Perched at a height of 3,500ft above sea level in the hilly Malkangiri district of Odisha, this village is difficult to access and so are its inhabitants — the Bondas, a particularly vulnerable tribal group, known for their secluded lives away from the mainstream.
However, the lack of access has not prevented young Bondas from being forced leave their pristine hamlets for low-paid jobs in distant towns of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and States even farther. The coronavirus ( COVID-19 ) pandemic appears to have quickened the ‘distress’ migration.
Sombari Muduli, 60, has visited the Malkangiri district headquarters, 80 km from her village, just once in her life. However, her 16-year-old daughter Gurubari has crossed State borders to work in prawn processing plant in Visakhapatnam.
Without waiting for the COVID-19 pandemic to abate, Gurubari left her single room hut months ago. In her neighbourhood, Pradan Batri, 16, and Khuji Sisa, 17, too migrated to Andhra Pradesh immediately after the lockdown.
The disturbing trend of distress migration has also caught up with Bonda students who were studying in residential schools before COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Sada Hantal, a resident of Andrahal, students sat idle for months as they could not pursue their education due to lack of online facilities during the outbreak.
“The moment they came in contact with labour agents, they did not take much time to decide. They brought down the curtain on their studies. Arjun Sisa (Class 8) and Krushna Sisia (Class 9) have already migrated to work,” Mr. Hantal said, adding that the list of students dropping out of school was growing.
Though the pandemic did not have much impact on Bondas as they mostly depend on government food subsidies, many were not able to sell their farm and and forest produce as the weekly markets remained closed for months during lockdown period.
“I sell cashew nuts in bulk which takes care of our cash needs for round the year. Now, our needs are increasing too. To arrange more cash, my daughter had to migrate,” said Ms. Muduli.
Former Malkangiri district collector Manish Agarwal, however, said the administration could not prevent individuals from migrating for better opportunities as long as the migrations are not distressed or under duress.
“Bondas are extremely cautious about preserving their unique culture and tradition. We will take action if Bondas are being taken away for cheap labour,” Mr. Agarwal said.
Given that the highland tribal community are extremely vulnerable, the Odisha government had set up a micro project to ensure focused development of Bondas as early as 1976-77. The Bonda Development Agency (BDA) covers 32 habitations (21 under Mudulipada, 9 under Andrahal, and one habitation each from Rasabeda and Baddural gram panchayats) in total from four gram panchayats. There are 1,919 Bonda households living in high reaches of Malkangiri.
However, despite years of government intervention, there has not been much visible development among Bondas.
As per latest an evaluation conducted by Odisha’s Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Research and Training Institute (SCSTRTI), although ₹18.23 crore have been allotted to the BDA in last five years, only ₹11.57 crore have been spent, leaving ₹6.66 crore or 36.52% unutilised.
It clearly shows the BDA does not have capacity to spend funds even though the livelihood options for the Bondas have reduced. One of the major reasons has been the lack of coordination with other departments to improve the life and livelihood of the group. Of the 32 habitations, 16 villages do not have all weather roads and hamlets can be accessed only by rough footpaths.
“If migration is taken as the single largest indicator to assess the livelihood status of a community, it is seen that the incidence of migration has increased over the years amongst the Bonda households,” the SCSTRTI said.
“The data collected from the BDA sample villages indicates that during the last four years, there has been an increase in the trend of migration which is indicative of the fact that the income opportunities in the area are not adequate to provide employment to the Bondas,” the study added.
As per the study, 221 Bondas have migrated from 7 sample villages in 2019-20.