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Save nature, the tribal way
By Rina Mukherji

Nilanjan Bhattacharya's film Johar-Welcome to our world highlights the sustainable practices of our indigenous peoples which they nurtured on the strength of their bonds with the forests


Tribals, deprived of rights over forest produce, face hunger and malnutrition

India has the highest concentration of indigenous peoples in the world- with 635 tribes totaling 84.32 million people- and yet we have only belatedly woken up to the need to recognize the rights of forest dwelling communities. The Forest Rights Act, 2006 was a just step in the direction of conserving our biodiversity. But the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill, which shall pave the way for genetically modified crops, threatens to make a mockery of our rich biodiversity and traditional agricultural and food practices, including those of tribals.

Nilanjan Bhattacharya’s film Johar-Welcome to our world is an attempt to focus on a sustainable food culture that our indigenous peoples have nurtured on the strength of the bonds that bind them to the forests they live in.

This documentary, that recently won a National Award for best narration /writing, extensively covers the lives of the Birhor, Munda, Oraon, Asur, Korwa, and other tribal communities in Jharkhand, and dwells on their traditional occupations, which have been unable to bear the onslaught of the westernized model of development, leaving them without means of livelihood, or land to farm on.

Tribal lands all over India yield the major part of the country’s mineral wealth, including iron ore, mica, copper, chromium and coal. Yet, 75 per cent of the tribals live below the poverty line. Tribal hamlets like Amlasole in West Bengal and Kalahandi in Orissa are synonymous with starvation deaths and misery. Whenever dams have come up, it has been on tribal land. And so have wildlife sanctuaries and biosphere reserves. Forest-dwelling tribals have always found themselves marginalized, with the forests from which they gathered produce increasingly being cut down by successive governments - British and Indian, and forest officials denuding forests of the trees that give them their unique character. As a consequence, vast tracts that were home to forest-dwelling tribals are now barren land, with not a single tree in sight.

The tribals have a lot to teach us on environmental sustainability and food security as we battle the forces of climate change, and dwindling food reserves.

Tribals have often been wrongly accused of destroying forests and cutting down trees. Nothing can be far from the truth, since tribal society reveres nature. Trees are worshipped in the form of Banshakti Mai, Buri Mai and the like. When tribals collect wild tubers like kanda, mul, and gethi, care is taken not to uproot the entire plant so that the rains should let them grow back again. Chakor Saag, luti honey, the fruits of keund, char and bheloa, mahua flowers and nutritious leafy vegetables form the mainstay of the tribal diet, along with coarse grains like mandua (millet). Every tree is familiar to the tribal, and for him the forest is a rich repository of folk medicine, providing succour for stomach ache, boils, and inflammation of the body.

But when forests are cut down, the tribals are deprived of forest produce, and forced to starve. Even, they can not exchange precious wild tubers for grain.

Moreover, in the absence of trees, precious topsoil is lost, river banks get eroded, and a raised river bed causes destructive floods downstream. At the same time, it affects ground water levels, and results in a shortage of precious drinking water. Loss of forest cover also results in low precipitation, causing frequent drought.

When droughts strike, even the meagre income tribals earn by selling rope or mats to people in the plains eludes them. Biodiversity takes a severe beating, with fauna disappearing just as fast as the flora.

The story is the same in village after tribal village, as director Nilanjan Bhattacharya has documented in his film.

Forest-dwelling tribals have always found themselves marginalized, with the forests from which they gathered produce increasingly being cut down by successive governments - British and Indian, and forest officials denuding forests of the trees that give them their unique character.

Today, the Forest Rights Act has given a new hope to the forest-dwelling tribal peoples. But, one wonders whether it is a case of too little too late. Forest communities have been given rights to till land within the forest and have been bestowed the responsibility to protect forests. Yet, the tribals are quick to point out (in the film), “You ask us to conserve these forests, when you have wiped them all out. When forest officials themselves have come in vehicles to remove truckloads of logs over the years, what is left for us to protect?”

There is no denying though, that with powers now vested in Gram Sabhas and Forest Protection Committees in charge of forests, the tribals have found fresh confidence in their identity. Their anger and frustration has finally found a voice.

The Act, though cannot deny the decades of injustice meted out to tribals. Every big dam built since the ‘70s has been on adivasi land; opening up of forest land to so-called development has only meant displacing more and more adivasis from their homes. With traditional tribal occupations such as the extraction of iron ore having been taken over by huge state and private conglomerates, tribals have had to make do with only menial jobs in the mines, or else, seasonally migrate to brick kilns to feed their families. Mining and rapid industrialization in tribal states like Jharkhand has seen tribal population drop from 60 per cent in 1911 to around 27 per cent in 1991. This only proves how the tribal was always treated as an appendage to mainstream Indian culture.

Isn’t it high time that measures are taken to reverse the trend?

The tribals have a lot to teach us on environmental sustainability and food security as we battle the forces of climate change, and dwindling food reserves. The indigenous peoples may generally lack in formal education, but they are much better informed about the mysteries of nature, and the scientific laws that dictate the natural world. Giving them their rightful place will help restore the delicate balance of jal, jungle, zameen (water, forest, land) which they hold so dear, and give our besieged planet a new lease of life.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Rina Mukherji  |  rina.mukherji@gmail.com

Rina Mukherji is a writer, poet and journalist. She is a keen commentator on issues concerning marginalized communities, environment and development. She is based in Kolkata.

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