After the gruel of the toxic Mango kernel and Tamarind seeds, now the indigenous tribes of Niyamgiri hills are satiating their hunger during this Corona period with the gruel prepared by the stem of ‘Salap’ tree (Caryata urens).
Kadraka Baimu, 35, a Dongria Kondh woman of Niyamgiri hill says, “Every woman wants to feed her family with nutritious food, but we have no option but to eat this. We don’t know whether it will cause health problem or not. Now our priority at this point of time to satiate our hunger.”
Then she goes on to underline a stark reality saying, “There is no work available, government subsidized rice is distributed once in two or three months, and even then we have no money to buy it. Tell me, do we have a choice but to eat this Salap gruel?”
Kadraka Baimu is a resident of Buduni village under Parasail Panchayat, Kalayansinghpur block of Rayagada district. This is one among the 120 villages in Niyamgiri Hill.
Every morning Baimu and her husband go to forest to collect the stems of the Salap tree. She dry up the stems and then her mother-in-law grind it properly. Then she put the grinded stems powder in an earthen pot. After adding some water, she leaves it to boil. After it is cooked properly, the gruel becomes very thick. They preserve this gruel for days together and eat it. Sometime they put some veggie or leaves in it and sometimes put some millet and have it.
“No doubt we get 35 kg rice under the Antoday Yojana but those who have five to six family members, it doesn’t not last for months. So we keep it on a stand by and when the rice get exhausted in the mid of the month, this gruel is the only hope to feed the family,” Sikoka Pramoda of Niyamgiri hill explained.
“Due to the Covid-19 driven lockdown, we could not go to the market to sell our products like Pineapple, Mangoes and other forest produced. As a result, no tribal has a single penny in hand. How will we buy rice at 35 rupees?” Sikoka questioned.
There are many Dongrias like Baimu and Pramod who have been facing hardship to feed their family.
“Gruel of the Salap stems are inedible food which might cause stomach disorder and leads to diarrhoea. The Dongrias should be aware of this and should not take this food as staple diet,” Dr Saumya Ranjan Jena, Community health center, Kalyansingpur, alerted.
Dongria is one of the primitive tribes (particularly vulnerable tribal group) of Odisha. They have an estimated population of about 10,000 and are distributed in around 120 settlements, all at an altitude up to 5,000 feet above the sea-level. The Dongrias live in villages scattered throughout the hills. They believe that their right to cultivate Niyamgiri’s slopes has been conferred on them by Niyam Raja, and that they are his royal descendants. Their villages are located in hill slopes and valleys. The economy and livelihood of Dongria Kondh is dependent on collection of NTFP and Podu cultivation (A form of shifting cultivation) where they cleared the forest in different places by burning it each year and cultivate crops on the slope.
“These days cultivation has become impossible because the forest department does not allow us to clear the forest patch for cultivation. We solely depend on the minor forest produce, horticulture and the wage provided by the government rarely. Due to lockdown, we could not go to the market to sell our products. This is the mango season, we could have earned some money but we are sitting idle left with nothing. How will we feed our children?” Lachi Sikoka, another Dongria woman echoed.
In 1964, the Dongria Kondh Development Agency (DKDA) was set up to launch developmental programmes in Niyamgiri to improve the lives and livelihood of this Dongria tribe, and to include them into the mainstream of the society. Apart from this, Odisha PVTG Empowerment and Livelihoods Improvement Program (OPELIP) is also in place to improve the lives of the Dongria tribe. Despite having these agencies and programmes, this indigenous tribe is forced to eat the Salap Gruel.
The Dongrias’ are alleging that the development is not reaching to them. “Sometimes they provide some work but most of time we just sit idle with no work. They receive crores of rupees funds in our name but see how we are living. Our people not even get two square meals a day,” Sikoka Pramod alleged.
While asking to the local block development officer about why the entitlement is not reaching to the end beneficiary which push them to include these inedible food in their staple diet, Kalu Charan Nayak, BDO, Kalyansinghpur block replied, “They should not eat those Salap stem gruel, because these are inedible food. Whatever entitlements that the block office is suppose to give them is being given to them on time. I don’t know about what they are getting under the Odisha PVTG Empowerment and livelihoods improvement programma. But we will definitely look in to the matter and ensure that they should not eat inedible food like this.”
In 2001, Rayagada district had made a headline as 21 tribal allegedly die due to starvation because they were consuming the Mango Kernel Gruel and wild roots which turned to be poisonous and they died. After two decades, again due to poverty, deprivation and lack of awareness, the tribal of the same Rayagada district are consuming gruel of the Salap stems, is not unfortunate but is putting question mark on the implementation of the government programmes meant for the Dongrias.