Losing battle

First district for tribal development
Rampant deforestation
Malnutrition and starvation deaths

Published: Wednesday 15 May 2002

Losing battle

-- Poverty in Sarguja district has taken epic proportions. Unlike in the Mahabharat, the descendants of Pandavas and Kauravas have come together to fight a common enemy in Sarguja: poverty. And their fight is as heroic as the Mahabharat. Pandos, the local tribals and descendants of the Pandavas, are fighting for survival. For the descendant of the Kauravas, Korwas, it is a losing battle for water. Their adversary is the forest department.

Surguja was thickly forested till the 1960s -- 60 per cent forest cover, says the Forest Survey of India. The district has also witnessed many tribal uprising over rights on forest and its produce. Till now the victors have been the forest department.

Ironically, India's first President, Rajendra Prasad, adopted the district for tribal development. Pando colonies were set up in the district, but without any legal rights. Now, the forest department calls them encroachers and their access to forests is at the mercy of the officials.

"The land given to us is burra (uncultivable)," says Guduku, a resident. Agriculture is dependent on rain. There are no other irrigation facilities. As a result, the Pando population switched to forest produce. Tendu leaf was the primary source of survival. Mahua, Harra, Gond were other sources. With large-scale deforestation, the Pandos are threatened once again.

The situation of Korwas is no better. Of the few thousands Korwas in the country, the largest population is in Surguja. Budhram Korwa of Amadarha village owns two hectares of land, which hardly gives him 300 kg of rice every year. Pointing to the nearby nala, his wife Nanbai says, "We depend on the nala for all our irrigation purposes. But during summers, it dries up." In the scorching summer, women walk close to 20 kilometres to fetch just two buckets of water leaving less time for collection of forest produce.

Water scarcity is also hitting agriculture. Though Surguja is blessed with high rainfall (1,500-1,600 mm annually), it is also the bane for tribal farmers. With its hilly topography, most agricultural lands are on or near the slopes. Heavy rain washes off the top soil. "Our agricultural produce has gone down drastically over the years," says the Korwa. As a survival strategy, residents now sell firewood from the government forest to supplement their earning.

The huge spending on poverty alleviation has rather become a stark joke. Ram Kishore Shukla, a retired government official, has a simple imagery to audit the development expenditure in Surguja district. "Convert the amount into coins and spread it, this huge district will fall short of land. Or deposit the money and the interest money will take care of Korwas forever."

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