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Bastar Beyond Maoists Is A Sad, Untold Tale Of A Rich Region And Its Exploited People

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By Srestha Banerjee:

Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth.

For most of us in the 21st century, Bastar is a land of forests, tribals and a bloody battleground for security forces and the armed insurgents known as Maoists. In a way, it is a landscape of perceptions.

This is true until one ventures into this area in Chhattisgarh – from Jagdalpur to Dantewada, the road meanders through dense sal forests. Wild fruit-bearing trees and medicinal plants frequently appear along the way. Posts set up by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) are visible at short intervals.

People generally refuse to go to these places after daylight. In fact, 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. The insurgency raging in the Bastar forests for the past decade has created an atmosphere of fear. Uneasy conversations concerning 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 seem to be living in exile, today. Even though it is rich in beauty, resources and tribal culture, the forests are infamous for being ‘Maoist-infested’.

Of the many fall-outs of insurgency, and a critical one at that too, 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 lives, 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 concerns walking 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 plants and trees that we can see now are ancestors to the first sprouts of life in India. If you need any tree service contact First Call Tree Services for help.

Back then, it was still a separate geological plate and India did not look like what it is today. The tribals did not exist there, but the plants and trees were laying the foundations for their appearance and survival on these lands.

Bastar has the fabled Abujmarh, or ‘the unknown hills’, which is covered with 3,900 square kilometers of forests. It was only in 2009 that the government opened access to these hills. They had been out of bounds since the 1980s.

Arguably, one can experience pre-agriculture life here. The forests host tribes like the Gonds, who apparently do not have words for ‘future’ and ‘breakdown’. Many of the tribes have as few as seven members. After all, they have existed for more than 10,000 years now.

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 which is 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 ₹577 crore. Last year, the earnings amounted to ₹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.

People in the region do not trust the quality of water in the hand pumps. Instead, they rely on the stream water brought by pipelines.

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 2% of the rural households have access to treated tap-water in Dantewada. As per official data, 84% 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.

Tribal women have to walk a long distance to get water in Parapur, a sparsely-populated tribal village in Bacheli.

A 10 Kilometer 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 kilometers to reach the primary health centre (PHC). The villages close to the town centre are comparatively better off – a NMDC hospital is nearby and the walk to the health centre is about four to five kilometers.

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 resources on the ground such as the primary health centres – the challenge is multifaceted,” he says. A survey by the ministry of health and family welfare, done till 2015, underscores this fact. Dantewada has only 11 PHCs for a population of 533,638, of which 82% is rural. This means that there is roughly one PHC per 48,500 people. Even these few centres rarely have full-time doctors.

Equally challenging is the issue of health and nutrition support to children and women in the villages. “While there are anganwadi centres, education about nutrition 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 the statistics, I look up the Rapid Survey on Children by the ministry of women and child development. “In Chhattisgarh, about 38% of tribal children below five years are underweight, while 44% 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 8, 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%. It’s a small wonder, therefore, that the school has two teachers and just 22 students.

Middle schools are a bigger challenge. “Typically, children have to walk about five kilometers 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 is 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.

Students from faraway areas attend this middle school in Ronje village of Dantewada. Schools are sparse in interior villages, so children have to leave home for education.

Hope In The Graveyard

For those who live under the shadow of fear perpetually, tribal tombs have beautiful, detailed engravings.

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 portraits, politics, favourite habits.

They seem to nurture life in death. One can paint death so beautifully only if the life is rich and there is hope.

An Opportunity?

The conflict in the Bastar region is also one of resource rights. For years, people in this region only knew that the resource beneath their lands belonged to someone else – sometimes the state, sometimes the mining corporation. They felt alienated, suffered unequal development and therefore, fought for their rights.

Finally, the government has recognised the right of the people over these resources. To this effect, in March 2015, the Parliament passed an amendment to the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act of 1957. One of the key provisions of the amendment is the institution of district mineral foundation (DMF), a non-profit trust, to be developed in all mining districts of India. The 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 DMFs a share of the royalty they pay to the state government.

For the government, this is a momentous opportunity to reach out into 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 the region with the hope that someday, when I come back to Dantewada, the first question to me will no longer be about the fear it evokes.

Along The Trail:

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 palm-like 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).

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