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Rebuilding Livelihoods of Marginalized Communities in Odisha

Author: Lopamudra Behera
Posted on: Monday, 9th November 2020
Photo: Betikhai Thela, 50, planting eggplants and tomatoes in her kitchen garden in Gambharidihi village of Bargarh district, Odisha

Sebi Nayak does a number of things to keep herself going. She has to, as there is nobody else to look after her. Sebi is a 45-year-old single woman, and she stays in Partamaha village in Daringbadi block of Kandhamal district in Odisha. She collects siali leaves from the forest and sells them. These large leaves are used for making disposable plates. She collects and sells other minor forest produce. Other times she cultivates vegetables and turmeric. Sebi also works as a daily wage labourer, when and if it is available. When the COVID-19 induced lockdown occurred Sebi could not sell her leaf plates, or her turmeric and she did not have access to any daily wage work. Sebi’s already vulnerable condition, became even more precarious.

In one sense Sebi is not alone. The ongoing fight against COVID-19 has been a challenging experience for everybody, and the imposition of lockdown has impacted the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable communities. As per a survey conducted by ActionAid Association during the third phase of the nationwide lockdown with over 11,500 migrants and informal labourers across 21 states, more than 78 per cent of respondents reported a loss of livelihood due to the lockdown. In Odisha, 1,257 respondents were interviewed in 25 districts over phone, worksites, quarantine shelters, and households to learn more about their condition as an impact of COVID-19. More than 70 per cent of the respondents in Odisha too reported a loss of livelihood.

The Government of Odisha announced special package schemes to provide employment and income generation opportunities for migrant workers and farmers under the special livelihood intervention plan package. The plan will generate employment in sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, and animal resources development, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), forests, and handlooms and handicrafts.

However, the major challenges here is to contain the spread of COVID-19 and create employment opportunities for returnee migrants and vulnerable people in rural areas like Sebi. Though the government has planned to double the sanctioned person days under MGNREGA, there is also an urgency to create jobs at source for skilled and semi-skilled workers under different programmes. There is also an urgency to link migrant and the most needy populations with the various resource-based sustainable livelihood options, mainly related to land, water, agriculture and forests, and to rebuild their livelihoods and ensure food security.

Based on this present situation and the needs of the communities, ActionAid Association, together with partner organizations, community leaders and volunteers working across districts, has tried to reach out to the most vulnerable families, especially the migrant returnees, elderly persons, single women, women-headed households and persons with disability in this difficult hour to understand their needs better and the kinds of livelihood support that can be provided to them to restore their livelihoods. Taking the same into consideration, immediate livelihood support through seeds, kitchen garden, collective farming, goats and cash transfer was provided to those most vulnerable in the villages of Kandhamal, Malkangiri, Koraput, Sundergarh, Bargarh, Bhadrak, Nuapada, Sambalpur and Puri districts, and in the urban slums of Bhubaneswar city.

Basudev Pradhan, a 34-year-old migrant worker who had returned from Kerala to his native place in Dasiketa village in Daringbadi block of Kandhamal district, Odisha, during the COVID-19 induced lockdown, was the first person in his village who started cultivation of beans on his farmland. Basically, a seasonal farmer, Basudev also works as a daily wage labourer depending on the availability of work. Every year he would travel to Kerala to work for six months. This year too, he had gone to Kerala for work, but unfortunately got stranded at his worksite for two months. Without money, shelter and food, trudging through these hardships, he managed to return to his village. He was then identified by Jagruti and Antaranga, allies of ActionAid Association in Kandhamal district, and was supported to get linked with the government schemes, including three months of provision of free ration and cash amount of Rs. 1,000, subsidy in gas, and Rs. 1,500 as a Labour Card holder. After this, with support from Antaranga, he got work under MGNREGA. “It would have been difficult for me to survive if I was not supported and guided by friends from Antaranga. Vegetable cultivation is one of the major sources of my family’s income. Now, it has been assured,” says a happy Basudev.

Kitchen gardens and collective farming were some of the approaches undertaken by the women from tribal and Dalit communities in Bargarh, Nuapada and Malkangiri districts of Odisha to ensure food security during the lockdown. Betikhai Thela, a 50-year-old woman, from Gambharidihi village of Bargarh district says, “After being supported by ActionAid Association and Lok Adhikar Sangathan, I am extremely excited to grow vegetables like eggplant, lady’s finger, ridge gourd, tomato, brinjal, drumstick, papaya, bitter gourd and bottle gourd in my backyard. This will help improve the nutritional levels of my family members as these vegetables are not only good in taste but are also healthy and organic. We now do not have to buy these vegetables from the market any longer.”

Kamsul Khillo, a 50-year-old woman from Narsinghpur village in Chitrakonda block of Malkangiri district and her farming group comprising 10 women also have similar things to say. “This organic vegetable cultivation has emerged as a sustainable livelihood activity among tribal women farmers like us. Now, we are not dependent on our families for our expenses. We can also ensure better food security for our families through collective farming. This has also helped women farmers like us to establish our identity as farmers and to prove that our skills are no less than those of men. I would definitely say that this collective approach to farming gives us strength and empowers us to lead a dignified life,” shares a proud Kamsul.

As part of the long-term measures, just linking with MGNREGA cannot be the only solution. Water harvesting structures and creation of irrigation facilities for agricultural purposes for small and marginal farmers, and proper implementation of the various schemes, Acts and laws pertaining to forest, land, water and agriculture are all the need of the hour. Collective farming and kitchen garden promotion to ensure food security for households, including women and children, can be planned by the government. Besides, creation of home-based livelihood options and skill-based livelihoods for women can also be seen as viable ways of adding to their family incomes. Linking migrants and the most vulnerable families with their land and forest rights along with providing sustainable livelihood opportunities can be some of the major ways to rebuild and sustain livelihoods of the communities worst affected by COVID-19.

Additionally, it is also interesting to note that the Panchayati Raj Department of the Government of Odisha on December 17, 2017, had formulated a state action plan on the safety and welfare of migrants which basically describes the process of identification, tracking, safety and welfare of migrant workers in the Gram Panchayats of 11 migration-prone districts of Odisha, namely Bolangir, Bargarh, Subranapur, Kalahandi, Nuapada, Gajapati, Ganjam, Koraput, Nabarangapur Rayagada and Khurda. If this plan is implemented in its true sense, then several issues related to the safety, security, livelihoods and food security of migrants, including women and children would get addressed.

As far as Sebi Nayak goes, just a little help by providing her with a couple of goats, and some seeds, to help her cultivate in the upcoming Kharif season, earned us her heartfelt gratitude. In her words: “I am thankful to the organizations that have supported me during this difficult time.”

ActionAid Association works across India and takes various measures to rebuild the lives of the marginalized communities affected by covid-19. Donate now to support covid-hit families especially the migrant and informal labourers.