Help From Andhra Pradesh Is Saving This Odisha Village From Starvation — Ground Report From Koraput

Jaideep Mazumdar

May 10, 2024, 01:49 PM | Updated May 17, 2024, 04:46 PM IST

The Janiguda village.
The Janiguda village.
  • The Patnaik government's indifference towards tribals is driving them towards starvation, while the Andhra government offers them hope.
  • Basana Gambel, a resident of Janiguda village in Kotia gram panchayat area of Koraput district’s Pottangi block, is a farmer in deep distress.

    His meagre earnings would have led his family of seven to starvation, but ‘help’ from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh has enabled him to stave off that terrifying prospect. 

    Kotia, which lies on the Odisha-Andhra Pradesh border, is claimed by the southern state as its own. Odisha, of course, vehemently rejects this claim.

    Till Andhra Pradesh laid claim five years ago over Kotia, which is nestled in the folds of breathtakingly beautiful Eastern Ghats, the area lacked motorable roads, schools, healthcare and other facilities. 

    Like many parts of Odisha, which has been ruled by the Congress and then the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) all these decades, Kotia was a forgotten and neglected part of the state whose residents had learnt to live with grinding poverty.

    View of the mountains around Janiguda village.
    View of the mountains around Janiguda village.

    But Andhra Pradesh’s claim — many say the southern state covets the rich mineral deposits of the area — got the Naveen Patnaik government to fast-track infrastructure projects in the area. 

    By that time, however, Andhra Pradesh had extended all its welfare schemes to about 1,200 residents of several villages under Kotia tehsil: free rations for below poverty line (BPL) families, old age pensions and doles to women and schoolchildren etc. And had promised a lot more.

    An alarmed Naveen Patnaik government got moving only after this. The first thing it did was construct a proper road to Kotia. 

    Till then, Kotia could only be accessed through a 18 kilometre-long cratered dirt track from Kunduli on National Highway 26. This treacherous track skirting the mountains took over an hour to negotiate and had taken a number of lives due to frequent accidents. 

    It was converted into a smooth black-topped two-lane road. An hour’s back-breaking journey from Kunduli (which is less than an hour’s drive — about 40 kilometres — from Koraput town down NH 26 became a 20 minute easy ride.

    The Naveen Patnaik government also constructed a high school, a healthcare and anganwadi centre, and other facilities that many other villages in Odisha still lack. One of the latest additions is a solar-powered cold storage — a novelty in large parts of the state. But that doesn’t work often since the poor quality solar panels frequently malfunction. 

    A government building in Kotia village
    A government building in Kotia village

    Apart from infrastructure development, the Odisha government extended the benefits of its many welfare schemes — housing for the poor, old age pensions, free rice for BPL families, scholarships for students from poor families and help to girl students, among many others, to the residents of Kotia. 

    BJD leaders and ministers, as well as top bureaucrats and police officers, started frequenting Kotia. That, again, was in response to officials and ministers from Andhra Pradesh visiting the tehsil to oversee implementation of welfare schemes by their government. 

    “We draw free rations (five kilos of rice a month) from both Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. My parents receive an old age pension from Odisha (Rs 1,000 a month each) as well as from Andhra Pradesh (Rs 3,000 a month each),” said Gambel, 35. 

    Without the ‘help’ he, and other tribals of the area, receive from Andhra Pradesh, his family would have starved, says Gambel. That’s because farming doesn’t yield enough to provide two square meals a day for his entire family.

    Gambel owns four acres of land in which he cultivates bananas, pineapples, vegetables and strawberries. The cultivation of the last — strawberries — was introduced by the Odisha government’s Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) in the entire tribal-dominated Koraput district about three years ago. 

    A view of Koraput town, the district headquarters.
    A view of Koraput town, the district headquarters.

    The exotic and expensive fruit (strawberries) was supposed to have lifted poor tribals of the district out of poverty. But for many like Gambel, it has turned out to be a cruel joke. 

    “I got strawberry saplings from the ITDA in October 2022 and planted them on a half-acre plot. State government officials also instructed us on how to plant and raise the crop, and provided us fencing materials, water tank, pipes and sprinklers. I harvested the first crop over a three-month period from January to March 2023,” said Gambel.

    “Last year, I collected 100 fruits a day from my half-acre plot. But we had to sell the fruits on our own. The state did not provide any help. Thankfully, the winter season draws a huge number of tourists to this area and we sold the strawberries to them,” said Gambel. 

    A 200 gram packet of strawberries that had 15 to 20 strawberries (depending on their size) sold for Rs 100, said Gambel. Thus, his average daily yield of a hundred strawberries (about 1.1 kilos) were sold to tourists for about Rs 550. 

    But Gambel got only a share of that entire sum. A few enterprising fellow-tribals of the area started buying the crop from the strawberry farmers for about Rs 350 a kilo and made a neat profit of at least Rs 150 a kilo by selling it to the thousands of tourists who flock to the area during the winter season. 

    Odisha’s highest peak — Deomali — is located in the area that also has many waterfalls and other peaks providing a panoramic view of the surrounding picturesque mountains.

    Tourists, say local residents, have started coming in from other parts of Odisha, as well as neighbouring Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, over the last three years after the stark improvement in road communication. 

    Gambel, and other strawberry farmers of the area, told Swarajya that since the Odisha government did not provide any help to sell the strawberries, they were left to the mercy of local middlemen who had collected their produce, packaged it and sold it to tourists. 

    Basana Gambel stands in the midst of his failed strawberry farm.
    Basana Gambel stands in the midst of his failed strawberry farm.

    “But even so, we did earn a small profit last year. But that was also because a lot of the inputs — saplings, fertilisers, pesticides and material help like pipes, sprinklers and fencing materials — were provided for free by the ITDA. Without all that, we would have actually incurred huge losses,” said Gambel. 

    But the second harvest of strawberries late last year was a disappointment. “The yield fell drastically and I could barely get 30 fruits — less than 400 grams — a day. The quality of the strawberries from my farm was also poor this year and they were not as sweet as last year. So I got a lower price from my produce,” rued Gambel. 

    He has decided to stop growing strawberries on his half-acre plot. “I have realised that the strawberry plants are good for just one crop and fresh saplings have to be planted each year. We got the saplings for free in 2022, but that was only a one-time help. Purchasing saplings from the open market will render strawberry farming completely unviable,” he told Swarajya

    Basana Gambel shows off his new fish pond that he dug after his strawberry crop turned out to be a failure.
    Basana Gambel shows off his new fish pond that he dug after his strawberry crop turned out to be a failure.

    The huge loss he incurred from strawberry farming this year put the Gambel family in a deep crisis. “We would have had to make do with only one meal a day. That would have meant starvation. But thanks to the benefits we get from Andhra Pradesh, we were able to fend off starvation,” said Basana Gambel.

    “Had the state government provided help in marketing the strawberries, we would have been able to make profits. And we should also have been provided fresh saplings, if not for free then at least at subsidised rates, for planting last year-end. We should have been told by ITDA officials that the yields from the plant decline the second year,” said Basana.

    Last year, the Odisha government showcased strawberry farming in Kotia and said that the fruit would lead the tribals to prosperity.

    It aggressively promoted strawberry farming in Kotia and farmers, taken in by the rosy prospects (of strawberry farming) projected by ITDA officials, switched from cultivating vegetables and other crops to strawberry. More than 30 acres are now under strawberry cultivation in Kotia.

    But many like Basana Gambel are realising that they had been led up the garden path by the state government.

    “Strawberry farming has been a severe disappointment and many other farmers like me have decided to abandon it and switch back to the vegetables and millets we have been growing all these years. Those crops did not yield even modest profits, but at least provided us two square meals a day,” said Basana.   

    Three months ago, he dug a pond in another half-acre plot for fish-farming. He has also planted pineapples and bananas on about 1.5 acres. And he plans to grow vegetables — chillies, coriander etc) on the remaining part of his farm. 

    A strawberry farm in the outskirts of Taupadar village.
    A strawberry farm in the outskirts of Taupadar village.

    From Janiguda, which lies very near to the Odisha-Andhra border, I go to Taupadar village about 16 kilometres from Kunduli. From Koraput, one needs to drive down NH 26 to Kunduli and then take a left turn to reach Taupadar and then Kotia. 

    Taupadar is another tribal village that has been targeted by the Odisha government for strawberry cultivation. The rolling hills around this village of about 300 households are covered by many new strawberry farms. 

    One of them belongs to a women’s self-help group called ‘Moriyam SHG’ that has 10 members. The SHG was provided a loan of Rs 1 lakh and other help — free saplings, water tank, pipes, sprinklers, a small motor, green net and some other materials — by the ITDA. Technical help was also provided for cultivating the new crop.

    Mithula Khura with her son.
    Mithula Khura with her son.

    “We planted the crop in November last year over a two-acre plot. We earned Rs 1 lakh from selling the crop, mostly to tourists. All that earning went to repay the loan (of Rs 1 lakh) we had taken under the state government’s ‘Mission Shakti’ scheme for women. We have 10 members in our SHG and had expected a little bit of profit, but we’re very disappointed,” Mithula Khura, 27, told Swarajya

    She says that the only reason they will continue with strawberry cultivation this year as well (it is a winter crop that starts yielding fruits from January till late March) is the ITDA’s assurance of state government support for three years. 

    “We’ve been assured that for three years, we will be given all the help that is necessary. We’ve been told that the profits will start coming in from the second harvest early next year,” Urmila Khura, another member of the ‘Moriyam SHG’, told Swarajya

    What the ITDA officials haven’t told them is that the crop yield falls drastically in the second year and by the third year, the strawberry plant becomes too old to yield fruits.  

    Urmila Khura with her husband in front of their house in Taupadar village.
    Urmila Khura with her husband in front of their house in Taupadar village.

    Mithula and Urmila told Swarajya that had they received help from the state government to sell their strawberry produce at higher prices, and had a cold storage been available nearby, they would have got higher prices for their crop. 

    They are aware of other strawberry farmers in the area who had been taken in by the state government’s promises of prosperity abandoning strawberry cultivation and reverting to cultivating paddy, millets, vegetables and other crops. 

    “We’ll try it out for another year. If we don’t earn at least Rs 20,000 per head (or Rs 2 lakh collectively for the 10-member SHG), we’ll give up strawberry cultivation. We have to put in six to seven hours of labour every day for a few months, and if we don’t earn anything after that, there’s no point in continuing with strawberry cultivation,” Mithula told Swarajya

    The two women belong to farming families and their husbands grow mainly vegetables. Mithula says her husband — Surnedra Khosla — makes barely enough to run the family. Urmila’s husband Romesh Khosla also grows vegetables and his earnings, too, are minimal. 

    “We make do with the free rations and other doles provided by the state government. But during bad years, even that is not enough and we have to go without one meal a day. That takes us to the brink of starvation,” said Romesh. 

    Starvation is one grim prospect that Basana Gambel of Janiguda village can hope to fend off even when his crops fail because he stays close to Andhra Pradesh which extends benefits of its many social welfare schemes to his family. 

    But it reflects very poorly on Naveen Patnaik who has been ruling Odisha for 24 years, and the Congress which was in power for five decades before Patnaik, that many impoverished tribals of the state have to depend on Andhra Pradesh to fend off starvation while many others are not as fortunate because the neighbouring southern state does not lay claim over the areas they dwell in.

    I ask Basana Gambel if the people of Kotia want to be part of Odisha or Andhra Pradesh. “Odisha,” he replies firmly and unhesitatingly, adding “we are Odiyas first”. 

    A strawberry farm near Taupadar village.
    A strawberry farm near Taupadar village.

    Farmers' distress is, however, not atypical of Kotia and Taupadar. Farmers all over the state face crises, primarily due to the apathy and neglect of the state government.

    Absence of irrigation in most areas of the state, low procurement prices, absence of marketing support for cash crops, rising input costs, declining yields and middlemen patronised by the ruling BJD who force farmers to sell their produce very cheap have pushed farmers to severe distress.

    It is indeed unfortunate that successive governments in Odisha have cared so little for the impoverished but loyal citizens of the state for more than 70 years since Independence.

    This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on themes and topics that are often overlooked or looked down. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999/-. Click here for more details.

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