Debjeet Sarangi, a leading development and environment activist based in Odisha, breathed his last on May 15 at a Bhubaneswar hospital. He was only 53 at the time of his untimely death.
In a relatively short time, Debjeet had made very important contributions relating to justice, environment protection and evolving a new development paradigm. His contribution to looking at tribal communities living in remote areas from a perspective of appreciating and understanding their world view and learning from them has been particularly commendable, as many of those working with tribal communities do not go beyond well-intentioned but limited attitudes of help and patronage.
Debjeet grew up with a strong sense of justice which was cemented further when he came in contact with a village where most of male residents had died due to silicosis or tuberculosis after exposure to high levels of dust and other hazards at a stone mine. He also worked with the Narmada Bachao Andolan for some time before forming the Living Farms organization. The work of Living farms relating to organic and natural farming won a lot of praise from several quarters.
In the course of this work the production of healthy and safe food was emphasized and while links were forged with urban consumers also, the better availability of more healthy and organically grown food for rural people themselves also got the due attention.
The least understood but very high nutrition potential of several foods collected from forests traditionally from natural forests was also emphasized and also highlighted by properly documented studies which contributed much to the knowledge of bio-diversity and nutrition. This obviously had important implications, as the existing official policy had been displacing natural forests with commercially oriented monocultures in many places without realizing the great loss of medicinal and nutrition potential, particularly for local communities , apart from wider harm.
The work of Living Farms with the Kondh tribal community of Rayagada, Odisha, was also important from this context as this community was being threatened with displacement from highly unjustified and destructive projects and it was important to bring out the less understood importance and value of the traditional systems involving close, even sacred, links between natural forests and human beings which are of great value and on which the life systems and value systems of the Kondh community are based to a large extent .
Debjeet Sarangi had the vision needed for such understanding. He contributed to this understanding himself and helped to create the conditions in which other visionaries and learned people could have a better chance of such appreciation and learning.
I had the good opportunity of visiting some villages, urban settlements and schools in around Bhubaneswar where Living Farms had been working. I was greatly impressed with the great rapport which the activists of Living Farms had built with the teachers and students of some schools in a short time with the result that there was not only great appreciation for organic farming but in addition students were enthusiastically taking this up in vacant spaces in school and preparing to take up composting as well, relating to disposal of kitchen wastes generated from the cooking of mid-day meal. In a village I could see the quiet but deep commitment of women for organic farming and healthy food, and their great zeal to take this forward in very creative ways. In urban and rural areas very creative work relating to kitchen gardens was being spread.
Certainly the work of Debjeet Sarangi was along very creative and visionary lines, and much that is very valuable has been lost very suddenly with his untimely death. His family, friends and colleagues will no doubt strive to carry forward the work of this visionary, and they should get all the help and encouragement in this effort.
The writer is a journalist and author who has been close to several social movements.