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Food Insecurity among Tribal Communities of Orissa

Rayagada district in Orissa suffers periodic outbreaks of disease brought on by food scarcity, unemployment and lack of healthcare services. The tribals lack the "voice" to demand accountability from policymakers and service delivery from other agencies.


“accountability” in service delivery of the

Food Insecurity among Tribal

many different schemes being executed to ensure food security by policymakers, Communities of Orissa elected representatives, state and grassroots bodies and NGOs. Do the communities or civic groups convey their “voice” to Manipadma Jena elected policymakers, government execu-

Rayagada district in Orissa suffers periodic outbreaks of disease brought on by food scarcity, unemployment and lack of healthcare services. The tribals lack the “voice” to demand accountability from policymakers and service delivery from other agencies.

This report has been made possible through financial support from German Agro Action and the European Union.

Manipadma Jena (manipadma_jena@yahoo. is a journalist based in Bhubaneswar.

ealth authorities in the south Orissa district of Rayagada admitted that 6,000 patients of cho lera and gastro-enteritis were treated from the Kashipur block alone in August this year. The state government blamed the outbreak on the consumption of contaminated meat and water from stagnant pools.

Various independent fact-finding teams however found that the cholera epidemic that swept the flood hit tribal hinterlands in Orissa was not a health and sanitation issue alone. The Centre for Environment and Food Security, New Delhi and Sanhati, a federation of 65 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) found that the disaster was mainly due to lack of employment, healthcare services and basic amenities coupled with a corrupt administration.

This is not the first time that Orissa’s administration has been on the defensive over Rayagada’s endemic food insecurity situation. Earlier there were the “starvation deaths” in 2001 followed by the Supreme Court’s intervention on the right to food. Lack of food and nutritional security has been at the centre of severe gastro-enteritis and diarrhoea outbreaks and deaths among tribal communities in the state since long, so much so that the substitute “foods” during the scarcity monsoon seasons are accepted as part of the indigenous people’s culture.

Absence of Community ‘Voice’

“Voice” is about poor people expressing their interests in an effort to influence government priorities. Accountability exi sts when those who frame and implement a society’s rules are answerable to the people who live under those rules. Enhancing voice and accountability could lead to a reduction in poverty, greater ownership and pro-poor policies.

This report sought to find out from the affected district, with specific regard to food security, the existence of communities’ “voices”, that may be seeking to ensure tives, NGO functionaries; which methods have been tapped; who have been the conduits of community voice – women’s collectives, village level grain bank groups, village panchayats; how often have the accountability organisations themselves, sincerely, facilitated expression of community voice?

Voice of the Gram Panchayat

The gram panchayat is meant and best

equipped to act as the voice of the tribal

people. The gram sabhas in tribal areas

should, according to the Panchayats

Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA),

be approving schemes, programmes and

projects for social, nutritional and

economic development prior to these

being taken up for implementation by the

panchayat at the village level. “In reality,

all of these programmes are decided by

the central and state governments. The

gram sabha only has the power to select

the beneficiaries, and approve the village

committee leader in whose name the

village works will be sanctioned. Here too,

anti-socials and local political goons play

the decisive role. The beneficiaries are

decided in the panchayat office, regard

less of gram sabha decisions, depending

on the commissions paid”, says social

activist Achyut Das in his book Govern

ance in Tribal Areas: Myths and Truths.

Other practices too render the gram

sabhas practically irrelevant and powerless.

Social activist Badal Tah says that in

Rayagada gram sabhas are almost never

held on the due date. This is deliberate so

that a second gram sabha can be organi sed

without proper information and the deci

sions are passed by the proxy provisions.

The sarpanch’s signature is taken as a mere

technicality or sometimes even demanded.

While the one-third reservation of

panchayat seats for women evidently has

contributed little to truly empower the

tribal women of Rayagada, they are

getting relatively more empowered as

collectives, and are proving to be effective

february 9, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


as catalysts of change if not so much as community voice agents. But that could well be the next progressive step for them.

Slow but promising and visible positive changes are taking place, albeit in pockets as of now. This undercurrent of change has completely transformed the status of the 54-family strong Kondh tribal community of Badahansa in Jamadeipentha gram panchayat. Today, the anganwadi centre (AWC) tells the story of the trans formation.

The concept of community-based nutritional status analysis has been introduced in the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). Wall charts use colour coding to grade the child – red indicates severe malnutrition, yellow moderate malnourishment and green normal. The charts stating the health status of each child are prominently displayed at the AWCs, aimed at encouraging mothers into improving the status of their children through better childcare practices and by improving service utilisation and demand side of delivery too.

Despite such governmental efforts, lack of community involvement in the functioning of AWCs is to be seen in most communities; not so in Badahansa, women not only actively monitor the general functioning of their AWC, and the nutrition status chart but reiterate their ownership by contributing eggs and cereals to the centre, over and above the ready mix food supplied by the government.

Rayagada is in the high and very high – 25 to 31.4 per cent – prevalence zones of malnutrition for the zero-three years age group, the state average being 19 per cent (Annual Activity Report 2006-07 – women and child development department, government of Orissa). Jambubati Pradhan, an anganwadi worker in Badahansa proudly explains the community weight growth chart on the wall marked with just two reds and two yellows while the remaining 51 children in the zero-five age group crowd the green or normal-weight zone.

In June this year, the women’s self-help group (SHG) Mahalaxmi Mahila Mandal earned Rs 60,000 by selling ‘tenki’ or teak saplings, all of which is earning bank interest for them. In the two post-sowing months each of them has additionally earned Rs 1,500 as wages to water, weed

Economic & Political Weekly

february 9, 2008

and manure the seedling beds. A bonus too came their way – the local forest guards (the SHG has tied up with the state forest department and world food programme in this forestry project) gifted them seven wild hens, which ended up in their cooking pots.

Empowering Women Helps

It is seen that when women earn better, the household spends more on food and health needs. Meleka Daiamma, 50, says “we buy eggs, have beef (the Kondh tribe are beef eaters) and pig meat when we earn.” “We add goats to our herd” adds Kadraka Tulasi, the SHG’s president. They can afford to spare a portion of the beans, gourds and greens that grows in their kitchen garden for the village school’s midday meal. Their school going children do not get to eat just the government supplied lentil with rice as other school children but vegetables too. When the millet produce is exhausted, the women have the money to buy rice and even vegetables for their families. Another indicator of improved well-being in Badahansa owing to the increased earning of the women is that from the 54 households only two elderly persons are listed for the government’s emergency feeding scheme at the anganwadi centre.

The census recorded that out of 2,462 inhabited villages in Rayagada, 2,371 had facilities for safe drinking water. More have been added in the seven years thereafter; despite this, the cholera epidemic was blamed partly on defunct bore wells by the health authorities and the communities’ risk habits of using natural water bodies for drinking purposes since the ablutions at the head of hill streams carry the infection downstream.

In Badahansa too, the two bore wells nearby lie defunct, but the women have a better sense of sanitation. They take the trouble and time to fetch drinking water from the distant third bore well. Malaria, fever and scabies are prevalent but not malnutrition (quality of drinking water being one of its components) and this is reflected on the AWC chart.

In another village in Kashipur block, the Ma Manikeshwari Mahila Mandal has taken it upon itself to supply rice, lentil and eggs to the Kumbharasila upper primary school where 120 children from surrounding villages study. When the government’s mid-day meal supply is delayed, rice is bought from their own funds so that the children do not miss out on school meals. Though this SHG does not cook the meals, they head-count everyday, measure out cooking quantities and supervise the food distribution every single day all without any financial expectation.

In July 2006 after three days of torrential rain, Majhi Bani’s mud hut on the hill slopes of Bandhaguda village in Kolnara block crumbled to the ground due to a swollen underground hill stream, a disaster unheard of before. Majhi’s mother, blind from cataract and his three minor children were evacuated to their neighbour Kondagari Vendi’s home for an entire month till the house-building assistance of Rs 800 was made available. Kondagari is a daily wage labourer and cannot feed four extra mouths. She used the community contingency fund (CCF) that the 43 households had created in 2005 through the 20 member SHG, to feed Majhi’s family.

Food assistance is most essential to mitigate disaster-induced food shortages, either of small groups or an entire village and women’s collectives are increasingly gearing up to provide this emergency food security (when Rs 5 proves high, they contribute as little as Rs 2 every month to the CCFs).

Grain Banks

Community grain banks are the older forms of community preparedness and long-term empowerment to tackle food insecurity in Rayagada, since the 1980s. Household contributions of a handful of grain or more during harvest season not only help provide during the scarcity season but counters local moneylenders perpetuating the poverty cycle by extracting 200 to 400 per cent of the actual loan from the farmers’ harvest. Grain banks hold the

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potential for an effective community voice and have produced a few individual voice agents, but not enough.

Already on shaky ground, after the 2001 “starvation deaths” in Kashipur the government set up grain bank infrastructure on a priority basis in remote areas. During our visit in November 2007, we found that community grain banks are again breaking down due to widespread default of grain loans.

There are other reasons too. The growing number of women’s SHGs for whom the “security” of grain banks is now replaced by hard cash in the bank, is one. Secondly, women were managing the grain banks. As they shifted to SHG income generation activities the local youth took over management of the grain banks but did not do as well. Thirdly, the public distribution system (PDS) has improved (as a result of the repeated news of starvation deaths in the region; the Supreme Court’s stricture about right to food and of course the political backlash) though lacunae in its delivery are still not negligible. The withdrawal of the NGOs from the grain bank schemes is yet another factor for the decline.

The disintegration of grain banks, which strengthened social cohesion too, does not bode well for the voice mechanism among disadvantaged communities. From the food security perspective, the disintegration of grain banks certainly is a concern for remote and isolated settlements which remain cut-off during monsoons.

Dimensions of the District

While the above cases of community empowerment and emergence of change agents may appear too little and too tardy, a background to the ground situation will help better appreciate the positive changes, however seemingly small at present.

Rayagada district is one of the most disadvantaged in the country; 55.76 per cent of its people belong to the scheduled tribes (ST) and 13.92 per cent to scheduled castes (SC). The overall literacy rate is 36.15 per cent but educational level of more than half of this population is at the primary to below primary level (Census 2001); literacy rate for ST men and women is 17.73 per cent and 3.4 per cent respectively according to census 1991. Of the total 2,467 villages only 733 are electrified; 53.7 per cent of the families live in temporary houses while 25.9 per cent live in semi-permanent ones and only 20.5 per cent have permanent houses. Of the total geographical area, total sown area is 21.4 per cent. The laterite soil for most parts makes for low yields. Per capita landholding is 1.5 hectares while per capita grain output is 124 kgs per annum. (Census of India 2001 and (UNDP) Human Development Report 2004: Orissa)

Food Source and Situation

The Rayagada tribes’ staple food is a gruel prepared from ragi or finger millet locally called ‘mandia’ which contains iron, calcium and protein offering richer nutritional value than rice. Flavoured with a pinch of salt and a handful of rice or maize corn thrown in, the rather flat tasting gruel is taken for breakfast, lunch and in the absence of rice, for dinner too, without variation; it is the first solid food for babies too.

At Bilamala, the “model” village adopted by Utkal Alumina, Mana Majhi, 40, jointly with his four brothers own 15 acres. They get between 120 to 160 kgs of millet and the same quantity of rice again in the second cropping. Selling a portion to cover cash expenses, the rest lasts them for four months. On an average tribal families have vegetables thrice and lentils twice a month when they have cash to buy these. They grow a local bean variety of which a part is sold and the rest consumed. In monsoons the women may pick the wild ‘gurundi’ leafy greens. Mana has to work for daily wages. Compared to others, Mana Majhi is still better off.

His National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) job card issued in August 2007 shows no job entry yet. Many like Mana Majhi want the scheme withdrawn as the benefits were not percolating to the community, but no united protest has taken shape. Their main sources of income are agriculture, collection of forest produce and occasional wage labour. From such income source a family of five members can, at best, survive for six months. By mid-monsoons the millet and rice produce have been consumed. Wage labour is hard to come by. In the interiors they have to traverse miles of treacherous hill slopes to the PDS outlets for their quota of rice

and kerosene, often to return empty

handed if they have no cash to purchase

even the subsidised grain. In any case, the

25 kgs of rice lasts no more than five to

seven days. Moneylenders and festivals

have emptied their meagre cash kitty. Ma

laria is virulent, sapping their immunity

and diarrhoea lays them to further waste

and even death, a death that is often rep

resented as “starvation death”.

Gruel prepared from the mango kernel

and tamarind seeds are their only food

option now. This has been dried and

preserved for needy times of the year. The

hard shell of the mango kernel is cracked

and removed and the seeds are collected

in a sieve to be put overnight in the hill

stream to reduce their bitter tang. It is

then pounded and gruel prepared which

the family partakes for all meals. The

mango kernel mix is also prepared with

salt or jaggery like a pancake or

sandwiched between ‘siali’ leaves and

cooked on dying embers.

The stream water contaminates and

spreads the fungus from months of dank

storage. The gruel is kept and taken for

two days. Tamarind seeds too are made

into gruel. Both seeds being difficult to

digest, overeating leads to diarrhoea and

left untreated may turn fatal. A large

number do not resort to any treatment for

diarrhoea. Most will consult the ‘dasari’ or

traditional doctor first, who stays virtually

next door and who may prescribe a herbal

remedy. Only afterwards will they

approach the auxiliary nurse midwife or

anganwadi worker if they reside in the

village which may not always be the case.

When the illness is too far gone, as a last

resort they carry the patient to the nearest

primary health centre. But the health

official may be absent (Rayagada has 13

doctors, 27 beds per one lakh population

– census 2001) and they have to return the same way, paying for the human carriers and losing wages for the day, both of which they can ill afford.

Cause of Malnutrition

John Oommen of Christian Hospital at Bissam Cuttack block in Rayagada says that recurrent malaria and diarrhoea play an significant role in malnutrition in tribal areas. A 50-village survey of blood tests of 0-5 age group by his team in 2002 in

february 9, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


Bissam Cuttack and Chandrapur blocks found malarial infection in 16 to 100 per cent of the children.

Land and Food Insecurity

The Constitution through schedule V provides that tribal land cannot be taken away without their informed consent. Orissa however practices a curious law where lands on a gradient can be taken away on the principle of “eminent domain” (nobody’s land, which makes it government property). Tribals practise shifting cultivation on many a hill slope, moving from one place to another and so have never claimed continued occupation. As a result, many of Orissa’s tribals are declared encroachers on what was theirs for centuries but for which they have no ownership documents.

Today, tribal communities have no survival option but to continue shifting cultivation on “government land” – 80 per cent of land in Rayagada is state-owned. With increasing population, shrinking cultivable land and deforestation due to industrialisation, shifting cultivation has intensified with fallow cycles reduced to two-three years in many areas (from five years), leaving most slopes completely degraded. The absence of ownership is also a disincentive for the tribal farmer to invest in resuscitating the land. The net result is that his primary source of food becomes that much more insecure.


Achyut Das (2005): Governance in Tribal Area: Myths and Realities, Agragamee, Kashipur, Rayagada, Orissa.

Economic & Political Weekly

february 9, 2008

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