Print edition : January 15, 2010

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. 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 Indias 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.

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.

Completely in the grip of the Mahajans (trader-moneylenders), the Paharia tribal people, one of Indias 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 cows 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 Indias 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.

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

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.

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 northeastern region many face conditions ranging from deprivation to disintegration, and a relentless assault on their land, resources, culture and civilisation. Many of Indias 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. 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. 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. 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.

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. In Balumath block of Palamau, also one of Indias 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 cant be, otherwise we wouldnt be in this state.

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