The Pulse

Ecological Training Is Empowering India’s Tribal Women

Training for tribal and nontribal forest-dwelling women in the Indian state of Odisha is making a difference.

Ecological Training Is Empowering India’s Tribal Women
Credit: Pixabay

It is not often heard that an 18-year-old adivasi (or tribal) young woman in India is working successfully in the field of animal husbandry. Yet, that is the story of Dashmi Pratika, from Kurmijodi Nuagaon village of Chandrapur block in Odisha’s Rayagada district. In a field mostly reserved for men, Dashmi chose to train in animal husbandry. She took a three-month-long training course at the Green College in Muniguda district and is the only person in her village trained in the field. Her story was a delightful discovery during my latest trip to Odisha.

The concept behind starting the Green College in this eastern Indian state seemed novel to start with: they are working with indigenous people and other local communities, recognizing their traditional skill sets, and helping them hone ecologically relevant skills with the changing context of their outside realities and market forces. Every program taught in the College is related to the pursuits that the local communities were already occupied in, and are already knowledgeable about. Animal husbandry, mushroom cultivation, and farming are important examples in this context. The program is particularly exceptional because it often works with women and aims to empower them in terms of taking control over their finances as well.

By nature a little reserved, Dashmi was earlier hesitant to talk to the village elders and tell them about the newer ideas and science of castration of animals until she got one of her own goats castrated at the age of three and half months.

Everyone in the village, especially the elders, scolded her when it was done, but then they saw the difference in the growth of that lamb compared to the others and realized that she was right, so they appreciated her. The bigger and healthier animals fetch better rates at the local markets. She transforms into a confident woman when she starts talking about her work and takes a stand in front of the elders too. Following her lead, most of the people in the village now want to change to the new ways of animal husbandry and younger ones are eager to join the college to learn as well.

At her home, she takes all the decisions regarding their family cattle and goats. From the kind of feed to repairs of their shed, Dashmi has taken the lead in deciding how things will be done. She assists the veterinarians in her area and also earns through vaccination and castration of cattle and other animals in her and neighboring villages. Dashmi has not only gained the confidence to speak freely, she has also earned the respect in her community.

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There are a range of such programs and each is very interesting, especially the ones dealing with women. Leaf plate-making is one such foray, where the Green College taps young girls from the communities and trains them in newer and faster ways of doing something that local communities have been involved in for decades. Traditionally, and even now, many people use plates made from tree leaves while eating. Earlier, women used to collect these leaves, dry them, and stitch them with twigs for use during family meals. At the College, young women learn faster ways of stitching, and much more.

18-year-old Bilasa Badanayak did her course in leaf plate making in November 2017 and earns around $17 to $23 per month. She did the course with eight other girls and at the end of the course Living Farms provided them with a free stitching machine to support their work. Now the girls, who are all non-tribal, go to the forest once every fortnight and collect enough leaves to last at least two weeks, which are then dried to prepare plates. Once they go to the forest, it takes an entire day to collect the leaves. It has built their relationship with the forest, which is significant more so in the case of non-indigenous forest-dwelling communities, and also promoted bonding among them.

Each has turned into little entrepreneurs in their own right. Bilasa was picked to attend a five days High Potential Entrepreneur Training in Kolkata. At the training program, she met about 25 other young women from Bihar and Jharkhand. They shared their experiences of life and forest life in particular. She certainly come across as a confident woman who also likes to talk about her work and accomplishments.

Another venture that I found interesting was mushroom cultivation, an enterprise solely attributed to the indigenous communities traditionally. Here, the College brought a mixed group of tribal and non-tribal women together and after training, encouraged them to start their business together.

Kumberi Nundruka, a tribal woman, of Shibabadra village of Muniguda in Rayagada district of Odisha is around 30 years old. She attended the College along with 42-year-old Amita Mohanti and 40-year-old Dalimbo Teji – both non-tribal women. Kumberi was a school helper and daily wage earner, while Amita was an Anganwadi worker since 2003. Dalimbo used to make leaf plates before starting mushroom cultivation. While they all earned the bare minimum to subsist earlier, now each of them earns around $65 to $70 per month. They sell mushrooms at $3 per kilogram and manage to grow around four to five kilograms everyday, for which they require five beds of paddy straws in their shed.

Their venture requires about two hours of work daily by everyone. They are producing mainly two varieties of mushrooms – oyster and pedistro, the latter available all year round compared to the seasonal oyster mushroom. Usually, it doesn’t even take much of an effort to sell their products because people around them know that they grow quality mushrooms and seek them out. But the effect of the program goes beyond just economics.

To grow mushrooms, they need straws of paddy crop (the stubble after harvest) – it is the best for retaining moisture and letting the fungi flourish. These they get from their own fields or from neighbors who are happy to oblige as well. Once the time comes to change the padding, it is used to make fertilizer. Apart from providing her with financial relief, she also takes care of nutritional requirements of her own family with healthy mushrooms cultivated at home.

It was heartening and wonderful to see these young women getting motivated to stand on their feet economically. Their empowerment starts to express itself in their growing decision-making power in their families and their communities. When you catch these young women in time, it makes them assertive and gives them a voice for life.

Parul Abrol is Roving Correspondent for Firstpost, mostly writing on the Northeast India.