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|Voluntary Action and Alternative
Development in Tribal Areas
After attaining independence most Third World countries embarked on the path of modernisation to catch up with Western countries in the shortest possible time. The national elites in these countries bent their energy to accomplish this task. The experience gained during the first two development decades amply showed that the two concepts of modernisation and development were most inadequate to solve the problems facing the people in these countries. Although some economic growth was registered, the process brought in its train greater dependence on Western countries and widened the gulf between rich and poor in different countries. At some places this led to the emergence of powerful social movements. This invited a backlash from vested interests tending to promote parochial and obscurantist values which militated against the goals of modernity.
The development experience among the tribal communities is not very different from that of general society in India. In certain cases, tribals have been hurt rather than helped on account of the development effort. In most cases it resulted in development for the few and destitution for many. The experience of the pains of development is very poignant. Some of these are quite visible while others can be discovered after a deep probe into the social fabric.
In India the bulk of the tribal community is spread over middle India from Gujarat to West Bengal and in the north-east. The tribals in the north-eastern states form a majority there. The tribals in middle India live interspersed with the dominant population. It is there that their deprivation and exploitation are the worst. Tribal policies in India suffer from a hangover of the colonial past. The British system of administration tended to impair their social solidarity and weakened the authority of their social heads and pancayats. Until recently, when rules against alienation of ancestral land were promulgated by the government, the ancient tribal customs against such alienation were disregarded. After Independence efforts were made to integrate the tribals into the mainstream of the Indian polity through elimination of exploitation and positive measures for raising their levels of living. But even forty years after Independence they are being deprived of command over the resources which they enjoyed in their respective areas. The opening up of inaccessible tribal areas has aided this process. The tribal people along the arteries of communication are being squeezed out of their land. The new enclaves of affluence in tribal areas have no place for tribals. They are losers on all counts and are victims of a system in which those responsible for policy-making suffer no embarrassment and qualms of conscience.
The problems of tribals coming under the sway of large industrial, mining and irrigation projects are most acute. It is a pity that the difficulties of the tribals were not perceived earlier. The issues are not just alternative use of resources or cost-benefit analysis of projects. They are deeper and involve human rights, civilisationís values and national obligations. The tribal people are faced with rapid change, which tends to create a crisis in their life. Displacement spells disorganisation and destitution. They lack skills for an alternative way of life. It is at this stage that the concept of sustainable development or alternative development has to be thought of. Unfortunately not much thinking in this regard has come from the government. It is on account of this that the role of voluntary agencies in this field becomes important.
The experiment in alternative development which is the theme of this paper has been carried out in the Santhal Parganas by the Badlao Foundation during the past ten years. The Santhal Parganas is the north-eastern extension of the Deccan plateau. The region is bounded on the west and south by a number of districts of Bihar and to the east by some districts of West Bengal. Ethnologically, it is the abode of two important tribes, the Santal and the Paharia. The activities of the Badlao Foundation are spread mainly among these tribes in the districts of Deoghar, Godda and Dumka.
The Santal are the largest tribe of eastern India. In Bihar alone they number more than two millions. The traditions of the Santal represent them as a group wandering from one land to another until they found their present home in Chhota Nagpur and the adjacent districts. On the basis of their traditions, several theories have been put forward to account for their origin. About the middle of the 18th century Chhota Nagpur was the chief habitat of the Santal. At the end of the century, as the jungles were being cleared and the pressure of population was keenly felt, they moved up towards the virgin forests in and around the Rajmahal hills. The Permanent Settlement of 1793 forced the landlords to pay more attention to land improvement and reclamation, for which the Santal were increasingly used. In 1832 the government set apart a large area in the Santhal Parganas for the settlement of the Santal. This region was known as Damin-i-Koh. The population in this tract increased from 3,000 in 1838 to 82,795 in 1851. Thus from the middle of the last century Damin-i-Koh became the main concentration of the Santal.
In reclaiming land and clearing jungle the Santal have few equals in India. They live in villages consisting of a long street with a single row of dwellings on either side. Santal houses are built of mud but roofed with country-made tiles. The houses are kept very neat and clean and the outside walls are painted with exquisite designs. The Santal are settled agriculturalists and use simple agricultural implements. However, they derive a part of their sustenance from the forest, since their agricultural field are monocropped. The Santal produce rice, maize, millets, beans, and vegetables. About 82 varieties of wild plants, 70 varieties of fruits, 7 varieties of resins, 31 varieties of mushrooms and several varieties of jungle millets are gathered at one time or other. Wild foods are collected by women who work together in groups. Santal men go on hunting expeditions.
The Santal live in nuclear families and are patrilineal in descent. Several kinds of marriage are prevalent, but the most prestigious one is that in which bride-price has been paid. A daughter does not have a share in her fatherís property but she can hold moveable property like money, goods and cattle. Womenís status in society is high and in most cases they run the households. However, they do not have political or religious rights. They are not members of the village pancayat, although Santal society is highly democratic. Women work with men in fields, farms and forests. They go to the market and strike bargains for the surplus produce of the family. Santal society is marked by a spirit of cooperation and it is manifested not only on the occasion of festivals but also in all kinds of social and economic activities. Friends share wedding expenses with each other, help each other in cultivation, lend each other plough cattle and rally to each otherís help at birth, sickness, or death and assist each other with loans that are free of interest. Santal religion is a potent force in strengthening the social solidarity of the people. The Santal concept of righteousness is bound up with its social or tribal consciousness. They have an excellent and well-ordered village organisation with a hierarchy of village officers and courts for dispensing their unwritten law. The unique form of punishment called bitlaha is used to bring to book persons guilty of transgressing the social code regarding sexual relations inside the clan and outside the tribe.
The Sauria Paharia, the largest Paharia group, accounted for 65,000 persons in 1988. The Sauria Paharia are basically shifting cultivators and live on mountain spurs in very small villages. They have a feeling of animosity toward the Santal who live largely on the plateau and use more sophisticated tools for agriculture. They speak a language which belongs to the intermediate Dravidian group so widely different from the Austric speech of the Santal.
Sauria Paharia settlements comprise ten to fifty houses. The houses are very small and rickety compared to Santal houses. Their main occupation is slash-and-burn cultivation, known locally as kurwa. They move from field to field after a few years. They use only the digging stick for putting in the seeds. They grow maize, millets, beans and pulses. Some of these tribesmen have picked up settled cultivation if they have some plain land. The Paharia as compared to Santal are more dependent on the forest. Earlier they used to make some money by cultivating sabai grass. But now they do not do so in a big way as its market has shrunk. The cutting down of forests and the restrictions placed on their exploitation led to a reduction of their resource base. Although the Sauria Paharia have cherished a healthy relationship between nature, man and the spirits for a long time, they are extremely frustrated as their gods have failed to protect them from the ravages of time. Abject poverty and disease have made them panic. The steps taken by government for their welfare have largely bypassed them, and they remain one of the most backward tribal groups in the state.
It is in this background that the Badlao Foundation is concentrating its effort. In recent years, voluntary initiatives have raised debates on new issues and concerns which have emerged from our development programme over the past four decades. The issues of deforestation, air and water pollution, ecology, rights of women and rural labour, rights of construction workers, occupational health and safety, land degradation and alienation, housing rights, right to information and work, adult literacy and education of women, etc., have been articulated by individuals and organisations involved in voluntary action. Although even earlier the role of voluntary agencies in bringing about development was recognised, it was only in the Seventh Plan document that the role of voluntary organisations was clearly set out. Voluntary agencies were not only to supplement government efforts but also to offer the rural poor choices and alternatives. Thus the voluntary agencies could experiment and innovate new schemes and programmes to bring development to the rural poor. Since they had close links with the grassroots, they were expected to elicit peopleís participation in a much larger measure than otherwise. The development package could differ from area to area and even from village to village. The voluntary agencies were not expected to supplant government efforts and replace dependence on the government by dependence on themselves, but in helping people help themselves. People have to be made aware of their own problems. They have to work out the priorities themselves in view of the limitation of resources.
The Badlao Foundation was established by certain activists who were inspired by the J.P. movement which took place in the mid-1970s. In the early 1980s there was no voluntary organisation in the pockets in which work was started. The area chosen was about eight kilometres from Mihijam on the Bihar-Bengal border. Long economic deprivation and the excesses perpetrated on them by the moneylenders had put the tribal population in a state of despondency. In such a situation an all-round effort had to be made to generate income for them through fresh schemes, i.e. sericulture, livestock, milch cattle, cottage industry, small trades, social forestry, spinning, weaving, etc. In addition to this, there was urgent need for educational and health programmes for the people. The Foundation set before itself the following tasks:
The fast depletion of forest cover in the region affected the life of tribals very adversely. They depended for their livelihood, in large measure, on the forest. They took advantage of various kinds of timber and non-timber produce. In the lean months of the year, they could subsist on products like mahua and jackfruit. The cutting of forests was accelerated by the local contractors in collusion with the lower functionaries of the Forest Department. They cut more forest than they were permitted to. The Forest Department held that the illegal cutting was the work of tribals, and a large number of Santal and Paharia were sent to jail on this ground. The depletion of forest resources led to the disappearance of a large number of medicinal plants which were used for curing human and animal diseases. It also led to the disappearance of a large number of animal species. Valuable pasture land was also lost and it has become a problem for the grazing of domestic animals. In some areas where certain communities were dependent on pastoral activities, their source of income disappeared. The cottage industries in the village, which provided sustenance for certain communities, decayed in course of time due to lack of availability of raw materials which were derived from the forest. Prominent among them was the production of cotton, taser silk, the lac industry and the growing of sabai grass, which was used for the production of paper.
To add to this environmental degradation, the proliferation of stone quarries and stone crushers brought untold misery to the people. After the quarries were exhausted the entire landscape was marked by pits and nothing could be produced there. On account of strong winds stone dust coming from the stone crushing machines spread along the nearby fields and reduced their fertility. Not only this, the health of the people working in the quarries and living in nearby areas was also affected. They began to suffer from lung diseases such as silicosis and asthma. They also complained about skin diseases and deafness. Protests made by local people against the opening of stone crushers went unheeded on account of the influence of capitalist interests.
Another impact of the depletion of forests was the drying up of rivers and other sources of water. Many rivers which were earlier perennial changed their character and water was available in them only in the rainy season. The amount of precipitation was also reduced, resulting in scarcity of water. As a result, people have to drink stale and contaminated water. This has led to the appearance of many diseases.
The landscape changed a great deal on account of large-scale soil erosion. In many areas land was rendered uncultivable due to sand and the formation of gullies. All this led to reduction in the cultivable area. The process of desertification has set in and more and more land is turning barren.
Faced with this ecological problem the Badlao Foundation took steps to restore the ecological balance by arresting further degradation and conserving and regeneration of the existing natural resources. The steps taken were threefold: adoption of sericulture as a supplement to agriculture in a big way, ecological cultivation and afforestation. All this needed building of awareness about environmental degradation among the people by pointing out how it was affecting their life adversely and how it was going to affect future generations. Since the women suffered most on account of environmental degradation by way of loss of food resources, employment opportunities, and migration of the menfolk in search of employment away from home, an effort was made to carry on the awareness programmes most vigorously among them through village Mahila Sabhas.
It was seen that the area was ideally suited for the plantation of arjun, asan and mulberry trees on which silkworms could be reared. The Foundation started a training programme to impart knowledge to a group of women about the complete process of sericulture, from silkworm rearing to silk production. The men were left undisturbed to carry on their own activities. The training was divided into phases. Once the training in worm rearing was completed, the women were trained in reeling and spinning. Later on they were also trained in weaving on looms. Nowhere in these parts do we find women engaged in weaving, but here women have eagerly taken up this activity. Engagement in such activity gives them supplementary income. This was augmented by other income generation schemes like goat rearing, raising of fruit and vegetable seedlings, horticulture, etc. A number of case studies of women showed that family income went up with these activities. The example set by some of the beneficiaries were ample demonstration to their neighbours to follow suit.
The second activity of the Foundation to restore the ecological balance was ecological cultivation. On account of the decline in the productivity of land, government effort was directed towards the use of more and more chemical fertilisers. However, it was found that the excessive use of chemical fertilisers was extremely harmful to the land in the long run. It has been observed that a balanced integration between plants, animals and insects is essential for sustainable development. The tribals had a strong tradition of using green manure for better produce. The Paharia engaged in shifting cultivation, which was an appropriate technology designed to regenerate forest and restore soil fertility. The burning of the undergrowth provided ample fertiliser for the shifting cultivation plot. After a few years, the plot was left fallow, the forest regenerated and thus the shifting cultivation cycle was maintained. In the shifting cultivation field there has been a tradition of mixed cropping. If one crop fails, the other crop helps the people to tide over the crisis and there is never a total famine in such areas. However, with the conversion of many of these plots into settled cultivation fields, the regeneration process has stopped. Studies made by scientists have made it clear that this pattern of ecological degradation is marked in this area after it changed from a collectional economy to settled agriculture. Almost all the farmers of the region are small and marginal farmers with uneconomic holdings. They are now looking for opportunities other than agriculture to make a living. Large numbers of them have become daily wage earners and migrate to neighbouring areas in search of seasonal employment. The Badlao Foundation targeted this group for experimenting in ecological cultivation.
To start with, the Foundation introduced ecological cultivation in ten villages of Madhupur Block of Deoghar district in 1989 with the following objectives:
Thus the spectrum of ecological cultivation has four components: (a) awareness, (b) analysis of the situation, (c) conservation and (d) sustainable development. Awareness includes making individual farmers conscious of the physical, social and economic aspects of the environment.
The experiment in ecological cultivation started with four farmers, two using the present system and two the innovative method. Before launching the programme, comprehensive soil testing and crop-wise doses of green manuring required in the fields were done by the Foundation. When the final accounting was done, it was evident that ecological cultivation is a viable proposition. In the present system 35 per cent of the operational cost is incurred on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. In the experimental area green manuring and compost accounted for only 23.5 per cent of the cost. In addition to economy, ecological cultivation ensured the retention of soil fertility over a longer period of time. Later on the area of ecological cultivation was extended. Training was provided for this purpose to farmers in a number of villages. The popularity of green manure has gradually increased. Many farmers are now retaining dhaicha seed for use year after year. The main reason for the adoption of ecological cultivation is reduction in the cost of inputs. This is accompanied by water harvesting, which has reduced the cost of irrigation.
The environmental programme of the Foundation was also devoted to the regeneration of forests. In some areas where large chunks of land were available, the Foundation began afforestation work by planting trees yielding fruit, fodder and fuel. In some villages in the Jarmundi Block such plantations was done over 177 acres. Both grafted and local trees of different species were planted. Mango, guava, lemon, amla and coconut trees were most popular. The plantations were done in four villages. A total of 3,900 fruit trees wee planted, fodder and fuel species numbering more than 16,000. Irrigation was provided for the new plants. Grafts, seedlings, manure and agricultural implements were given to the farmers in these villages. In about three years the barren fields have turned green. Some of the quick-growing fuel and fodder trees are being used by the village people. The fruit trees will begin to give yields in a couple of years. The village people have realised the importance of these plantations. They take care of the plants and protect them from being destroyed by animals. They also look after the nurseries with loving care.
In all its activities the Foundation has involved the beneficiaries in the different programmes so that they do not regard the innovations as impositions from above. Participation of the people is coming in large measure because the Foundation is interested in their integrated or total development. The educational and health programmes have endeared this voluntary organisation to the people. Increasing awareness has made them conscious of their own ability to contribute to their well-being. They now take full advantage of governmental schemes and the credit facilities being extended by banks. Their concern for conservation of the environment is evident in their efforts to minimise the felling of existing forests and saving them from the depredations of unscrupulous elements. The apathy to their environment and development is no more evident in the operational area of the Foundation. With alternative avenues of income from agriculture, sericulture and other activities, both men and women are keen to improve their quality of life. Their aspirations have gone up. Thus the Badlao Foundation has shown ways in which the tribals in the area and other people can help themselves. It has also set an example for other voluntary organisations to work for sustainable development in tribal areas.
©1997 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi