Print edition : January 15, 2010
The vanishing world of India's tribes

Tribes formerly notified as "criminal" by and large live in subhuman conditions. Here, life in a colony of such a tribe at Ekalavyanagar near Mysore. - M.A. SRIRAM

AS I sat down on a rock, puffing, somewhere down a treacherous slope on a hill in Godda, Bihar, I marvelled at Guhy Paharini and her friends. The Paharia tribal girl, barely 16 years old, was carrying about 40 kilograms of lakdi (firewood) on her head. That was probably a couple of kg more than her own body weight. And the lakdi was in length about two and a half to three times her height.

When Guhy and the two other women with her rested halfway down the hill slope, I got time to breathe. We had already walked more than 28 km, across extremely tough terrain. When I first got to their village, they had moved 8 km towards the forests to cut the firewood and an equal distance back towards the village where they secured the bundles and rested for a while. For eight of the 16 km they had covered, they had between 25 to 40 kg of firewood on their heads - each of them.

Since this was the last phase of the monsoon, the wood was that much heavier, being wet. And, again, waterlogging was forcing scorpions and snakes out of their holes, a constant danger to the women as they walked barefoot. By the time we reached the haat (the weekly or bi-weekly rural market) we had covered close to 40 km, a good deal of that across rocky and hilly terrain. The Paharia villages in Godda – one of India’s poorest districts, located in the Santhal Parganas – are very isolated. To reach some of them you have to cross two or three hillocks. The young women seemed to do these routes with practised ease. I found it pretty difficult to keep pace with them (and take photographs at the same time).

At the haat the women sold their bundles – Rs.5 to Rs.7 for each. I found it impossible to accept that anyone one would have to live this way, but for the Paharia women this is pretty much part of day-to-day reality.

In addition to this bi-weekly trip to the haat, Guhy and her friends have to walk 6 to 8 km each day for water in an area where water sources are few and often foul. Put together their various chores and you will find that Paharia women like Guhy walk a distance equivalent to that between Delhi and Bombay – four to five times a year. Completely in the grip of the Mahajans (trader-moneylenders), the Paharia tribal people, one of India’s most backward and impoverished, have to resort to extensive tree-felling and deforestation to raise the few rupees they need to stay alive. Development programmes come and go, leaving no major impact. But that is because these programmes seldom take into account their cultural uniqueness.

In one instance, under the Integrated Rural Development Programme, cows were distributed to the Paharias – who believe it is wrong to milk cows. Believing that the cow’s milk belongs to the calf, they do not consume milk or milk products. So they could only use these cows as draught animals. Being weak creatures from the plains these died pretty quickly – leaving some of the Paharias repaying “soft loans” on dead cows.

The Paharias are down to a mere 20,000 in Godda, with some more in other parts of the Santhal Parganas. But they are certainly not the only tribal people in trouble. In Palamau, another of India’s poorest districts, the Birhors, one of our most backward tribes, are facing near-extinction. Between the 1961 and 1991 Census, their population came down by more than 50 per cent and now there are less than 2,000 of them between Hazaribagh and Palamau.

Not a single Birhor child in the Balumath block of Palamau goes to school and not one woman is literate. Originally hunters, the Birhors lived in complete harmony with the great jungles around them. They could teach the world a thing or two about rational utilisation of resources. Their settlements normally have only 10 huts or so at one place and are usually spread across the forest. This allows the different groups fair access to and equal share of forest resources. Today the Birhors are victims, on an unprecedented scale, of deforestation and “development”.

The Kurwas are more in number, but are not much better off than the Birhors in a number of other ways. The government has tried to give the Kurwas in some blocks of Palamau small plots of land. More than two years after this land has been allotted with pattas issued, several of the Kurwas are still searching for the land.

I met more than half a dozen Kurwas who had been allotted land that they could not locate. They receive no help at the circle office since those who work there will not do anything for free. They expect bribes - from a people for whom Rs.50 is nothing less than a fortune. A proposed Army field firing range in the Mahuadarr block of Palamau and in some parts of neighbouring Gumla district will displace thousands of Oraons, Asurs, Kurwas and other tribals. For years the Army has been using the area as a temporary firing range, Each time the 23 Artillery of Ranchi has a practice session, hundreds of tribal families have to leave their homes and live on the edge of the jungle for a night – with their children, goats, cattle and all other belongings.

When they return home the next morning, they will be paid the princely compensation of Rs.1.50 for their “cooperation”. Meanwhile, falling shells and Army vehicles would have caused immense damage to the few crops the tribals are able to raise. If the Army goes ahead with its proposal to make the field firing range a permanent feature, then the displacement of the tribals will be permanent.

TRIBES FORMERLY NOTIFIED as "criminal" by and large live in subhuman conditions. Here, life in a colony of such a tribe at Ekalavyanagar near Mysore.-M.A. SRIRAM

Back in Balumath, I spent hours trying to talk to members of the tribe known as Parhaiyas. Unfortunately, I had approached their village by jeep. The moment we were sighted, the men bolted into the fields and the forest, leaving the women and children behind. For the Parhaiyas a jeep means the police, and the police mean beatings and bestiality.

The Parhaiyas were designated a “criminal” tribe by the British raj. To this day, the stigma remains. Any crime committed in the Balumath block is likely to be followed by the police descending on the Parhaiyas, regardless of whether there is the remotest ground for suspecting their involvement. Again, not a single child in this community is attending school.

Across the Chhotanagpur region (and even in the Santhal Parganas) the key word is displacement – and the major victims of that phenomenon are tribal people and Dalits. Whether the cause is the building of dams or mining or the Army’s requirements or government decisions, the loser is usually a tribal or a Dalit.

* * *

The International Year of Indigenous Peoples has not gone down very well in India. In fact, barring the inevitable seminars and conferences, it has been a dismal failure. Tribal people in this country continue to be the weakest, usually the first targets of land grab, displacement or “development”.

Between 60 and 70 million Indians are tribal people. Outside the north-eastern region many face conditions ranging from deprivation to disintegration, and a relentless assault on their land, resources, culture and civilisation. Yet, in their dignified, non-acquisitive struggle for survival, there are rich ideas to be drawn from what Jawaharlal Nehru called their “better corporate life than the caste-ridden society we suffer from”.Many of India’s 400-odd tribes played a tremendous part in resisting British colonialism. In Godda, where the Paharias are in decline, there stands in the middle of the district headquarters a “martyrs’ pillar”, put up in 1947 to honour those who laid down their lives in the struggle for freedom. The first name on it is that of a Paharia person – and indeed most of the other names, too, are of Paharias and other tribal people. The first to die for freedom, the last to benefit from it. Is this picture confined to Bihar? Far from it.

Tribal people in India account for the highest incidence of a large number of health problems, from malnutrition to malaria. In Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, both States with a high percentage of tribal population, the tribes depend upon the forest for well over 30 per cent of their food. What is termed “minor forest produce” is essential and life-giving for them. The “major forest produce”, timber, goes to urban Indians – its collection and smuggling often destroying tribal areas at an alarming rate.

The fastest rate of depletion or alienation of resources belongs to the tribal peoples, who, unsurprisingly, also suffer the highest levels of indebtedness. According to the Reserve Bank of India, not only is the debt burden highest among tribal people, it is particularly heavy in the lowest asset groups among them. Theirs is a Fourth World within the Third. In Maharashtra, the rate of indebtedness among tribal peoples is about three times that among non-tribal people.

In schooling, in literacy, on every measure of educational achievement, the indigenous peoples of India are lagging way behind, thanks to an unsympathetic state, apathy, indifference, criminal neglect and active hostility. They constitute a very large proportion of school dropouts in each State. In Medak, a constituency in Andhra Pradesh from where the Prime Minister was elected, not even two out of every 100 tribal women are literate. Even against a national scenario where 70 out of every 100 Indian women are illiterate, the tribal picture is desperate.

Tribal people occupy the lowest rung in an enforced caste hierarchy, though theoretically they should be outside that system altogether. And they suffer the highest level of atrocities for any group. In Madhya Pradesh alone, in 1989 there were 2,163 officially recorded atrocities – including murder, rape and arson – committed by non-tribal people against tribal people. Even at the national level those atrocities have been increasing. The overall national figure for such crimes recorded in 1976 was 1,065. By 1989 it was 3,623 – an increase of 340 per cent (approximately).

Besides, as former Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Tribes B.D. Sharma has so eloquently argued, tribal people have been criminalised by definition. Successive rulers have structured a complex of laws relating to forests and other tribal resources – laws that were framed without even recognising the existence of the tribal people and their rights. In most places, it is impossible for the tribal people not to break several laws each day.

The forests have been declared the property of the state. This means it becomes an offence for the tribal people – who have been dwelling in these very forests for millennia – to make a living from them. If a tribal person enters a forest with a bow and arrows, that is an offence. If his cattle graze, as usual, in the forest, he is violating the law and the cattle might be confiscated. If he takes his traditional brew after worshipping the gods, or in social functions according to his traditions, that makes him a lawbreaker. Having made it impossible for them to observe the law, the state then punishes them for breaking it. In Balumath block of Palamau, also one of India’s poorest districts, I had a conversation with Rambirich, a young man of the Birhor tribe – one on the verge of extinction. He was fascinated by the concept of the International Year of the Indigenous Peoples when I told him about it. “Is it really meant for us?” he asked, but added after some contemplation: “It can’t be, otherwise we wouldn’t be in this state” – and moved off with his ancient snare, hoping to trap a rabbit and put an end to the hunger of several days of at least one family of indigenous peoples.

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