Small and marginal Adivasi farmers find their way out of hunger with water


By Chandrika Patnaik

25 February 2022

Adivasi farmers at the foothills of Mahendragiri hills partner with Gram Vikas to repair the primary water source to their village.

Jayanti Jani in her paddy field.

Photograph by Chandrika Patnaik

At the foothills of the Mahendragiri hills, stretching between the Bisampadu forest and a few paddy fields, lies the village of Dambapur in the Gajapati district of Odisha. Dambapur is a 24-households habitation of the Langia Saura Adivasis, who farms and rears livestock for their livelihood. Five of the households are landless and cultivate on leased land, fourteen own an acre of land or less, and the remaining five own more than five acres. 

Gram Vikas’ partnership with the community started in 2016 with the integrated water-sanitation programme. Every household constructed individual toilets and bathing rooms and got functional household-level piped water supply through three taps. It changed the lives of the community significantly. Women saved time from water work. They used the newfound time to farm vegetables and lentils, saving some for consumption and the rest for sale. 

The primary water source for Dambapur and the neighbouring 12 villages was the Mahendra Tanaya canal flowing along the periphery of the village. In 2018, landslides caused by Cyclone Titli severely damaged the canal damaging its sidewalls and causing water to leak out before reaching Dambapur’s fields. 

Basanta Sabara, a farmer from the nearby Bikrampur village, remembers the effect of the Cyclone on farming, “I own three acres of land. Before Cyclone Titli, we used to get enough water from the canal to cultivate paddy and pulses. In 2018, the Cyclone badly damaged the canal. Since then, we could only cultivate during the monsoon. But the harvest was not good because if there was less rain, then there was no other source of water here to irrigate our fields.” 

After the Cyclone, Dambapur received enough water to irrigate only 50-60% of the cultivable area. In response, small and marginal farmers of Dambapur and other villages then shifted to growing crops that needed less water. Since then, small and marginal farmers of Dambapur grow crops that need little water, such as horse gram, finger millet, black gram, green gram, and castor.

Forty-three-year-old Jayanti Jani lives in Dambapur with her husband, Lakshmana Jani and two teenage sons. Lakshmana rears his goats and also helps three other families with their livestock. He earns when he sells his goats and gets paid half the sale amount when other families sell their goats.

With no land to call their own and an uncertain income, Jayanti was always anxious about feeding her two teenage sons. “It was extremely stressful for me to provide rice twice a day. The rice we received from the government every month got over within 10-12 days. I could barely provide enough food for my growing children,” she recalls. 

Jayanti remembers her daily routine of searching for work. “I would finish my work at home and then travel with other women from the village by auto to nearby villages like Kardasingi, Burjang, and Rayagada in search of odd jobs in construction sites, paddy or cotton fields, or in cashew orchards during the season. On days that I got work, I earned  ₹250.” Buying rice from the market every week was expensive, and she had to look for ways to gather enough food for the family.  

Jayanti’s friend, 30-year-old Amita, shared similar experiences. Amita used to cultivate paddy but had shifted to growing horse gram, finger millet, black gram and castor crop due to water scarcity after the Cyclone. When the pandemic began, her husband Biju, who used to work as a construction labourer returned from Chennai. He started going for work to a few construction sites in Parlakhemundi, 30 km away from Dambapur, whenever work was available. Amita occasionally worked as a daily wage labourer in Dambapur or cashew orchards in nearby villages to supplement Biju’s income. She struggled to feed her family with two children. 

Two years after the Cyclone, Gram Vikas again partnered with the Dambapur community to reconstruct the canal. Godrej and Boyce funded the initiative. “The rebuilding and repair of the canal, which originates two kilometres up the hill and flows down through our village, began in April 2021,” says Amita.

Soon after the repair work started, in July 2021, water started flowing into the surrounding villages, including Dambapur. Both Jayanti and Amita leased 0.5 acres of land each and restarted paddy cultivation. “I harvested close to five quintals of paddy in December 2021, all of which I stored instead of selling”, says Jayanti. Amita harvested a second crop of paddy in December 2021, “I cultivated on 0.5 acres of leased land and got a harvest of one quintal of paddy grains last year. I still have enough grains stored for the next four months.”

Jayanti no longer worries about having enough food and says she is overjoyed at the changes, “I lead a more comfortable life now. I cultivate the crop myself and feel thrilled when my 20-year-old son, who goes to college in Parlakhemundi, tells me that he is proud of me. My son has enrolled in college this year and works as a mason to pay for his college education.”

Ramachandra Sabara, the 60-year-old Secretary of the Mahendra Tanaya Canal Committee, is a shop owner and a farmer from Padmapur village. He is hopeful, “Once the canal repair work is completed, twelve villages in this area will be able to irrigate their fields throughout the year.”

Amita says that along with water, the weekly weather advisory has helped farmers change their practices and prevent damage to their crops. She is a Gram Vikas trained Paani Pago Mitra or Community Weather Volunteer of Dambapur. The advisories have helped the community to prepare well for calamities like heavy rains.

“Last year, when the weather station predicted heavy rains during the harvest, all the farmers from our village harvested the ripe paddy crop quickly, piled it up, and covered it with plastic tent covers. It rained heavily, as predicted, after that, but thanks to the weather station advisory, the farmers saved their entire harvest.”

Jayanti no longer worries about having enough food at home. Regular and sufficient water supply has given both food and money for the family. 

“We have enough now. So much so that whenever I have to buy a gift for a relative during a festival or when they come to stay over for a few days with us, I sell the grain to meet the expenses. It gives me a lot of satisfaction to do as I please because I don’t have to worry about food or expenses anymore. I can save the ₹800 I spent to buy rice from the market every month to pay for my younger son’s school fee.”

The ongoing repair of the Mahendra Tanya Canal sluice gate extends across 17 feet of its length at the source and 30 feet length of the nearby sidewalks. Currently, the 2.1-kilometre long floor of the canal is under reconstruction and will be completed in March 2022. 

The canal will benefit 500 households, 85% of who belong to the Adivasi communities from twelve villages of Dambapur, Balipur, Padmapur, Ratnapura, Gobindapur, Bikrampur, Gudisahi, Lorada, Anchala, Buruji, Pegada, and Nuasahi. The farming communities in these villages look forward to harvesting a second crop and earning better incomes.

After the repair work of Mahendra Tanaya canal water started flowing into Dambapur and surrounding villages.

Photograph by Chandrika Patnaik


Narayan Sahu, Thematic Coordinator for Farm Livelihood, helped in data collection for the story. Priya Pillai edited the story.


Chandrika Patnaik leads Content Production in the Communications team at Gram Vikas.


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