Debjeet Sarangi: His legacy lives on in the Living Farms
Our dear friend Debjeet Sarangi passed away on the 15th of May 2021. One more among the lakhs who succumbed to the virus and to the government’s complacency and apathy. His health deteriorated and he was shifted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) in Bhubaneshwar. He was just 53. Personally, it is hard for me to reconcile with this profound loss. As he was someone with whom I shared both a personal connect and a professional one – through my work with Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (South Asia).
I got acquainted with Debjeet during my previous job with Sir Dorabji Tata Trusts (SDTT). His commitment and vision in the context of the lives of marginalized communities was unparalleled. His engagement with Adivasi people was guided by his unshakable belief in dialogue, conversation and solidarity – qualities that have become rarer these days under the influence of market and such other fundamentalisms. He stood out among traditionalist development professionals as someone who marched to the beat of his own drum – someone who walked the talk.
Debjeet was born in the eastern Indian city of Jamshedpur, one of the oldest industrial hubs in the country. Growing up, he encountered hard hitting realities, which he both observed and questioned. He spent a considerable time trying to understand the dynamics within industrial productions, of capital and how the working class was exploited. At a time when the middle class was being sedated in the drive towards aspirational individualism, he delved in his quest for an immersive education. Debjeet chose to engage with social movements, volunteering with Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and the plight of those who were either being sacrificed or marginalized at the altar of “development”. He went on to work with the Santhal community, closely observing issues of access and agency firsthand. He both witnessed and experienced the denial of basic dignity, rooted in structural inequalities. He was one among the handful for whom nature was not just inert capital waiting to be unlocked and Adivasis the unwanted irritants in the path to “development” who either needed to be pitied, or patronized or pushed aside.
Debjeet forged a lasting connection with the Adivasi communities of South Odisha where he subsequently set up Living Farms, an NGO in Rayagada District. Among the many things that set this initiative apart was the relationship of equals he strived to establish – a culture of shared responsibility for collective growth and learning. At a time when the world leaders are paying lip-service to climate concerns by looking for solutions within the problem itself, i.e., the model of uninhibited growth, it is the initiatives of those like Debjeet that actually contain the incipient alternatives. So. I won’t speak much of how he died, but the best obituary to my friend Debjeet would be to retell how he lived and what lives on in the Living Farm he left behind.
The core strategies of Living Farms have been the re-localization of production and consumption, reviving and promoting poly-cultural farming; encouraging mixed cropping as a necessary component of household food and nutrition security. Collectives of farmers learn and teach each other based on lived experiences. While it ensures location-specific knowledge transfer, it facilitates peer networking among and between individuals, enhancing collective wisdom and actualizing community food sovereignty.
Debjeet built strong and lasting ties within the community – a relationship founded on mutual respect. He believed in the agency of Adivasi peoples to forge their own path and arrive at important decisions. His ability to connect across age groups within communities won him the trust of farmers, youth, men and women alike. He harbored a deep respect for the philosophy behind kutumba, (a village institution) that sought to rigorously engage on various issues. Exploring both traditional knowledge and practices from older members he found that “Kutumba is based on the social organizing principles of the Kondh society in which there were role holders, authority exercisers. It had also well-defined set of roles, functions, and authority –power relationship”.
He invested a lot of energy in issues such as seed conservation, forest regeneration and mixed-cropping. He felt strongly about preserving cultural festivals/songs describing the sufferings, the joys, the aspirations, the ways of life of Adivasi peoples. Debjeet positioned himself as a co-traveler – alongside Adivasi peoples – in support of their right to self-determination.
Debjeet’s ideas for the re-localization of production and consumption came to fruition when linkages between producers and consumers were collectively built. The producers were mostly from Adivasi communities. Debjeet believed in the importance of establishing direct linkages between the people growing produce and those consuming it. Living Farms has grown to establish constructive relationships between local level institutions and the producers of vegetables. This has helped create secure and regular sources of income for Adivasi farmers.
Living Farms has also been working tirelessly towards community forest rights, being recognized under the Forest Rights Act, a crucial step in the direction of securing the livelihoods of entire communities living in and around the forest. Living Farms additionally worked on strengthening local self-governance and optimizing natural resources. Tapping the rich and varied knowledge systems within Adivasi communities, Living Farms worked to understand forest produce in meaningful ways, deepening a foundational connect between the forest and her peoples. They are so inter-dependent as a study from Living Farms suggests that people are now getting almost between 12% and 24.4% of their food requirements met from uncultivated food, these food items are rich in macronutrients and full of energy contents.
Saving Seeds was a concept very close to Debjeet’s heart. I still remember one of my visits in 2019, where I attended a village community meeting where around 40 varieties of different seeds were examined. These seed varieties included millets, pulses, corn, oil seeds, vegetable seeds. Living Farms supported communities in reviving their own unique ways of conserving seeds, through community seed banks scattered across villages. An anathema to the market sponsored standardization, it is these banks that preserve the seeds for a sustainable future for the planet and its people.
The group I met with talked about the revival of local health care and traditional knowledge systems as a strategy to relocate misplaced power. The idea was for the power to vest within the communities themselves where individuals begin understanding and engaging with their bodies through the lens of traditional and sustainable knowledge systems. It meant investing in access to multiple health care systems based on Adivasi peoples’ own articulation of needs. The ability to decide for oneself and not feel dependent on or beholden to a given system was an important aspect of this. He walked the careful balance between romanticism and pragmatism, between patronization and partnership. So, the reliance on traditional knowledge was not at the expense of biomedical health care being both required and accessible.
Part of Debjeet’s vision was to create open learning spaces in Muniguda of Rayagada District. To this end, he had already initiated a few steps within local communities, where one could learn not only through books, but through the rich and vibrant cultures of Adivasi communities. Youth and elders become conduits for knowledge and wisdom to be passed along. Whether it is the climate crisis, the regeneration of forests, developing an ecological consciousness or building internal solidarity systems. Living in consonance with nature and celebrating the interdependence of lives has always been a part of the lived realities of Adivasi peoples. While much of this is being penetrated by the market, these spaces were a part of Debjeet’s attempt to fortify the defenses of the community.
I enjoyed my travels to Muniguda. My conversations with Debjeet were always open and heartfelt –whether we discussed projects, politics, society, international policy or the difficulties of navigating the NGO sector. Debjeet was worried about the recent changes in regulations around FCRA criteria. He was rightfully apprehensive about NGOs not necessarily having enough resources to handle the complexity of compliances. He worried about institutions that protected minority rights being unfairly targeted. We talked light hearted and heavy hearted and I always returned with an urge to revisit.
Even though Odisha was at the center of his work, Debjeet always tried to place things in the bigger picture and cared very much about the social sector in India overall. I would always found him reading up. Practice and theories, indigenous issues, ways in which to broaden ones perspective – he was always learning and relearning and co-learning.
Today, he is both fondly remembered and sorely missed. He remains a voice of integrity when it comes to the struggles to ensure food security for all with dignity. He remains critical to conversations around forest regeneration, and justice for the marginalized. He remains an example of unwavering commitment to the Food Sovereignty movement in South Asia. We continue to learn from him and remain grateful for the generous person he was.
About the Author
Tauqueer Ali Sabri is the Project Manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung South Asia's New Delhi office. He works on issues of Food sovereignty and Social Rights & Inclusive policies. He travels extensively - immersing himself in people’s stories of human resilience - in an effort to understand our complex and interconnected societies better.