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On the periphery of existence

The tribals of Orissa are a marginalised lot. Deprived of their natural environment and traditional social organisation, they have been driven to the edge of poverty and destitution, writes GOUTHAM GHOSH. They are beginning to rise against their oppression.


Striking simplicity ... Tribal women at a handpump in Padampur.

THE highway to Malkangiri is so bad it would be better to walk all the way. The 700-km drive from Bhubaneshwar lasts over 24 hours, the stretch after Koraput being the longest.

Given the poor transport facility, the time and money spent to and from Malkangiri can be high. If the drive were smooth, one could marvel at the hill ranges the trees so tall you couldn't see the tops; the cloud rings round the hills.

Malkangiri is a dusty, shabby town on the edge of the State with nothing to offer. There is a market but you will not find anything worth buying. Tea stalls are aplenty, as are small eateries. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) battalions here to curb the People's War Group (PWG) menace number as much as the general population. The town throbs till dusk, by 9 p.m. shops close, only the jawans can be seen. A few bright yellow diamonds dangle in front of phone booths. The only creatures are stray dogs.

The twin language formula, Oriya and Bengali, is a spill-over of the Nehruvian Dandakaranya Project — to resettle refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan, and another wave after Bangladesh was born in 1971. The Orissa Government now insists that all children must learn Oriya.

The town has a strong presence of Bengalis — hawkers, petty shop owners, drivers and Government staff from refugee families. There have also been a few IAS officers, doctors and engineers from the refugee population. "When I came here with my parents in 1963, Malkangiri was a jungle. I graduated from here,'' said Minister Arabinda Dhali.

"We cleared the area and cultivated the land given to us. We built our houses. What you see today is a result of the initiative of the families resettled here,'' said a group of Bengalis.

Tribals walk down from their enclaves once a week to sell their wares. "Tribals are not good traders. They cannot bargain and will accept what you offer. So they are cheated by the Bengali refugees," said Sajal Satpathy who owns a phone booth in Malkangiri. The locals seem to dislike the refugees.

The interface between the Bengali settlers and the tribals is a keg of explosives, say political pandits from 700 km away. A visit to Padmapur, Jharapalli and some other villages showed otherwise.

The Bengal settlers near Padmapur have named their village Subhaspalli, it adjoins the area where the tribals live in Padmapur. The settlers work hard. Women, girls too, roll bidis, while others make brooms from coconut fronds. Some families run canteens and petty shops, sales are usually on credit basis. The settlements have electricity but no health care or irrigation facilities. They are completely dependent on the rains. "Yes, we suffer a lot. We have told our elected representative, but nothing has been done. When tribals pledge their land, we lend cash, and till their land until they repay the debt. There has been no problem with them so far, but for how long?" asked a settler.

The Revenue Minister, Bishwa Bhushan Harichandan said in Bhubaneshwar that there were reports of tribals being alienated from their land. He said that both the Bengali settlers and tribals were encroaching on Government land. The firing in Raighar tehsil on October 30, 2001 in which three tribals were killed was a result of tension between Bengalis and tribals. At Jharapalli, the school was a line of three single-storey buildings, each about 200 square feet. Weeds grew in cracks on the walls, the windows had no bars so the children passed in and out. Passing through the school, literally, shouldn't be a problem. "But the drop-out rate is high. Tribal children, especially girls, do not study beyond the third standard, but children of settlers go through the system," said the headmaster. "The family will beg if necessary, but they will make their children study," said a group of Bengali settlers. Bags of paddy were stacked to the ceiling and paddy was piled high on the ground in almost every house in this village.

Trudging uphill to Padmapur village, I saw two women cleaning vessels at a hand pump at the edge of the village. They wouldn't talk, wouldn't pose for the camera.

The huts were scattered all around, each had an entrance barred by bamboo-splits. It was cool inside. Sabu Koya saw me watching a woman pasting cowdung on the walls and the cracks in them. "The cowdung will dry and the insects within will die," he said.

In one hut was the desari (medicine man). Bheema Pangi, bent with age, brought out his handcrafted bag — an assorted collection of medicinal plants for fever, diarrhoea, and body ache. Treatment is free. "My son is not interested in this because it does not earn me any money. He'd rather work as a labourer in town. The Government has done nothing to protect this system, and when I am gone, this knowledge will die with me," he said in a resigned voice.

Bheema Pangi said, "We have a village headman. And we listen to what he says." B.D. Sharma wrote in his book Whither Tribal Areas? "... in some tribal regions existing Panchayati Raj system comprising three tiers of Gram Panchayat, Panchayat Samities and Zilla Parishads have been accepted by the tribal people. But in other regions, the traditional organisational structure and leadership are still influential. The Panchayati Raj system has not been a success. There is need, therefore, to ensure that ... the traditional systems are allowed to play their due role." The tribals speak Oriya with many words from their tongue, which made translation difficult. "There is a school at Bandhuguda four km away," said one of the young tribals, "but our children refuse to go there. What will they learn that can be of use to them and to our way of life here?"


A typical hearth in a tribal hut in Malkangiri.

The simplicity of the tribals is striking. They are also poor. Most families do not have enough money to buy rice from the Public Distribution System. So hard cash means a lot to them but, despite their need.

These people have their own ways and would rather be left to themselves. They do not want to lose their tribal heritage. The tribals of Orissa, as elsewhere, are a marginalised lot.

Not only are they deprived of their habitat but they are also coerced to substitute their robust social organisation that has evolved over centuries for something completely alien to them. Development requires inputs, and the most important is land — For its natural resources — trees and minerals, for roads and to accommodate a growing population as well as industries. In the systematic encroachment by decision makers to appease those who matter, the rights of the tribals who cannot raise their voice are easily trampled upon.

Driven to an edge, with nothing but the precipice of poverty and destitution in sight, it is no wonder that even a simple lot turns against the oppressors at times.

* * *

Bitter pill

THE health care system in Malkangiri district is awful. Medical sub-centres for hilly areas exist on paper. You will not find one even if you hunted. The buildings are non-existent and health professionals routinely evade the postings by going on leave.

As the Collector, Vir Vikram Yadav, said, "Malaria is endemic here, and we have been trying our best to control it." The chief district medical officer (CDMO), Dr. Satchidananda Mishra, said, "We have one medical sub-centre for every 3000 population in a cluster of villages. The multipurpose health worker (MPHW) is required to visit one village everyday."

The local people said, "The sub-centres do not work, more so if they are up in the mountains. How is an MPHW to reach a village on a difficult terrain?" Obviously not many have the ability to crisscross the hills.

The local people said, members of the People's War Group (PWG) take the medicines — and sometimes even guide the MPHWs to attend to the sick — to remote areas. If they had not, then given the `excellent' health care delivery system (with health department staff taking leave en masse and poor supply of life-saving drugs), many would perish.

The fear psychosis has had an impact in the district. The administration seems to have woken up to people's needs.

* * *

`Politicking has led to tension'

THE Orissa Minister for Cooperation, Textiles and Handlooms, Arabinda Dhali lives in the centre of a multi-ring security cordon. Jayanarayan Mishra, deputy chief whip of the State Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was present the day I met Dhali at his home in Bhubaneshwar. A translated excerpt of the discussion in Bengali and Hindi:

To what extent has the People's War Group (PWG) created a problem in Malkangiri?

ARABINDA DHALI: The PWG has won the trust of the tribals and has been instigating them saying that the Government has not provided them water, medical facilities, schools and good roads. Basically, the PWG found Malkangiri a safe haven. They cultivated ganja and amassed a good amount of wealth too.

JAYANARAYAN MISHRA: Malkangiri is the last district in the list of priorities. So the worst officials are posted there as a punishment. They know that after Malkangiri, nothing can be worse. So they make the most out of it — by diverting Government project funds. There is no administration in Malkangiri. The Minister may deny this but it is the truth. So people are angry. There is also the issue of non-Bengali settlers from East Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Naxals today are thugs. The PWG cadres today terrorise the people. The problems between Bengali settlers and tribals are of recent origin...

A.D.: Yes. It was peaceful even a decade ago. After Independence, there was no development work in Malkangiri. It was only after I got elected in 1992 that I took up development work, including the Poteru irrigation scheme.

The tension between Bengalis and tribals is because of politicking. I won in 1992 because the traditional Congress vote bank elected me instead. You see, there are 30 per cent Bengalis and 70 per cent tribals in the Dandakaranya Project area. The Congress strategy has been to create a problem to split the votes. What else could cause a flare-up between the two who have co-existed peacefully for 40 years? There are so many cases of tribals marrying Bengalis.

What about the reported cases of rape of tribal women by Bengali settlers?

A.D.: There have been only two reported cases of rape in the last five years. Aren't much more rape cases reported from Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai? When women and men live in a society, the possibility of violations always exists.

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