Koraput: The humble wild yam is a staple of the tribal population of Odisha. The region is home to many yam varieties, including the famed ‘jangali kanda’, which provide nutrition and boost the immune system. Not to say, the seven particularly vulnerable tribal groups in Koraput survive on 122 types of wild trees, creepers, bushes, fruits and tubers! “The collection of wild yams is an age-old practice. All our forefathers did it,” says Trilochan Muduli of Bolyguda village in Koraput district. Muduli belongs to the Paraja community, a particularly vulnerable group.
Harvesting and protecting all forest food sources are part of the traditional knowledge of many tribes here, among which yam stands out. The reason is its ability to provide both nutritional cushion and commercial benefits to the forest-dwelling communities. This boiled spud is often served with ragi gruel or rice. A popular recipe calls for cooking the chopped tubers with pulses, eggplant and onion, liberally seasoned with garlic, chilly, turmeric powder and salt. The yam also finds its way into traditional curries when prepared with hill gram, horse gram and bhodei.
Sometimes, it is fashioned into a soup, called ambila, along with rice powder. The tubers collected from the forest are also prized for their use in traditional medicines for treating arthritis, cold, fever, cough, menstrual disorders and skin diseases. Shuaram Chalan, a traditional healer or dishari, has been practising for 40 years and learnt the trade from his father. He buys yam and many other forest products from tribal communities, in addition to cultivating wild yams on his land.
Recent research by Dr Debabrata Panda at the Central University of Koraput brought the benefits of jangali kanda to the fore. “During the post-Covid-19 days, we studied the lifestyle and food patterns of tribal communities and found that despite having a vitamin deficiency, the population was not deficient in nutrients and minerals,” Dr Jayant Nayak of the Central University told.
In the paper, Panda claims that wild yams could be the key to fill the nutrition gaps in Koraput tribals. As indicated by the research, yam is recognised as the fourth most important tuber that plays a prime role in the food habits of forest-dwelling communities during periods of food scarcity. Twin effect Each family of the Gunji and Lenja villages of Boipariguda block collects wild yams from the forest on the hillock and sells it in the market.
A family collects as much as 20 to 25 kg of yam in a month, saves some of it for personal consumption and sells the rest, earning between Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000. Tulshi Jani of Jhiaguda village says, “We consume it daily, and sell the surplus to disharis (traditional healers). Disharis from Similiguda, Lamtaput, Potangi, Kotpad and Kundra purchase yams from us at the rate of Rs 200 per kg. They collect up to 50 kg of the tuber in a month.” For most villagers, around 60% of their household income comes from yams.
Usually, a group goes into the forest to get the yams, which are enough to provide for one hamlet or almost 10 families, who divide the produce among themselves. There is a market for Odisha’s yams in Chhattisgarh as well. Ghasi Harijan of Badamundipadar in Koraput supplies yams from the forest in Kundra, which lies on the border with the neighbouring state. “Medium-scale businessmen come to me for wild yams. I get them directly from the forest dwellers or buy them from the local market,” says Harijan.
“From Mayend to July-end, wild yams help me earn Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 per month,” says Harijan. Returning the favour The tribal population returns the favour that nature does by taking up forest conservation activities. Both men and women follow thengapali (thenga means stick and pali means turn), where they patrol the forest area with a stick in hand and protect it from poachers and smugglers. In Maliguda and Pukulpada, locals have demarcated their forests from the neighbouring villages to have better control over conservation practices.
Twelve years ago, Maliguda shared a large forest area with Kurkuti village, but it became difficult to govern the conservation activities. “We were on the verge of losing all green cover,” explains Mangala Mali, president of Maliguda Vana Surakhya Samiti (VSS). Alarmed by the situation, Maliguda residents collectively decided to demarcate their 60 acres of forest land.