are relieved that they at least get clean water now. That was not the case until last year. “We used to drink muddy, foul-smelling water from a perennial stream. It was only last year that the JDA set up a community water tank in our village. Water quality is good,” says Nayani Juang.
Rukmi Juang spends around two hours every day fetching water from the tank. “For 84 houses, we have only two water taps at the community tank. We need more such water points,” she appeals. Tubewells installed by the JDA are dysfunctional. The first one became defunct three years ago, while the second, a solar-powered facility set up in 2017, also met a similar fate soon.
All households in Budhighar have received land titles for one acre of patta land under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. Additionally, four decimals were provided for building houses. The JDA completed all the paperwork on the community’s behalf.
“We got land titles in 2014-15, but our happiness did not last as the land identification and demarcation process never took off. Now we do not know which site belongs to us,” claims Madhu, a village elder. Though the tribals raised the issue with both the sarpanch and JDA, no action followed.
Only four of the 84 households in Budhighar have received financial support under the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awas Yojana to build pucca houses. The rest are traditional one-room huts, mostly in dilapidated condition.
“Even the pucca houses built under the scheme are fragile,” says Birabar Naik, the founder of Banabasi Chetna Mandal that works for the land rights of tribal communities in Keonjhar. Lack of community participation in the process of design and execution and hilly topography are the major reasons for such poor quality. “Many houses were erected without building a strong foundation,” he claims.
Foraging for food and non-timber forest produce is not allowed, but the community still manages to collect certain food items, siali leaves (used for making leaf plates) and bamboo.”They say (the forest department) the area falls under the Harichandanpur-Telkoi reserve forest. The government wants to mine white soapstone from Gonasika hills, so it is least interested in granting us rights,” says Laxmidhar Juang, a community leader working with local civil societies on forest rights. “We are losing our identity and pride. The department controls everything now,” adds Krushna Chandra Juang, a traditional leader known as sardar among the Juangs.
Noting the need to grant community forest rights, Bhubaneswar-based activist Y Giri Rao tells 101Reporters that increasing restrictions over Juangs on the collection of wild, uncultivated food and minor produce on one hand and poor implementation of welfare schemes and programmes on the other have resulted in poor health, nutrition and livelihood conditions.
Listing food and nutritional security as the topmost priority, Srikant Juang says ruma (pulse), gongei and local paddy varieties alitundi, bijapatia and kalaputia should be revived as they are suited for the local agroecosystem and are highly nutritious. Srikant, the first graduate from the community, works as an assistant teacher at the Balika Bikash Pratisthan in Gonasika panchayat.
“The anganwadi does not function throughout the week. My children get khichdi only once every two or three days,” complains Pramila Juang, a mother of three.
Reacting to this, JDA Nutrition Officer Dilip Kumar Swain, lists the three key programmes that cater to women and children. “At the creche facility for children from six months to three years of age, hot cooked food is regularly served. A creche functions in Tala Champai and Kodhai panchayats for eight hours a day and food is provided to around 20 Juang children from each centre.”
According to him, Mother Spot Feeding Centre also provides a hot cooked meal per day to pregnant women and lactating mothers. Tala Champai and Tala Panasanasa panchayats each have one such facility. In addition, spot feeding centres are present in places where anganwadis are located far away. A hot-cooked meal is provided to preschool children as per the anganwadi guidelines, too.
Abhijit Mohanty is a Bhubaneswar-based journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
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