'Development paradigms should match tribal culture'

SITAKANTA MAHAPATRA'S poetry got him the prestigious Jnanpith award for 1993. His poems, written in Oriya, have been translated into many Indian languages as well as English and several other European languages. His poems, which have been acclaimed as having the freshness of the earth soaked in the first rains, are rooted in rural India. Born in 1937 in Mahanga village, on a tributary of the Mahanadi river in Orissa's Cuttack district, Mahapatra graduated with honours in history from Cuttack's Ravenshaw College and went on to do a master's in political science from Allahabad University in 1959. He joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1961 and is currently secretary for cultural affairs in the Union home ministry. Mahapatra, who has been unanimously elected president of the inter-governmental committee of UNESCO's World Decade for Cultural Development, spoke to Amit Mitra about the influences on his poetry and the problems facing Indian tribal culture today. Excerpts:

Published: Tuesday 31 May 1994

What have been the major sources of inspiration for your poetry?
My experiences in my village. The school in which I studied was across the river from my village, and ferrying across was a normal thing, just as swimming was. Memories of the many moods of the river, the nights without electricity, the tambourines and mridangams used during worship, all influenced my poems. My father's recitations from classical and medieval Oriya texts and the Mahabharata also influenced me a lot.

My first poems were published in 1953 in the college journal, Jagorono, with which many eminent writers such as Anandasankar Ray of West Bengal, Jnanpith award winner Gopinath Mohanty, Kalindi Panigrahi and Ramakant Raut from Orissa have been associated.

What motivated you to join the IAS?
It was the question of finding a secure and respectable job. The choice was between teaching and the civil service. I chose the latter.

What drew you to anthropology?
I was led into the subject through my poetry. I worked for about 4 years in Mayurbhanj and Sundargarh, 2 tribal districts in Orissa, and learnt about tribal "song poems". I have always called them song poems because they are primarily meant to be songs, though they are also significant as poems -- fresh in their imagery and direct in their narrative pattern. From their poems I learnt about their social structure and the changes taking place in this because of state-sponsored development. In 1983, I was awarded a doctorate in anthropology from Utkal University for analysing changes in tribal society through their poetry.

How do tribals view development and how is this reflected in their poetry?
The relationship between development and poetry is very intricate. Even UNESCO's concept of development is based on the realisation that communities define themselves in terms of cultural identities and development cannot be effective unless it is centred around that image. But more often than not, general designs for development that are made do not fit the tribal world. The problem is to match the paradigms of development with the aspirations of the tribals and bring them in tune with their culture.

In India tribals have a strong tradition of community existence. But the panchayati raj system has been established in a way that attacks the very foundations of traditional tribal institutions. How does this clash of worlds get reflected in their poetry?
The outlook of the tribals towards their own culture vis a vis the economic benefits of modernisation varies widely across generations. When the panchayati raj concept was first mooted, the tribal leaders hoped to get some benefits for the community, but were soon disenchanted. By and large today, the socio-religious leadership lies with the elders while the politico-economic leadership, including that of the panchayati raj, has been taken over by the younger set. This duality -- of the need to preserve cultural autonomy, and that of economic development and modernisation -- leads to clashes.

The integrated village structure has almost broken down. Most of the traditional institutions are almost dead now. Earlier, the tribals were poor but culturally and socially very united. The oneness is now being fragmented by the ideologies of various parties.

But it is felt that elections to the lowest tier of the panchayat will not take place on party lines. Won't that change the situation?
Don't be deluded that it will be free of party politics. Party ideologies might not come to the forefront but will be very much there. This is a problem of democracy itself. There's a contradiction between democracy and the irrelevance of ideology. Once you decide to go for a democratic system, you have to count heads and that's where elections and parties come in. But we can try to genuinely move towards ideologies and not jockey for positions of power.

If the process of genuine democratic institution-building leads to changes in tribal society, no tears should be shed. Certainly traditional village systems are important for social religious functions, but economic functions are important too. We have to merge the two and give the villages more autonomy.

What are the problems in doing so?
Bigger tribal groups like the Santhals will be split on party lines in the panchayats. Besides, with respect to the smaller tribes, even in a tribal area the majority of the panchayat members may be non-tribals. The non-tribals come in either because of the indifference of the tribals or because of the political equations between the tribals and non-tribals.

Numerous village republics have formed federations in the past. Can't that be done now?
Well, as we are going into the 21st century, I don't know how far such a network will work. The large number of villages and the intricate linkages from the Parliament to the village may make it difficult to find a focus for rural development. However, we have not been able to tell the people that they have to cooperate with each other, provide the leadership and do things themselves.

Why has this happened?
Because no one tries to make the people self-reliant. The new panchayati raj system is an attempt to reverse this trend and tell the people that the government is there to help but not to do everything for them. But it is more important to find out what exactly the tribals want.

What are the issues involved?
There are many challenges. For instance, the school dropout rate might be very high because the tribals cannot relate to the educational package. We need teachers who know the language and culture and can identify with those taught. The traditional education system incorporated tribal lore, which included environmental management. It didn't alienate the child from the community.

Today the challenge is to incorporate the features of the traditional system with knowledge of augmenting incomes. My approach would be to build bridges between parents, first generation educated tribal youth and developers in various village level development schemes. Such experiments are being carried out in Orissa. A lot of the teaching takes place through traditional methods like singing and dancing. Even with respect to the content, one starts with the local society and comes to the world later. Tell the children about their local heroes first and then about the president of India.

Besides, our educational system places no emphasis on the knowledge of the local flora and fauna. This knowledge was spread through songs and dances and, therefore, we need teachers well versed in local lore. Education has to inculcate living traditions.

But doesn't the tribal way of life contradict present development goals?
The tribals may not be acquisitive. But can we say that they are less happy than those who are? There's a story of an American agronomist waiting for a ferry with his Indian counterparts. He found 2 tribal boys sleeping in the shade of a tree and tried to tell them that they should work, earn more, save and then go and enjoy themselves. The boys asked the interpreter to tell him that they had worked hard the last 3 days and saved quite a bit. Now they were doing exactly what the expert wanted -- enjoying themselves.

Aren't you arguing for some kind of a new minoritism?
No, I am asking for a balance between development and the need to maintain traditions. This requires a very clear perception of what to retain and what to discard. Modern, non-tribal cultures have to imbibe a lot from the tribals and not just say that the tribal cultures are for tribals only. That would reduce it to minoritism.
What are the most important things you have learnt from the tribals?
Apart from their sense of belonging to a community and defining their lives in terms of the group, they do not get bowed down by adversities. The tribals never loose their cheerfulness.

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