BHAINSGAON, Chhatisgarh: When the ruffling sound of shoes on dry leaves stops, the silence of the forests with only insects humming in background looms large. For those accustomed to city sounds all the time, such chaste silence is alien, almost scary.
Estimates of the distance covered in a day’s trek on the verdant Abuja Marh mountains in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, ranged from 4-6 kilometres to 8-10 kilometres. The Dandakaranya region, with Abuja Marh at its heart, is one of the most dense forests in the country.
My destination was a small tribal village, Bhainsgaon, on the foothills of the mountain-forest – a fabled place, away from the modern economy.
Having born in urban India and lived in commercial centres of the world like London and New York City, I took the present monetary system to be a given. Some villages in these forests have opened up to currency only in the past couple of decades. I had never imagined I would witness the subtle and drastic changes that tags along with the introduction of currency. For instance, the forest lands in Abujh Marh that were collectively used by tribals to gather food now have individual claimants. Tribal societies had traditional schools which taught children the ethics and values required to exist within a tribal society. Numbers of such schools are reducing drastically, standardised government schools are sprouting everywhere.
And, of all the major fallouts of a monetary system in a cashless economy, a major one is migration.
“We used to move around to collect herbs and animals we could eat. But, going great distances to get money is not something my mother would have ever done,” says Sita Muria, 60-year-old tribal woman who seasonally migrates to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh to work in chilli fields. She lives in the neighbouring state 4 months in a year. And spends about two months every year transporting tendu leaves that she collects in the forests to larger towns. Tendu leaves are used in the tobacco industry. Every house in the region sends at least one person for employment in the chilli fields every year. That means six months in a year, villages in the region have very few residents.
The region is populated by Muria, Maria and Gond tribes.
The tribal people living in these forests survive on forest produce and subsistence agriculture.
Majority of valuable minerals (such as coal, iron ore and zinc), which are essential fodder for large industries, electricity generation and weapons production, are abundantly found in these areas. The British colonial rule fervently tried to attain these. All the successive governments of Independent India followed suit. Such persistent efforts to integrate the tribals into the global economy caused friction which came to a head in the 1960s, about two decades after India had gained independence.
Extreme left wing guerrilla forces began a bloody battle to keep mineral rich states from environmental exploitation and mineral extraction. The clash continues even today, however the government has a clear upper hand now. Massive deforestation and mining are characteristic of these lands now.
Part of the reason for the weakening of the guerrillas, commonly called Maoists, was the adamant intrusion of the economic forces into the forests. They follow a pattern. The security forces set up a base, roads are constructed under stringent vigilance, schools, hospitals and shops follow. The reason for such ‘economic development’ is the entry of large companies hungry for natural resources. In regions where there are no minerals, there are no companies and the tribal population are deprived of basic health and education facilities.
Muria was sitting in a hut in her house in Bhainsgaon, which she built from scratch with the help of wood and hay. She explained why she is forced to leave her home: “they come for our lands. And put a price tag on it. If we have to safeguard our lands, we have to earn money. We have nothing if not for our lands,” As the companies enter their serene lands, they bring along economies sustained by money. If tribals cannot afford to pay for water, electricity, phones and hospitals, they will have to relocate. But tribals are tied to their lands inextricably. This means, they have to earn enough to hold on to their lands.
According to a study commissioned by the federal government in 2010 on the migration of tribal women, “about 20.50 lakh persons inhabiting in forest areas most of whom are tribals inhabiting for generations together have been deprived of their lands and traditional rights.”
It is almost impossible to stop the forces of modern economy from crusading through the forests. Since they cant beat it, many of them have embraced its advance. However, since their villages have little economic opportunities for them, they are forced to migrate and not surprisingly women take the lead in such seasonal migration.
The on-going armed battle between the state and the Maoists has ensured many tribal men in the south Chhattisgarh region are left to fend for the children and the aged. Most men are involved in the conflict either as police personnel or as rebels. And many others have migrated to different parts of the country to earn more money. “Our tribe believes that we should always live under the shadow of the mahua tree. If we move away, we will perish,” said Rama Pottam, 28, a resident of Kunna in Sukma district, explaining an old legend. Mahua flowers are used for medicines and alcohol. “We are fighting to live under the same mahua tree that our forefathers lived under.”
Pottam has just returned from Andhra Pradesh after having worked in the chilli industry. She has earned Rs 6500 after a month’s work, ensuring she can afford a few essentials at the local market for her family.
Most women there migrate seasonally so they can keep living in their traditional lands.
Tribal communities have lived in abundance for generations. They live on forest produce and animals which do not run out when money does. Their only jobs have been to preserve the forests. So, the idea of rationing their desires according to what money can buy is a concept they are still trying to come to terms with. For instance, since Pottam worked in the chilly industry in Andhra Pradesh only for month, she can only settle for a few pulses and salt at the local market. If she wants any more than that, she would need to spend more time outside the house.
According to the study commissioned by the government on migration of tribal women in 2010,
“Another new feature of tribal migration from these states in recent years has been the large – scale migration of single women to cities in search of livelihood, which is a subtle change from the earlier migration patterns when only the men migrated to urban centres. Tribal families nowadays are driven by poverty to send unmarried daughters to cities in search of work.”
Most girls are taking on the responsibility of their families. “We cannot stop the changes happening to our society, but we can at least ease our families into it as much as we can,” said Sunita Muria, 17. “If I earn even two months in a year in Maharashtra or Andhra Pradesh, my family can eat well for a few months,” she added.
Out of the seven districts in the largely forested Bastar region, I toured about 20 villages to find that those that tried to fight economic changes with arms were on the verge of failing. But, the women who are stepping out are doing so to make their lives slightly better.