This woman is breaking through Kandhamal’s skewed power dynamics

This woman is breaking through Kandhamal’s skewed power dynamics

Kandhamal and its social fabric 
Social marginalization in India is mostly attributed to one’s social identity including caste, religion and ethnicity. However the framework of marginalization shows varied dimensions in pockets where poverty majorly rules choice of religion or faith. 
Kandhamal, the district in Odisha, which is home to both scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, the outcry and allegations of forced conversions by the Christian missionaries is a common phenomenon. However, after decades of providing healthcare and education facilities, apart from their alleged evangelism, Christian missionaries have not managed to convert Adivasis or the Kandha tribes on a scale. This is majorly due to the phenomenon of ‘marginalization among the marginalized’ in these areas. A fight which has become one for survival between tribals (Kandhas) and SCs (Panos), two of India’s most deprived groups.
The Kandha tribe or the Adivasis have access to the resources—Forests, livelihood, business or local trade which the scheduled castes are deprived of. Quite obviously, the scheduled caste population is majorly Christian here. These Christian converts and the scheduled caste Hindus constitute the Panos who have traditionally been deprived of basic rights and entitlements. 
Kandhamal is one of the three districts in Odisha where the percentage of Christian population has crossed double digits with 20.31% Christian population as per the census of 2011. 
The average level of education is higher among the Pano population in Kandhamal district of Odisha due to the influence of the missionaries. But the age old deprivation still prevents them from owning their own business, shops or their own livelihood. Since the Panos are also systematically deprived from their right to forests and lands, they end up being slaves to the Kandhas. They usually work on agricultural fields, shops or local eateries owned by the Kandhas at minimal wages. 

The paradigm shift 
Extensive intervention by Oxfam India partners like Amagaon, led by Kishore Baliarsingh functional in Kandhamal district have brought in a slow and visible shift. The Panos, a mix of scheduled caste (SC) Hindus and Christian converts, have transformed themselves from landless exiles into business leaders over years. 
However, the Kandhas, uneducated and guileless, still live as they always have—cultivating land, drinking mohuli (the local brew) and deluding the Panos of dignity.  

Meet Sushila Diggal 
Sushila Diggal, a lady of grit, compassion and courage belonging to the Panos, surely manifests how discrimination leads to sharper survival instincts. She belongs to Sikarmaha village in Daringbadi block of Kandhamal district. 
Sushila who lost her entire family to an alleged Naxal attack has been shattering the power dynamics among Kandhas and Panos by running her own shop of cosmetics. The control over the local trade has traditionally been in the hands of the Kandha tribe in Kandhamal district. 
Besides her own way of challenging the gender and power stereotypes, Sushila has been working actively to unite the women from both the Kandha and Pano community to raise their voice against deprivation. She has been working closely with the local Self Help Groups to ensure livelihood for woman which she believes is the basic for empowerment. She is engaging actively to build a women’s federation which would be responsible for ensuring women’s stake in decision making on use of forest products. 
“I have always faced the brunt of being a Pano woman. Panos are already deprived by the Kandhas here, and then you face it worse when you are a woman belonging to the deprived community. Nobody would hear me out at a public forum. However over time I have created a place for my own opinions through continuous struggle for gender issues. After attending the meetings on forest rights, I have realized the need for women to decide the use of the forest products as they work equally in the forests as the men” said Sushila. 
Among social norms largely ruled by gender and caste stereotypes, Sushila has mobilized the women of 7 surrounding villages for an anti-liquor campaign that led to the shutdown of local country liquor shops. 

Oxfam India’s project for empowering Dalits, Tribals and Muslims 
The social inclusion project ‘By the People’ supported by the European Union seeks to advocate for an inclusive and equitable society through enhancement of leadership capacity of civil society organisations led by motivated members from three marginalized communities—Dalits, Tribals and Muslims. The target organisations have been challenging a long history of oppression on the lines of caste, ethnicity and religion. However, lack of an adequate support system has restricted their reach and impact. 
Oxfam India in partnership with Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion and Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices supports 55 Community Led Organisations (CLOs) across six states of India (Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Jharkhand, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh). They are being supported to play a more influential role in development and governance processes within a regular capacity building framework. 
Sushila, is a woman leader working closely with Oxfam India’s social inclusion partner, Amagoan located in the Kandhamal district of Odisha. Amagaon has been working to address the issues of marginalization for decades. 

Text by Tias Dutta, Communications Officer, Oxfam India, Photo by Shailendra Yashwant

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