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A tribal community has its back to the wall

With livelihood sources in the forest dwindling, along with hopes of Constitutional benefits, the Paharia Community stares at a bleak future

Khajur and Ratni, a couple belonging to the Paharia-Kamar Tribe, now residing in Sanbaheli hamlet of Sunabeda Village in Odisha’s Nuapada District, were previously part of Khadang Village about 15 km away from Sanbaheli. “We, along with eleven other households, shifted to this village two years ago. It is a tradition in our community that when the number of households in a particular village crosses 12, some families shift to other locations,” says Khajur. He explains that the move is necessitated by the fact that villages with more households cannot be sustained by the resources in the surroundings. “Settling in another village in the sanctuary area however is not an easy task these days. First, the communities already in that place should allow us to come in, and the wildlife authorities should not oppose the move either,” says Ratni.

The Paharia are a food-gathering tribe living in Nuapada, Kalahandi, Nabarangpur and Bargarh districts of Odisha along the border of Chhattisgarh State. “We have been demanding tribal status for a long while, but both the state and the Centre have turned a deaf ear to our demand,” says Saubhagya Paharia of Bhainsadani Village, the only Paharia woman who is a matriculate. “The living standards of our people are precarious, our livelihood revolves around the forest. Our main occupation is bamboo basket weaving. We also collect flowers, fruits and tubers of various kinds to sustain ourselves,” she says.

The standards of both literacy and nutrition of the Paharia people are generally very low, and it continues to deteriorate in the absence of special Intervention,” says Indra Paharia of Bargaon, a primary school teacher and the only one from Paharia to get a government job. As a whole, the Paharia are landless, they don’t even have legal holdings of homesteads. Bamboo basket weaving fetches about Rs 500 per week. They also collect mahua fruits and flowers, char, anla, harida, etc from the forest for an income which sustains them for three to four months per year. Wild honey collection is another seasonal activity they are engaged with, and fetches them Rs 4000- 5000.

Paharia children of Khadang Village.

When Ratni and the other families decided to settle in the outskirts of Sanbaheli, they first identified areas in the forest from where they would draw their livelihood. “Mahulbhata, one of the forested areas near Sanbaheli, which is full of mahua trees, became one of the main sources of our livelihood. We stay there in temporary sheds for about two months for flower collection. This is followed by collection of char and anal,” explains Ratni. “But the collection does not maintain the same level every year, sometimes it fails. Char fruiting was not good last year, there was no flowering even, which would have helped bees to form hives,” she says.

Heading towards weekly market for selling baskets.

The honey is collected from hives made in the channels cut by rivers flowing downhill. “Some fall to depths of 50-80 feet. We collect the honey mostly at night. It’s very risky, but we don’t have a choice. We tie ourselves to trees at the top of the pagar (a sort of ravine) with ropes, and swing out to the hives. Some of our men have slipped and died while doing this,” says Khajur.

Khajur has not yet found a hive this year. “I am astonished by the inordinate delay in bee hive building. This is the first time in my memory that it has been so delayed,” he says. No char fruit collection and no bee hives means a big decline in the Paharias’ income, as there is no alternative source of earning. 

A Paharia village.

Denial of rights under the Forest Rights Act by the district administration is another hurdle to the security of the Paharias’ livelihood. The Choktia Bhunjia Community living in Sunabeda Region recognises that the Paharias are the original inhabitants of Sunabeda plateau and that they should be accorded individual and community forest rights at least as traditional forest dwellers. Bijaya Jhankar, a leader of the Choktia Bhunjia Community, says, “The Paharias are our brothers according to our folktales. Our chief deity Sunadei’s husband Padhan Deo appeared before them, when they were digging tubers, and wanted to be worshipped. The Paharias were nomadic by nature, totally depending on the forest for livelihood, so they came to us and asked us to worship Padhan Deo and Sunadei. We have been worshipping the deities since then. This shows that they are with us since time immemorial. We don’t understand why the administration is not recognizing Paharias as traditional dwellers of this area.”

“The Tribal Welfare Department of Odisha issued a gazette notification in 2008 declaring that the Paharias would be provided all benefits of development schemes at par with the STs of Odisha. Then why not grant them the forest rights under FRA?”asks Sanjay Tiwari, a social activist.

Lack of special efforts for the development of the Paharia Community has resulted in their marginalisation. The Tribes Advisory Council, Odisha, under the chairmanship of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, recommended that the Paharia-Kamar Tribe be given Scheduled Tribe status, but the issue has been pending for over 18 years. A task force formed in February 2014 during the Congress rule, headed by the then secretary of MOTA, Hrushikesh Panda, had also recommended the inclusion of the Paharia in the list of STs in Odisha on a priority basis. But the recommendation was not taken into consideration by the BJP when it came to power. “We are helpless people; we cannot force the government, neither the state nor Centre, to accept our demand. Let fate decide our future,” says Saubhagya. 

(Ajit Panda, reporting from Nuapada District, Odisha.)