Western Odisha has been experiencing one of the severest drought conditions in the last 100 years. It has severely paralyzed the already poor people of western Odisha especially in Bolangir district – the second most backward district of the Country. The district is one of the most drought-prone regions of India. The landless agriculture workers and marginal farmers are the worst affected in a drought situation. The latter resort to distress mortgaging or selling of their little, yet precious land (also other household articles) to none other than big farmers who are also the labour contractors, and migrate along with their families to far off places in search of wage employment. Thus, drought causes economic, social, psychological and political misery to the poor. Agriculture continues to remain the primary source of livelihood in the district. But since agriculture is dependent on the vagaries of rainfall and irrigation facilities are inadequate, it leads to crop loss resulting in large scale unemployment and distress migration.
Nevertheless, communities in Bolangir have also demonstrated that a system of sharing benefits of the harvest with the village community is a viable alternative to meet growing threat of food insecurity fuelled by natural calamities like drought.
Starvation and hunger no longer stalk the cluster of 20 villages, about 150 km away from Bolangir town. At a time when recurring drought has brought acute misery and suffering for many in the district, families in and around,the Sundhimunda village have built a food insurance system that keeps sure hunger and death at bay. That the food security system has successfully withstood varying degrees of natural calamities and has, in fact, grown and multiplied clearly demonstrates its social relevance and effectiveness. The traditional food security system is popularly known as grain banks from where – a person/villager in need can take grain loans at the time of need and can return in easy installments. The main objective behind setting grain banks is establishing a system where food is available to poorest families in distress.
Before creation of the grain and seed banks or the Sashya panthi, people lived in dire poverty and semi starvation situation. And they were pauperized by money lenders. They were bound to take loan in the form of paddy or money from money lenders by mortgaging land pattas, ornaments and other assets at 100% interest rate. They had to return double the amount of either money or paddy due to high interest rate. Many times, people ended up losing their security.
It all began in 1990-91 when a CBO namely AJSA (Anchalika Jana Seva Anusthan) was looking for a permanent solution to mitigate the problems arising out of non-availability of food grains, especially at times of distress. They appealed to fellow villagers to donate surplus paddy and rice after the harvest to build a grain reserve of 22 quintals of paddy. A total of 150 families – mostly marginal farmers – from eight villages responded to the call and the village grain bank was formed under the leadership of SHG members and AJSA.
The grain bank became a pivot of food security. Farmers have since then deposited their surplus produce with the bank after each paddy harvest. They withdraw an equal quantity of paddy at the time of need without having to pay interest. Others who were landless or did not have any surplus for the grain bank borrowed paddy at the time of distress. But at the time of harvest, the grains borrowed had to be returned with half a bucket of paddy as interest. For those who could not repay the food grain loan, the Village Development Committee (VDC) which record the details decided whether the loan can be waived or not.
For the villagers, the grain bank was a relief from the clutches of money-lenders. The stock in the grain banks provided food security for a period of two to four months in years of crop failure. During drought period, villagers took loan from their own grain banks at 25% interest rate and returned after harvesting.
Sometimes, depending upon the immediate requirement of the participating villages, the beneficiaries were asked to contribute by way of human labour. In village Batharla, a community temple and a grain store house was constructed by the beneficiaries. Their wages were paid in kind from the interest (surplus grain) that had built up over the years. A traditional water harvesting tank was rejuvenated in Banjupadhar village for which the community distributed 16 quintals of paddy as wages. The grain bank was utilised for ‘Food for Work’ programmes depending upon the need of the village community. Along with grains, people also stored indigenous seeds.
In five years, the grain bank grew in size and volume. In 1996, the society received and disbursed 220 quintals of paddy. A year later, in 1997, it got back 253 quintals. In all, the number of people donating to the grain bank had grown by almost ten times, with a thousand families depositing paddy. The number of beneficiaries too increased over the years reaching 1,066 families in two years, in the 20 participating villages. These families had perfected a social model that gave them freedom from hunger. Due to the grain banks, the consequent food insecurity and starvation death was minimized in the area. It played the role of draught proofing fund which greatly supported small and marginal farmers in their cultivation. As of 2014 844 quintals of grain has been stored in the grain banks.
The effort of AJSA and community leaders was cited in “Planning Commission’s Reports and Human Development” Reports of Govt. of India.
Creation of Community Forestry – AJSA has also been promoting social forestry because it supports sustainable livelihood and recognizes the rights of individuals to forest resources. It motivated communities to collectively manage their social forestry plantations. These activities raised the income of the community. The community-management and sharing of benefits developed community unity. As of 2015 ,about 42 village level Forest Protection Committees (FPCs) covering and protecting around 5020 hectares of forest in Bongomunda block of Bolangir district. Each family contributes some amount of food grain every month to meet the expense of protection work. These strategies not only raise community income, but also increase the sense of community ownership of resources through cooperative management of land. Villagers guard the nearby patches with lathis to ensure that the ecosystem is protected. Now women are taking active part in forest protection, by making groups in villages like batharla, Barkani, Kurlubhata.
Women Leaders are leading role in forest protection activities
A Forest Protection Committee member sharing their success story
Despite its huge impact, lack of storage facility for the grains is still an issue for hundreds of villagers who are bound to sell their surplus grain every year. Besides, the grain bank houses are not safe from rain water, rats, insects because houses are made of of mud and soil. So, some grains and seeds get wasted and become unsafe due to excessive rains.
It is critical to tackle the causes of poverty, hunger, inequitable distribution of income and low human resource base to build community resilience for disasters, especially drought. Food security and hunger are directly linked to the community’s control over natural resources and also on long-term sustainability of the resource base.