Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The right to choose

I often ask myself what exactly it is that I’m hoping to achieve by working with adivasis. Why am I doing what I am?
There will always be a section of society that thinks these people need to be roped into the mainstream or alternatively, left exactly the way they are – so that they may continue to be photographed and pointed at and referred to as ‘these people’. They’d rather we leave adivasis in a sort of greenhouse, so we may peep in every once in a while, just to make sure they’re there, living their lives devoid of televisions and Coca Cola, and then reassure ourselves that India still does have indigenous communities.

Often, people ask me what exactly organisations like mine hope to achieve. Do we want to leave tribal communities in tiny hamlets in the hills or do we try to integrate them into the mainstream? What the hell is the mainstream? Are we, who live and work in the few metros of our country, the mainstream? Isn’t the mainstream the majority? And do we - the educated, the Coke drinkers, SUV drivers, degree holders, professionals, nightclub goers - as a segment of society form the mainstream?

One of the issues I deal with is displacement and land rights. We’ve become so used to viewing forests as lush retreats with deer skipping through the thickets. So much so that we want to preserve this image at the cost of people. So we get rid of the indigenous tribes - who step lightly on the planet, whose women sustain their entire family on minor forest produce, who do a much better job of conservation than we do – and convert every green space into restricted areas. Restricted for those who know no other life and reserved for mining companies and five star hotels. We remove the people from their natural habitat and create places for the urban elite to visit in the name of eco-tourism.

To clarify my own position, I see it as providing people with the right to choose.
If you want to roam the ghats and migrate from one hillside to another the whole year round, I won’t force you to do otherwise. But I just wanted to tell you that now there are schools in the valley – for you as well as your children – so you may learn to read. And when the big companies show you papers, you can read for yourself what they have to say and decide whether you’d like to give all your land away and move to a slum in the city.

After all the broad ‘development’ talk, doesn’t it boil down to a solid chunk of rights?

I remember visiting a tribal pocket soon after I moved to Orissa on work last year. It wasn’t as isolated as the rest of the villages I frequented, but it was a difficult trek all the same. I was a little disappointed to see my (self-appointed) ten-year old guide wearing a Michigan State University t-shirt. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting, I just didn’t think I’d see Aamir Khan posters stuck on the walls of mud huts. I wanted folk songs sung to me at night – not the speakers they rented from town (Chalo bhauni! Naacho naacho!). I wanted to hear the children speak in their own singsong tribal dialect, not the Oriya taught to them in the night schools. Where had all the tribals gone?
Shame on me.

The people had made their choice. In addition to constructing water conservation structures, grain banks, and sending their children to school, they also fancied Bollywood music, pelvic thrusts and bubble gum.

I guess that’s as much as any of us can do. To provide the alternatives and to let the people decide for themselves. That would be democracy, yes?
Jai Hind.