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A neglected lot

Print edition : Aug 27, 2004 T+T-
in Bhubaneswar

THE malnutrition-related deaths in Dongiriguda in Nawrangpur district of Orissa have brought to light the pathetic living conditions of lakhs of Adivasis inhabiting the forest villages in the backward regions of Orissa.

Being forest hamlets, which in the administrative jargon fall under the category of non-recognised villages, Dongiriguda and hundreds of other such settlements have not been included in the development map.

Orissa has the largest concentration of Adivasi population in the country - around seven million belonging to as many as 62 different tribes as per the 1991 Census. A vast majority of them, living inside the forests, are considered encroachers.

Successive governments in the State have failed to improve the economic conditions of Adivasis even though the 147-member-strong State Assembly has 33 seats reserved for them. The schemes aimed at improving their lot have remained on paper. Even their minimum needs are not met.

A top bureaucrat in Bhubaneswar was "careful" about divulging any official data on the number of forest settlements. Unofficial figures, however, put the number at 1,000. According to official figures, Nawrangpur district alone has 87 such non-recognised forest hamlets. Interestingly, Chief Minister and Biju Janata Dal president Naveen Patnaik holds the Forest portfolio.

There has been no concerted effort from the rising number of voluntary organisations to help Adivasis. The so-called `civil society leaders (representatives of prominent non-governmental organisations) make more trips abroad than to Adivasi villages. Although many NGOs are fighting for the land and livelihood rights of Adivasis, they have not achieved much success on the ground. Nawrangpur district alone has 1,769 registered NGOs, all claiming to work for the health and education of the poor.

The district administration of Nawrangpur was jolted out of its slumber when the Dongiriguda deaths were reported by a regional television channel. It soon started working full time. Bureaucrats heading the various Departments in Bhubaneswar wrote to the District Collectors directing them to ensure the availability of food, drinking water and healthcare in all forest villages. But they did not work out the logistics.

Except the voting right and some benefits under the Integrated Child Development Programme, the Adivasis have no other entitlements - no below poverty line (BPL) ration cards that entitle them to rice at a subsidised rate or dwelling units under the Indira Awas Yojana. A bellyful of food is the sole dream of Adivasis. Around 90 per cent of the Adivasi families practise shifting (jhum) cultivation.

Many of them starve during the critical monsoon months when their meagre food supplies run out. Forced to survive on mango kernel, wild mushroom, tubers and leaves, they often suffer from malnutrition-related diseases, malaria and food contamination. The absence of healthcare facilities makes the situation worse.

Owing to the neglect by the administration, this marginalised section of society suffers a deep feeling of alienation and deprivation. As a result the Adivasis move deeper into the forest, cutting more trees to convert dense patches into crop fields.

In fact, the Revenue Department continues to administer some forest lands and refuses to hand them over to the Forest Department for their scientific management. Leases continue to be given out of these forests, and nobody in fact knows how much of land has been diverted by the Revenue Department.

Adivasis are hounded by forest guards, the police and lower-level revenue officials, who file cases against them for felling trees and tilling government land. In fact, many of these Adivasis are not even aware that they are "encroachers" under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, or that their hamlets are inside protected areas or wildlife sanctuaries. In some areas, a full-fledged racket thrives with the forest guards encouraging Adivasis to fell trees.

The Orissa Forest Department does not fell any trees in its forests. The forest officials "seize" felled timber from encroachers or source it from private forests. Showing the fallen trees as seizures and the offender as absconding, the Department can show thousands of cubic feet of "recovered timber". Timber traders get hold of such prime timber when the Department auctions them. Besides, Adivasis are also engaged by the timber mafia for a pittance to fell trees.

The State government has applied to the Centre for the regularisation of 4,429.35 hectares to convert forest villages that existed before 1980 into revenue settlements. The Centre has not granted the necessary permission till date. The classification of pre-1980 forest hamlets and post-1980 ones also remains a big challenge before the respective district administrations. Adivasis, who have no proof of stay inside the jungle before 1980, are facing an uncertain future.