Inspiring story of Odisha’s tribal women upholding practice of age-old self-reliance

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Every day, over 100 women in colourful attire are seen selling forest products, fresh vegetables, fruits and flowers in Jeypore town, the sub-divisional headquarters and nerve-centre of Koraput district, around 600 km from state capital Bhubaneswar.

These are the women of Odisha’s tribal-dominated Koraput district who dominate the rural haats (markets) by selling forest produce and minor agriculture products every day, flocking in large numbers. Venturing into the hilly terrain for collecting forest produce and traversing 30-40 km to sell their products – shouldering the burden on their backs – to the Bidyadhar daily market in Jeypore, they are the epitome of women’s empowerment.

Tribals, including the Bonda tribes belonging to particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG), reach these markets early in the morning even by walking miles from places with the least road connectivity.

Daimati, 43, a resident of Bisingpur village, is a common face in the Bidyadhar market. Travelling 20 km every day, she has been selling forest products like jhuna, palao, yellow rice and fresh vegetables for the past eight years in the market to earn her livelihood.

“Earlier we used to get rice and other products against our forest products in barter system. But with passage of time, things have changed a lot. I’m now earning Rs.300-Rs. 500 every day and I am happy with that,” Daimati was quoted by IANS.

“Earlier I used to stay at home and collect the forest products while my husband sold it in the market. But I hardly got any money in return. Later, I brought the goods and sold them in the market. That fetched me a good price. Now, I am self-empowered and confident,” Daimati said.

She said that her husband now collects forest products and works in the fields to grow vegetables.

With the rise in demand for forest products, flowers and local vegetables, more tribal women have turned up at the haat to sell their products at good prices.

“We were unaware of the opportunity and demand for forest and local products in the market. People used to purchase them from us at cheaper rates and sell them at increased prices in the market. When I learned about it, I felt I should reach the people and sell the product directly,” said a confident 30-year-old Jamuna.

The tribal women are not only respected but also loved by all in the market. They are the only source of forest and tribal products in the market.

“I was transferred to Koraput two years ago and I was stunned to see them selling the forest products at cheaper prices. We are confident these are not adulterated. They provide us fresh products,” said a government servant, Prakash Nayak.

“Since time immemorial, the (Bidyadhar) haat site is believed to have been exclusively dedicated to the women as no other roadside vendors or traders of other communities encroach upon the space, making it an unwritten order and age-old custom,” Narendra Behera, president of the Bidyadhar Daily Market Merchant Association said.

These markets are not merely places for trade for the tribal communities of Koraput district but centres for communicating their experiences, while marriages are also arranged there.

The tribals send communications to other villages through corresponding persons present in the market.

Even though trading of vegetables and other farm produce by the tribal population has increased manifold, sale of forest products, traditional ornaments and transmitting their tradition and culture have retained their flavour in the markets.

Among other minor forest products, the tribal trade revolves around tamarind, sal seeds, jhuna, honey, arrowroot, mohua flower, brooms prepared from wild grass, various types of roots popularly known as ‘kanda’ and medicinal fruits, roots and herbs.

There are several such weekly markets in the district where the tribal women go to sell their products.

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