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A village waits in suspense while govt mulls policy issues

Budhuram and Dulani have been living in synchrony with nature all their lives. They cultivate crops and rear cattle, and see themselves as self-sufficient. But the nature of their life is under threat, because documentation for their landholdings is uncertain

Budhuram relaxes against the wall at home. Photos: AP

Budhuram and Dulani have a farm about a kilometre from Kathfar Village near the Patdarha Reserved Forest about 3000 ft above sea level, in Boden Block of Nuapada District in Odisha.

Kathfar Village is situated in the southern end of the Sunabeda plateau (Sunabeda Wildlife Sanctuary), which the Odisha government proposes to notify as a tiger reserve. All formalities were completed by the Centre in 2008. 

“Most of the land I cultivate belong to the Wildlife Department according to their records, although I have inherited it from my forefathers,” says sixty-two-year-old Budhuram. “I have applied for FRA patta (entitlement) for five acres, and the application is pending with the government.”

In land legally belonging to the Wildlife Department, initiation of any infrastructure development project such as construction and improvement of roads and water bodies, or electrification, requires clearance from the Environment and Forest Departments, which is not easy. The Wildlife Department has even halted ongoing projects in the past. The local people have also been prevented from collecting kendu leaves, which was a good source of income for them. “We lack facilities for irrigation, communication and health, but we have learnt to manage without these,” say the villagers.

Meanwhile, Budhuram and Dulani go about their lives as usual. Dulani cleans out the cattle shed, and the cow dung and urine are collected in a pit. After sweeping the house and yard and doing the washing, she fetches water from the nearby stream. Then she attends to agricultural work. When we met her, it was August, and she had plenty to do in the fields, including weeding and loosening the soil around the vegetable plants.

While Dulani is thus engaged, Budhuram does the milking and then takes his cattle, goats and sheep to graze. The couple has a two-roomed mud house. The couple has five sons, a daughter-in-law and a grandchild. “We manage with whatever we produce from the land and collect from the forest,” says Budhuram. Throughout the conversation, the couple did not admit to any problem in managing the family of nine solely with the yield from the farm and what the forest provides.

“Things are fine,” avers Budhuram. “If we say we have shortage of food, it would be like blaming the earth.” “How will Mother Earth provide food, if you do not become a part of it?” chips in Dulani. Since there is no provision for irrigation, Budhuram and Dulani rely completely on a good monsoon for a good crop. They plant rice during the kharif season on the low-lying fields which retain rain water. The upland areas are used for cultivating various pulses, oilseeds and two varieties of rice. And the land in front of the house known as bari is for vegetables and maize. Sometimes, the crops fail. Last year, for instance, the mung crop failed to yield even a single seed, because of the cold weather.

Asked what they would do if the Wildlife Department forced them to leave the village, Budhuram admits it would be painful. “They do not understand how our lives are inseparable from Nature. Everything here – the soil, water, trees, animals, birds and insects – helps each other to exist,” he says. “I am not afraid of wild animals. They roam around here but never do me any harm.”

For the past two years, elephants have been a serious threat. “I was in my farmhouse alone, when a herd of 22 elephants arrived at about 9 pm. They stood about a hundred meters away from my house. Initially, I trembled with fear thinking that they would trample me and my thatched house in seconds. I gathered courage and went to the backyard and prayed to those big mammals standing a few yards from me. They saw me, and might have felt I was not a threat, so they started eating the paddy crop and left after an hour,” Budhuram says. 

On the following morning, Budhuram saw that his main paddy field, about half-an-acre in area, which yielded about a tonne of paddy every year, had been destroyed. “I did not cultivate that land the following year, as I was sure that the paddy seeds which were trampled into the ground by the elephants would germinate. And sure enough, the seeds sprouted at the first fall of rain. I took care of that field, did the weeding, and got 20 bags (one MT) without any investment,” he added.

Budhuram’s farmhouse has one big kitchen, a bedroom-cum-seed store and a veranda, one structure in the backyard for storing hay, and one cattle shed with a thatched roof. He has 50 heads of cattle including three pairs of bullocks and one pair of buffalos. He also has seven goats. Despite the fact that he lost nine goats over the last two years to wild animals, he isn’t giving up on goat rearing.

Budhuram does not use farm machinery, chemical fertilisers or pesticides. He does everything with the help of bullocks and human labour. “We get about 40 bags of paddy and sufficient pulses, millets, vegetables and oilseeds for our needs,” says Dulani.

However, they face two problems of recent origin. “We get heavy rain during the flowering of paddy. The rainfall plus the heavy runoff in the paddy field due to undulating terrain destroys the flowers,” says Dulani. This year, the family cultivated three indigenous varieties of paddy – Huna, Hira and Asamchudi – as well as some high-yielding varieties (HYV) like Puja and Bhuban. “These HYVs are not productive anymore, so I have decided to replace those next year. I always try to cultivate local varieties but I was persuaded to try Puja and Bhuban. For the first two years we got good returns but the yield gradually declined,” Budhuram explains.

They had a good maize crop this year, which they used for their own needs, and distributed amongst relatives. The 20 banana plants bear fruit all through the year. Budhuram gifts bananas to relatives during festivals and marriages. Two chilli plants supply the family’s needs.

“Preserving seeds is Dulani’s responsibility,” says Budhuram “She draws the required amount of seeds from the yield immediately after threshing and stores those separately.” The family hopes they will be allowed to remain on their traditional land even after the area is declared a tiger reserve.

May 2022