Tribal Movements and Livelihoods: Recent Developments in Orissa

Sakti PadhiNilakantha Panigrahi



For the last few decades and more particularly since 1990’s the issue of human rights-violation of rights to life and livelihood of tribal peoples’ is a central concern. Therefore, the discourse on tribal movements and issues of tribal livelihood revolved around securing their well-defined rights on land and forest resources. This paper attempts to critically review major tribal policies and programmes of the state of Orissa. It tries to assess the impact of and changing perspectives regarding development programmes that affect the livelihood resources of the tribal people. The paper also tries to review various methods of articulation of collective concerns of tribal people with regard to the promotion and protection of their natural resources based livelihood.

The experience in Orissa shows that tribal peoples’ protest movements, however well organised, have to take cognisance of the powerful interests of economic elite and industrial capital – both domestic and foreign – that wield considerable political power. Protest movements by the tribal people of Orissa in different pockets have attracted the attention of policy makers, bureaucrats, academia and activists across the world. These movements have contributed to strengthening the sporadic articulations by tribal people to organised protests and have led to the recognition that there is need to review the approaches and strategies of development interventions of the state as well as streamline the development programmes.

Publication Type(s)

CPRC India Working Paper


policy India livelihoods Orissa forest tribal


1 Tribal Movements and Livelihoods: Recent Developments in Orissa PDF 1199.9

A new rice every day?


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Natwarbhai by his beloved rice fields
Natwarbhai by his beloved rice fields

The small farmer is increasingly getting the short shrift, and control over farming is moving into the hands of the private corporate sector. This does not paint a happy picture.

Natwar Sarangi could eat a new variety of rice every day of the year. None of it bought in the market. When I met this remarkable farmer in a small village in Odisha, I realised the magical potential of India’s ‘ordinary’ peasants. A potential sadly neglected by our agricultural bureaucracy and ‘development’ planners.

Natwarbhai, 80+, is a resident of Narishu village, near Niali in Cuttack district. A retired schoolteacher, he has been practising organic farming for the last decade or so, and swears by its potential to feed India’s population. He says some of the varieties he grows yield over 20 quintals per acre, higher than the so-called ‘high-yielding’ varieties that farmers around him get after using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And he spends much less, since his main inputs are gobar, natural pesticides when occasionally needed, and labour.

Natwarbhai was earlier a ‘modern’ farmer, lured into it by officials and traders, involving high-yielding varieties, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. One day, while watching a labourer spray Carbofuran (a highly toxic pesticide), he was horrified to see him stagger and collapse. Rushed for treatment, the worker survived, but not Natwarbhai’s faith in the new agriculture. Especially after the labourer told him: “I could not breathe, my head was reeling”; and especially after, having buried the remaining stock of Carbofuran in a pit in his fields, Natwarbhai “saw dead snails, snakes, and frogs floating in the water that had accumulated there; I immediately wondered what would be happening to the earthworms and micro-organisms that I knew kept the soil alive.”

Natwarbhai switched to organic inputs, but with the high yielding varieties that the agricultural establishment had distributed. His son Rajendra, by now having become involved in a number of environmental movements, advised him to try traditional crop varieties. The problem was, most such varieties had gone out of cultivation in the area.

Around this time (1999), along with Rajendra another young man of the village, Jubraj Swain, had been active with relief and reconstruction work after a super-cyclone. Now they set off to find traditional rice varieties; travelling over 5000 km within (and a bit outside) Odisha, they brought back dozens of varieties still being grown by so-called ‘backward’ farmers. Natwarbhai tried them all, noting down their names, characteristics, and productivity. He and Jubraj continued even after the tragic death of Rajendra due to cerebral malaria, eventually reaching the astounding figure of 360 varieties (90per cent of these from Odisha). When I expressed astonishment at this, Natwarbhai laughed: “we are aiming to have at least 500. This is in any case only a small fraction of the total diversity that Indian farmers have created”.

So true. I remember when coordinating India’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan process a decade ago, I had come across the mindboggling fact that the country’s rice diversity was anything between 50,000 and 300,000 varieties!

How does Natwarbhai keep track of this diversity, year after year? He said he and his colleagues kept an album, in which they noted down each variety’s characteristics. I was later shown a two-volume set of this album by Sudhir Pattnaik of the Oriya journal Samadrusti; it had tiny packets of each kind of rice variety, with key features of their growth, performance, and values written alongside.

Diversity was nice, but would it feed India’s growing population? Natwarbhai was categorical: “Without doubt. Firstly, I get as much or more average rice production on my land as those using chemicals in this region; secondly, I can grow pulses as a next crop, and then gourds or other crops as the third … all on the same plot of land. And I get better fodder and mulching material. Overall productivity is therefore higher than my neighbours who use new seeds and chemicals. If land is not turned to non-food cash crops like tobacco, we would easily produce enough food with organic farming.”

So why then were his neighbours not switching to organic? Natwarbhai explained that the government and corporations were constantly giving ‘incentives’, e.g. subsidies on chemicals, and filling the cultivators’ minds with promises of bumper crops and high returns. Another factor was that many of the traditional varieties had tall stalks, and ‘lodged’ (fell down) if there were unseasonal rains. But Natwarbhai asserted that even with this, productivity did not drop significantly, provided it did not keep on raining. Yet another reason was that many of the lands here were being cultivated by sharecroppers, who had to do what their absentee landlords told them to.

I reflected on this a bit. Farmers here were probably also being seduced by news from other regions of India, some of which had achieved over 30 quintals per acre; no-one was telling that this was possible only with increasing amounts of external inputs, that the land would simply not sustain this intensity of cultivation for long, and that growing costs of inputs would eventually reduce profit margins. Official records showed that in any case, HYV rice had yielded an average of around 15 quintals in Orissa.

Other farmers were slowly getting interested in Natwarbhai’s methods. He and others have organised dozens of meetings with farmers, and offered free seeds for those willing to test them out (on condition that if they had a good crop, they would return twice the amount, to go into a grain bank). The journalSamadrusti also did its bit in public outreach. If only the government would help, these efforts would go much further. Unfortunately even civil society organisations were not always helpful; Natwarbhai pointed to a patch of black-grain paddy (Kali Jiri) swaying gently in the breeze, and sadly recounted how an institution from Chennai run by a famous agricultural scientist had taken some samples, and then claimed credit for the variety!

I asked Jubraj why he had not gone looking for a job in the city, like his other young colleagues? He was, after all, a graduate in history. His answer was simple: “I enjoy this. I think it is more worthwhile than a job in the city”. Productivity on his land? “I’m getting 18-20 quintals per acre; those using new seeds and chemicals here were getting less, while spending more.” In a general scenario of the newer generations turning away from occupations like farming, it was good to see the young man wanting to carry on Natwarbhai’s mission.

In a recent address to an international conference on biodiversity in Hyderabad, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: “Biodiversity, found in our forests and our fields, could provide us keys to the solutions of the future. So we need to build a movement to conserve traditional varieties of crops.” Nice words. But the Indian government’s agricultural policies and programmes have systematically destroyed the diversity and knowledge of thousands of years of intelligent, innovative farming systems. Increasingly they are marginalising the small cultivator, and handing over controls over farming to the private corporate sector. Efforts like Natwarbhai’s and Jubraj’s, small as they may seem, are crucial elements of sustainability that India is going to desperately need when its food production systems face ecological and social collapse.

Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh, Pune

Climatic changes hit farming in coastal Orissa

Rise in temperature and sea level has made agriculture vulnerable as seawater is more often gushing into the paddy fields with saline water

Submitted on 02/06/2012 – 09:50:23 AM

Bhubaneswar: Agriculture across the coast of Orissa is now facing a situation of climate emergency, threatening food security in such areas where climate change has been a phenomenon.

Rise in temperature and sea level has made agriculture vulnerable as seawater is more often gushing into the land filling paddy fields with saline water.

“The sea is crossing the embankment more often and damaging our crops by filling the land with saline water”, a farmer in Udaykani village in Puri District laments.

Because agriculture is almost regularly hit by tidal waves and floods, food security of these people has been threatened as they have no other option to earn a livelihood and feed the family.

With no other option, the farmers work hard to grow paddy every year with a hope that this year would go well for them. However, their hope never sustain as the gushing seawater combined with erratic rain often destroys their crop.

“The saline water has become a threat to us. Every year it is betraying us. We lose our crop. As there is no alternate livelihood option available at this place, we are forced to starve”, says Dhabaleswar of Chhenu Village in Puri district.

While these people seriously look for an alternate option, scientists are advising the farmers to go for crop diversification as an adaptability measure.

Realising that agriculture is being worst affected by climate change, an Agronomist at Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) in Jagatsinghpur district of Orissa, says, “We are asking the farmers to go for crops that can sustain against the impacts of climate change”.

Changing climate pattern is not only affecting agriculture in coastal villages, the farmers living in forest areas are also facing the wrath of climate change. Rain pattern has also changed drastically in the forest areas during the last years

“FAO recognition of traditional farming should keep GM away”

The traditional agricultural system of Koraput (Odisha) has been recognized by the FAO as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Site (GIAHS) at the recently concluded 99th Science Congress. This recognition is for outstanding contribution to promoting food security, biodiversity, indigenous knowledge and cultural diversity for sustainable and equitable development. Living Farms is a non profit working in the Koraput region of Odisha with the tribal communities practicing the traditional form of agriculture. Debjeet Sarangi of Living Farms spoke the to The Environment Health Bulletin and explains what this recognition means for the region.

Debjeet Sarangi What does this recognition by the FAO mean for agriculture in the Koraput region ?

The recognition of this traditional form of agriculture as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Site (GIAHS) is quite significant for the local communities, their traditional knowledge and agriculture systems. To begin the UN body has recognized the intrinsic value of the tribal agriculture system which is the custodian of thousands of traditional rice varieties, rich millets based mixed farming, sacred groves and agricultural ecosystems. We hope that our policy makers, institutional researchers, and research bodies also recognize this. We expect them to take strong policy decisions to conserve this heritage and ensure that the tribal communities of the region continue to live with dignity.

We also expect from the state and central government that Genetically Modified (GM) seeds and /crops will not be introduced here. The GM crops will contaminate the local agriculture system especially the local rice biodiversity and marginalize and weaken the local farming population. This recognition should also ensure that the chemical intensive mono cropping trend driven by the second Green Revolution program is not imposed or implemented here. It is also important that the land under agriculture in this region is conserved and not diverted for any other purpose.

Is this traditional system restricted to Koraput alone?

The Jeypore tract (undivided old Koraput district), is conceived by rice researchers as a centre of genetic diversity and secondary center of origin of rice. This traditional form of agriculture is not just practiced in Koraput. Its practiced in all the tribal districts of Southern Odisha. Koraput  has the highest population growth in the state. The district is primarily a tribal district; more than 70% of the total population belongs to one of the district’s 52 tribal groups. Some of the numerically large tribes in the district are Khond, Bhatada, Paroja, Bhumia and the Bondas.

What do the tribals largely rely on?

They practice millets based  mixed farming system consisting varieties of millets, sorghums, varieties of pulses, legumes, oil seeds, roots and tubers and vegetables. They have been conserving thousands of traditional varieties of rice. Apart from the cultivated sources a lot of their food, nutrition and livelihood come from commons- forests and waterbodies. So, there is an urgent need to conserve the commons in this region as well as to ensure that local tribal communities continues to  have access to their commons. (For instance if people upstream use pesticides it flows through the river and those living downstream are going to be affected)

How is this tribal agriculture and food system of Koraput different from the conventional agriculture or even the chemical free agriculture?

The tribal agriculture and food system consists of cultivated and uncultivated ecosystems. Apart from the agro-climatic situation their cultural practices and food habits, play a very important role in shaping up this system. Many festivals and rituals revolve around their agriculture and food system. They  view  cultivation as more than just a means of their food and  livelihood, they view it as a way of life.

The topographic diversity of the Koraput region has resulted in a wide diversity in ecosystems under which rice is cultivated: upland (unbunded as well as bunded), medium land (irrigated and rain fed) or low land condition. Within each ecosystem, innumerable rice varieties are grown depending on the local preferences for morphological characters (such as plant height, pigmentation of plant parts, grain shape and size, presence of awns) or cultural practices such as broadcasting, transplanting, food preparations (such as cooked rice, popped rice, puffed rice), palatability (aromatic or non-aromatic).

The official net sown area is around 25% of the total area of the region and is concentrated in plateaus and the wide river valleys. In the hilly areas however, permanently cultivated fields can be as low as 10% of the landscape. 33% of the cultivated area is irrigated; paddy occupies around fifty percent of the cultivated lands. Upland paddy and ragi (finger millet) are cultivated on around one third of the cultivated area.

Using their indigenous knowledge they take the viability test for seeds before sowing, maintain the soil fertility and conserve the landraces of rice and other crops. This knowledge has been transmitted from generation to generation among the family members.

How do the tribals preserve their plant genetic resources?

The “Sacred Grove” is an effective method of preserving plant genetic resources. It is a biological heritage as well as social mechanism by which a forest patch is protected. The concept of “sacred grove” is found deep rooted in the minds of different communities in Koraput region. Even today some forest patches are left to local deities as a traditional custom. Studies carried out by the Botanical survey of India and National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources reveal that there is a rich assemblage of species useful for food.

Rice is the predominant crop in the Jeypore area –both in terms of land as well as in terms of production. More than 40% of the land is under paddy cultivation. The other crops grown are maize, finger millet (Eleusine coracana), green gram (Vigna radiata), black gram (Vigna mungo), mustard (Brassica juncea), sesame (Sesamum orientale), groundnut (Arachis hypogea) etc. The tribal people in the hills grow minor millets, littlemillet (Panicum miliaceum), foxtail millet (Staria italica), niger (Guizotia abyssinica), pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan) and horse gram (Dolichos biflorus).

Are these traditional forms of agriculture in any kind of a risk from the much talked about second green revolution ?

The second green revolution has been promoting subsidized  hybrid rice, hybrid maize, hybrid sunflower along with synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. A region of mixed farming, local resource based agriculture is witnessing replacement of mixed farms of food crops by mostly mono cash crops. Traditional maize was never grown as a mono crop in this region. It used to be a part of a mixed farming. Are we not making the farms and farmers more vulnerable especially in this era of climate crisis ? What will happen to farmers of this region once the subsidy is withdrawn? Who will be held responsible if these tribal farmers are pushed out of their farms due to increased cost of production followed by indebtedness as a consequence of the second green revolution. We sincerely hope that the government revisits its decision on the present format and structure of the second green revolution program and re-design it to support local resource based farmer led ecological agriculture  in Koraput region as well as in rest of the Odisha.

How is this recognition going to affect the tribals ?  This agriculture system was awarded in the past on two different occasions – the Equator Initiative Partnership Award in 2002 and the plant genome saviour community award in 2006- How did they help in promoting the agriculture system and the state of tribals in the region?

We do not know whether the news of this recognition and its significance has reached to the local tribals. We hope that the cash associated with the previous  two different awards – the Equator Initiative Partnership Award in 2002 and the plant genome saviour community award in 2006 and the present one have reached the local communities. It is their community based institutions which have been the bed rock of their traditional knowledge and farming system and they should decide how the prize money should be utilized.

Protecting Oryza in Odisha

by Shalini Bhutani | December 07, 2011

The eastern Indian state of Odisha is regarded as the place of origin of Oryza sativa, the plant species commonly known as rice. In fact, many believe that Odisha even got its name from the term “oryza”. Now however, Odisha is fast becoming the centre of action on intellectual property rights on rice in India. The Delhi-based national Protection of Plant Variety Authority has started a massive rice varieties registration initiative with the State Government of Odisha.

Plant variety protection (“PVP”) is a type of intellectual property. PVP laws grant economic rights known as plant breeder rights (“PBR”) to breeders vis-a-vis the new, distinct, uniform, and stable varieties of crops that they develop. This intellectual property right is of European origin. In the 1950s, countries in Europe started designing laws for protecting to protect the interests of their plant breeders. This was extended throughout Europe through the Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (“the UPOV”), which was established in 1961 by the UPOV Convention.

It is critical to understand the relationship between the implementation of PVP laws and the World Trade Organisation Organization (“the WTO”) and its intellectual property rights (IPR) agreement, the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (“the TRIPS Agreement”). Even though the text of the TRIPS Agreement does not mention the UPOV, the latter has been pushed by the developed world as the “effective sui generis system” by which to implement the TRIPS Agreement. Developing country governments that were reluctant to make laws allowing patents on plants were shown the UPOV as the way out for complianceto comply with the TRIPS Agreement. This was convenient for developing countries in several ways. Their administrators could avoid the hard work of designing something from scratch for the specific needs of their own country. They agreed to use the ready-made solution offered by the UPOV model; other governments were forced to do so. This also meant that there would be no risk of not gaining acceptability from other WTO member countries. Further, for governments that had also faced public opposition to patents on life forms, lawmakers could simply point to the characteristics of PVP, which make it look relatively less restricting. For instance, in a PVP law, unlike in a patent law, the “research exemption” can allow others to use the breeder’s protected material for research purposes. More importantly, the PVP law can (optionally) provide for a “farmer’s privilege”, which would permit farmers and small growers to save and re-use seeds from the PVP-protected variety. The term of protection under PVP law (fifteen years) is also shorter than that for patents (twenty years).

Does the PVP law protect the rights of the farmers of Odisha adequately?

Image above and on article thumbnail from rajkumar1220’s photostream on Flickr.

Image (but not the rest of the work) published under :

Creative Commons License

The fundamental problem remains – that agreeing to pass a PVP law means that a country is no longer against the grant of intellectual property rights on planting material. The supreme irony is that countries legislating for the first time on farmers’ rights have landed up situating them within a commercial law. This is how the South has lost the battle against the privatisation of life forms. In effect, it means that the so-called exception to patents that developing countries and less-developed countries legitimately had in the TRIPS Agreement has been reduced to naught. With PVP laws, patent-like protection is being given. This also forecloses possibilities of a discussion on interpreting ‘sui generis’ to mean methods outside of intellectual property rights to ‘protect’ plant breeders’ varieties.

Fifty years after UPOV and over fifteen years after the TRIPS Agreement, the global seed industry (including theInternational Seed Federation and the Asia and Pacific Seeds Association) is looking for tighter intellectual property protection for its seed products. Yet some European plant breeder associations want a breeder’s exemption even to patents, so that they have more material under patent protection available for breeding. Meanwhile, Tthe ‘maximalist’ agenda for intellectual property includes demands for the removal of the two exceptions from breeders’ rights that PVP laws currently permit. While this will reduce the distance between a PVP and a patent, there are also lobbying efforts underway for an extension of patentthe PVP terms to twenty-five years.

Since the economic ‘reforms’, the political economy has also undergone drastic changes. Liberalisation of agriculture has meant that more private players are encouraged in the seed sector. Large corporations now have a much larger role in seed production and agricultural research and development. Informal breeding by farmers is being systematically sidelined. Both, the public sector and private corporations, are in the race for PVP certificates, for existing as well as for new varieties.

India passed its PVP law – the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act (“the PPVFR Act”) in 2001. In 2003, the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Rules (“the PPVFR Rules”) were issued. In 2005, the PPVFR Authority (“the Authority”) was set up in Delhi. In 2009, the first PVP certificates were granted in India. Rice was amongst the first crops that the Central Government notified as eligible for the registration of varieties. In the Indian PVP law however, the fact that the definition of ‘breeder’ includes farmers, does not take away from the fact that the ‘protection’ offered by the law to even farmer-bred varieties is an intellectual property right. This is in complete contrast to the seed cultures that small farmers in India and elsewhere live by. The law and its ongoing implementation processes offer many sops to farmers to lure them into the PVP system. These include the waiver of fees and “genome saviour” awards such as the one awarded to the Panchbati Gramya Unyan Samiti of Koraput, Odisha. The law also promises a share of ‘benefits’ (read money) if and when the farmers’ material is used in the development of a new plant variety. For formal plant breeders, the varieties from the informal sector are important raw material from which to develop ‘new’ marketable products. Hence the drive to encourage farmers to register their varieties and have a sample of the same deposit samples of their varietiesed with the Plant Authority. It is however, pertinent to note that the Authority puts a time limit on the registration of farmer varieties (“FVs”).

Odisha’s former Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Damodar Rout, had recently announced that hundreds of traditional paddy varieties of the state would be registered under the PPVFR Act. As a consultant to the process, a significant role is envisaged for the Swaminathan Research Foundation in the collection of sample seeds of traditional varieties and their subsequent registration. Reportedly, the farmers who provide up to five kilograms of samples of their varieties and the basic information along with it will be recognised as facilitators. Ironically, the Minister’s announcement says that the ownership of these traditional rice varieties “shall be vested in the Government of Orissa, on behalf of the people…” Why should this be so, when the law expressly provides for a specific category – that of FVs? Meanwhile, the Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology (“the OUAT”) has already registered eight of its own varieties so far as extant varieties, including “‘Pratikhsya” ’ (ORS 201-5) (IET-15191) and “‘Jogesh” ’ (OR 1519-2) (IET-15169) for the seeds of which the Vice-Chancellor has the exclusive right to produce, sell, market, distribute, import, or export of the seeds of these two varieties for a initial term of six years commencing July 20, 2009. The DuPont-owned Pioneer Overseas Corporation has also sought PVP for hybrid rice varieties.

The members of the Rice Varieties Registration Committee in Odisha will be:

1. Director, Directorate of Agriculture and Food Production;

2. Dr. S.R. Dhua, Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack;

3. Dean, Research, OUAT;

4. J.D.A. (Special Programme and Crops), Directorate of Agriculture;

5. Dr. Baburam Singh, OUAT;

6. J.D.A. (Farms and Seeds), Directorate of Agriculture;

7. Dr. Ravi Kumar Pattnaik, Associate Dean, College of Agriculture, Bhawanipatna;,

8. Director, Orissa State Seed and Organic Products Certification Agency;

9. Dean, Extension, OUAT; and

10. Dr. Satya Ranjan Dash, Professor, Plant Breeding, OUAT.

The rice knowledge of farmers has to be protected from IPR and not by an IP system like PVP, which was designed to eventually put restrictions on farmer seed-saving. Those pushing for PVP certificates not only in Odisha but across India have to fully understand the long term implications of such variety registration. If the government authorities are genuinely interested to save the people’s know-how on rice, then they should not be encouraging the many potentially destructive development activities in the State of Odisha. That will be real plant PROTECTION of rice varieties.

Shalini Bhutani is a Delhi-based lawyer working independently on issues of trade, agriculture, and biodiversity.


Odisha: Paddy crisis hits ryots hard

BHUBANESWAR: Despite farmers suicides in frightening regularity and assurances of a robust harvesting season, paddy crisis is once again threatening the farmers. As the Government sat pretty in announcing the paddy procurement policy for 2011-12 kharif marketing season, farmers have started selling their produce to rice millers and private traders much below the minimum support price (MSP) fixed by the Centre.

Paddy harvesting has started in a big way in many parts of the State, but the farmers have no other way but to go to the private traders. The Government, which often claims opening of large number of procurement centres, is yet to start mandis (market yards) and announce the agencies for procurement.

�According to reports, farmers are selling paddy at ` 700-800 per quintal against the MSP of `1,000. Every year, the food and procurement policy is decided by October second week to facilitate the Government-appointed agencies to put their men and machineries in place before paddy starts arriving at the mandis.

�Besides, the agencies need time to arrange funds which they source it from commercial banks as credit.

�Nuakhai, the harvesting festival celebrated on September 2, heralded the arrival of new paddy. Two months have passed since then and harvesting is on. In some areas, farmers have also started processing long-duration crops.

�Slamming the Government for its lack of concern, senior BJP legislator and former minister Jaynarayan Mishra said small and marginal farmers are forced into distress sale to repay their loans to the� money-lenders.

�Ironically, institutional credit support hardly works for the small and marginal farmers and they mostly depend on local money-lenders to raise crops.

“They could have got a better price for their produce had they sold the same to the Government agencies. However, the inordinate delay in operationalising the mandis are forcing the loanee farmers to sell their paddy to the money lenders much below the MSP,” Mishra rued.

�While erratic monsoon considerably delayed the kharif operation this year, successive natural calamities like drought and flood caused extensive damage to paddy crops in many districts.

‘The Odisha government wants to bring Bt Cotton to Kalahandi’ P. Sainath

P Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor, The Hindu and 2007 Magsaysay award winner, shares with Pradeep Baisakh his views on the POSCO project, Odisha farmers’ suicides and the National Food Security Bill

You have visited Odisha quite often. How, in your view, has it changed in the last 20 years?
Inequalities have increased massively. Earlier, we used to hire jeeps which were falling apart. Today, to go to Kalahandi, you have Innovas, Scorpios, Safaris. And in the same place there are people who have pledged their crop until 2015 to moneylenders.

Kalahandi’s problem is exploitation even today. Odisha’s per capita food production is higher than the national average for last 30-40 years and Kalahandi’s per capita food production is higher than the state, but people do not know that. Now, that very secure and very diverse food base is being destroyed. I hear the Odisha government wants to bring Bt cotton to Kalahandi. Bt will drink up the water. It will be a wonderful bonanza for the seed companies, a few traders and 10-12 big farmers. Everybody else will suffer.

The state has shifted its base – now it is just a depository of raw materials and minerals. The character and richness of the state has been reduced to being the playground of the extractive industries. That is the difference.

You visited the proposed POSCO area in Jagattsingur, then Kalinganagar, then Gopalpur: it’s like a going backward in the history of industrialisation and displacement in Odisha. What did you find?
In 1997, the government first acquired almost 3,800 acres in Gopalpur. It gave people Rs one lakh compensation per acre, said that there will be a steel plant and every family will get a job. Nobody got jobs and there is no steel plant now. The state government has declared it will not even try to make a steel plant, instead it has got ‘in principle’ approval for an SEZ. The land now costs Rs 40 lakh an acre. At the end of the day, there is no obligation to give any jobs! Those villagers there who fought it out and did not give their land are in much better position today than those who were supposed to be helped by the project.

In Kalinganagar, it’s a very, very bad situation. Over so many years of isolation and criminalisation, people have been broken. Every now and then one more family gives in. They are not happy with it nor are they doing it voluntarily, they are not just able to cope any more. Those who had large houses with lots of space for livestock have been shifted to box houses in the rehabilitation colony. The government says that’s what they chose to build, as if this does not depend on how much money has been given for house construction. There is neither factory nor any meaning job except some training given to people.

In the proposed POSCO area is some of the most profitable farming I have seen. Social activist Jagdish Pradhan and I spoke to a lot of farmers and calculated, taking note of the input cost, that one betel farm over one-tenth of an acre earns a profit Rs 1.5-2 lakh. That is actually a stunning return, and these are ordinary people.

One of the farmers we spoke to has three acres. He spent Rs 10 lakh on his four children’s education and is building a house with Rs 9 lakh. Also, in the last 10 years, betel leave prices have shot up—what used to be Rs 15-20 per 1,000 leaves is now about Rs 1,000. So they are doing pretty well. Where is the demand for jobs? Rather, there is a demand for labour. That place, I am willing to assert, has the highest wage rate in Odisha, Rs 200 plus a meal, higher than wages that construction workers get in Bhubaneswar. If you are doing skilled work like manure application, or tying and untying creepers it’s Rs 400-500 rupees a day plus a meal. Put together the average wages is about Rs 250 a day that is twice the MGNRGEA rate in Orissa, which is Rs 125.

So you are going to destroy something that exists, where employment has been created by the people themselves, in exchange for something that Gopalpur and Kalinganagar show might never come.

But if enough compensation is given, are you still against the acquiring of farmland?
Suppose I say, a huge development project involves destruction of Taj Mahal and Gateway of India, but the compensation is adequate. What sort of argument is that? People sometimes want to sell their land, I agree. But you do not make them sell at the point of the gun. You do not beat them, raid them and isolate them in their villages when they refuse to sell. In case of Gopalpur, Tatas will make money renting out plots to other companies in the industrial park. Why could that money not gone to people themselves?

What about the Land Acquisition Bill? You must be closely following developments on that front.
I am not so excited about the Bill. One, is it the job of the state to transfer resources from ordinary people to a handful of private people? By this you are narrowing the base of ownership of resources in this country. Second, it stinks of corruption. You need to check on the assets of every major officer involved.

Talking of resources, why should you give away 600 million tonnes of iron ore to POSCO at a fraction of the international price? Our new royalty law is better, but fixed on the domestic price, not the international price. So you are allowing a loot and plunder of precious resources, mindless of environmental consequences and calling it development! The younger generation does not want to be in agriculture only because we have made agriculture pathetic.

We did not hear of farmers’ suicides in Odisha earlier. What change has occurred in the state to bring them about?
Farmers’ suicide in the eastern belt are considerably less than in other parts which have opted for cash crops fed mostly by chemical fertiliser, hybrid seeds and Bt seeds. In eastern India, the people still are dependent on food crops. But Odisha too is gradually adopting the cash crop model. The situation will worsen, for the planning model is to promote cash crops, mostly for export.

What’s your reaction to the draft legislation prepared by the National Advisory Council (NAC) on National Food Security which does not advocate universal PDS?
I differ. Food, healthcare, education and decent work should be universalised. It’s incorrect to think that universal PDS is not possible or difficult as ‘leakage’ takes place. Kerala has already shown the way. Functioning of PDS improved in Tamil Nadu as it moved towards universalisation.

People say journalists should be impartial, they should not be activists. But when we see you, the journalist and activist merge.
I do not see it that way— I see myself as a reporter. If I were an activist, I would be organising.

In any society, if you go against the dominant ideology, you will be branded. If you write about POSCO, or about any dam or any other project, you will be called an activist if you write about the affected people.

There was this Brazilian priest who said, “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint, when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.”

Pradeep Baisakh is a Freelance Journalist based in Odisha. He has extensively written on issues relating to MGNREGA, Industrialisation and displacement, Forest and environment, Right to Information, migration etc.