Debjeet Sarangi

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2019
Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
This description of Debjeet Sarangi's work was prepared when Debjeet Sarangi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2019.


Debjeet is enabling disenfranchised tribal communities in India to develop their own development paradigm that is based on communal understanding, strong social cohesion and comes with the preservation of cultural heritage through generations.

The New Idea

Debjeet, having worked with tribal communities for the past 20 years, is adopting a rights-based approach that enables tribal communities to promote their own narrative of development instead of being imposed with a mainstream development paradigm that’s unempathetic towards their needs and cultural heritage. This unilateral definition of development primarily arises because of a strong disconnect between government agencies, the private sector and the communities themselves.

By altering how all the three pillars of the economy: The Government, the Industry and the Individuals within a community function, Debjeet is strengthening the local ecosystem and making it self-reliant from external forces outside the community. In doing so, Debjeet is preserving the cultural heritage of these communities and the symptoms of the alternate development paradigm, such as changing youth aspirations/migration to urban cities, suicides, high debt and loss of communal relationships. Respecting the abilities and wisdom of local communities and their ancestors, Debjeet is empowering individuals, especially women, by building locally empowered solutions in the fields of Agriculture, Nutrition, Education and Livelihoods. To create a sustainable economy, he’s establishing local markets and providing linkages to the external ecosystem, such as connecting tribal farmers to nearby hospitals to provide them with fresh produce.

To regulate all of this, Debjeet is keeping traditional government structures alive which are sensitive to the needs of the tribal people and efficiently cater to their needs, as compared to Gram Panchayat Systems (local level governance in India).

Government programs and laws have been inefficient in protecting the rights and livelihoods of tribal communities because of two primary reasons. First, the disconnect in understanding of their needs and cultural heritage, leading to an inconsiderate approach to solve the problems. Secondly, the lack of awareness about these programs amongst the tribal people themselves doesn’t enable them to exercise their rights and claims. Debjeet is also mobilizing the tribal community by making them aware of their rights under the constitution and existing legal frameworks, such as how they can use the Forest Rights Act 2006 to protect their forests lands.

The local customs, whether it be ecological preservation or communal organizing has never formally been recognized by the government of studied by academic institutions. Debjeet is extensively engaged with academicians and independent researchers to write about the local solutions and strategies adopted by Living Farms and the tribal communities, which provides for the first-time scientific evidence that local customs are effective for the preservation of local ecosystems. This creates a knowledge bank, promotes discussions, and helps in influencing policy experts to make policy level changes.

The systemic approach taken by Debjeet towards solving the problem differentiates him from multiple other organizations working in this space as the majority of all the problems faced by tribal people are strongly inter-connected to each other; just, focusing on one of the problems doesn’t lead to an effective solution. Also, the solutions should be built on the understanding of the nuances and rhythm of the community, Debjeet has lived with the community for decades to be in a position to build effective solutions.

The Problem

104 million of the worlds’ estimated 370 million tribal people live in India. According to the 2011 census, the population of Adivasis (Indigenous people) in the country is 104 million, constituting 8.6% of the total population; 89.97% of them live in rural areas. These tribal communities are usually in areas that are in and around dense forests and hence, carry large bases of natural resources. Unfortunately, the last few decades of ‘development’ led by the State and Corporate sector has focused on economic growth, industrialization and commercialization. This mainstream paradigm encourages the elites to exploit the resources present in these dense forests. Amongst the gravest errors of this process has been the failure to understand, neglect, and often the deliberate undermining, of the importance of biodiversity in meeting the survival and livelihood needs of community’s dependent on natural habitats like forests and wetlands.

This idea of development and the government schemes have failed miserably because of the disconnect that persists with the tribal communities beliefs and ideologies. The logic and process of development has destroyed the equilibrium of nature and society, introduced competition, instilled private ownership and destroyed their strength based on a culture of independence and dignity. This has impacted all the major individual practices of the tribal community: Agriculture, Food Security, Architecture, Governance and Economy.

The agriculture of the tribal people reflects the principles and practices of agroecology. They use agricultural biodiversity (‘Cultivation’ and ‘Collection’) to meet their food and livelihood security. Their genetic mixtures not only bring greater yield stability and local adaptations to climate change, but it also contributes to dietary diversity. For tribal people, agriculture is much more than just ‘growing food’; it’s ‘a way of life’. Tribal People collect approximately 40% of their food from forests and cultivate the remaining 60% of the food. In totality, they collect more than 250 varieties of food and cultivate more than 70 types of food. However, in the recent year’s agricultural practices catalyzed by the Green Revolution have been characterized by the imposition of alien agricultural technology, replacement of traditional seeds by hybrid varieties of seeds, use of chemicals for farming, increase of land under cultivation for cash crops, and growth of commercial mono-cultural plantations, which has all led to the destruction of the farms and forests of the tribal people. Between the period of 1987-88 to 2011-12, the proportion of rural tribal people in India who didn’t own any piece of land rose from 16% to 24%.

Historically, the usage and access of forest resources by the tribal communities and forest dwellers in India was seen as falling under the anti-development narrative and hence their efforts towards forest land acquisition and usage was identified as encroachment. In 2006, the passage of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (hereafter FRA) tried to make amends by recognizing customary rights of forest dwellers, including the right over common areas and the right to manage and sell forest produce. Till date, the total amount of lands where rights have been claimed under the FRA is just 3.13 million hectares, mostly under the claims for individual occupancy rights. The overall implementation of FRA remains ineffective because of the high degree of lack of community awareness towards the legislation.

Tribal people have always relied on diverse dietary needs to meet their nutrition requirement by cultivating and collecting different kinds of foods, this also acts as a safety net in any ecological disaster. However, depleting forest covers eventually leading to loss of traditional food, decreasing land holdings, shift from self-sufficient traditional agricultural practices to chemical intensive practices, and mono-cropping have all accounted towards malnutrition and food-insecurity for the tribal people because of eventual lack of diverse food availability. Women in the households, remain the most vulnerable to malnutrition because they are the last ones to eat in the house.

With increased intrusion by the external forces within the local communities, tribal parents believe that educating their kids might help them deal with the ‘outside’ world. But the current educational system and the residential schools have impacted the tribal children adversely because even the education system stems from the mainstream development paradigm and hence, remains extremely disconnected to what the needs and cultural values of the tribal children are. So, the children are being compelled to bridge two totally differently and disconnected worlds. On one hand, how understanding the ‘outer’ world is a necessity on the other hand, they are at a huge risk of being completely alienated from the tribal way of living.

Tribal people have always been community driven people, their day-to-day practices are all done collectively. In this kind of society, modern Panchayat Raj is not effective because of lack of sensitivity towards the cultural values and requirements of tribal peoples. In 1996, Indian government enacted The Provisions of the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA Act) for ensuring self-governance through traditional Gram Sabhas for people living in the Scheduled Areas of India (Scheduled Areas are found in ten states of India which have pre-dominant population of tribal communities). Three years ago, more than 69 villages in India rejected Local Panchayats under the PESA Act. Various state governments have not yet implemented PESA Act properly because of multiple political reasons and eventually, these tribal communities end up being with ineffective government systems.

The tribal communities in India are at an inflection point right now. On one hand the elders of the communities are worried about how the future is going to unveil and fear the loss of their cultural values and ways of working. The youth on the other hand, face an identity crisis where they are getting disconnected with their own values in pursuit of modern educational practices. The entire community realizes that if the youth are going to be disconnected with their cultural heritage, the future generations are not going to be aware of tribal way of living.

The Government of India today is slowly starting to see and understand the problem on hand. They understand that the costs for them are much higher if the engagement with these communities keeps becoming hostile as it currently is.

The Strategy

Debjeet’s community driven approach to build a self-reliant internal ecosystem for the tribal communities which empowers individuals using ancestral knowledge has made Living Farms as the resource agency for multiple state governments in India. Having lived in these regions for years, Debjeet understands the smallest cultural values of the local tribal communities. He’s using these nuances to empower these communities by impacting multiple aspects of individual practices like - agriculture, forest regeneration, nutrition, education, and governance.

A core strategy of Debjeet’s is to work in a manner that is non-confrontational and inclusive with key stakeholders. Debjeet as a start builds key strategic relationships with bureaucrats and people within the Government where he reworks and reprograms the state executive bodies through independent research. The research which is often done from reputable and well-known institutions, such as Oxford and Cambridge, helps build credibility in the independence of the evaluation of this work. Debjeet works with the government not to reinvent the wheel or invest further resources into effective development but he looks at existing resources that the government has and reinvents these. For example, State government(s) usually have livelihoods officers who are employed and go into these communities to scale and grow development projects. Debjeet is working with these very officers to understand the local customs, procedures and norms that is rooted in the ethos of working with the community. This is usually lost in government development programs otherwise.

Similarly, Debjeet works with all major political parties and factions to push them to see the development needs differently. When political parties are most reluctant to understand, Debjeet uses advocacy tools that he’s establishing through civil society organizations who have large voter bases to reach politicians.

Re-localizing production and consumption are the core strategies of Debjeet’s work. He is reviving and promoting poly-cultural farming/mixed cropping as an appropriate system to improve household food security. These agro-ecological practices are self-reliant, yielding higher total outputs taking all crops cultivated in combination; greater resilience to uncertainties; and more diversity resulting in improved nutritional quality. The community stores seeds collectively, grows food collectively and eventually sustain themselves with a complete shared resource model. Thus, no member of the community is left behind. Debjeet has been able to impact more than 20,000 women and men farmers in 800 villages, so far. Living Farms is also creating market linkages to the external market for the tribal farmers creating a regular demand of 150 kg of fresh produce every week and hence, creating a sustainable income of Rs. 500 per week on an average for a farmer.

Realizing the dearth of awareness regarding the Forest Rights Act, Debjeet is mobilizing communities to file their community forest rights claims under the FRA Act 2006, and facilitating community led re-generation and conservation of natural biodiverse forests. To make the external world realize the importance of forests in the tribal food security and livelihood, Debjeet has partnered to publish multiple research examining different aspects of food security and forests.

Addressing malnutrition by creating awareness and raising food security, Debjeet has been able to impact more than 100,000 tribal households in more than 2000 villages to improve their nutritional standards. Debjeet has successfully revamped agricultural practices from chemical intensive to self-sustainable zero-cost organic farming. This not only leads to bring greater yield stability to climate change and external shocks but also contribute to dietary diversity and hence, better nutritional standards. Also, since tribal people collect more than 60% food from forests, forest regeneration efforts by Debjeet also impacts the food security amongst the tribal people.

Hence, by using Participatory Learning and Action – Linking Agriculture, Natural Resource Management and Nutrition (PLA-LANN) as the methodology, Debjeet is mobilizing communities, strengthening their analytical, problem solving, negotiating and networking skills to address under nutrition. Living Farms is recognized as the resource organization for the Government of Odisha and Government of Chhattisgarh to scale up the work done by Living Farms to train their personnel.

Realizing the failure of educational institutions to cater to the needs of tribal children; Debjeet is setting up an alternative education system with an Ashoka Fellow who’s been working in the space of alternative learning. Open Learning Centers (OLC) is envisaged to enable cross learning amongst the entire community. The centers will members about the external world through a careful selection of instructors and experts by the community, and the elders within the community will teach them about the tribal practices and way of living. This will ensure that the youth not only learn about the new modern world they will navigate into but are also connected to their cultural heritage. Debjeet is now in the process of influencing a set-up of a Tribal Board of Education that will systemize this new form of education.

Tribal people have always had their own local government structures and systems for effective decision making and regulations. Debjeet is mobilizing communities to keep their local systems alive where decision making happens collectively. It’s a reflection of the way of working of these communities.

With the vision of scaling up of ideas rather than organizations, Debjeet invites and partners with multiple academicians and researchers to conduct analysis and research on Living Farms' strategies and solutions. This knowledge bank is enriched with local cultural values. Thus, this helps build the narrative on larger forums, raise awareness and influence policy makers for scaling up of the ideas. Debjeet is also using this scientific research to reprogram the approach that the Government is taking to preserve ecosystems and towards development, to be inclusive and compelling to these tribal communities. His work has made him the advisor to multiple state Governments who are now looking to scale his model to other parts of the country.

Moving forward, Debjeet is looking to set up networks of tribal communities to facilitate the cultural transfer and exchange of practices.

The Person

Debjeet was born and raised in the town of Jamshedpur in Jharkhand where the industrial ecosystem was dominated by the Tata Group, who had their steel plants there. He grew up witnessing labor rights violations and voices being suppressed with an iron hand to the extent that no labor unions could be formed. The need to stop this injustice strongly resonated with him. After completing his tenth grade, Debjeet decided that he would spend the rest of his life addressing issues faced by tribal communities and thus moved to Orissa where he worked as a daily wage laborer for about a year in an open caste mine to first-hand experience their distressful lifestyle. He used to work for six days at the end of which, when he went to collect his wage, he was often subjected to humiliation, leaving him helpless and he was unable to say anything because they had the power to withhold his wage – this left him feeling numb as he didn’t know how to confront the power structure.

While doing his economic majors, he volunteered for the ‘Narmada Bachao Andolan’ movement agitating against the damming of villages and it is here that he came across Baba Amte and witnessed how powerful the voice of a Gandhian non-violent person can be. Later he worked with the Santals and youth during times of ethnic conflict, it was here while working with the Santals that he came across a village whose male population had been wiped out by Tuberculosis, having worked in the stone quarries close by, thereby widowing the women of that village. This deeply disturbed Debjeet who began questioning the relevance of his work as the people in the village had forest land and they knew how to cultivate; yet there was a crisis.

This prompted Debjeet to start looking for alternatives through an agricultural lens to respond to this crisis, which led him to Deccan Development Society in Andhra Pradesh and a few other organizations after which he started learning from Arvindu Sekhar Chatterji in West Bengal. Here, he had to farm on half an acre of land given to him during the day and his evenings were focused on theoretical learning.

Once while he was accompanying a friend who was doing his Ph.D. in Biodiversity in Niamgiri hills in Odisha, he found that the locals had a tremendous amount of knowledge – especially the women and elders of the community. He liked the place, his gut told him that – maybe this is where that he was supposed to be. At that point he had no plan, blueprint, project or any sort of financial support. He continued to stay there after his friend left – getting to know the locals and trying to understand the place for a period of three years from 2004-2007. He was convinced, that some of the crisis that the agricultural community and more specifically the Adivasis were facing could be answered by the communities themselves. He thought he could bring the different Adivasi communities together so that they share information, knowledge and learn from each other. Debjeet went on to form Living Farms as a vehicle to drive this idea in 2008.

Debjeet is now working with global networks to collaborate and influence narratives around the development of indigenous communities globally. He is taking the success of his work and using these platforms to enable other organizations to benefit from it while also supporting the development of his own work through these thought partnerships.