Crystal clear sky, zig-zag mountains, mobile clouds, acoustically mesmerizing streams, waterfalls, lush green fields, biodiversity, breathtaking sunsets and sunrises, lots of glaring stars – it sounds amazing, right? Fortunately, 80% of the above mentioned facets are present, expect two things which depends on how you perceive biodiversity and lush green fields. Greenery, tall trees systematically arranged in an array over large areas, agricultural lands are all aesthetically pleasing to eyes but shifting cultivation techniques, need for wood and timber as fuel or raw material for paper pulp, forest produce for commercial use, infrastructure development, animal grazing and many more historically complex events might have influenced and/or fastened the process of degradation. 15% primary tree cover have been lost since the year 2000.1
It has been more than a month here in Kashipur, Odisha and the exposure is constantly bursting bubbles for me, personally. Geographical location, sociopolitical events, administrational incompetence and isolated beings throughout the history reflect the gaps between us and tribal people where they are blissfully unaware of the customs such as celebrating birthdays. Most of the adults don’t even know their birthdays. They have been provided with one on Adhaar card based on discussions and approximations by the locals with an approximate date and year. It has many implications when we talk about schemes and entitlements.
But what do birthdays, parties, status, stories, gifts, presents bring on the table for us? To remember that we are privileged and fortunate to exist in times of great technological advancement?
About Kashipur block where I am staying:
Number of villages: 271, each with a radius of 1-2 km.
Population: 70,540 as per census 2011, 36,483 female and 34,057 male
Literacy rate: 37%
Primary health centers (PHCs): 6
Community health centers (CHCs): 31
PDS centers: 40
Schools (private and public): 19
Mountainous Terrain, roads (earthern, gravel and tar based on accessibility and terrain) well connected though need maintenance, no street lights so you are all upon the courtesy of the moon and torch after 6 pm, four petrol pumps in tikkri because of Utkal Alumina International’s presence which is 22 kms from the block headquarters and yet, every village has a petrol seller selling it in bottles at INR 100 per litter (possibly adulterated), and no influence of international or national demand. A few villagers are proud owner of Motorbikes, some of trendy ones as well.
Almost every village has electricity connection, although uncertain hours of supply. There are cement roads in villages, and community bore-wells, some working some not. BSNL network is all over and fortunately, we have a Jio tower in our campus at Agragamee, with a range of upto 3 kms. Most of the houses are built in traditional ways with less ventilation. Many of them have Tata sky/ Videocon connection, only a few with a gas connection. Almost every one has toilets, courtesy Swachh bharat abhiyan, though the space is used as a store room or as a cage for hens.
Though it’s too early to fully understand the dynamics of each aspect in the light of the pandemic, I have been able to get some insights for two most visible and concerning issues for an urban counterpart – availability of toilets and use of wood as fuel.
The blackened roof in absense of proper ventilation with dim glowing bulb, the burning sensation in eyes and not so pleasant, invisible PM 2.5 air available to inhale – what choices does one have?
Wood is considered as a renewable source of energy and burning it is considered as a carbon neutral activity if you make sure that the same number of plantations are grown simultaneously. Obviously, it takes years for the tree to grow that big, but if properly monitored and executed, it is a cheap source of carbon neutral renewable energy. Western countries are switching to wood instead of coal for power plants, declaring a successful switch to renewable energy, thus protecting our beloved Earth from warming.2
But this is only one side of the story. Coming back to the tribal context, wood has a lot of value addition in rural economy here. Cheaper/free source of energy is one of the key components. Based on the requirements, women children and sometimes men procure wood from the nearby forest which can be 1-2 kms or more. They carry it on their heads. It may easily weigh around 20-40 kgs. Such trips are made either twice a week or sometimes, bulk wood is procured through a month for the rest of the year based on availability and climatic conditions.
For a family of 5-6 people, around 2000 kg of wood is utilized in a year. These numbers are horrible just because they are visible and countable but in an era of globalization, these are not even comparable with an urbanite.
Many of these people here are listed as a beneficiaries of Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana. Under this scheme, five crore LPG connections are to be provided to BPL (Below Poverty Line) households. The administrative cost of Rs. 1600 per connection, which includes a cylinder, pressure regulator, booklet, safety hose, etc. is borne by the Government.
Consider that I install a connection successfully after going through all the administrative challenges such as your name is not on the list as they are using 2011 list, your name’s spelling is incorrect, documents are not as required etc. Here, I am considering that I can read the instructions on the booklet, know the safety precautions and the right way to use it. In a family of five, I have minimized the use of wood for a couple of months. What next? Can I afford the subsidized price of INR 700 for refill or is it even on my priority list of expenditures given the limited and uncertain income source(s)? For a small and marginal farmer, the annual income may vary from INR 20,000 to 1,00,000 which includes MNREGA and work as a migrant worker as well.
Even if I can afford to renew the gas connection, will I get it home delivered or do I have to get it in person? Who will take care of my transportation charges? Will the gas cylinders be available on the day of my visit or do I have to go an unknown number of times, compromising on my daily wage every time and miss the work on my field, if any? If I somehow manage to book it online, what are the chances of getting it on time?
Take these dilemmas, geographical restrictions, infrastructural constraints and see if can you come to any rational choice? Free wood or luxurious gas? We haven’t considered the health and environmental aspects yet, in this scenario. Two more facts – Indoor air pollution caused two million premature deaths in 2014 in India and from the year 2000 to 2020, we have lost 4.6% of tree cover.
Government has invested INR 12k for each toilet construction, declared India open defecation free, even received the Global Goalkeeper award from Bill & Melinda Gates foundation. I wonder which part of India is eligible for this achievement? Contractor came, built, gave wage, took photo and earned a lot thats all, many of the beneficiaries didn’t even try the facility once.
Lack of water facilities, small pots, small pits thus overflowing stool and creating foul smell, maintenance requirements and interestingly no shame and its more about habit, defecating openly with groups in the morning, its a new day and a new location. Why should one change their routine for that cramp spaced smelly toilets? Water tanks and taps with limited capacity have been provided with solar-powered motor for every village but will you consume it to cater drinking, cooking and basic purpose needs for the whole village or use it to clean your shit? Fortunately perennial streams nearby eliminates bathing and washing needs, some still have to use it for basic needs, welcoming uncertainties open heartedly.
Cultural and religious dimension will add more species to the dish. Every aspects are so amazingly complex and based on rationale at several layers in different realities. I am intrigued to unravel each one, hoping to deep dive and improve my understanding through this journey.
P.S. All photos are taken with consent.