Agri-entrepreneurship in Odisha | Paving the way for prosperity
Sujit Das, 40, does not wear the clothes or carry the implements traditionally associated with farmers in India. He is in a T-shirt, jeans, and sports shoes, and sits in a room with a desk and chair in his modest house in Umerkote, in Odisha’s Nabarangpur district. From here he manages 20 acres of land and controls the flow of agricultural workers, mostly tribal people from the area.
He steps out to survey the drip irrigation system that administers precise amounts of water and fertilizer across one acre of tomato crop. “By grafting tomato onto brinjal, I get 50-100% greater produce,” he says, adding that he is expecting a bountiful harvest of 1,000 kg of tomatoes per day over the next two months. Across his land, where he grows cabbage, cauliflower, chillies, bitter gourd, and other vegetables, he also has a duck farm and a hatchery. Integrated farming protects him from potential crop failure and sometimes from volatile wholesale prices.
Das is a third-generation descendant of a Bengali Hindu immigrant family uprooted from erstwhile East Pakistan in the mid-1950s. About 1,700 of the families displaced between the 50s and 70s, after they faced discrimination and persecution in what became Bangladesh in 1971, were settled in 60 villages in Odisha’s Nabarangpur district. This was a poverty-stricken area in the hilly, forested Dandakaranya area, which has a tribal population of over 55%.
As per the National Family Health Survey-4 (NFHS-4) of 2015-16, the district was the poorest in Odisha, with 59.32% of its population identified as multidimensionally poor. The Multidimensional Poverty Index covers various aspects besides the monetary, including health and education. NFHS-5 of 2019-21 data showed Nabarangpur had reduced its poverty levels by 25.87%, and was no longer the poorest in the State. One of the reasons, say people in the region and government officials, is agri-entrepreneurship.
Kamal Lochan Mishra, the District Magistrate and Collector, says it is a combination of the adoption of technology and an entrepreneurial spirit of the settlers that has helped the people, mostly farmers, in the area.
November buzzes with activity in Nabarangpur, with the landscape painted yellow as maize grains are harvested and laid out to dry in sun-drenched courtyards. In the midst of the bustle, Chittaranjan Dhali, in his 50s, dispatches maize-laden trucks bound for Visakhapatnam port. Dhali, who used to be a corn farmer, began trading in it in 2006, and is now a wholesale agent, with an annual turnover of ₹25 crore.
Located in the south-west of Odisha, bordered by Koraput district and Chhattisgarh’s Raipur and Bastar districts, Nabarangpur has become Odisha’s maize production hub. About 12% of the district’s land is under corn cultivation, a crop that the locals and government officials say the Bengalis brought into the area from East Pakistan. Now, the crop is cultivated across approximately 80,000 hectares in this district alone.
This year, the Odisha government launched the Mukhyamantri Maka Mission (MMM) that aims to boost maize production and productivity while enhancing the overall value chain of marketing in the region. “We are experimenting with improving maize cultivation on 2,000 hectares. The average maize production of India is 48 quintals per hectare; here it is 52 quintals,” says Mishra. He adds that in a recent intercropping experiment, the yield has gone up to 78 quintals in one place, and 92 quintals in another.
Next month, Umerkote, a town with a population of about 40,000, will get a multiplex theatre. Das’s brother-in-law, the proprietor, who does not want to be named, says people who have prospered with their efforts ought to have the entertainment choices of India’s cities. “In my assessment, people will queue up even if the ticket is priced at ₹300,” he says, of Connplex Smart Theatre, the Ahmedabad-based franchise.
For the immigrants, West Bengal was a natural choice, considering a common culture, but soon the State could not handle the large influx of people and started to close transit camps in the late 1950s. Those who were turned away were mostly farmers, many Dalits.
Professor Jagannath Ambagudia, chairperson of the Unit for Research and Development, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Guwahati, Assam, who has studied the rehabilitation of Bengali immigrants, says the sparsely populated Dandakaranya region covering parts of Odisha and then Madhya Pradesh (now in Chhattisgarh) was selected as the most suitable area for speedy resettlement.
“The Dandakaranya region, spread over one lakh square kilometres, with large tracts of forestland, offered sufficient area to claim more than one lakh acres, which was needed for the rehabilitation process,” Prof. Ambagudia says. The region was remote, densely forested, and thinly populated. “The population density of the Dandakaranya region was about 100 persons per square mile (1.6 km). This meant that there was much scope for resettlement,” he says.
There were 21,265 Bengali families settled in the area from 1958 to 1978, as per an answer to a question in the Lok Sabha in 1979. In Odisha, they came to inhabit the 60 villages in Nabarangpur and 280 villages in Malkangiri district.
Struggles, wins, and losses
The early years of transitioning from wet agriculture in present-day Bangladesh to dry-land cultivation posed challenges. The farmers were familiar only with jute and paddy cultivation, and fishing. Fearing the odds, some migrants sought refuge at Marichjhapi island in the Sundarban forest area. A forceful crackdown by the then West Bengal government, in what is called the Marichjhapi massacre, forced them to move to Dandakaranya.
Each family was given six acres of agricultural land and less than one acre for homestead and dairy purposes. The Dandakaranya Development Authority was established to supervise the affairs of the settlers. A primary school was established in each village. The Odisha government accepted their Scheduled Caste status and earmarked reservation in government jobs, which helped the Bengali settlers gain employment.
“I was just a year old when my parents fled to Dandakaranya in 1959,” recollects Ramendra Nath Biswas, 70, who runs a ‘fancy’ store selling stationery and trinkets at Umerkote, after retiring as a bank manager. He remembers seeing poverty-stricken tribals dependent on forest produce, with meagre means of cultivation. “The entire region was infertile and arid, and an initial experiment with cotton farming failed,” he says.
Hybrid maize seeds introduced in the early 1980s were the game changer, he says. Low input cost (since maize does not require too much intervention) and high returns worked in favour of the settlers. At a height of 582 metres, Nabarangpur is not affected by floods and cyclones, and does not see high wind speeds. Maize harvests are usually guaranteed.
The settlers’ claim over resources did not go down well with locals, already marginalised tribespeople, mainly Bhatras, but also Gonds, Parojas, Bhumias, and Kandhas. In 2001, in a conflict in Raighar and Umerkote between local Adivasis (tribals) and Bengali settlers, five people died. There are tensions even now.
“In Raighar, there are frequent allegations of tribal girls and women being subjected to sexual exploitation at the hands of Bengalis. Encroachment of land by settlers is blatant,” says Rajesh Jani, a youth leader and tribal rights activist, who has lived and worked in this area.
Prof. Ambagudia says the Dandakaranya Project, which was the primary instrument for the rehabilitation of migrants, followed discriminatory practices against Adivasi communities. “It considered the native Adivasis the secondary social group competing for facilities and benefits.” He points out that disproportionate facilities were extended to Bengali settlers while tribals continued to languish. “Differential treatment develops the feeling of antipathy between various communities, contributing to the emergence of group comparison,” he adds.
However, some tribal people learnt the tricks of the trade as they were employed as agricultural workers. Anantram Bhatra, from the Raighar block, says, “We have now moved away from subsistence farming. We too have drip irrigation systems on our land. We are catching up with the Bengali settlers in maize and vegetable farming.”
Mishra says the government is now trying to promote cashew farming and the tribal people are the main beneficiaries.
Over a State border
Bengali farmers also pooled their knowledge with fellow settlers in the bordering district of Bastar in Chhattisgarh, where modern agricultural practices have been implemented. “When I open WhatsApp in the morning, I find a constant inflow of information about the outlook for vegetable prices, and possible diseases and their remedies. If I face any insect infestation, experienced farmers in the group suggest solutions,” says Das, whose annual income hovers between ₹12 lakh and ₹14 lakh. As vegetable farming is labour-intensive, he provides employment to at least 30 daily wagers, mostly tribals. Depending on what they grow, and whether they are only harvesting vegetables or supplying seeds, farmers earn between ₹1 lakh and ₹5 lakh per acre every year.
Meteorological data from universities too reach farmers, says Amit Chawda, 32, a third-generation Gujarati farmer in Bastar, whose family migrated from Kutch because of drought conditions. “The automated weather station installed, especially for farming, can assess the water requirement for plants,” he says, adding that drip irrigation means that he can control the process of releasing water, fertilizer, and insecticide from anywhere in the world. Seasonal cycles no more determine when to grow a particular vegetable. Farmers choose vegetables based on their demand in the market. The Odisha government’s borewell irrigation initiative, where a cluster of four farmers shared a well, helped.
However, marginal farmers still have a difficult life. “I grow simba (flat beans) in one acre, and maize during the monsoon. The annual profit of ₹2 lakh is just enough to take care of our food needs,” says Kalpana Sarkar, who took to farming after her husband’s death. Her two sons, who have dropped out of school, help her.
After the settlers started growing vegetables on a large scale in bordering areas, a robust market linkage was firmly established. Gurusingha in Raighar block, for instance, sends 100 tonnes of vegetables daily to the wholesale market.
About 300 km from Odisha’s Umerkote lies Pakhanjur village, in Chhattisgarh’s Kanker district, which is part of Dandakaranya. Over the past six decades, settlers here have led a blue revolution, dominating the fisheries sector. Many farmers have independently constructed ponds exceeding 50 acres for fish culture, yielding 8,000 to 12,000 kg per hectare of major carp and up to 70 tonnes per hectare of Pangasius fish.
Pakhanjur, with over 200 ponds, now sells spawns, fries, and fingerlings to six States, and is considered the largest cluster for fisheries in central India.
Back in Raighar, Naresh Bairagi, a Bengali settler in the remote Powerbela-2 village, 18 km from the block headquarters, has 22 acres of farmland dotted with ponds he has created. “Last season, I sold 25 quintals of hatchlings from these ponds,” says Bairagi.
Mishra is hopeful that the district will prosper with long-term investments. Under the MMM, over the next five years, the district that currently has 55 godowns with a capacity of 29,650 metric tonnes of maize, will have 108 with a collective capacity of 56,150 metric tonnes. “We are building farmer producer organisations to ensure the minimum support price for maize,” he says.
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