Two days in Bonda territory – A fact finding report

June 20, 2011

Compiled by Biraj Patnaik, Rajkishor Mishra, Sharanya Nayak and Bidyut Mohanty.

The Bondas are one of the most primitive of Orissa’s 62 tribes. They are a small tribe of Austro Asiatic type. Anthropologists, economists, academicians and development activists alike have long been attracted towards the Bondas because of their unique style of living, language, dress and self-dignity. But most often their self dignity has been misinterpreted as aggressiveness and they have been called ‘savage’ (sic!). Because of their self dignity they continue to preserve their culture despite pressure from outside. But time will tell whether they will continue to preserve their self dignity or not. Their country is the mountainous region north west of Machchkund river in district of Malkangiri at a height of 3000 feet. While historically the entire hill range and plains were once part of the Bonda kingdom, for the last hundred years or so they have been confined to 36 habitations in two Panchayats of Mudulipada and Andrahal under Khairput Block.

At the time of the 1941 Census their number was 2565 and it grew in 1971 Census to 5,245 and in 1981 to 5,895 but declined again and was recorded in 1991 Census as 5,129 of which males were 2,414 and females were 2,715. In 2001 Census it grew again to 6001. A typical characteristic of Bondas is self sufficiency in food security and they have generally been hostile to allowing outsiders into their territory for fear of being exploited. Academicians account for such hostility in terms of the physical isolation of Bondas and their unfamiliarity with plains culture till very recently. They believe outsiders are carriers of evil spirits and cause damage to health and crops. But with the advent of Bonda Development Agency (BDA), a micro project action, running in the hills since 1976, there has been a steady influx of outsiders in the name of developing roads, setting up schools, running social services, delivering welfare schemes, etc leading to gradual decline in hostility to outsiders. But the advent of the outsider has no doubt impacted their customary and cultural practices adversely.

For long there have been issues raised in the media and in NGO circles about the rising hunger, migration, mortality and rampant corruption in Government programmes, in particular, food security and employment guarantee schemes in the Bonda Hills. With an objective of understanding the above a small fact finding team went to Bonda Hills. On 5th and 6th of May 20011, the team consisting Biraj Patnaik, Rajkishor Mishra, Sharanya and Bidyut Mohanty, along with Bonda youth from Bonda Samaj Lok Sangathan (BSLS), visited Bonda Hills and spent a night at Mudulipada and visited two villages. While it was heartening to observe that the Bondas had welcomed Government programmes and functionaries into their territory, it was also depressing to realise that the response from the functionaries was disappointing and callous.

PDS distribution at Mudulipada Panchayat Office

When we reached at Mudulipada around 10.30 am we found around 200 Bonda women sitting outside the Panchayat Office with empty bags, baskets and sacks. As it was the date for PDS rice distribution, these women had come from around 14 to 15 kilometers away on foot to avail their PDS quota. But the Panchayat Extension Officer (PEO) was absent and so they are waiting for the officer to reach from Khairput where he is staying at the Block headquarters. At around 11.30 am the PEO reached by motorcycle from Khairput and found a mad rush of women, children and men waiting for entry of their card numbers in the Panchayat distribution register. The Government functionary went inside the office and locked the gate from inside forcing the women to crowd outside the window from where they were supposed to pass on their cards for entry in the PDS distribution register. The sight was distressing as the women were pushing each other and crushing each other in their attempt to get their card numbers entered first so they could take their quota of rice first and start their long trek back home with a headload of 35 kilos of rice!

After discussion with some of the Bonda women we found out that the Panchayat distributes PDS rice for three days from 5th to 7th of every month. When we asked these women about their PDS cards they produced several pieces of brown paper stuck together either by a plastic laminated sheet or cello tape. We were shocked by the sight as one after the other most of the women produced pieces of paper as evidence of their PDS cards! The cards were authenticated on 6th December 2009 and plain sheets of paper were provided in the name of PPDS cards. “Card ra prestige nahin” lamented the PEO and admitted that the situation of cards was the same everywhere in Bonda Hills. From a look at the cards it was clear that nothing written on the cards is legible. Not a single card holder’s name, card number or rice, kerosene or sugar entries are visible. The women said that the bits of paper are the only proof they have of possessing a ration card. One cannot believe that this is how the PDS is being managed in Mudulipada Panchayat. We were told it was the same in Andrahal Panchayat. But we must thank the Bonda women who have diligently preserved whatever is given to them in the name of their PDS cards.

We also found out that some women did not have cards and had walked several kilometers with the hope of getting some rice and were waiting a little distance away from the Panchayat godown for the PEO to call them and give some rice after everyone has left. Bondas from Baraguda, Kichapada, Ramliguda, Goiguda and Tulaguram villages walk 12 to 17 kms to the Panchayat at Mudulipada for their entitlements including rice and other PDS items. They told that sometimes the PEO gives them 10 to 15 kilos rice at the end of the day if rice is left over due to absence of card holders. Then on 20th and 21st the Panchayat reportedly also gives rice to those who do not have cards. But during field visit to Mudulipada we were told that on 5th, 6th or 7th the Panchayat also gives 10 kilos rice to those who do not have cards. The PEO explained that he gives people who do not have cards rice from the quota of those who do not pick up their share of PDS for that day. The same goes for 20th and 21st of every month. Following are the names of some women who do not have cards but were there at Mudulipada waiting for the PEO to give them rice at the end of the day :

1. Sombari Kirsani of Ramliguda : she has one surviving child and one died
2. Lacchma Sisa of Ramliguda : she is the wife of Mangala Sisa and they have one son and one daughter alive and one child died about two years back
3. Manguli Muduli of Ramliguda : she is the wife of Addi Muduli
4. Manguli Badnaik of Kichapada : she is the wife of Adi Badnaik
5. Sukuri Kirsani of Tuseipada : she is the wife of Sukra Sisa
6. Rashmi Sisa of Tuseipada : she is the wife of Lachma Sisa

When we asked how much rice they are getting, they counted three ‘dabas’ as what they get. Initially we could not understand what they meant by ‘daba’ but later we were explained that the rice is given to them in three installments measured in an iron bowl which was supposed to add up to 35 kgs rice but the Bonda women had no idea how much each measure weighed in kilos. The rice is weighed and given to the card holders in an iron bowl in measures of 12 kilos at a time. But the weighing scale is not properly balanced and a small plastic packet is hung on one side to balance the empty scale on both sides! A bag of rice was weighed and it was found to contain 49 kilos, less by a kilo or so. The PEO said this is the case for all bags of rice received from the storage agents who store and disburse bags to Panchayats. The agent for Mudulipada is one Muna Guru who has been put in charge of the Rice Receiving Centre (RRC) at Khairput and it is believed that Guru has been pilfering one kilo rice from each bag and selling in the open market.

The PEO informed us there are 1139 PDS cards in Mudulipada of which 135 are BPL cards, 12 Annapurna and 992 Antyodaya. About 182 families do not have cards. Sugar and kerosene are given very irregularly in the Panchayat. However activists of BSLS informed us that in Mudulipada, out of total 1200 households, about 887 have PDS cards and in Andrahal Panchayat out of 900 households about 800 have cards.

We observed was that though there are 1139 card holders, most people do not know whose names are there in the list so many are not collecting their PDS quota. The PEO added that though he has submitted the names of non card holdrers to the block since two years, no new cards have been issued to anyone. This is in blatant violation of a clear-cut order (dated 2.5.2003 / 19.8.2005) by the Supreme Court of India that all tribals scheduled as Primitive Tribal Groups (PTGs) should be universally covered under Antyodaya scheme. Despite such progressive and stringent orders, it is criminal that the Bondas have been denied their legitimate rights !

We spent around three hours with people during distribution of PDS rice and discussed with the women at length on their problems regarding PDS. In this meantime we saw two men carrying on their shoulders a child sitting inside a bamboo basket tied on two sides by rope to a thick bamboo stick. As the new Primary Health Centre (PHC) at Mudulipada remains closed most days and there is only a pharmacist in charge of this PHC, they were taking the child to Khairput PHC, having to walk about 30 kilometers from their village. We gfound out that though a doctor has been posted at Mudulipada new PHC, the doctor comes only twice or thrice a month and the remaining time sits at Khairput PHC. The Bonda people told us it is a common practice among for them to carry their patients to Khairput hospital.

Though PDS distribution continued till 5 pm, we proceeded to Kirsanipada village in the afternoon.

Kirsanipada village meeting

This village is around four kilometers from Mudulipada on really difficult terrain and has no fair-weather road to it. We reached the village at 4 pm and met with villagers. Due to ongoing Chait Parab most Bonda men had gone to the forest for their annual hunting festival and most young women had gone to collect the PDS rice from Mudulipada. We however interacted with some aged women and other women and youth to understand the situation of delivery of entitlements in the village.

There are 112 households in this village but it has one tubewell which was repaired five days before we had gone. There is no platform for the tubewell and the excess water runs into the village creating a drain. When the lone tubewell gets defunct, the Bonda people drink water from a nearby stream. While there is another tubewell structure at another end of the village, we found it to be sealed on the top.

We also found two cement structures without roof which was we were told supposed to be the primary school building. Villagers told us that since the last five years construction was left incomplete. The teacher in charge Damru Majhi had not paid the villagers their wages. The school was currently functioning in a hut built by the villagers. The school was closed due to vacation. Though the school has classes up to 5th standard, it is a wonder how all children are seated in the small hut ….. But looking at it from outside one could guess that the said premises would hardly hold more than 20 students at a time.

Head master – Damru Majhi
RCC – Lacchmi Muduli
Sikhya Sahayak – Sania Kirsani

The school mid-day meal (MDM) cook told that mid day meals were given in the school for only four to five days a month as the teacher was giving her one bag of rice and about 2 kilos dal which was lasting for three to four days only. Besides that, he did not give her money for fuelwood, oil, turmeric, vegetables or salt and so she spends for all of that from her salary. When we checked the school MDM records we found that the stock register and all other MDM registers were blank. The woman cook also told that she is paid Rs 2000 per year and we checked this with her passbook but we found the passbook was updated only till 2008 and in that she has received Rs 2000 salary per year ! She has no idea how many children have been enrolled and how many are attending school. Bali Dangar SHG is managing the MDM in the school. We met the SHG Secretary to find out about the functioning of MDM in the school. She listed the following as the items she received every month towards MDM in the school :

1. One bag of 50 kilos rice
2. Three trays of eggs (one tray has 30 eggs)
3. Two kilos of soya chunks
4. One packet of one litre cooking oil
5. Two packets of half kilo salt
6. Dal 2 kilos

We interacted with some girls who were dressed in school uniform and found that they were studying in the Kasturba Gandhi Balika residential school in Kadamguda Panchayat. Two sisters, Sombari and Budai Kirsani had come to their village in the vacation said that Kadamguda is around 20 kms from their village.

Soma Kirsani, the disari (traditional faith and herbal medicine healer) of the village, narrated his sad story. Kirsani has given a piece of his land for the village primary school. He says ….

I am from the village Disari. My wife, Sombari, and me have five children – Madhu, the eldest son, is about 12 years and has gone to Andhra Pradesh on migration, next son is Badal, about 9 years, and suffers from epilepsy, next is my daughter Sabita, who is about 6 years old and studies in Class I at Mudulipada tribal girls residential school. Next is Sapan, my son who is 4 years and then my youngest daughter Lalita who is 2 years old. I had three plots (each plot would be about half acre) khala (rainfed low land) and one dangar (hill three sides of which are cultivated by the family who holds it). I do not have patta (record of rights) for these lands since all land records are in my grandfather’s name. However, I gave one plot for the primary school building. I gave the land for the primary school because our Sarpanch asked me for it and if I had not given it then everyone would have thought I am selfish. The Sarpanch also told me that I could use the land inside the school boundary for growing vegetables. He never promised me any money and I gave my land happily for the school. The Government gave construction of the school to one Damru Majhi who was the teacher for our school and to one Tankadhar, a contractor from Khairput. None of these two people completed the primary school in the last five years. I have also not been able to grow any vegetables too because the soil has become hard after mixing with cement spread during the construction work. It made the soil very hard and almost impossible to cultivate. I am sad that I gave the land and it has come to no use to our villagers and I also lost land that I could have otherwise cultivated. But I have hope that some day this building will be completed and school will run regularly here and I too can grow vegetables here.

We found out that here too many families did not have PDS cards and even job card.

Chaitanya Kirsani, aged 3-4 years, son of Mongla and Adi Kirsani, was seen suffering from severe grade IV malnutrition. Parbati Kirsani is Anganwadi Worker and said she referred him to Khairput Primary Health Centre (PHC) and the ASHA of Kirsanipada Mongli Kirsani had taken them twice to the PHC but they did not want to stay in the hospital and so did not complete the treatment. She has been advised to stay with the family or depute somebody else to stay with the family since the family might be coming away from Khairput PHC due to unfamiliar and uncomfortable surrounding. There are three children in the village who are in severe malnutrition condition. We observed that most of the children are malnourished with worn-out clothes and majority of children are without clothes.

Gurubari Sisa, aged 30 years or so, is widow of Sukra Sisa who died seven years back from fever and bleeding from the nose. She has not got widow pension despite Parbati, an Anganwadi worker, forwarding her name for widow pension time and again. However, she said she has not paid any bribe to anyone till now. She has two sons and two daughters. There were many widows, old women and disable people without linkage to any of Government’s pension schemes. Besides this, we found that about 35 Bonda boys had migrated out of the hills in distress and were regularly going to Andhra Pradesh in search of employment. The following villagers came forward to lodge their complaints during our interactions with them :

1. Mangli Sisa whose husband died four years ago, has one son and five daughters and till today she has not received any support under National Family Benefit Scheme (NFBS). In fact till now she has also not received either widow pension or job card. She does not have any entitlement card as well
2. Sukri Sisa who is getting old age pension regularly but she does not have a PDS card
3. Mangli Sisa, wife of Suma Sisa, does not have PDS card as well
4. Sombari Kirsani, wife of Buda Kirsani, also does not have a PDS card
5. Gurbari Sisa, wife of Sania Sisa, also does not have a PDS card
6. Dai Sisa has one daughter and one son below two years. Her husband died a year back and she has got neither NFBS benefit nor any pension
7. Gurbari Sisa has been divorced and is staying with her brother in the village since the last four years and has no PDS or NREGS job card

On 6th at Mudulipada

On 6th morning we saw Bonda women gathering again at the Panchayat office from 8.30 am. Similar to the previous day the PEO reached at 11 am for distribution of PDS rice and the same story repeated itself with regards to torn cards, mad rush at the window for entry of card numbers and cheating in weight.

Though the we had initially planned for visit to Andrahal on 6th we were unable to go since the villagers of that Panchayat were observing Chait Parab and most villagers would be busy in that or in preparing for their hunting expedition as part of the festival. So we decided to spend some time with villagers of Mudulipada to know more about the function of BDA. Villagers told us that BDA was distributing television and video sets in villages leading to village youth and children spending their time and energy in watching cinema and Oriya dance videos. The village elders told us that because of the television and videos, the youth were not going for work in the fields or for daily wage labour. They suggested that BDA should take back the television and video. We also found that BDA was distributing fruit bearing tree saplings and funds for land bunding and terracing along with distribution of fishing nets worth of lakhs. But the Bonda elders told us that Bondas do not know the use of nets as the fish they catch is of small variety which they catch using indigenous bamboo traps from the streams and rice fields. The BDA also runs a school.

The BDA Project Leader does not stay at Mudulipada and hence comes to the Mudulipada office for a few days a month. On 5th the BDA office was opened because the staffs had to be present for the opening of tenders for some road contract. It is a wonder why BDA is opening contracts for laying roads but not concerned about Bondas who are being deprived of basic entitlements like PDS and pensions ! It looks like BDA is working in isolation and has no coordination with Block and District administrations. It is imminent that BDA and the district administration think about a way to meet the challenges of ‘real’ development among Bondas. We came to know that there were about 37 NGOs working in 32 Bonda villages which, as per our conclusion, is definitely on pen and paper.

While visiting the area we found a newly constructed Ram temple and Mahadev temple and a relatively old Jagannath temple in and around Mudulipada. In the village also we saw murdangs (music instrument used for Hindu religious singing/chanting) which has replaced traditional music instruments of Bondas. Villagers told us that there were also kirtan mandals in some villages. When we asked them who facilitated these, the Bondas told us that some babas (Hindu religious leaders) had taught them to play murdang and set up the kirtan mandals which is a strong sign of the gradual ingress of Hindu religious agencies into Bonda territory. At the same time some Bondas have are converted to Christianity and changed their names from the traditional Bonda names to Christian names. So it is evident that communal forces are trying their best to influence the Bondas some are also attracted.

We realized that perhaps gradually the Bondas are losing their self-dignity and their way of life upon being overly dominated by outsiders and the ‘outside’ way of life and culture. We observed that contractors have exploited Bondas by creating a contingent of petty Bonda contractors by mobilising semi-literate Bonda youths. It is a sad paradox that while Bondas welcome the Government and its agents of the plains areas, these people have responded with utter disrespect to the Bonda and their culture and self-dignity.