Teach the poor to help themselves and watch them rail against inequality, says Claire O’Sullivan
PINNED to the walls of the meeting house in Kathapada village are a number of large sheets of paper drawn on with marker. To a random Westerner, they look like rough sketches, possibly drawn by children in school, but closer inspection reveals these drawings are a map, a wish list for the future, the most important stage of the political and social awakening of an excluded tribe in north-eastern India.
The first map shows the position of the village in relation to surrounding roads and villages, the second shows its houses, water resources and who lives where. The third map shows where villagers want it to be: With more houses for the poor, a bridge, a community farm, a community pond and title to the land their families have cultivated for generations.
Former Trócaire India programme manager Paul Healy is beaming as he examines the posters.
“This is where it all... where development begins,” he exclaims. “This is literally the tribe saying: ‘This is what we have and this what we want.’ There would have been a lot of discussion around doing the map and it would allowed the tribe to learn who is vulnerable, what people have food, what families only have food three months of the year, how many have food six months. It would have opened discussions that would never have taken place before.”
India is a vast and diverse country, home to 1.1bn citizens of different religions, castes, and languages. Since it became independent in 1947, it has seen enormous growth and is now the ninth richest country in the world, with more billionaires than the UK.
However, the country remains home to one third of the world’s poor and, with 230m people who don’t have enough to eat, it has the world’s largest population of hungry people.
Odisha, a state the size of France which lies in the northeast of the country beside the Bay of Bengal, is one of the poorest and most unequal states in India. Over half of its population lives below the poverty line and the majority of these poor are one of two groups: Tribal people (also known as Adivasis) or Dalits, a section of society who are seen as “untouchable”, as they are outside India’s entrenched hierarchical caste system.
They are literally the people that caste groups don’t want to live with, don’t want to eat with, and who the Government won’t allow to acquire land title. It’s not uncommon in India to see a Dalit community refused access to a village temple or water pump. Both tribals and Dalits are two of the most oppressed groups in India with little or no access to healthcare, education and resources.
Ratnamani Khara is aged 35 and a Dalit. She lives in a tribal community as often the tribals are more welcoming to dalits than caste Indians.
“I am lower strata. I have always known that,” she says quite matter of factly.
“All my life I have been discriminated against as I am not good enough for people. The tribal community accepted me but excluded me too. My ancestors came to live with them two generations ago, as my father wanted to get food from the forest. But tribal members will still not eat my food, will not come to my house.”
The second group, India’s tribal people, have seen their traditional way of life desecrated over one generation. Illegal logging, mining, and the “slash-and-burn” approach of rural Indian people desperate to find more land for cultivation have wiped out the vast majority of the forests that once carpeted Southern Orrissa.
But these forests weren’t just home to these tribes; they were their source of food as generation after generation passed on knowledge about what berries to pick, where to get the best roots for eating, and what leaves would provide nutrition or heal them when they were sick. With the forests gone, a people who had rarely ventured outside the forest were left to all but starve.
The tribals’ knowledge of agriculture was limited to growing rice to supplement what the forest provided, but one crop of rice a year isn’t going to feed a village and so malnutrition soared. In the tribal-dominated Kandhamal district in Odisha, 121 of every 1,000 babies born alive will die in its first year. This is the highest infant mortality rate in all of India.
Such heartbreaking statistics are entirely preventable. Odisha is laden with vast mineral deposits, laying claim to most of India’s chromite, nickel, cobalt, bauxite, and iron ore. However these assets have become liabilities for the tribals and Dalits over the past 40 or so years as they were forced from land where they had lived for generations when mining companies roared into the countryside levelling the forests and destroying the tribals’ way of life. Central government policies, or lack thereof, have also meant that none of the wealth generated from such mining in Odisha has made its way back into state coffers.
Corruption is rife in India and Odisha. It’s only in recent years that small farmers have been able to seek legal title to their lands but, in many cases, it’s too late as corruption has seen some of Odisha’s most fertile land fall into the hands of mining and logging firms, large farmers and unscrupulous landlords.
India is the largest democracy in the world, and its government has developed a raft of pro-poor policies in recent years in some kind of attempt to tackle inequality. A public distribution scheme makes rice, wheat, sugar, and kerosene available to impoverished families and rural households are also to avail of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. This guarantees 100 days manual work a year at the minimum wage and is a godsend in communities which suffer exponentially because of the “food gap” — those months when they have no crops to harvest.
However, most pro-poor schemes are beset with corruption. Since 1992, there has been a great decentralisation of power in India. India’s many development and poverty eradication programmes are now under the control of the local government Panchayat Raj Institution. However in Odisha, little had been done by the Panchayat to enhance the participation of excluded groups in the political process, to ensure they are availing of the anti-poverty schemes.
Many villages are unaware of their entitlements and middle men regularly underpay MGNREGA wages by understating to officials how many days the illiterate tribals and Dalits worked. The poorest people in Odisha aren’t being made aware of the government food distribution system either and complaints abound that eligibility is not fair. Food is also being illegally siphoned off along the many stages in its supply chain from field or factory to village shops.
Trying to tackle poverty in a country riven with corruption, institutional inequality and where government is unaccountable and grossly untransparent is a huge ask.
Non-governmental organisations such as Trócaire can’t rebuild the forests or dismantle the caste system.
However, Trocaire is helping improve the lot of tribal people and Dalits. With the help of organisations in the area, run by local people, it is now teaching these most excluded groups better agricultural practice, how to favour more robust and nutritious indigenous varieties of seeds for planting, and how to counter climate change.
Most importantly, perhaps, it is helping them to self-organise so individual tribes become empowered to deal with local government and so access the many pro-poor policies that exist in India but to which many tribes are oblivious because of a lack of transparency and discrimination.
According to Gitanjali Jena, governance and human rights manager with Trócaire, it is through teaching communities “to mobilise” so they can advocate for themselves that “sustainable change can be achieved”.
“By educating the people about their rights and helping them to form strong local organisations, they will demand entitlements such as housing, work schemes, pensions and land rights from local government,” she says.
To this end, Trocaire has set up village development committees in places like Kathapada. And that is how “wish lists” have begun to appear on village walls and how men and women have begun to talk to one other about their needs, their dreams, and how they have learnt the power of well-organised lobby groups.
Ratnamani Khara, the young Dalit woman, said the change in Kathapada has been extraordinary ever since Father Joy Areeckal’s Society for Education, Animation, Rural Care and Health (Search) came to the village. Search is Trócaire’s partner in the region. Her prominence has also risen somewhat in the village: They still won’t eat her food but the tribal people listen more to what the bright young Dalit has to say.
“Before we were like blind people, we just ate from the forest,” she says. “But now we have learnt about taking care of ourselves, about sanitation, hospitals, about what block office can do for us. Because of them we can take care of ourselves and live in a cleaner environment.”
Tula Barija agrees: “We have learnt to look at our needs, to prioritise and not only to bring our issues to panchayat level but if local government are not listening, we go above them to district level. We went that far to get electricity, a school, and forest land title. We never knew we could do that.”
You would think that tribal communities would be very close but often it’s quite the opposite.
“Before we lived beside one another but never interacted with one another. Now, as we have the women’s committee, we know if somebody is sick, we know if they are having problems. We also have a self-help fund where we save so if somebody is sick, we can help them. Before we didn’t know what saving was. We only knew the moneylender and had to get mortgages to pay back his money.”
Search has also worked in the village to create more sustainable agriculture so the villagers can become less dependent on state handouts. It is helping the local families to expand their agriculture and diet to include vegetables and to develop seed banks so they have retain access to the wide range of indigenous rice varieties that tribal people grew for years but now are in danger of becoming extinct.
Sunita Khillo is a tribal woman in Kathapada and mother-of-two who has risen from the ranks of village committee member to ward member and on to the local panchayat, where she is an elected member.
She can see the difference that she, with her growing awareness of human rights and social justice, has brought to the local government council.
“I am only one person but I have brought more openness, more transparency. I ask a lot of questions, such as how much money in total was available to the panchayat for a particular scheme and how much is handed out to people,” she says.
The inequality that divides India will ultimately only be solved by the Indian government and by Indian people. The work Trócaire does in villages around Odisha works to this objective by enabling a marginalised people to effect change at local level by educating them to questions those in power.
Paul Healy points to the changed attitudes of families such as Ambika Paraja’s, the girl on the Trócaire box, when the development agency began projects in their village. With her father Hari’s improved agricultural output and her mother’s involvement in the local village development committee, the Parajas began to have higher hopes for their offspring. They want Ambika to do teacher training rather than work on the land.
“The work that we are doing here will reap rewards for generations,” says Paul. “Development is a slow process, it’s not about instant results but just look at Ambika and what she can now do for her children, and what they will be able to do for their generation again.”
TRIBE’S SACRED FOREST HAS ALL BUT VANISHED
When Jagantha Khura was a young tribal boy, thousands of acres of dense forest surrounded the village in the Indian state of Odisha where he still lives. Mahogany, teak, and sandalwood trees towered overhead and bears, tigers, and deer roamed freely.
Eating meant cutting down and boiling young bamboo sticks, foraging for wild fruit or cooking the various types of leaf that his parents had taught him were safe and nutritious.
The forest was about more than a food source, though. His tribe viewed the forest as akin to sacred. It looked after them and they looked after it, always conscious not to damage young trees vital to the ecosystem.
Fifty years later, much has changed. However, the most significant change to Jagantha is that the forest, the centre of the tribe’s world, has all but vanished, wiped out by an exploding Indian population seeking more land for cultivation and by illegal loggers hungry to make millions in the lucrative international furniture market.
“It used to be colder in the winter before. Now it is warm all the time without the forest,” says Jagantha. “Also, the bamboo stick that was so good for us is very hard to find. It’s also not the same quality. We have to search for bamboo now. Before it was everywhere.
“So now we have to buy food and find money to buy food. We get rice seed from the government but this rice they give us needs fertilisers and that is making us sick. We didn’t get sick before. Now we get diahorrea and vomiting as our food is not natural.”
Non-governmental organisations such as Trócaire can’t rebuild the forest. However, they can look after the tribal people — one of the most excluded groups in India.
With local organisations in the area, run by local people, it is teaching the tribal people better agricultural practice and how to counter climate change.
NAXALISM GROWTH FUELLED BY GREAT INEQUALITY
The growth of Naxalism, or Maoist guerrillas as they are now known, has been described as the top internal security problem in India.
It’s a movement that has its roots in the failure in pre-independence times to acknowledge tribal rights when it came to the exploitation of natural resources on their traditional lands.
Anger at the government corruption that allowed vast tracts of fertile Indian land to be taken over by landlords has also swelled the Naxalist ranks.
Up to 40% of India’s land mass, or 13 of India’s 28 states, is said to be affected by Naxalism. The worst effected regions, known as the ‘Red Corridor’, include Odisha, where they control 92,000km of land.
The Red Corridor grew in parts of India that were widely acknowledged as “highly stratified” with much caste and feudal division of land.
It’s widely acknowledged that Naxalism has grown to such a degree because of the great inequality that exists in the region and the lack of economic and social reforms that would be expected of a country that has become such an economic powerhouse.
However, the only response to date from the Indian government is to fight fire with fire.
Many have questioned this approach, as innocent tribals have been targeted, rural communities claim to be intimidated by armed forces, and accusations abound that battles with Naxals are orchestrated. All of this feeds into support for the Maoist guerrillas.
The Naxal movement has tended to target lower ranking government staff and security forces. They have deliberately not targeted civilians or the NGO sector.
However, in May three years ago, a West Bengal train was derailed by a Naxal group and up to 65 civilians died.
KIDS END UP BONDED SLAVES SO FAMILY CAN EAT
As you drive along the dusty roads that link one Indian village to another, you can’t miss them; brick kilns are everywhere.
The furnaces, set about 9m back from the roadside, look like oversized terracotta pizza ovens. Alongside them sit the small claypits where entire families toil in the searing sun.
Child labour isn’t hidden in India. Not even toddler labour is hidden. You see kids, not even school age, peeping out from behind the brick kiln as they carry bricks to their weary parents.
“The middlemen tell them that they will be paid, that their family will be fed, that they will have access to electricity,” says Lalita Missal of the National Alliance of Women in Odisha. “But the reality is that the whole family often works 17-hour days with two breaks all day. They’re not allowed go to the toilet. Families don’t even have a room to themselves at night.”
Desperation, very often persistent hunger, had made these families accept small loans from middle men who go around the country exploiting the dire poverty that exists in rural India. The middle men then send them to a kiln in another state to repay the loan.
“Very often these families can barely read or write and there’s no contract,” says Lalita. “What ends up happening is that the foreman decides when they leave. They are constantly told that their loan isn’t repaid yet. We’ve heard stories of armed security men patrolling the kilns so nobody escapes and women can be chained up at night time. Also, when they’re in a different state, they may not speak the same dialect as everyone else”.
One family rescued by NAWO had worked at a brick kiln for eight years and came back with 2,000 rupees, or €29.
Bonded labour, or debt bondage, is the most common form of slavery in the world today. It was declared illegal in India nearly 40 years ago but can be witnessed all over the country.
WOMEN DECLARE WAR ON ALCOHOL
Women in the village of Kathapada have learnt how to deal with their husbands’ drinking.
When they first got together as a village development committee, they realised it was a big problem for many of them.
“We had many problems from liquorm” says Subarna Paraja. “The men would go to market with vegetables and then return with no money as they had spent all we produced on liquor. Then they would quarrel with us and some would hit us.”
And so the women asked the men to stop drinking. Some men supported their actions, but in many cases they got nowhere. The women then asked the travelling alcohol vendor not to come to their village anymore.
“He ignored us. Didn’t want to know about the problems it was causing,” says Subarna. “And so we waited for him to come to the village the next week. We smashed up all his pots, with all his liquor. We smashed his produce into bits.”
When he arrived the following week, they did the same thing again, destroying his beer.
It didn’t stop the vendor and on week three, he drove into the village laden with beer and spirits. But this time the women had contacted a local news reporter and asked him to write about their campaign. “The vendors didn’t come anymore after that. All drinking is outside of the village, ” says Subarna.
The self-help groups that have been established as part of Search’s village development committees have changed their lives. Anti-liquor campaigns have been spearheaded nationally by the National Alliance of Women, which is seriously concerned by a rise in domestic violence linked to alcohol abuse.
Between 1970 and 1995, India recorded a 106.7% jump in alcohol consumption per head of population.
LOCAL ENDEAVOUR SEES SUNITA ELECTED
Whether it’s a tribal village in India or an Irish suburb, the political system is the same the world over.
The parish pump dominates, and political life makes more demands of women than men.
Sunita Khillo is an elected member of her panchayat, or local government. It’s an incredible achievement in a country where, 10 years ago, tribal villages weren’t even aware of national or state political systems, never mind capable of electing a 29-year-old wife and mother to engage with government and fight for their interests at local government level.
We asked Sunita, who has just two years’ primary school education, how she established, ran, and won her campaign.
“I knew about schemes, like getting houses and electricity for people, that I could mobilise for people,” she says.
Before Sunita was elected to the panchayat, she was a member of the local ward. Now she is the president of the local ward, overseeing 11 wards in her region in Koraput, southern Odisha.
“I am now much more busy than I was and this creates pressure. I have to go to meetings a lot and people make demands of me. It’s hard to combine that with housework”.
As a ward member, she secured pensions for 25 people in her village. Old age, disability, and widow’s pensions exist in India but people aren’t aware of these rights. It is only when local groups such as Search, Trocaire’s partners, visits villages that people wake up to their entitlements.
“I was encouraged to run for the panchayat as I had done so well in getting the pensions,” says Sunita. “They thought I could do even better for them if I was on the panchayat. The villagers also thought I brought more openness as I asked questions and provided answers to people such as how much of an overall grant was available to people within our panchayat. They liked that.”
‘I AM MAKING MY DREAMS COME TRUE’
It didn’t take 20-year-old Cheatan Paraja long to realise he was on to a good thing when he became the first man in Jhilligoan village to begin vegetable cultivation on his land.
A father of two, he was living day-to-day, desperately trying to repay a 6,000 rupee (€90) loan he had been forced to borrow from a financial organisation.
He needed to find new ways to feed his family, as he was only growing rice and that only generated one crop a year, which meant there were months on end without food. His ancestors had always supplemented their meagre diet with fruit and leaves from the forest, but the forest had been felled decades ago.
Trócaire, with the help of local partners Search, had started an agricultural project on fallow land in the tribal village and wanted local families to try growing cabbage and tomatoes. Cheatan raised his hand to volunteer.
Twelve months later, he had additional income from selling his vegetables at market, was overpaying his loan and had enough to buy a bike so he could cycle to market with his produce.
Two years on again and he has his loan repaid ahead of target and he has bought a bullock for his plough. His family now have an array of different vegetables to sell and eat.
The farmers in Jhilligoan all work together on the vegetable garden, going from one person’s land to another. There are now 17 farmers involved in the project and a waiting list of more villagers who want to get in. They grow tomatoes, cabbage, courgette, onions, pulse, greengram, and rice, among other crops.
“Now I feel that I can do anything I like to do. I can cultivate anything,” says Cheatan. “The second year I grew vegetables, I bought jewellery for my wife. I am making my dreams come true with this land. I sold 900 rupees of vegetables last week and will sell 1,200 this week. Life is good“.
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