The people of Bastar seem to nurture life in death. One can paint tombs so beautifully only if there is hope, says writer (left)
For all of us in the 21st century, Bastar is a landscape of forests, tribals and a bloody battleground for security forces and the armed insurgents known as Maoists. One way, it is a landscape of perceptions. Unless one ventures into this area in Chhattisgarh.
From Jagdalpur to Dantewada, the road meanders through dense sal forests. Often wild fruit-bearing trees and medicinal plants appear. Posts of the Central Reserve Police Force are visible within short distances of each other. People generally refuse to go to these places after daylight. We were also warned.
“Aap ko dar nahi laga yahan aane mein” (Didn’t you feel scared coming here)?” asks a clerk at Dantewada District Collectorate as I approach him for a meeting with the District Commissioner. On seeing two women—my colleague and I—in south Bastar, this was the first question that came to his mind. Insurgency raging in the Bastar forests for the past decade has created an atmosphere of fear. Uneasy conversations of conflicts, guns and arrests are common. The lush green Dandakaranya forests and the serene streams somehow fail to relieve the nervousness.
The word “dandakaranya” roughly translates to “the jungle of punishment”. Folklore has it that the forests were home to many deadly creatures and exiled people. The reputation endures. Its people today seem to be living in exile. Even though rich in beauty, resources and tribal culture, the forests are infamous as “maoist-infested”.
Of the many fallouts of insurgency a critical one is the way it has affected the lives of some of India’s poorest people—the adivasis predominant in this area. Stories of their everyday life, their needs and aspirations have been subsumed into the dominant narrative of insurgency. Pressing issues of malnutrition, healthcare, clean water and education have largely remained on the sidelines. Our journey through Dantewada, is to walk through the sidelines.
First sprouts of life
But first, a short ecological history. Bastar’s geography is its history. Apparently, some three billion years ago life took shape here. The plant and tree species we see now are ancestors to the first sprouts of life in what we call India. It was still a separate geological plate and India at that point of time did not look like what it is today. The tribals were not there but the plants and trees were busy preparing the ground for them to appear much later.
Bastar has that fabled Abujmarh, or the unknown hills, covered with 3,900 square kilometres of forests. It was only in 2009 that the government opened access to these hills. They were out of bounds since the 1980s. It is arguably the place where one can experience pre-agriculture life. The forests host tribes like the Gonds, who do not have a word for “future” and “breakdown”. Many of the tribes have numbers only till seven. It is a life that existed more than 10,000 years ago.
The red irony
Early morning we set out to go to Bacheli, one of the two most important iron ore-mining sites of the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) in Dantewada. Bacheli lies in the foothills of the Bailadila Range, an ecological hot spot and famous for its high-quality iron ore deposits. The corporation has been mining iron ore in Bailadila since the early 1960s. At present, it has five operational leases spreading over 2,553 hectares of forested area. In 2015-16, it earned a royalty of Rs 577 crore. Last year, the earning was Rs 953 crore, says District Commissioner Saurabh Kumar. The district has enjoyed such handsome earnings for years now.
But the richness of the red ore has escaped a large section of the population here. On the main road through Bacheli, a signboard boasting “Indian Coffee House” points in the direction of NMDC township, a pocket of affluence. Just on the other side, a few kilometers inside, people walk a considerable distance for a pot of water.
A common sight in Parapur, a sparsely populated tribal village in Bacheli, is women with handis (pots) on their heads going to fetch water. Nande is one of them. Unable to speak Hindi, she communicates with us through gestures and with the help of a local person accompanying us. Every day she and many others walk a long distance to get water.
Only about two per cent of the rural households have access to treated tap water in Dantewada. As per official data, 84 per cent households in the region “rely” on hand pumps. But the hand pumps we come across in the village are mostly non-functional. Wherever the hand pumps are functional, people are apprehensive of the quality of the water. They fear the reddish water contaminated with iron ore. Instead, Nande and others rely on spring water brought by pipelines.
10 km walk to see a doctor who may not be there
We are sitting in the office of Gramoday, a non-profit that has been working on health issues in Dantewada for the past 13 years. Gouri Shankar, along with 10 others, works here. “The interior villages are particularly cut off from the health centres,” says Gauri Shankar. In villages such as Kamalur and Jherka in Bacheli, people have to walk more than 10 km to reach the primary health centre (PHC). The villages close to the town centre are comparatively better off—NMDC hospital is nearby and the walk to the health centre is 4-5 km.
Asish Bose, a health consultant at the district hospital, acknowledges the critical shortage in health infrastructure. “From basic services such as having trained personnel to give anaesthesia at the district hospital to the very limited resource on the ground such as the primary health centres, the challenge is multifaceted,” he says. A survey of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare done until 2015 underscores this. Dantewada has only 11 PHCs for a population of 533,638, of which 82 per cent is rural. This means there is roughly one PHC per 48,500 people. Even these few centres rarely have full time doctors.
Equally challenging is the health and nutrition support to children and women in the villages. “While there are anganwadi centres, nutrition education among the workers and the monitoring of nutrition and growth are not up to the mark,” says Seema Kunjum, who works on health issues and with anganwadi workers in Dhurli village.
To compare my experience with statistics, I look up the Rapid Survey on Children by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. In Chhattisgarh, about 38 per cent of tribal children below five years are underweight, while 44 per cent suffer stunted growth, it reads.
Home is where the school is not
We stop by a small school in Ronje village, just outside the town, around 10 in the morning. Boys and girls in white and blue uniform have gathered for classes. A student of Class VIII, Taravati lives with her distant relatives in Ronje so that she can attend school. Her village does not have a school. “Most students live in hostels to study,” she says.
Staying in school hostels set up by the government in and around the bigger villages and town centres is an accepted way of life for many children in Bastar today.
Schools in interior villages are sparse. “Even where there are buildings, a major problem is the availability of teachers,” says Trivendra Kumar Nirmalkar, a teacher at the prathamikshala (primary school) in Netapur, a village of about 150 families. Literacy rate in this village is abysmally low—just 12 per cent. Small wonder, the school has two teachers and just 22 students.
Middle schools are a bigger challenge. “Typically, children have to walk about 5 km to reach middle schools. In the hilly terrain that is difficult,” Nirmalkar says. “Another problem is that children drop out of school by the time they graduate to middle school,” adds Praneet, a member of Bachpan Banao, a non-profit working on child education in Dantewada. The teachers in these schools are mostly non-tribals from other places. They teach in Hindi. They do not know the Gondi and Halvi languages that the children speak. This hinders learning and also creates a sense of uneasiness. Nirmalkar thinks education is a distant investment for the people in tribal villages whose immediate concern remains livelihood. “As the children reach the age of 10 or 11 years, they are typically directed to work that can support the family income,” he adds.
One phrase that comes up often in our conversation with government officials and members of education non-profits is “pota cabins” (portable cabins). These are places that provide food and education. “Pota” also means “stomach” in the Gondi language. The cabins began appearing in Dantewada since 2011 to provide “secured dwellings”. Made of mostly bamboo and wood, these residential schools have facilities for students of first to eighth grade. “There are now 17 such schools with about 500 seats each,” says Praneet.
The safe havens for children are being created at a distance, so children have to leave home.
Hope in the graveyard
The gloomy statistics notwithstanding, the people here must be cherishing hope. A striking thing about the tribals is how beautifully they paint their life after death. In the graveyards in the villages and along the roads, some of the tombs, particularly of tribal leaders or significant people, I presume, have rich and detailed engravings—their portrait, politics, favourite habits.
They seem to nurture life in death. One can paint death so beautifully only if the life is rich, if there is hope.
The conflict in the Bastar region is also a conflict of resource rights. For years people in this region knew that the resource beneath their land is of someone else: sometimes the state, sometimes the mining corporation. They felt alienated, suffered unequal development and fought for their rights.
Finally, the government has recognised the right of the people over resources. To this effect, in March 2015, Parliament passed an Amendment to the Central mining law, the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act of 1957. One of the key provisions of the amendments is the institution of District Mineral Foundation (DMF), a non-profit Trust, to be developed in all mining districts of India. DMFs are meant as a vehicle for ensuring that the benefits of mining are shared with the people of the region.
They must address crucial human development factors such as nutrition, healthcare, clean water, sanitation, education. Mining companies will have to give DMF a share of the royalty they pay to the state government.
For the government this is a momentous opportunity to reach out to the remote parts of Bastar. It is an opportunity to seek a renewed contract with the people of the region, an opportunity to write a history of renewed hope. I leave with the hope that someday I would come back to Dantewada when the first question to me would no more be about the fear it evokes.
|ALONG THE TRAIL
Local food: The people of Dantewada are mainly non-vegetarian. However, leafy vegetables such as lal bhaji and khatti bhaji are eaten as accompaniments to rice. Liquors such as paje (a non-toxic, home-made liquor made from water and cooked rice), sulphi (collected from a tall palmlike tree) are popular in the region.
Local festivals: Celebrations are typically oriented around nature and harvest, such as pane pandum (before sowing paddy seeds in May and giving thanks for the new crops in November) and gadi pandum (before picking the mahua flower).