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Development & Aid

In the Shadow of Displacement, Forest Tribes Look to Sustainable Farming

Forest tribes in India’s southwestern Andhra Pradesh state fear they will soon be homeless when a dam floods their ancestral lands. They are turning to sustainable agriculture in preparation for displacement to less fertile areas. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

CHINTOOR, India, Feb 10 2015 (IPS) - Laxman, a 10-year-old Koya tribal boy, looks admiringly at a fenced-in vegetable patch behind his home in southern India’s Andhra Pradesh state. Velvety-green and laden with vegetables, the half-acre patch is where Laxman’s family gets their daily quota of nutritious food.

But one day soon it will disappear under several feet of water, thanks to the Polavaram multipurpose project – a 45-metre-high, 2.32-km-long mega dam currently under construction on the Godavari, the second-longest river in India after the Ganges.

Experts say nearly 200,000 members of India's forest-dwelling tribes could be displaced by construction of the Polavaram Dam in the southwestern state of Andhra Pradesh.
A crucial link in the federal government’s river-linking project, the Polavaram dam will submerge at least 276 villages, including Narakonda, where Laxman’s family lives.

Blissfully unaware today, young Laxman will soon be among the nearly 200,000 tribal people who experts say will be displaced en masse by the development project.

Laxman’s parents, Sitamma Rao and Sodi Bhimaiah, know that when the water comes, they will have to pack up and leave their village. The government has expressed its intention to properly compensate those affected but the community here has neither heard of nor seen the results of such promises.

To this day, no government official has visited these villages, where many tribal families earn about 30 Indian rupees (0.50 dollars) each day.

Diversifying crops

They know they must prepare for hard times ahead, but with no advice, support or official assistance forthcoming from the government, tribal villagers have embarked on their own quest for alternative livelihoods.

In dozens of villages along the dam site, in the foothills of the Papi mountain range, the hunter-gather Koya and Kondareddi tribes, both listed as particularly vulnerable tribal communities by the Indian government, are learning sustainable farming to better feed their families – and save what little they can for the dark days to come.

Having dwelt in the Papi hill ranges on either side of the Godavari gorge for generations, practicing small-scale farming and selling minor forest products at nearby markets, the tribes are now looking at more sustainable practices that will increase their yield and perhaps even provide them a surplus of food and income.

Helping them in this quest is Kovel Foundation – a local non-profit that trains forest tribes in entrepreneurial and alternative livelihood skills. Under a three-year project, Kovel is training 2,000 marginal women farmers from 46 villages in the ‘Annapurna Model’ – a multi-crop farming technique – as well as providing them with seeds and financial assistance.

The model was originally conceived by the federal government to help rural women farmers achieve food security and maintain a yearly income of between 50,000 and 100,000 rupees (800 to 1,600 dollars).

Prior to this scheme, tribal communities in the region gathered forest fruits and herbs, and earned a meager monthly salary of between eight and 24 dollars by selling forest products.

Now they are diversifying crops, spreading out their risks and increasing their modest yields.

Hailing from the nearby village of Aligudem, which will also be submerged by the dam, a farmer named Laxamma Raju shows IPS her year-old garden: half an acre of land divided into 15 beds, each of them seven feet wide.

A narrow trench separates the beds, made from rich soil topped with silt, compost and cow dung. Growing on each of these nutrient-filled plots is a different crop: radish, okra, eggplant, carrot, onion, bitter gourd, pumpkin, cow bean, tomatoes, chili and coriander.

There are also banana saplings, planted alongside mango and custard apple trees.

Interspersed among them are yellow marigolds and sunflowers. The bright flowers attract pests, working as organic insect traps, explains Satya Raju, Laxamma’s husband.

The idea of growing and consuming so many crops excites farmers here, who have never before enjoyed such a varied diet.

“Earlier, we grew rice, some millets and chickpeas,” Laxamma tells IPS. “But from last year, we have been growing multiple crops, and harvesting a basket of vegetables every week,” she adds, pointing to a bag of tomatoes that she is going to sell in the market for 15 rupees a kilo. All told, she will take home about 1,200 rupees (about 20 dollars) each month from her multi-crop farm.

These are no small strides for forest tribes, 70 percent of whose population lives below the poverty line according to government data. Few attend school, or learn to read and write. The literacy level among such remote tribes in Andhra Pradesh is estimated at 47 percent.

When development means displacement

One of the major challenges for tribes in this area is the lack of irrigation facilities, says Beera Voina Murali, a Koya tribesman and a trainer with the Kovel Foundation.

“The monsoon is the only source of water,” Murali tells IPS. “Though the department of tribal affairs offers a 50 percent subsidy on diesel-powered pumps, they still cost over a lakh (2,000 dollars) – marginal farmers cannot afford that kind of money.”

And even those who do manage to install these costly devices struggle to pay for the fuel. Laxmamma, for example, spends about 10 dollars every day just to keep the pump going, since it guzzles roughly nine litres of diesel daily.

Meeting this irrigation challenge in the region is one of the stated goals of the Polavaram dam project; with a storing capacity of 551 million cubic metres, the dam promises to irrigate 700,000 acres of land.

But this “solution” represents disaster for over a quarter of a million people in this area, including farmers like Sitamma, who are will be completely inundated once the project is completed.

“Today, we can’t cultivate well because we don’t have water. But tomorrow when the water comes, we will lose our home,” says Edu Konda, another Kovel Foundation trainer who has been actively protesting the construction of the dam, but with little hope of a change in government policy.

Last year, concerned community members met with the project officer in charge of the dam at the department of tribal affairs in Rampachodavaram and made an appeal to save the threatened lands.

“He said, ‘You will be relocated into good, fertile areas,’” Konda recalls, “but the very next month he was transferred out of this district. Now, we are back to level zero,” she tells IPS.

India’s track record of relocating and rehabilitating tribal communities displaced by development projects leaves a lot to be desired. One such example is the Sardar Sarovar dam over the river Narmada in central India that displaced 300,000 tribal people in 2005.

Over a decade later, 40,000 of these people are still waiting to be relocated, or compensated for their lost lands.

A similar controversy unfolded around the site of the Hasdeo Bango dam in central India’s Chhattisgarh state. Construction of the dam that began in 1962 and ended in 2011 affected 52 mostly tribal villages. But they have been poorly relocated and even today have few basic facilities and even fewer livelihood opportunities, according to government data.

Against this backdrop, some community members feel it is futile to adopt new farming techniques when they could soon be landless. The vast majority, however, are convinced that their newly acquired sustainable agricultural practices will serve them well – even if they are forcibly moved to less fertile areas.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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  • Geetika Silwal

    Status of ‘development’ in Modi’s India: first bring schemes to teach people food security, then take their land away and make them landless migrants. What a farce

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