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The Baiga predicament

By Mihir Shah

The challenge is to empower the Adivasi people... so that a development path is forged under their leadership.

IT IS a tragic irony of 50 years of planned development that some of India's most resource-rich areas are home to its poorest people. Such as the Dindori district of south-eastern Madhya Pradesh. Most people wouldn't even have heard of the place as it does not exist on the development map of the country. Home to one of India's "primitive tribes", the Baigas, it has one of the richest Sal forests of the country, better known for the Kanha National Park. The Narmada and Mahanadi originate in the region. Verrier Elwin, the distinguished anthropologist who advised Jawaharlal Nehru, spent decades living among and studying the Baigas, while developing his ideas of tribal society and its possible future.

I was there a few days ago to attend a jan sunwayi (public hearing) in my capacity as adviser to the National Commissioner appointed by the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case. With me were the economist, Jean Dreze, and the social thinker, Satish Saberwal. The sunwayi was organised by a unique new institution, the Baiga Mahapanchayat, which is trying to provide a voice to these unusually silent (literally) and unheard of people. It was held in a remote forest village, 250 km and 7 hours from Jabalpur, on what is a rocky road half the way. Some of these roads are not serviced by any kind of transport facility, public or private, and we made it there with great difficulty, risking a breakdown at any point.

The Baigas spoke of their desperate living conditions, aggravated by three successive years of drought. Much of the problem is because these are "forest villages". Sarpanches from various gram panchayats complained that they were unable to carry out any kind of development activity in the absence of formal permission from the Forest Department. Till 40 years ago, the Baigas were "slash-and-burn" farmers. Once shifting cultivation was banned, their existence came under threat as no proper alternative was worked out. Most of them "occupy" land to which they have no unambiguous legal titles. And even after the passage of the 73rd amendment to the Constitution and the special PESA law empowering gram sabhas in Adivasi areas, the panchayats seem powerless here.

Many Baiga women described the impossibility of obtaining foodgrains from ration shops, as the nearest outlet is at least 10 km away from their village. There were cases of non-payment of wages to labourers, even after years. Instances were also reported of irregularities in the mid-day meal scheme. At times, meals were not provided as teachers did not take regular classes. Some examples of blatant corruption came to light, such as PDS kerosene being sold in the open market and bribes asked for the appointment of anganwadi workers. The most serious complaint was probably that of Baiga houses being broken down by field staff of the Forest Department.

We questioned the officials who attended the hearing about each complaint. Following special directions from the Chief Minister, the Additional Commissioner, the Collector, the Conservator of Forests, the Divisional Forest Officer, the Inspector-General of Police and the Superintendent of Police were present. The Collector was not aware that on May 3, 2003, the Supreme Court, in a landmark interim order in the Right to Food case, made all primitive tribes automatically eligible for Antyodaya cards. This entitles them to rice at Rs. 3 per kg. He promised to complete the process of issuing these cards to each Baiga family by the end of this month. The district administration, along with the Conservator of Forests, also undertook to facilitate opening of many more PDS outlets so that there is a ration shop within a 5 sq km radius of every village. The authorities were directed to display prominently the orders of the Supreme Court in all the schools, PDS outlets, gram panchayats and block offices throughout Dindori district. We were assured that each and every one of the specific complaints would be redressed within a short period of time. The Baiga Mahapanchayat will actively engage in follow-up to ensure that this actually takes place. The pressure exerted by the Supreme Court process will probably help facilitate its efforts.

The dire predicament of the Baigas, however, remains. While they have assiduously maintained their cultural identity, their music, norms and customs, probably more than any other Adivasi community outside of the north-east, they are constrained to engage with a welter of institutions erected by the state. None more difficult than the Forest Department, with whose field officers they have come to share a deeply antagonistic relationship. But isolationism, however attractive, is no longer an option. Already in the 1950s, the compassionate Elwin himself rejected it. Today, with growing market penetration, this is a hopelessly romantic and defeatist alternative.

Actually, it is hard to imagine an area with greater potential for sustainable development, building on its natural resources. The region gets over 1,200 mm of average annual rainfall. The undulating topography affords excellent opportunities for local rainwater harvesting. There are many perennial tributaries of the Narmada that offer exciting possibilities for community-based lift irrigation. The forest is rich with plants of great economic value. We were told of 12 different varieties of mushrooms. And the Baigas have a strong tradition of herbal medicine. There has been no dearth of financial allocations by the State either. In view of their special constitutional status, a separate Baiga Development Authority has been set up with an annual budget running into several crores of rupees.

But this money has obviously gone down the drain and only lined the pockets of various intermediaries. The people remain among the poorest in the country. Sixty per cent of the district area is cultivated, but of this, in a land of plentiful water, a mere half-a-per cent is irrigated. The problem is that for six decades now, we have produced development models and created institutions without the involvement of the local people at any stage. The Forest Department fails to acknowledge that without the active engagement of the Adivasis, it will prove impossible to protect the precious forest resources of the region.

We estimated that to meet the very basic wood requirements of the Adivasis for fuel, housing and agricultural implements, it takes less than 5 per cent of the forest wealth of the region. If this were guaranteed to them as a right they would actively participate in protecting the forest. But what prevails even today is the "dictatorship of subordinate officials" as Elwin described it in a famous article in 1960. Resulting in endless strife between the Adivasis and the Forest Department.

The challenge is to empower the Adivasi people who constitute 70 per cent of Dindori district so that a development path is forged under their leadership to extend the huge natural resource advantage of the area. To enable people to exercise effective vigil on development programmes and gain rightful access to their entitlements. To utilise the spaces opened up for them by the Gram Swaraj legislation. And occupy positions of strength in their dealings with external markets. Preserving their cultural identity while doing each of these.

This is certainly a huge ask but a sign of hope in this direction, albeit incipient, is the emergence of the Baiga Mahapanchayat. Will this fledgling institution receive the kind of support it requires, so that it can forge ahead while maintaining its strength and integrity?

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