Spending a month on site with my AIF host organization Lokadrusti, doing field visits and interacting with people from remote villages in Odisha, has been a humbling experience for me. Lokadrusti was founded in 1988 to promote social and economic development of the Nuapada district in the western part of Odisha. It focuses on community mobilization, tribal rights, education, health, women’s empowerment, cultural development, natural resource management, poverty alleviation, and land waste management (Lokadrusti, 2018). The geographical disparity and the rural way of life in the villages are centered around the forest and the mountain ranges. Before being declared as a separate district, Nuapada was part of the Kalahandi District. In the year 1993, the new district came into existence. As per the 2011 census, around 610,382 people inhabit the district, out of which 301,962 are males while 308,420 are females. Out of a total population, 5.58% live in urban areas, hence the majority 94.42% of the population live in rural areas (Census of India, 2011, p. 14). The district also has a large rural scheduled caste and scheduled tribe population. Scheduled Tribes contribute to 35.42% of the district and Scheduled Castes account for 13.07% of the population. Thus in totality, the two underprivileged sections of the population account for about 48.49% of the district’s population (Census of India, 2011, p. 35). The context of my field placement is interwoven with the community and its people. The idea of community, which carries the notion of being dynamic and diverse in various aspects – including caste, class, religion, region, age, language – and the power dynamics interacting at many levels, form the backdrop of my project. While working on the field, I am trying to understand the context of the community, which itself is new to me in term of language, culture, and the way of life.
Entering My Host Community
“You have to take a U turn and ride 40 km back”, was the response from a young girl when I asked if the dhaba is open and they are serving food. The next 110-km ride was the same as mentioned by the young girl: all shops, hotels, and dhabas were closed on the occasion of the Nuakhai festival, which also happened to be my first day of reporting to my host organization. Nuakhai is an agricultural festival observed throughout Odisha. The festival influences the life and culture of the tribal dominated western districts of Odisha. The literal meaning of Nuakhai celebration is “eating of new rice ceremony”. The farmers offer the first grain of their harvest to the deity and then partake in it. The importance of the festival and the way people celebrate the same is observed over the next three days. As a community, there is cohesiveness, coming together of people from different strata – both tribal and non-tribal – to celebrate. Over the course of the celebration, other activities are accordingly shifted. Nuakhai is the day of rejoicing and an auspicious occasion for the agrarian community, for whom agriculture is the main source of livelihood. In the western part of Odisha, paddy cultivation is majorly practiced and hence paddy is the staple food of the people in general (Pasayat, 2007).
Agriculture is the main source of livelihood among the people of western Odisha, so it plays major role in their sustenance. Due to its location and weather patterns, Nuapada district experiences prolonged drought. Crop failure due to lack of rain in the region is one of the major setbacks for the majority of the community, since they depend on agriculture. The agricultural distress which results into crop failure and lack of employment opportunity, forces families to migrate in search of alternative livelihood opportunities. The reasons for massive prevalence of migration in Nuapada district is, to an extent, typical of conditions forcing migration all over the world. But they are also specific to the socio-economic, climatic, and political conditions prevalent in the district. The geography of the district also plays a vital role in shaping decisions relating to migration. The prolonged history of droughts in these regions have affected the living patterns as well. For example, the drought of 1965 was the most difficult time. When rain failed to come, the rice plants scorched and withered in the crop fields. The drought resembled the famine of a hundred years earlier, in 1865 (Chakravarty, 2011). The present situation in these regions remains the same: crop cultivation and the overall sustenance depends on the amount of rainfall received by the region. My interaction with block coordinator Mr. Prakash highlighted the connections between how the Nuakhai festival marks the beginning of new life in terms of celebration and a coming together of families in the village. At the same time, it also marks the beginning of seasonal migration among the agricultural dependent families, since they would soon start to migrate. The poor families from all five blocks of Nuapada district begin their migration right after the celebration of the Nuakhai festival. The number of families migrating to the neighbouring states is directly related to the condition of agriculture produced through paddy cultivation and rain as the most important factor. This year, rain has been good enough to sustain the crop till now, but the final part would be seen near the Dussehra festival. At this point, one last shower is needed for the ripening of the paddy crop. Without it, the crops might fail. Over the last three years, the region has not received adequate rain, so the problem of drought has continued. This year, the situation is not good and looking at the rainfall pattern and the condition of paddy crops, families dependent on agricultural activities have already started migrating to other states.
Working with the community requires understanding of their needs, culture and ecology. The learning and reflection that I can gather at the grassroots as an AIF Clinton Fellow is more like uncovering the layers if I immerse myself into the context. It is important to understand the idea of community first before we begin the process to initiate a change amidst it. So how exactly can one define community? The five core elements of community as found by MacQueen et al. are central to field work, so they deserve mention here. Community is often defined by:
- Locus which is a sense of place, referred to a geographic,
- Sharing of common interests and perspectives,
- Joint action leads to a sense of coherence and identity which creates community cohesion,
- Social ties relationships that create an ongoing sense of cohesion and
- Diversity which is not primarily to ethnic groupings, but to the social complexity found within communities in which a multiplicity of communities co-existed. (MacQueen 2001, p. 1930-32)
Communities are defined similarly but are experienced differently by people with diverse backgrounds, as MacQueen et al. have found out in their participatory field research (2001, p. 1929). Therefore the first step toward understanding the community has to be sharing and acknowledging the lived experiences, knowledge, and information of the community members. The process of building interpersonal relationships, trust, and mutual confidence is crucial and has to be a shared one.
- Lokadrusti (2018). “Home”. Lokadrusti.org. http://www.lokadrusti.org.
- Chakravarty, N. (2011). The Kalahandi Trail 1965-66. Sikshasandhan.
- Census Of India (2011). “Village and Town Directory”. District Census Handbook of Nuapada. Directorate of Census Operation, Odisha.
- Census Of India (2011). “Village and Town Wise Primary Census Abstract (PCA)”. District Census Handbook of Nuapada. Directorate of Census Operation, Odisha.
- MacQueen, Kathleen M., et al. (2001). “What is Community? An Evidence-Based Definition for Participatory Public Health”. American Journal of Public Health 91: 1929-1938.
- Pasayat, D.C. (2007). “Nuakhai: An Epitome of the Great Tradition of India”. Orissa Review (Sept-Oct): 43-51.