Written by a scholar-activist, who works for a voluntary organisation committed to justice for all, this book of 29 articles critically examines the impact of development on poverty-stricken and marginalised communities in the tribal regions particularly of Orissa. What emerges is that the so-called ‘development' has, instead of raising their economic and social status, impacted them adversely in several ways — it ruined their habitats; despoiled them of their resources; deprived them of their traditional rights; and pushed them into a state of serfdom.
Far from being the usual socialistic rhetoric against development, views such as these are backed by data culled from a variety of tribal contexts and personal observations made in slums, construction sites, malls and so on.
The yawning gap between the rich and the poor comes across sharply and unequivocally. Mining and industrial projects, the author says, have snatched away what “little food and security” the local people had. As a consequence, many of them turned sick, got uprooted, or became vagabonds.
On the “other side of development” are the clusters of multi-storey buildings, shopping and hotel complexes, proliferation of cars, and the bewildering range of high-end consumables. Who would believe that today's rickshaw-pullers of Ranchi were the proud owners of land and cultivators hardly a few years ago? Or, that many of the domestic helps in metropolises are from tribal areas?
Among the worst to suffer are women and children. Vindhya Das notes there were many cases of non-tribal men cultivating amorous relationship with local women and then leaving them to languish in penury and shame. In numerous villages, one could find this phenomenon manifested in illegitimate children and unwed mothers.
Unable to eke out their livelihood from local resources, men migrate to distant places for work, leaving women behind to take care of the household. As it often turned out, the money they send home is not only abysmally low but also infrequent if not erratic. The study by Das of men who returned to Orissa villages after a six-month employment as labourers in Assam revealed that they were left with a meagre saving of Rs. 2,000, and this went towards clearing the outstanding loans. Before long, the family ran into debt and the misery continued endlessly.
The issues related to tribal children are addressed with great sensitivity. Here are some of the key statistics: Literacy rate for the Scheduled Tribes — 47.1 per cent (2001 Census), compared to the national average of 64.84 per cent; and the drop-out rate at the elementary stage (Standards 1 to 8) – 65.9 per cent, as against 50.8 per cent (2004-05). As for the health indicators, immunisation rates are woefully low, while infant mortality was unacceptably high. Half-starved, they are forced to work as labourers, often in hazardous conditions.
Undoubtedly, several non-governmental organisations are striving to mitigate the appalling conditions in which tribes find themselves. At the same time, it is not as if the tribal people are a passive lot, meekly submitting to whatever came their way. Far from it. There have been instances of their taking proactive steps or launching campaigns for a change. One such, cited by the author, is the initiative taken by villagers to get teachers from outside for local children and raise funds collectively to pay them — those teachers are known as “ghena” masters. What is noteworthy is that they did not wait for some external agency to take the lead.
Not only should the issues affecting the tribes become central to the national discourse on development, but the voices of those people ought to be heard, and heeded. The author refers to a move made in that direction by the Orissa government some 15 years ago. In fact, Biju Patnaik appointed tribal women as his advisers. Now, people's pleas fall on deaf ears and the idea of their participation gets only nominal recognition. The book puts forth, persuasively, the argument that a people-oriented approach alone can bring about social transformation.