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Called ‘Backward’, 5 Ways Adivasis Are Far Ahead Of Us In Protecting The Environment

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Adivasis or as the name translates in the Sanskrit language, “natural inhabitants” of India have been a relatively socially outcast community of Modern India.

In today’s times, Adivasi people are unfortunately referred to as primitive beings. But they are one of the few communities who have lived during every stage of Indian history. We can surely learn a few tips from our Adivasi brothers and sisters to ensure a sustainable future for ourselves, can’t we?

If one thinks of these communities and the way they function, one might applaud the fact that they have been sustaining in the society despite all the hindrances for so long. And rightly so, because we can all learn a lot from them as a society. Here’s a list of five things that we believe we can learn from these communities to live sustainably:

1. Interdependence Between Nature and People

Adivasis have mostly resided within or around the periphery of jungles. This can be seen by their dominance in forest-covered areas of Central India. Adivasis do not live a resource-intensive life, hence they do not depend on mining for their needs. They consider the forest as their “mother” and it is often personified in the form of a goddess.

One doesn’t have to go back many years to understand the bond between adivasis and nature. The most well-known example is that of the “Niyamgiri hills”. This place is home to the Dongria Kondh adivasis who consider the hills called Niyam Dongar to be the abode of their divine god. Their habitat came into danger when Vedanta Aluminum Limited agreed to establish an aluminium refinery as a part of the industrial development in Odisha. Despite suspicions over the environmental impact of the project, the Supreme Court granted clearance to Vedanta in August 2008. The decision led to a mass movement by the Kondh community who marched into the streets of Bhubaneshwar. After a long struggle against the government, the Kondh community won the battle in 2010 when the potential environmental violations by the company were exposed. The community was successful in preserving their home and nature.

Adivasis have been included in forest protection activities by state governments as well. This is the case with the Kokrebellur village of Karnataka where the state government defined roles for the local community to ensure reduction in bird poaching and encourage recreational activities to make the Kokrebellur bird sanctuary a tourist spot.

Compare this to the current situation of deforestation, global warming, and animal extinction, Adivasis teach us the need to be in harmony with nature.

2. Self-Sufficiency In Food and Farming

Despite the introduction of modern techniques in agriculture, many states and farmers suffer from low productivity. And the ones that produce a sufficient quantity use a heavy dosage of fertilizers and pesticides doing little good to human health.

The traditional farming methods of Adivasis have been successfully feeding their communities without the use of harmful substances. For example, Adivasi farmers in Dhaarav village of Madhya Pradesh practice the “utera” system. They save seeds from the previous harvest, sow several seeds at the same time, use animals to fertilise land and involve zero use of chemicals. In addition, mixed farming helps to recover the loss by failure of one crop.

It would not be wrong to say that adivasis have a very diverse cuisine. They have food festivals of their own and showcase the variety of cooked and uncooked food collected from the forest. According to Vikalp Sangam, a food festival held in Cuttack in 2014 by Adivasis consisted of more than 1500 food varieties among which over 900 were uncultivated forest foods.

Adivasis still practise the ancestral act of foraging from forests. As much as 30% of their diet comes from the forest. In a world obsessed with processed foods that are packaged in plastic, Adivasis teach us how to have a diverse cuisine from readily available plants.

3. Strong Sense of Collective Identity

We have a complex composition of different castes, sub-castes, cultures, religion etc. that form our social hierarchy. Needless to say, such bifurcations lead to conflicts among different groups of people resulting in mishaps. Perhaps we can learn a bit from the tribal culture on how to define identity. Collective identity of tribal people does not mean that they don’t have classifications; rather they have a different set of measures that dictate the structure of their societal composition.

Source: Shailesh Raval/The India Today Group/Getty Images

A tribal society is characterized by cohesiveness, habitat, stress on clan structures, ethnicity bonds, higher position of women, and a strong sense of identity.

The lack of global recognition as ‘Indigenous people’ acted as a boon in disguise to help Adivasis unite as a whole, upholding their values and laws. The absence of differentiation on the basis of social-class is a major learning. Maybe we can improvise on this system by uniting ourselves as a collective human race rather than fragmentation of people into various groups?

4. Ethnomedicine

Indian pharmaceutical industry is worth 27 billion dollars and is the third largest in the world, by volume. Increasing diseases have led to an increase in the advancement of medicines and technology to cure diseases. But these medicines contain chemicals and have harmful side-effects. The occurrence of side-effects is a big drawback in the health industry and masses are suffering from it. This is yet another field where Adivasis stand out with their use of ancestral plant-based medicine.

Ethno-medicine is the belief and practice relating to health and diseases, which are products of indigenous cultural knowledge of the particular communities. The “Adis” of Siang, Arunachal Pradesh involve the use of herbs, plants and roots of some trees for healthcare. They have distinct ways of treating different diseases using a variety of herbal medicines. Their medicines are used to cure some common diseases such as fever, malaria, jaundice, etc. As per a report published in Science Direct, Natural Products Alert (NAPRALET) contains nearly 2500 species used in traditional medical systems in India alone.

If we inculcate the use of this practice in our system of healthcare, minimizing the use of chemical-based medicines and choosing ethnomedicines can be a good alternative to the recurring diseases among masses.

5. Associating The Self With Nature’s Elements

We know forests are sacred to Adivasis and they have a co-existential relationship with nature. They associate their existence with land. This is not only because agriculture is their primary profession, but also they think of nature as their “mother” i.e. a divine entity. The land is their pride.

Nature is personified in different tribal literatures as different beings. They have emotions. They measure happiness of the self in terms of nature. For example, the Oraon tribes measure their happiness by cattle, crops, and children. One example that depicts the devotion adivasis hold towards nature is that of the Gonds. They are the largest ethnic Adivasi community of India and add up to around 14 million people in total. Their principle god is the “Bada Dev” whom they consider as the creator of the universe. He is believed to control life and death. In Gond culture, god resides in the Saja tree and this is why it is most sacred to the community. They ensure complete protection of the tree and use it for ceremonial purposes.

Image Source: Harpal Singh, The Hindu

Associating nature with human emotions can help us develop a bond with them so that we start respecting nature and stop draining the environment of resources in the long run.

Adivasi may be seen as a backward community today, but that is because the popular culture involves living in an unsustainable manner. Society looks down upon people who do not live a credit-based lifestyle, hoarding products of capitalism and living a life full of debt. Adivasis show us a far nobler way of life, one that does not extract resources mindlessly, treats the community members with more respect, is rooted in ancestral plant-based knowledge and worships nature instead of decimating it. Aren’t these the virtues worth celebrating?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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