The push to drive indigenous people out of forests

Life of a Dongria Kondh tribal offers insights on Indian government’s reckless interventions into the lives of indigenous people

By Parul Abrol
Published: Thursday 17 January 2019

When 30-year-old Lakshman Huika returned to his village Manda of Munikhol Panchayat in Muniguda block of Rayagada district in Odisha, he had already seen the life in big cities like Bengaluru and Mumbai.

Manda lies deep inside Niyamgiri Hills and is accessible only by foot—at least three hours walk from the Munikhol Panchayat plus another hour walk till Muniguda town.

Lakshman belongs to the reclusive Dongria Kondh tribe, which typically resides in the hills known as Donger in local language. He is one of the rare few from his community who left to work outside and is fluent in Hindi.

The reason why he returned is the key to understanding the life Dongrias offer to their community, while offering insights into Indian government’s reckless interventions into the lives of indigenous people.

As Lakshman sat with his 10-year-old nephew Badro Sikoka atop the hill, resting after the early morning farming session, he says, “There is nothing in the cities that offer me what I have here. This is my land, my mother. We live our part and pass on to the next generation. If I don’t teach my nephew how to believe in our way of life, who will?”

Downhill, right next to an overflowing stream, Lakshman’s sister Kochari Sikoka was working on another piece of land with her two young daughters, sister and mother.

Malvika Gupta, who is pursuing a DPhil in international development at Oxford University on indigenous education, and anthropologist Felix Padel who has worked extensively on indigenous issues in India, explain, “The Dongrias still have what anthropologists have (inadequately) termed 'youth dormitories', which promotes many interpersonal communication skills as well as dances, songs, myths, stories, and skills of doing and making things, including 'food production' that are absent from the school curriculum.”

Gupta adds that during her experience in the field, she found “traditional systems of values and knowledge are not only absent from the school system, but even intentionally undermined.”

Experts believe that, in a way, there is very little difference between the intentions of the American missionary John Allen Chau—who was killed by the Sentinelese tribe in November 2018—from what the Indian government has been trying to do with indigenous people—trying to “civilise” them.

Deval Deb, who has been working with tribal people for the past 40 years and works on the conservation of heirloom seeds, says, “There is this concerted effort to keep telling tribal people that they are uncultured, uneducated and wild. We take no effort to understand their sophisticated lifestyle. This continued effort to ‘civilise’ them is disgusting.”

Lakshman, meanwhile has worked in hotel kitchens in Mumbai and Bangalore for five-six years. There was hardly any money, while he used to live in dingy, shared apartments.

After spending a few years in the outside world and realising that it didn’t add anything to his life and gave no sense of fulfilment, he returned to his village.

“My family and neighbours helped me. There won’t be any food to eat if we don’t help each other out. Our elders not only teach us agriculture, they also teach us how to live with others and look out for others. I was absolutely on my own in the city—nobody cared if I lived or died,” he says.

Debjeet Sarangi, one of the founding members of Living Farms—an NGO that works with Adivasis in Odisha, says, “The push for educating Adivasis and making them leave their land is the conspiracy to produce cheap, low-skilled labour for the cities, and once they lose connection with their lands, let the multinational companies exploit their resources. Adivasis leaving their land is a much bigger disaster than we understand.”

Meanwhile, Lakshman’s sister and mother teach the younger girls how to take out weeds and trim trees. They keep a keen eye on what the girls are doing, even as they think they are having fun.

There is a narrow trail between the hill and the land, beside the stream where the women are working. A little after noon, groups of women start returning from the forest with seasonal mushrooms and other forest produce, some of them with little toddlers hanging on to them.

“This is the cycle of life. Women are the carriers and medium of knowledge. Like our land, we give birth, nourish, and prepare the next generation,” says Kochari.

Yet, this sophistication is entirely lost to the government agencies. Kishore Karkariya is the Block project manager of Bissamcuttack block in Rayagada district of Odisha. He looks after the skill development programmes of the state government.

“Rayagada comprises 70-80 per cent tribals. Our programme is very important for the mainstreaming of Adivasis. Kids who have learnt skills from us will go out and work for big companies outside for at least Rs 6,000 (about $86) per month in big cities,” says Karkariya.

He, however, could not confirm if that is enough for a decent life.

(The article is produced under OneWorld–Dream a Dream Media Fellowship on Life Skills.)

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