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An oppressed lot

Print edition : Mar 17, 2001

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T+T-

TEN years ago, when three women researchers from the National Commission for Women went to Kotra block of Udaipur district to study the revamped public distribution system, they asked some tribal women what their most common ailment was. "Burning in the stomach," they said in unison. "What do you eat" was the next query. They said their main diet was red chilli paste and maize rotis.

Potable water was hardly available to wash down the "hot" meal. Additionally, to digest maize the body requires extra water. Not surprisingly, the tribal women and children suffered from constant diarrhoea. Even common vegetables and pulses were beyond t heir reach.

The story is more or less the same today but for one difference. Rotis have given way to raabdi, a broth made from water and wheat, with chillies as supplements. The tribal people consider it lucky if they get to eat rotis once a week, and that to o with chillies. In Sada village of Kotra block, women laughed when they were asked if they gave milk to their children. It was the broth that was given to everybody. Sometimes they did not even get chillies. There was a fair price shop, but by the time they come to know about the arrival of foodgrains, it would all be gone.

Apparently the biggest dream a tribal person has is to eat lapi, a mixture of jaggery and ground wheat, which incidentally is given to their animals also. In Kotra, people cited lapi as the best food they had eaten. "How can they dream of a nything else when all they have seen is lapi?" asked B.L. Singhvi, a senior leader of the CPI(M).

One major complaint about the tribal people is that they drink and resort to criminal activity. But what is not realised is that as more and more forest land came under the protected category, the tribals' livelihood was the last thing on the minds of pl anners. They have only small, unproductive plots of land, and forest produce are out of their reach. The only thing abundantly available is liquor, which comes through private and government sources.

Women trudge long distances to collect dry wood in the dead of night to avoid being caught by Forest Department staff. They sell it to upper-caste people for a potful of chaanch (whey) to give their children. They further dilute it, so that it wou ld last them a week. Some forest officials harass the women who go to collect wood.

The economic hardship has driven some people in Kotra block to theft and other crimes. A doctor in the town said that he was reluctant to stay beyond 6 p.m., even if he had patients. People avoid driving on the Kotra-Udaipur route after sunset.

The administration prefers to brand these tribes as traditional looters but the truth is that it is the years of economic deprivation and exploitation that have driven them to such extremes. Oral histories of the tribal people narrate how 50 years ago, a Bhil was nailed and made to stand with a heavy load on his head in the sun for eating ripe wheat. His crime: he had not offered his grain to the feudal lord first. No tribal woman could wear jewellery or even clean clothes; and if caught violating these "rules" they were punished severely. Their foreheads were tattooed to make them look unattractive. Tribal men were branded on their lower arms in order to identify them as untouchables. Today they may not be stripped if found wearing clean clothes but t he indignity that characterises their lives is more or less the same as it was in the peak of feudal reign.

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