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Kutia Kondhs – a Few Perspectives from the Ground

by Ravi Shankar Behera and Dr. Ranjit K Sahu

Kutia Kondha is one of the PVTGs (Particularly vulnerable tribal groups – earlier: Primitive tribal group) in Kalahandi district, Odisha. The Kondhas who live in hilltop and valleys are known as Kutia Kondha. Whereas those who live in highlands and near the streams are called Dongaria Kondha and Kondhas who are residing in the plain area are known as Desia Kondha. Kutia Kondhs. The Kutia Kondhs are spread across Lanjigarh, Th. Rampur, M.Rampur, and Bhawanipatna blocks of Kalahandi.

Society and culture

Tribal communities have a distinct way of life, majorly depending on nature and natural resources. Inter-generational poverty is a reality among tribal communities. The mindset of tribal communities to live in harmony with nature is evident. The Kutia Kondh settlement is having two rows of houses, across a rectangular space facing each other. All the Kutia Kondh houses of a village maintain a single roof, although each house having a partition wall, and the verandah runs from one end to the other. The economic life of Kutia Kondh is dependent on the forest. They practice shifting cultivation, cultivating varieties of crops and during lean periods, collect foodstuffs from the forest. Minor forest products also fetch them cash income.

The social structure is well organized and unified in a Kondha settlement and co-operation is remarkable. Women play a bigger role in the family economy though families are mostly nuclear and patriarchal in character. They are mostly nature worshipers with human sacrifice prevalent in the pre-independence era, which has been now substituted with buffalo and sheep sacrifice. The practice of youth dormitory is existent,  though it is gradually losing its importance in Kutia Kondh villages. Dhap, Salap Baja are the important musical instruments of Kutia Kondhs. The intervention of the Government has slowly created a transition in their way of life resulting in a gradual transformation in the fields of social life, education, and infrastructure development.

Mud House with conical tiles, Ushabahali village

 

Living for the day and thinking little for their future is a way of life for them. The entry of external stakeholders including private, corporate, Government and civil society actors like mining, industries and constructions has impacted the traditional way of living though the “Culture of Silence” continues with limited interactions with the larger public and Government.

 

Sindhibhata Village

 

Like all Tribal communities, Kutia Kondhas in Lanjigarh block faces multi-dimensional development issues relating to poverty, illiteracy, limited access to basic services like schools, health and nutrition facilities and services (including Maternal and child care), unemployment, low agricultural production, lack of institutional credit and limited access to Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP).

Agriculture and Animal Husbandry

The landholding pattern reveals that the total marginal and smallholders account for 68% percent while medium and large holdings are 10% and the rest 22% are landless. With an increase in population and family size, the lands are further fragmented. The average holding size varies between 0.8 to 1.2 acres with a few farmers holding more than 3 acres. Even farmers having large landholding leave most of their lands fallow due to lack of agricultural labor and limited irrigation facilities. Landlessness, marginal and small land holdings and lack of irrigation facility, and low incomes in the villages are the major causes of food insecurity. A majority of the households are small and marginal farmers or agricultural labour with limited cultivable land. The terrain being the highly undulating majority of the fields constitute rainfed uplands. Low lands are limited in area, primarily in small strips along the banks of rivers and streams. Shifting cultivation is considered to be the most ancient system of agriculture and also known as “Field Forest Rotation” or slash and burn agriculture. Shifting cultivation remains the primary source of food for the tribal communities. The tribals call it ‘Dongar Chas‘ or ‘Podu Chas’.

Shifting Cultivation – Podu Chas

 

The major crops cultivated in the shifting cultivation system include majorly, cultivation of Minor millets like Ragi, Kosala, Kangu, and Gurji with Arhar (Cajanas cajan) as an intercrop along with the Minor millets. These crops are cultivated during the Kharif season (monsoons). Alasi (Niger – Guizotia abyssynica), an oilseed crop and also a major cash crop for the tribal communities is cultivated along the hill slopes during the Rabi season. The average size of the podu lands ranges from 0.5 acres to 3 acres along the hill slopes. No manure or chemical fertilizers are used by the Tribal farmers in the shifting cultivation system. The average yield and production of the food crops range between 5 to 7 Quintals/acre.

Food crops mainly paddy, minor millets, and maize are grown during the Kharif season followed by pulses and vegetables in the Rabi season are completely dependent on the rainfall. The four main types of crops grown by the tribals are Cereal (Paddy, Maize, minor millets like Ragi), Vegetables (brinjal, tomato, okra, radish, cabbage, greens, pumpkin, roots, and tubers), Pulses (pigeon pea, green gram, black gram, asparagus bean, rice bean, chickpea, field pea, cowpea, beans) and Oilseeds (groundnut, sunflower, sesame).

Most of the communities have access to shifting cultivation on hill slopes as they do not own land. 10-15% of the households do not have access to land even for shifting cultivation. Households having land in valleys are also engaged in shifting cultivation on slopes where they grow minor millets and pulses. Primarily, there are two cultivation methods, i.e., shifting cultivation (slash and burn) and cultivation in the valley (lowland, medium lands).

Agriculture and procurement of  NTFPs remain the primary occupations for the PVTG communities. The primary sources of income are from agriculture on one’s own land, followed by casual labour and remittances from emigrants. The sale of livestock including cows, bullock, Goats, and Chicken also are sources of income for tribal households. Wages from casual labour work and earthwork under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MGNREGS) provide the mainstay for some.

Poor households belonging to old people, widows, and Persons with Disability (PWDs) also get monthly pensions. The third livelihood option for poor households is migration. On average, the annual income from all sources for a tribal household ranges between INR 15000 to INR 30000. Most of the households have an average debt of INR 5000-8000, taken from friends, relatives, moneylenders, and other informal sources. Fluid Cash is completely missing in most households.

This dynamic nature of agriculture is dependent on the land type (land quality) and crops cultivated. Both men and women are engaged in rice and vegetable cultivation, which is quite labor-intensive. On average, most of the tribals are engaged for 70-80 days in the year in agricultural activities. They practice subsistence agriculture (for household consumption). Only a small portion (10-20%) of the farm produce of paddy or millets is sold in the local markets or to the middlemen.

Paddy Cultivation

 

The farming households face crop losses frequently due to erratic rainfall, flash floods, prolonged dry spells/drought-like conditions, and pest attacks. Out of the total cultivated area, the majority is unirrigated and farmers critically depend on rains for a good harvest. The tribal farmers are not in habit of using plant protection chemicals except using some indigenous methods for control of insect pests, pathogens, and obnoxious weeds.

Livestock Open grazing, Ushabahali village

For tribal people, animal husbandry constitutes a major source of livelihood as well as a source of dietary protein. Hordes of cows and goats are seen grazing in the mountain slopes. Tribes rear cows and chicks for their own household purposes while goats and sheep are reared mainly for the market. Distress sale of livestock is fairly common. All animals are sold for income, or when the family has an emergency need for cash, either to a middleman, in the local market, or to others in the community. Meat, particularly from goats and chickens, is consumed occasionally during festivals, weddings, and when guests visit. Some families occasionally use poultry for family consumption. Most of the tribal are not accustomed to drinking cow’s milk or preparing any by-product out of cow’s milk. Pig is mostly preferred by tribal and Scheduled Caste people due to its quick multiplication rate and more live weight.

 

NTFPs the lifeline

The tribal communities depend critically on natural resources like forests, water, and land for their livelihoods. They collect different forest produce such as edible leaves, wild tubers, Mushrooms, Bamboo shoots and wild fruits and berries for consumption. NTFPs like Siali leaves (Bauhinia vahlii), Sal (Shorea robusta) leaf help in income to buy food items for self-consumption for people with no holdings. Due to rapid deforestation over the last two decades, there has been a decline in trees which provided NTFPs like Mahua (Madhuca longifolia), Tamarind (Tamarindus indica), Mangoes (Mangifera indica), Jack fruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), Amla (Phyllanthus emblica)), Harida (Terminalia chebula), Bahada (Terminalia bellerica), Barada saag (Bauhinia variegata), Char (Carissa carandas), Ber (Zizhyphus sp.), Kardi (tender Bamboo shoots), Kendu (Diospyros melanoxylon), Greens, many varieties of tubers, wild fruits, mushrooms, berries, flowers, resins, and gums, etc. Limited access to NTPFs and wild food plants and greens from the forest contributes to low dietary diversity and incomes of tribal households.

Many species of medicinal herbs and plants are collected by tribal women and men to cater to their medicinal requirements. Along with decline in trees, there is a significant decrease in yield (mainly for tubers) and other medicinal plants due to reduced soil quality. For the last ten years Kendu has also ceased to exist as a poor man’s fruit in many villages as there is no mature fruit-bearing trees in the forest.

The declining rate of the major NTFPs from forests especially Mahua is a cause of serious concern. There has been a consistent decline in forest coverage and quality (reduced diversity, smaller trees, less density) of forests over the last two decades. Reduction in forest cover has resulted in higher water run-off (lesser percolation and moisture retention in soil), accelerated soil erosion, and loss of fertile topsoil. The increase in population has also put pressure on forests for the collection of more fuelwood as still very few are able to avail and use LPG connection under Ujjwala Scheme.

A majority of the tribal households are dependent on the forest for a period of 2-3 months in a year for the collection of NTFPs for their subsidiary food needs, medicinal purposes, and sale of NTFPs. Tribal communities in the villages depend on the collection of wild vegetables from the forest, especially green leafy vegetables. With the decrease in forests, there is lesser availability of fruits, leafy vegetables, and tubers. The households that have no home gardens to produce vegetables depend only on collecting leafy vegetables from the forest. During the rainy season, these vegetables are not available.

 

Women, the key players

Women have the principal role in the collection, processing, and sale of Non-Timber Forest Produce. Among the poorer people, NTFP based income is important for the household as a whole. From the perspective of its being an occupation predominantly practiced by women NTFPs acquire even greater significance. With respect to the intrahousehold distribution of domestic work, with the only exception of fuelwood collection, female members of all age groups perform most of the domestic work. Tending to fields, rearing animals, selling produce is all carried out by women in addition to housekeeping, fetching water and firewood, cooking, child care, and so on. Men and women contribute to the household livelihoods barring few areas like ploughing, land preparation, purchasing inputs from markets and sale of produce, in which men tend to take lead. However, the majority of the decisions relating to farming is taken by the men. This includes cultivation of type of crop, accessing credit, sale of the product, etc. However, in some cases, both women and men are involved in making collective decisions when it comes to the cultivation of crops.

Discussions with a Kutia Kondh tribal woman

 

Food habits and nutrition

In general, the community diet is primarily carbohydrate-rich – “Mandia pej” (Ragi gruel) with very little diversity, not incorporating other key nutrients like minerals, vitamins and proteins and antioxidants, and fiber. Overall, meals contain insufficient quantities of vegetables and pulses, and a lack of other foods like meat, fish, milk, and eggs. Most of the participants opined that they consume pulses on alternate days at most. Rice with salt and tamarind water/green chilies and minor millets are a major part of their food. Only a few households are able to afford pulses (Lentils) and vegetables. This is mainly due to a combination of factors like lack of affordability to buy nutritious food and low awareness on cheaper local sources of nutrition.

Old Woman threshing Jhudungo – Asparagus bean (Vigna unguiculata)

Cutting – Rice Bean (Pulse) – Vigna umbellata

 

Hidden hunger and starvation-like situations are endemic to Lanjigarh block, where the tribal communities are constantly living with a hunger for almost eight months in a year. As per a recent study, around 18% of respondent said that they were hungry but there was nothing to eat and the same percentage of people said that they spent the whole day without eating anything because there was not enough money to buy food, during some times in the last 6 months. This indicates that every sixth household is experiencing severe food insecurity and hunger.

Interactions with a Widow

 

Women (especially single women, widows), aged (old people without caregivers), infirm, People with Disability (PWDs), and children are the most vulnerable groups facing situations of extreme/chronic hunger and food insecurity for almost 5 months in a year. Some of the community coping mechanisms include – consuming less food and less variety of food types (cereals, pulses, vegetables, non-vegetarian items), taking loans from friends, relatives, money lenders, and informal sources or skipping meals during the night, distress migration in search of gainful employment, dependent of free food, food relief and cash benefits from Government and Voluntary Organizations.

Ushabahali village

 

The poorest households are availing the Re. 1 per kilo rice scheme throughout the year. and ensures a part of their household-level food security and survival, especially during the food scarce months. Rice from the Public Distribution System (PDS) is one of the important sources to ensure food security for all families having ration cards throughout the year. Dependency on the PDS ration and the Nutrition schemes becomes crucial for poor tribal households for almost 8 months in a year. As per one old tribal widow in Ushabahali village of Lanjigarh Block, she depends for over 8 months in a year on the One Rupee rice scheme run by the Government of Odisha. The rice quota received under the scheme is however inadequate for a household for the entire month. The ration gets finished within 20 days. The household faces situations of extreme hunger and crisis and reported that there were days during the food scare months when she was completely out of rations and went to bed hungry for 2 to 3 days in a month. Old age person, widow woman, disabled persons are provided social security pension of Rs 500 per month. Pensions are being delivered on the 15th of every month. However, still many eligible beneficiaries are excluded due to the fixed target approach for enrolling beneficiaries.

The Challenge that persists

Distress migration from the tribal hinterlands is on an increasing trend with limited gainful employment opportunities available for the poorest households at the village level. The access to Government development schemes and services is limited, especially for the tribal households in remote inaccessible villages. Migration is undertaken both on a personal level as well as through middlemen (Labour Contractors). The time for a migration is adjusted between the NTFP and the agricultural season. March to July is the peak season for NTFP that keeps workers engaged and helps them to earn their livelihood. June-July also is the time for agricultural activities and people find local labor work. Again in December, harvesting provides opportunities for labor followed once again by the NTFP season. Thus, the period from July-August to November-December remains the hardest period for the landless poor resulting in migration. Periods of drought increase the rate and frequency of migration. The Lockdown situation this year has further complicated matters with many emigrants unable to return to their native villages..

A look at the gender composition of the migrant streams suggests that migration is dominated by individual males. Sectors requiring a large number of manual labour, with low and sometimes no entry barriers, requiring no special skills, for instance, construction, head-loading, mining and Quarry, agriculture and service industry act as destinations. The majority of the migrants migrate to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana to work in brick kilns and to Kerala to work in stone crusher units, rubber and tea plantations. Remittances ranging between INR 3000 to INR 12000 are sent by migrant family members which are used for buying basic provisions by the family left behind. Women from the migrant households, with their revised gender roles, endure double the workload and suffer the regular loss of entitlements. It is a grim reality that migrant families’ access to Government welfare schemes and their relationship with the market, District Administration, and Gram Panchayat is compromised in absence of the male head of the household.

Maternal and Child health and nutrition services continue to remain a challenge for most tribal families. The major diseases in the study districts include Cold and Cough, Fever, Malaria, Scabies. Anemia rates are precariously high among adolescent girls and women (Over 68 % in Lanjigarh block). Most adolescent girls and women have a hemoglobin count between 8 g/dl to 10 g/dl making every single individual anemic. The rate of child malnourishment and incidence of anemia is enormous in Lanjigarh block with Underweight – 43.5, Stunting – 47.9, and Wasting – 20) and Nutritional Anaemia (<5 years – 74.3%, and pregnant women – 49.7%).

Overhead Tank (Solar)

Unused and dilapidated Toilets, Ushabahali village

 

Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) infrastructure and services are poor and next to nothing in most tribal settlements with households continuing to practice open defecation. Drinking water especially during the summer months is a problem in most tribal settlements due to the drying up of Tube wells.

Limited Infrastructure at Health sub-center, Pahadpadar village

 

Health seeking behavior of reference tribal communities is very low. Blind beliefs, superstition, trust in local Quacks and traditional healers, lack of awareness and prevention measures, poor economic conditions, and inadequate public transportation services, especially for the villages and hamlets situated in hard to reach areas are the main hindrances for availing Government healthcare facilities and services.

Weighing Machine (dysfunctional), Health sub-center, Pahadpadar village

 

For most of the tribal households, food and nutrition services and entitlements from the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) acts as a major supplementary source of food for infants aged 0–6 and pregnant women and lactating mothers. Take-Home Rations (THR) and eggs are supplied through ICDS. However, issues of regularity and access to PDS rice still remains a challenge in most far-flung and hard to reach villages in the tribal hinterlands.

Anganwadi Centre, Sindhibhata village

 

The tribal youth have limited education, skills, and resources to adapt to the fast-changing socio-economic, political, and environment of the nation. Looking forward, enormous resources and capacity development initiatives will be required to support local tribal communities and youth to keep pace with the world in a sustainable manner with conservation and management of their natural resources and rich cultural heritage and traditions.

Public investments need to be prioritized catering to the specific needs of women and children. For example, for promotion of mother and child nutrition, regular supply of eggs in the Mid Day Meals and ICDS, local nutritious foods, and Crèches for children for the age group of 0-3 years need to be supported from the public investments and other sources including CSR funds. Crèches should be self-sustainable. Participation and active engagement of local tribal communities in the entire development planning process will be crucial for the long-term sustainability of the developmental interventions in their villages and communities. The Anganwadi centers, at present, do not cater to this age group (0-3 years).

The Government has a plethora of developmental schemes and programs for the tribal communities. Voluntary Organizations, NGOs, and CSR Foundations are working in the district. However, there are challenges of governance issues, poor implementation, last mile connectivity etc., among other reasons for the limited success of these initiatives. It will be anybody’s guess how the tribal communities will adapt and survive in the new normal. Co-ordination between various agencies to synergize the effect of available resources and funds without duplication of efforts remains a challenge.

About the Author:

Dr. Ranjit K. Sahu is a Research professional and freelance writer with over a decade of experience in biomedical research, currently located in Virginia, USA. His interests include education, environment, sustainability and health care in the underprivileged regions of the world.

Ravi Shankar Behera is a freelance consultant in the development sector and affiliated to several organizations, currently based in New Delhi.

One Comment

  1. Sudir Shukla

    Very insightful

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