Chaiti Bai’s story and modern India

The deaths of Chaiti Bai and other women after a botched tubectomy in Chhattisgarh are an opportunity to reflect on the problems India faces in the pursuit of modernity and global status, especially in health and education

November 29, 2014 12:54 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:29 pm IST

A sudden death always has great pedagogical value. The death of Chaiti Bai, a Baiga tribal woman, following a botched tubectomy at a mass sterilisation camp in Chhattisgarh recently, can improve our perspective on India’s history as a modern nation. She was one of the 14 women who gained momentary national attention after a State doctor had operated on them in what is said to have been an unhygienic medical camp.

Mid-November, when the incident happened, also marks the birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru, and separately, the opening of New Delhi’s international trade fair. Both events had special status this year. The deaths of Chaiti Bai and other women at the camp give us an opportunity to reflect on the problems India faces in the pursuit of modernity and global status through rapid industrial progress.

To get an idea of this, one has to set out on a three-hour car ride from the villages where Chaiti Bai and the other young women lived, to Bhilai, where one of the three gigantic steel plants was set up by the new nation-state in the 1950s with the help of friendly foreign nations. It made eminent sense to set up a modern industrial plant in this economically backward area because a vast deposit of iron ore lies under the earth here. The larger problem, however, is above the surface, and has two parts: one, a dense forest, and two, a substantial population of tribal people. Chaiti Bai belonged to a small tribe known as the Baiga. Performing a tubectomy on Chaiti Bai was an illegal act because there is a ban on carrying out a sterilisation on a Baiga. This is one of the few civic attainments of this unique tribe. Their numbers are declining, and the Constitution of India protects every Scheduled Tribe from extinction.

Tribal knowledge

In India’s tribal world, the Baiga are renowned for their gift and depth of medical knowledge, which includes their ancient tradition of healing with substances derived from the plant world. How this knowledge is transferred to the young was the subject of research carried out by Dr. Padma Sarangapani about a decade ago. In her interactions with nine-year-old Baiga boys and girls she found that they could recognise by name and distinguish the medicinal properties of 60 trees. “They stopped their list,” she writes, “because of consideration for me because I could no longer keep track.” Dr. Sarangapani lamented the indifference shown to this knowledge by schoolteachers. As expected, they teach the official curriculum. The system is not tuned to show respect for a child’s knowledge, and Baiga children are no exception. They are treated like any group of poor, backward children. The schools they attend look at routine goals like attaining basic numeracy and literacy.

Record in education

All the young women who died in Bilaspur were literate enough to sign away their fertility for small sums of money. Their signatures imparted legality to their sterilisation. Literate they were, but not educated enough to know what problems they might face, starting with the risk of contracting infection from a dirty, bare floor. Their exposure to modern schooling was not enough to impart to them the confidence needed to resist the persuasive pressure of an experienced doctor determined to achieve his personal tubectomy targets for the year. The women who died were poor and ordinary. One of them is reported to have screamed in pain. The doctor shouted at her and went on with the procedure. From these deaths we can learn how insubstantial and irrelevant education is also inconsequential.

India has sophisticated technologies in communication, aviation and warfare, but its schools are crude. Why India’s record in elementary education remains so modest needs no commission of inquiry. In a public lecture delivered in the 1980s, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen had explained the reasons for our educational backwardness by using the proverb, “as you sow, so you reap.” We never made significant investments in children’s education, so we should not expect wonderful results. Underneath this general story of neglect, however, lies the details of an iniquitous system. Between the provisions for an average village school and a Kendriya Vidyalaya, the gap has been as vast as the social distance between a peasant and a civil servant.

Tribes and the state

Children’s education has never been a major part of anyone’s vision of prosperity and progress. Some may see this as an oxymoron and ask: “how can progress be achieved without education?” Instead, they should ask a more basic question: ‘How can progress be achieved without health?’ Surely, health is more basic than education. Since Independence, both these areas of welfare have been consistently served by rhetoric and neglect. The only major change visible in recent decades is the state’s careful manoeuvres to withdraw without being noticed, enabling commercial interests to take over. Areas designated as “tribal” are no exception to this general trend. The paradox they represent in the story of development is not radically different from what rural India in general represents. India’s aspiration to become a modern nation presented a problem as soon as Constitution drafting began after the end of colonial rule. The problem had to do with defining the civic rights of tribes. Simply put, the question was to decide the extent of rights tribes would have on the forests they inhabited and used freely for their livelihood. The question was not unique to India, nor was the legal solution India adopted unique.

It was decided that tribal people could not claim sovereign right on forests and the minerals that lay underneath. The state’s sovereignty would extend to these resources, and in return, so to say, the state would promise to protect tribes and treat them as a privileged category in welfare policies and provisions. Had this privileged position of the tribes been translated into action, it would have meant a sophisticated system of education adjusted to tribal cultures, languages and knowledge. It would have meant differentiating among tribes and equipping the system to handle curricular and training details with specificity. As time went by, it became clear that the state was going to remain colonial in its outlook and actions. Tribal areas did receive certain privileges but they were not sufficient to protect tribal people from the aggressive greed of developers and contractors. Soon enough, the state’s resolve and sense of purpose got lost in a jungle of programmes and demands. A stark instance of this process has surfaced all over tribal regions. A recent one was the trial inoculation of thousands of girls studying in residential tribal schools in Andhra Pradesh against cervical cancer. Global pharmaceutical interests had succeeded in obtaining the State government’s approval. The State assumed that it could act on behalf of the girls.

The medical disaster in Chhattisgarh shows how helpless tribal people are. When Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand from Bihar, it was assumed that smaller States would focus more efficiently — and sensitively too — on tribal issues. Fourteen years on, one has reasons to doubt the thesis that smaller political and administrative units are necessarily better. On the contrary, the lack of perspective persists. And in the context of tribal issues, it is not merely a question of perspective. State players perceive tribes through an ideological screen that makes tribal life and culture look like an obstacle to modernisation.

In recent years, Chhattisgarh has also been in the news for a State programme called Salwa Judum, launched to counter Maoism. Tens of thousands of tribal people have been displaced into camps under this programme, perpetuating the cycle of violence and misery. Political leaders and officers see it as a major attempt to reorganise the balance of forces in Chhattisgarh so as to prepare it for globalisation of the economy. But the region joined the global economy a long time ago when the export of iron ore began from the Bailadila mines in Bastar to Japan.

In a lecture delivered nearly 30 years ago, M.N. Buch, a former bureaucrat, showed the audience pictures of the landscape around these mines. His dire prediction that mining on this scale would turn the dense forest into a desert seemed reasonable. He was in despair about the impact the untrammelled exploitation of natural resources would have on the precarious life of tribes. The recent deaths of Chaiti Bai and the other tribal women justify Buch’s ominous prediction and despair.

(Krishna Kumar is Professor of Education at the University of Delhi and a former Director of NCERT.)

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