‘We had to walk 40 to 50 km., in flood, to collect foodgrains’
While the Chhattisgarh government is touting its food policy as the most successful model of production and distribution of food grains in the country, the people of Abujhmarh — a vast swath of forestland in south-west Chhattisgarh — spent another monsoon without adequate food.
Several villagers told The Hindu that the fair price shops, run by Gram Panchayats inside Abujhmarh were “not functioning” properly during the monsoon thus compelling the primitive tribe — the Hill Marias — to use their stock, which was inadequate.
“We have hardly received anything throughout the monsoon, as only two places were open over the last few months,” said Shambunath Maria of Kutul. These places — in villages Krushner and Kukdajarh, close to Narayanpur district headquarters inside Abujhmarh — distribute food grains during monsoon. However, four other food distribution centres deep inside Abujhmarh — Mohandi, Kodkanar, Kundla and Sonpur — were not functioning properly, the villagers said.
“As a result we had to walk 40 to 50 km., in flood, to collect food grains,” said Paras Gota, a resident of the village Hokpad. However, the villagers claimed that the Panchayat-run centres “operate consistently” the rest of the seven months.
Narayanpur Collector Yaswant Kumar refuted the villagers’ allegations, saying that he had sent a report to Raipur claiming that the Panchayat-owned shops were “doing fine.”
“The four shops that you mentioned, stocked three months’ food grains before the monsoon as vehicles cannot ply beyond Krushner during the monsoon. Also, food grains were sent to other parts of Abujhmarh.”
Abujhmarh is still one of the most under-surveyed forests of India and has not changed much over centuries.
“…this area of about 1500 square miles [has] only 11,500 Hill Marias,” wrote Wilfrid Grigson, the British officer of the Central Provinces and Berar, in the ’20s.
Ramakrishna Mission (RKM) started working there in the ’80s. A researcher among the missionaries wrote after almost a century of Grigson’s visit “…inaccessible terrain that remains cut off for about six months a year has a tribal population of 34,000.”
One reason why the RKM did some extensive mapping of the area was to meet a government request. The State government wanted the RKM to start education centres, which would also provide food and daily consumables through the mission’s fair price shops inside Abujhmarh.
Eventually, about a decade back, the RKM started six fair price shops between the central and southern parts of Abujhmarh. The shops played a crucial role in implementing the ambitious food distribution scheme, much before it was turned into a legal right in Chhattisgarh.
However, about three years back, the district administration suspected that these consumables were reaching the Maoist kitchen via tribals. So it took away the RKM’s distribution rights. “I was not here around the time and will not comment [about the controversy]. Panchayats told me, food was not properly distributed [by RKM]. But if the government decides [to resume deliveries through the RKM], I do not have an issue,” said Mr. Kumar. The Mission refused to comment about the controversy.
Recently, Food and Civil Supplies Secretary Vikas Sheel told The Hindu that returning the fair price shops to the RKM was “under consideration.”
“However, ultimately shop allocation and selection of agency will depend on the local circumstances,” he said, adding that while there was a move to “revert shops to the RKM” the Gram Panchayats were running the shops “…if not in a better way, at least maintaining the same standard [as the RKM].”
It looks like the Abujhmarias will have to wait for a few more years before the delivery mechanism gets regularised. (Villagers’ names changed to protect identities)