Nearly half of Kanker, a district in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar division, is under forest cover. According to official data, 47 percent of the land is taken up by forests, a resource that is vitally important to the tribal communities, which depend on non-timber forest produce (NTFP) to supplement their income from agriculture.
In the district’s Antagarh block, which is also a reserved Assembly seat for Scheduled Tribes in poll-bound Chhattisgarh, farmers collect an abundance of imli (tamarind) and sal seeds during the non-agriculture season. They sell the produce to middlemen or contractors in bazaars for a rate that is decided by the buyers.
“The government does offer minimum support price (MSP) on forest products, but it is almost always less than what the contractors offer,” said Malti Kunjam, president of the Kankalin women’s self-help group (SHG) in Koliary village of the Amabeda panchayat. “So even though they exploit us by not giving a price that matches the effort involved in the collection process, we have no choice but to sell it to them.”
“Why shouldn’t we sell to a buyer offering a higher price?” she asks.
Arvind Netam, former Union minister and senior tribal rights activist said: “One of the main economies of the tribal areas is forest produce, but the traders — and not the government — are dominant in deciding the pricing. That is unfortunate.”
For 2018, the Chhattisgarh government had set the MSP for tamarind at Rs 18 and sal seeds at Rs 12, whereas contractors offer two or three rupees more on each.
Female farmers usually collect forest produce, and it is a major activity for at least six months in a year.
In her home in Koliary, Kunjam sits beside sacks of tamarind worth Rs 26,000. The product has been bought in bulk by the SHG from local villagers. In May, under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), the district administration had promised the group a food processing machine to make tamarind pickle.
“Block officials had come to our village and said they would conduct a training session to teach us to make imli pickle and also provide a food processing machine. They had said they would take the pickle to Raipur, accompanied by one of our SHG members, and sell it and give us the profit,” said the group’s 40-year-old secretary, Kaneshwari Salam.
Six months later, there is still no sign of the machine or of a training session. The perishable product is now packed in air-tight polythene bags in Kunjam’s storeroom. Salam said: “They gave us an unwritten statement that the block administration would take responsibility for the loss if the stock gets spoilt. We have no way of contacting the officials other than a phone number that is not in use, and we haven’t gone to the block office because we have been busy on the farm during the Kharif season”
The female farmers of the Amabeda panchayat are not surprised by the government’s no-show. They are disillusioned by the Raman Singh-led administration and believe that it has not worked in the interest of farmers.
Kamla Shukla, secretary of the SHG in Gedgaon village and member of a tribal rights’ forum, said, “The BJP has been campaigning a lot, but I have not heard any tribal or farmers’ issues being spoken about. They mostly talk about vikas (development) in general.”
“In my opinion, people should assert their democratic power in changing the government, then all the parties will take their policies regarding tribal rights more seriously.”
Sukaya Kashyap, 46, has been working with an NGO in the tribal-dominated block for the past 15 years. “Farmers and the tribal community in general in this area are not happy with the government. Even though people living in the interiors are not as aware about schemes, benefits and their rights, they have started to understand that promises made by the government have not materialised.
She said that people in the Antagarh block were angry about demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST). “People affected by note bandi (demonetisation) will not vote the current government back to power. Owners of small businesses, who have been affected by the implementation of GST, have also said they will not vote for the BJP,” Kashyap added.
Shukla says that in villages in the Amabeda panchayat, people have been threatened with consequences, including the cancellation of their ration, cards if they don’t vote for the BJP. “People have not been informed about government schemes and how they work. In some villages, they have been told by some BJP workers that their ration cards will get cancelled if the party doesn’t form the government again,” she claimed.
“The tribal people don’t know that a Public Distribution System is a system mandated by law under the National Food Security Act, 2013,” she pointed out.
However, Urmilla Netam, 40, a farmer of Gedgaon village, said she will vote based on the choice the village makes together. This practice has been an issue for social workers across districts.
Sunita Kunjam, a social worker, said that sometimes, the tribal community follows a “herd mentality” when it comes to casting their vote. “The people either vote according to who the leader of the village votes for, or they vote based on which party is already in power. A lot of people also don’t know about or understand the concept of NOTA (none of the above),” she explained.
The BJP has fielded Vikram Usendi, who is currently an MP, for the Antagarh Assembly seat against the Congress party’s Anoop Nag, who is a former police officer. The Aam Aadmi Party, one of the first national parties to release their manifesto before the first phase of the Chhattisgarh elections 12 November, is expected to make a dent in the vote shares of both the BJP and Congress for this seat.
Chhattisgarh is scheduled to go to the polls in two phases. The first phase of the elections will take place in 18 constituencies in the state’s tribal-dominated southern districts, including Kanker.
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Updated Date: Nov 11, 2018 23:34:47 IST