Reaching Out to the Tribals of Bundelkhand

Posted on May 27, 2012 in Society

By Ankit Dwivedi:

Working for tribal issues has always been a primary agenda for the government and NGOs. Tribal people often reside on hills and forests that are relatively isolated from other societies. They have their own way of life, their own belief system and their own rules. In Bundelkhand, in the past years, isolation of tribal areas has been ruined by the intrusion of miners and businessmen entering forests for commercial interests and the government supporting these people in the name of developing tribal areas. The tribals have shifted and rehabilitated in surrounding villages, gradually mixing up with the mainstream societies.

At this point a question must strike one’s mind. What kind of development does the government have in mind for these people? Isn’t the development agenda on the same lines that we accuse English people of doing when they entered Indian lands? They came with their culture, saw Indian folks and reported that Indian folks were “uncultured” and need their support for survival. So the British made efforts for development of Indian people through modern techniques and European culture, or better to say, through cultural imperialism. They made us believe that our traditions would lead us to a shattered life, and to have a better vision of life we’d have to borrow their eyes. It was not a matter of choice, but compulsion to accept the things the way they were fed.

Tribal people had been living in natural habitats for centuries. Even in the pre-Independence era, British demarcated their territory and avoided penetrating their homelands for the fear of their violence. But, after Independence, their land came under the supremacy of the State and they became an integral part of India, though without acceptance or even without awareness in some areas.

Bundelkhand has a large tribal population, where mostly ‘Sahariya’ tribals exist. They are hardly aware of their historical background in the absence of any written document or scholarly work. As per the folklore, Sahariya stands for natives of forests or “accompanists of tigers”. This is a primitive tribe, where mostly all adults are uneducated. They are now working for the people who forcefully took away the land they possessed in the nearby villages and the forests. As part of their job, they pick tendu leaves (an ingredient of beedi), seasonal fruits and other forest products.

A common characteristic popular about this tribe is their sustenance economy. Tribal people earn enough to dine for the day and do not preserve products for long-term survival. Even if they earn big money someday, they spend it all on the day itself and again begin their hunt for food the next day.

Earlier these tribal were very innocent and hardly knew the ways of ordinary people’s lifestyles. They had been long exploited for physical labour due to their backwardness and lack of knowledge. However things have taken quite a different turn in the present. Though most of them are illiterate even now, they are clever enough to resist exploitation, as they now understand monetary, markets and people in towns quite well.

A major roadblock in the development of these tribals is their dependency on alcohol. Since they came in touch with alcoholics in some villages, they became addicts. At present, alcoholism is a big reason for them to live and they often end up selling every household commodity in exchange of alcohol, without which they couldn’t think of their survival. Be it the male or female, drinking is a regular activity and even children start smoking and drinking at a very small age. Though enrolled in schools, tribal children hardly go to school; instead they spend their time in picking up fruits and leaves and making money.

But obviously, domestic violence is a regular household activity and drunken men often end up in fighting over streets. Other communities living in their neighbourhood, every now and then, make police complaints of their behavior. They also have complaints against government agencies and civil organisations for helping tribals financially and thus making them irresponsible and carefree. Christian missionaries are also active in tribal areas providing health facilities and education and many tribal have turned Christian.

It is astonishing to see tribal children suffering from malnutrition. Tribal children have over-inflated stomachs, (though the rest of their body remains week and thin) which restrict even their movement. Doctors from UNICEF working in this area explained it as consequences of eating too much under-nutritional food. Their diet often consists of chapatti with onion or plain salt (no Iodine). Tribal women are aggressive when they are told about malnutrition and when their children are treated. They consider their stomachs a sign of good health and refuse to take any medical aide.

Their primary culture and practices are on the verge of extinction. Also, their herbal methods of treatment have not been carried forward by the present generation. Thus they seem stuck between their primitive past and modern ways that don’t suit them. Tribal people had always lived a peaceful life in restricted communities and geographical areas. Their long exploitation has paved way for their mistrust and non-cooperation with government machinery and civil people. To gain back their confidence by assisting them in living a self-reliant life through a two way developmental process seems to be the only way problems can be resolved.


The writer is a rural reporter from Bundelkhand.