Eight years ago when Minda Kadarka, a tribal woman from Odisha’s Rayagada district, lost her husband, she had very little money to rely on. However, her agricultural land was not left barren nor was her granary empty.
Ms. Kadarka, 55, has no need to ask for help as her fellow villagers unfailingly have helped till her land, sow paddy, harvest the crop and make the grain available to her in Udrubali village under Kalyansinghpur block — all without demanding any wages.
Such altruism may sound strange to most, but among the tribal communities of Odisha the tradition of taking everyone along is still strong and sustained.
“What if she cannot work or she is a single woman? We cannot leave her to die of starvation. By putting in extra labour, all fellow villagers have ensured that Ms. Kadarka’s field is tilled every season and she has access to grain,” said Bhaskar Rao Kadarka, another resident of Udrubali, a tiny hamlet of just 13 families from the Kandh tribe.
“It does not surprise me. The woman’s story is definitely not the sole example. The tribal society has umpteen examples of camaraderie, strong societal bonds and mutual help through exchange of labour,” explained A. B. Ota, Director of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Research and Training Institute (SCSTRTI) and a prominent researcher on indigenous communities.
The concept of labour cooperatives is still in vogue in almost all tribal communities including the Dongria Kandh, Juanga, Lanjia Saura, Saura, Didayi, Paudi Bhuyan and Kandh in Odisha.
However, not many are aware of these resilient traditions. When the Odisha State Tribal Museum recently screened a short film focusing on labour cooperatives of the Dongria Kandh, their structures and functioning, it left everyone awestruck.
The Dongria Kandh, a particularly vulnerable tribal group , who live in the State’s Niyamgiri Hill range rising to 4,500 ft above sea level, practice at least 10 types of cooperative labour sharing within the community.
“Here farming [on the steep hill slopes] requires more labour which a single family cannot provide. Therefore, they have evolved an indigenous system to engage the labour available in the community to accomplish the farming tasks of all the families of the village,” said Trilochan Sahoo, a leading researcher on tribal societies.
Community members come together to reduce costs as well as ensuring dignity to all members. Through the cooperative, adolescent boys and girls, men, women and the elderly contribute equally in terms of labour towards the village’s fields and orchards.
In the sahabati system, all Dongria households of the village work in turns for a day on the land of one villager. Traditionally, the host-labourer would offer a feast of rice, dal, curry and fermented gruel for the workers in return. Now the community feast has been done away with but the host pays a token amount to the village fund. The collected money is used for organizing a feast for the whole village.
In a variation, under the pundabati system , 10 to 15 members of the community are called upon when fewer workers are required in the fields.
Members of the village are also organised into specialised groups depending on the nature of the work. The daasibati is a cooperative of younger, unmarried girls from the village who are called upon to take up less strenuous but tedious work such as weeding, fencing of fields, cleaning or harvesting of crops. Their counterparts, the dhangdabati, young bachelors are required to take up work such as felling trees, hoeing, carrying logs and digging pits. Under datarubati , older men help each other in their respective fields for a share of liquor.
During 1982-87, a young anthropologist Anant Chararn Sahu, who was appointed as a special officer of the Dongria Kandh Development Agency harnessed the tribal labour cooperatives for creating infrastructure and development of horticulture in the Niyamgiri Hill range.
Similarly, among the Lanjia Saora community, all members are bound to participate in constructing terraces for farming on the slopes and designing and creating traditional irrigation systems, harnessing hill streams. In the Juanga community, all villagers trek hills, clear trees and create crop fields. The village council ensures that all members contribute their labour.
“At a time when agriculture faces huge labour crisis, the prevailing labour cooperative in tribal communities appears to be a silver-lining. The community participation in ensures that no field remains barren,” said Prasant Mohanty, a social activist.