Koraput (Odisha), July 23 (IANS/ 101Reporters) “Life has transformed due to coffee. Although work was available, it took months to get the money. However, now the Tribal Development Cooperative Corporation of Odisha Limited (TDCCOL) comes home and buys coffee berries directly from us. We pluck the berries at night and send them for processing; we also receive the money within the day. This year alone, I earned a profit of Rs 21,500, selling 480 kg of coffee berries,” says Balram Huntal of Kiramba village, Nandpur block.
Koraput, nestled in the hilly terrain of the Eastern Ghats, at an altitude of 3,000 ft above sea level, is ideal for coffee cultivation due to its cool climate and favourable rainfall. However, before coffee became a viable economic possibility, distressed migration was the only option, with most tribal families travelling from Koraput to Odisha’s neighbouring states yearly.
The scarcity of employment opportunities, climate change-induced environmental factors, poor agricultural production, lack of irrigation and drought, deforestation, inadequate food security, low working wages, economic deprivation, exploitation by moneylenders or middlemen, deplorable working conditions, excessive debt, and an overall bleak prospect of surviving with dignity forced people to leave their homes and seek better options.
Coffee to the rescue
Keeping these socio-economic roadblocks in mind, the district administration has tried to provide alternative employment through coffee cultivation to those workers who do not hold job cards. The government is extending support to the adivasis from Koraput, Nandpur, Dasmantpur, Laxmipur, and Lamatput; two coffee nurseries have been set up in Nandpur, Lamatput and Dasmantpur, and one each in Koraput, Similiguda and Laxmipur.
District Labour Officer Prasno Panigrahi tells 101Reporters: “As many as 9,940 people migrated for work from the district during the Covid-19 pandemic. Of this, 3,843 migrant construction workers returned. Of these, 2,678 were unskilled and 172 went to work at brick kilns. Many of them are now employed as labourers at coffee plantations.”
Manik Kooda of Golur village, Nandpur block, says: “Three self-help groups (SHG) in the villages have been involved in growing and selling coffee, earning more than Rs 40,000 yearly. This year, our profit margin rose by Rs 12,000 per SHG. This crop has, indeed, brought about a remarkable change in the lives of the tribal people, who mainly practised shifting cultivation, or podu, for generations.
“We’ve been growing coffee since 2012 but did not get much money out of it because traders used to buy from us at Rs 10 to 15 per kg. However, TDCCOL started buying it at Rs 35 per kg. Last year, with the help of the Coffee Board, the Coffee Development Trust, and the district administration, we began to sell at Rs 45 per kg.”
“Earlier families were supported through daily working wages. But now, I earn some money by cultivating coffee on 2 acres and selling 294kg of coffee berries. Besides coffee, we cultivate black pepper and dragon fruit, which has led to economic recovery. The Odisha Livelihood Mission (OLM) has also provided us employment as labourers working in the coffee nursery for the past eight months,” Badnayak adds.
Migration was the only way out
“Every year, the whole family used to go to Andhra Pradesh in search of work. Due to the unavailability of work at the time of Covid, we borrowed a lot of money,” recalls one Diba Jani of Punjisil village, Dasmantapur block. “My children even had to drop out of school. But with the help of TDCCOL, we sold 750kg of coffee in 2021 and made a profit of Rs 34,000. Now, I can work on my land in my village, and the children have also resumed school.”
Until a few years ago, Sumoni Dami of Ghumar village under Lamtaput block would travel to Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh or Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh in October-November in search for work. They were forced to migrate with their entire family, looking for a means to earn a living and escape the looming threat of Naxalites within their native village.
The situation has since improved, as Dami and other farmers from the village are now keen on coffee cultivation after the government gave them incentives. For the past eight months, they have received funds to grow coffee in government nurseries, using scientific techniques prescribed by the Coffee Board and cultivating the crop on their own farmlands.
A life-altering means of livelihood
Sasmita Samantaray, OLM project manager in charge of coffee nurseries says that for the first time, through the cultivation of coffee, people have won their rights. Starting from seedlings, farmers can cultivate in their authorised hill lands and earn a profit through the berries.
“Presently, the government has sanctioned the official papers of the hill forest land under the forest land rights, wherein people receive encouragement and support to cultivate coffee. Beyond the coffee nursery, the sale of fertilisers and garden soil through the efforts of women’s SHGs is also paving the path for new employment,” she adds.
“The collective labour of communities is contributing to operations and increasing dividends. Women from multiple villages, about 100 women from 10 SHGs, have put in many hours for this project, while the men have received gainful employment transporting fodder and building nurseries and plantations.”
According to Director, Migration & Education, at Aide et Action International Umi Daniel, in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, around 2 lakh migrant labourers returned to undivided Koraput, of whom, a high number of adivasis had travelled to Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh to work at brick factories.
“It is also not an easy task to acquire work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) because people do not have job cards,” he adds.
“According to government data for 2017-18, 2,92,549 households in the district had the card under MGNREGA, of which 93,519 (31 per cent) had access to MGNREGA, and only 884 (0.94 per cent) households obtained 100 days of work. So it’s heartening to see how coffee cultivation provides work to unskilled labour from tribal households. The district administration should strategise further to give them more work.”
Senior Liaison Officer at the Koraput Coffee Board Upendra Saha, too, believes that most adivasis under the Forest Rights Act have become self-sufficient due to coffee cultivation.
“Until 2017, coffee was grown on 1,777 hectares with the help of the Coffee Board and the Soil Conservation Department. Between 2017 and 2022, plantations were set up on 232ha of land. This helps employ 1,500 adivasis under the act,” Saha adds.
“In the entire state, 3.46 lakh ha is conducive for coffee farming, of which 1.46 lakh ha is in Koraput alone. However, till date, only 3,000ha has been utilised; nevertheless, this has brought much-needed relief to farmers like Dami. Growing coffee offers permanent employment and profitable yields to the farmers not just for a few seasons; it guarantees economic survival for almost 20 years.”
Furthermore, in light of its economic profitability and for the advancement of coffee in Odisha, the state government has envisioned the Coffee Mission independently for the first time, under which coffee cultivation will be done on 5,000ha of Koraput district, offering an opportunity for self-reliance to old and traditional farmers. Of this 5,000ha, 2,072ha will be cultivated with the help of migrant labour from the district. Therefore, the TDCCOL, since 2018, has helped and succeeded in building a trusted brand of premium wild forest coffee made by the tribal communities of Koraput, which has gained widespread fame and acceptance as “Koraput Coffee”.
(The author is a Odisha-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)