In March of 2009, I began travelling through rural India, particularly the tribal areas. My final destination in this sojourn was the Bankura district of Bengal, where a friend was working on a range of socio-economic issues with the Santhal tribes. One incident from that trip has stayed in my head, and it feels like yesterday.
I was in the village of Ranipur Adhivasi in Bankura on that very hot summer day. A young boy was herding his goats during midday. As I was standing in the shade, I called him over for a chat (in my broken Bengali).
In retrospect, I see the contrast between the two of us. I had long hair and a well-built gym physique back then. I was immaculately dressed, with sunscreen, an umbrella, and a bottle of filtered water shielding me from the raging sun. He was clearly under-nourished, with rags barely concealing his skeletal frame.
I lectured the boy on the value of education and why he should be in school and not with his goats. He listened patiently for a while and then shot back, “If I go to school, will you look after my mother? Will you take care of my sister? Will you feed them?”
He walked away to the grazing goats, leaving me perplexed, dazzled and ashamed. Later, as I explored the village, I came to realise that Shiv Tudu was the bread-earner of his family of three, which consisted of a sick tuberculosis-ridden mother and a little sister. As I peeped into his one room shack, I saw a woman lying on the floor, almost half lifeless, and Shiv’s little sister was rolling around her mother.
I was determined to understand what could have forced a young 11-year-old to be the sole bread-winner of his family. I spent the next 2 days talking to anyone I could meet in this village. Of an adult population of 129 in the village, 72 worked in stone crushers under horrendous conditions. Exposure to fine granules of rock and dust for long hours, with no protection resulted in TB. Seven of them were already diagnosed and one had expired. The one who had expired was Shiv’s father.
I asked Aladi Hazda what she would do after recuperating from TB. “Pet ar joonany Garib jei rasta pabay oi raasta ie dhorbey (The poor will catch any road that will provide for the stomach),” she replied.
Similar stories emerged out from villages in the area, where about 75 odd stone crushers were operational.t would be a superficial analysis to deduce that Shiv’s disenfranchisement simply boils down to exploitation in Stone Crushers. Shiv is, in fact, a product of a larger set of institutional neglect and exploitation of tribes in India.
Government’s own data also speaks of this neglect and exploitation. A staggering 45% of tribal population falls below the poverty line, much higher than the national average. So, there is about 45% probability of a child like Shiv being born into an extremely deprived household.
Like Shiv’s family, a large chunk of the tribal population has been a victim of economic exploitation in the name of development. Tribal people formed 55% of the displaced population in India until 2001 and 47 percent of the population displaced due to development projects.
And if you live in a tribal dominated area, the chance of a functional health centre diminishes significantly. Additionally, instances of anaemia are far higher in tribal women (68 %) than any other group in India.
On every other parameter of development, families like the ones I met in Ranipur Adhivasi fall far behind the national average, which itself is pretty low compared to global standards. Millions of oppressed tribal children like Shiv are a manifestation of this socio-economic deprivation. The contrast I observed that day in Ranipur Adhivasi is just one instance.
The author is a part of the Youth Ki Awaaz Writers’ Training Program.