Unlike most farmers in Chhattisgarh, those in Bankesma village in the state's Surguja district are not complaining about the lack of adequate minimum support price (MSP) for their crops, or about the non-payment of bonuses worth Rs 300 per quintal — both of which were poll promises made by the Raman Singh government before the 2013 Assembly election.
Farmers in Bankesma belong to the Pahadi Korwa tribe, which is part of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. Around 40 families of the tribe live in isolated settlements in the forest surrounding the village, and they still depend on traditional means of livelihood, such as a technique of agriculture called "jhoonga".
With "jhoonga kheti", each family of the community is able to grow around 20 kilogrammes of various types of lentils, which is just enough for their own consumption until the next season. However, with increasingly uncertain patterns of rainfall over the last decade and the complete absence of facilities like irrigation and electricity, few members of the tribe are sticking with their ancestral form of agriculture.
Gangaram Teke, an activist who has been working for the complete implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in the region, says the Chhattisgarh government's push for the community to diversify into growing hybrid crops like potato and tomato adds to the strains of the Pahadi Korwa tribe's delicate system.
"The government is trying to work for the benefit of the Pahadi Korwas, but the reality of its efforts on ground is quite different," he says.
"Replacing local seeds that grow fast and require less water with hybrid seeds that need the technology and facilities like irrigation, which are unavailable in the area, has the farmers entangled in techniques of agriculture they don't understand."
A crucial element for the survival of the Pahadi Korwas is the right to their habitat as prescribed by the FRA, Teke adds.
According to a Down to Earth report, "Habitat rights go beyond the individual and community rights conferred under the Act. They aim to protect not just the land rights and livelihoods of the people living in forests, but encompass their whole culture and way of life. These are composite rights over larger landscapes covering multiple villages that recognise territories used by vulnerable tribes and pre-agricultural communities for habitations, livelihoods, social, spiritual, cultural and other purposes."
However, very few states have implemented this section of the FRA, and Chhattisgarh is no exception. "The government needs to understand the inherent culture of the tribe and what they need for true development," Teke says.
However, the Pahadi Korwas survive on the crop they grow and by selling everyday items they make themselves, such as "supas", which are rice cleaners made of bamboo.
Budhiram, a 50-year-old farmer, sits in the verandah of his house as he makes another rice cleaner, the whole bunch of which he will sell to the residents of Bankesma later. He continues to practice jhoonga farming and says he had learnt the technique by observing the adults around him.
"Jhoonga kheti used to involve trimming medium-sized trees in the forest to act as support for the lentil crop. But since the Forest Department restricted the practice a few years ago, we have compromised by using shrubs and bushes around farmlands instead of the forest's trees," Budhiram explains.
Kumarsai, another farmer, clarifies that initially, the trimmed wood was burnt in the forest, but now they collect it for their homes. "Most of the time, we don't use fertilisers or any tools to till the land for jhoonga kheti. We keep it as natural as possible," he adds.
In recent years, the lentil crop yield has significantly reduced due to inadequate water supply. "In the past three years, we got a yield of only 10 to 15 kilogrammes. It used to be a yield of at least 30 kilogrammes in a year with good rainfall," Budhiram says.
Now, the farmers say they try to use water from the village's borewells to harvest just enough of the crop for them to eat. "Sometimes, we still have to buy rice and lentils from the market, which costs around Rs 200 every week," says Bhobnibai, a 45-year-old farmer, adding that each family also saves a kilogramme worth of seeds to sow in the next season.
The tribe supplements their income by selling the meticulously made rice cleaners at around Rs 100 each. In a month, a family might earn Rs 1,500 from the business after factoring in the cost of buying the raw material for the product.
In such a scenario, using the hybrid seeds for agriculture becomes difficult for the farmers. "Last year, the government provided hybrid seeds, but the monsoon season had passed by then and we couldn't use them. This year, we haven't received any," Bhobnibai says.
She adds, "That kind of agriculture is useless for us. We neither have adequate water supply, nor can we afford to invest in the costs involved. Even though the administration said it would provide irrigation facilities from the Siwarma Canal two years ago, work on the project has not progressed."
Another roadblock stopping the Pahadi Korwa farmers from receiving such facilities is the Chhattisgarh Forest Department, which has issued notices against such construction that could damage the forest's ecology.
In 2017, sitting Congress MLA from the Ambikapur constituency, TS Singh Deo, had visited the settlement and surveyed the area for the proposed irrigation project, which also included the construction of a road to access the area around the settlement through the forest.
"We had accompanied Deo on the survey, but the Forest Department didn't allow the project to progress. We would have also been able to cultivate our crops without much risk to the environment had the administration provided a few borewells in our area," Budhiram says.
The tribe says that their traditional form of agriculture is important to ensure their own sustenance. Kumarsai says, "Jhoonga kheti is what helps us survive, working in tandem with the forest."
Voting for the 14 Assembly seats from Surguja district was held on Tuesday. The first phase of the Chhattisgarh elections was held in 18 constituencies on 12 November, while the remaining 72 constituencies went to the polls on Tuesday.
Both the ruling the BJP and the Opposition Congress fielded royal descendants in at least four of the 14 seats in Surguja, hoping to sway the votes based on the influence the royal family has in the area.
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Updated Date: Nov 21, 2018 12:39:01 IST