Rabindra Nath Mishra, an additional block development officer, is a bit worried. He thought calculating Phulbani's poor, as directed by the Supreme Court, would be easy. The expenditure limit of Rs 250 per month (as the decisive line between poverty and prosperity) seemed a ridiculous amount. But when the final count came, he was shocked: 65 per cent of the district's population was below the poverty line. "I can't explain why there is so much poverty," he asks.
The answer to Mishra's question waits outside his office. Meet Biswambar Kanwar, a resident of Gochapada village. He sells fuelwood. "The more the distance of forest from my village, the less prosperous I become," says Kanwar. His village survived on forests -- fruits for food and fuelwood to sell made up for the lean four monsoon months. Two years ago, the government declared it a reserve forest and banned their entry. "We lost our food supply and were forced to pay an illegal tax on fuelwood." The forest has shrunk to a thin patch of greenery. Now residents travel to forests some 18 km away. It takes them three days to earn Rs 30 from selling fuelwood. Kunwar has just slipped below the poverty line.
But there is no reason why Phulbani should be classified as one of the poorest districts in India. Rich forests cover 60 per cent of the district area. The government controls 85 per cent of the district's areas and most of its resources. According to the working plan of the forest department, harvesting even a small part of its sal forest could fetch close to Rs 30,000 crore. And the non-timber forest produce is valued to fetch Rs 100 crore each year. But the forest department does not allow people access to even sal leaves. Violent clashes over access to resources have led to the killing of 15 people in the past two years.
It was not always like this. Till 1956, tribal residents had occupational and management rights over forests. Over the years, forestlands have been brought under government control. And local people have been classified as illegal occupants. Sixty per cent people in the district are illegal settlers, says the government. Going by the recent amendments to the Orissa Forest Act, they would have to be evicted.
The bureaucratisation of forests extends even to minor forest produce (mfp). For example, the government is not only the sole buyer of sal seeds, but also decides its support price. Delays in procurement wastes people's collection of sal seeds leading to distress sale. Residents sometimes spend more than a month to collect seeds but manage to earn just Rs 500. One estimate by Nipidit, an ngo, shows that just plucking sal leaves (for making leaf plates) can fetch enough money for sustenance. "One or two sal trees can sustain a family for the whole year," says Trilochan Kaunar of the Kui Samaj Sewa Samiti. But the forest department says plucking will kill the trees.
On the contrary, it is the forest department that is responsible for large-scale logging. A nexus with timber traders saw the district losing around 40 per cent of its dense forest within three decades. "Forest loss has affected the yield of mfp," says Kumuda Chander Mallik, a tribal activist. The impact of dwindling mfp is so severe that local people call the four monsoon months Saki Danju (starvation months). During these months, mango or jackfruit are the two major survival fruits. This year its flowering has been very poor. Warns Ramchandra Das, director, Nipidit, "Starvation deaths are imminent."