In the forests that stretched before us stood a dead bark in forlorn stillness. The trees remained unruffled. Beneath them laid shattered fragments of twigs, branches and flowers spread across the earth. In a sea of dead leaves, one spotted specks of green rising in its midst. Where clusters of large and stout trees rose in tandem amongst young plants and old, they swayed with one another with the gentleness of a morning breeze. The forests gleamed within moments; ricocheting chorus of cicadas resounded in the air. And, the chirruping of birds no longer rang high.
The cacophony of honking cars and street hawkers broke our reverie. Lumbering down the road were trucks that stumbled across these paths. Now and then, behind us we heard the rattling of empty wooden carts. A few men walked into the market, and unloaded their wagons. Some children quarreled amongst each other earning stern glances from passersby. Light smoke rose in the air from distant hamlets. Like wreaths of mist, they hovered and roamed across farmlands.
In the crossroads where several paths emerged towards and away from Bacheli town, we tread those narrow trails that led into settlements of traditional huts occupied by both the original inhabitants of these lands, and those who travelled from far and wide in search of home. Hues of the earth adorned their walls. Some had thatched roofs, some had tiles. They all lived there together.
Bhima Ram Mandavi plucked weeds from his farm. He wore a stoic expression throughout. Lowering his gaze, he looked out at the trees across the road. Ridges of ploughed land were visible from where he stood. In a while, he took a stroll beside his home near the vegetable garden. “You must meet Bhima!” remarked a friend in Dantewara, one morning, “He is an organic farmer who fought NMDC for over two decades.”
An emerald crown of vines covered the path as bottle gourds drooped gently towards the ground. Months ago, we would have walked through white flowers and dense foliage. He plucked a ripe gourd and held it in his hands. “This one is for you guys,” he said walking beside us, “Mature gourds are transformed into musical instruments or water bottles.” Underneath the large tree where winds carried coarse grains of sand from the west we sat for hours talking about his childhood, the mountains and kings who once ruled these lands.
“I remember those days when I first learnt to speak, and understand trees and plants,” he said picking up a fistful of dirt and letting it run through his fingers. He sat back leaning against the tree. A swarm of ants surrounded him, and yet he sat there unfazed by their presence. He stared at the mountains. Beneath the distant light, away from the silhouettes of trees, there stood a tractor beside farmlands.
“When the railways first arrived, my parents would work there. I accompanied them on many occasions. By January and February, all agricultural activities would come to an end. Work on railways began by March. So, they worked there every summer until June. Earlier, there were no machinery or construction vehicles to dig up the ground. Labourers would break mountains on their own. They carried mud on horsebacks. They would fasten bags on horses. Construction workers would then fill one end of the bag with mud. The horse would gallop away to the other corner and come to a halt. Mud gathered in the bags would spill on to the ground. This is my memory from 1962-1963,” he said wiping mud off his hands.
Near the central workshop where pucca roads were constructed the land adjacent to the structure belonged to his maternal grandfather. It was an error of judgment that led him to handing it over to a local man. Where once farmlands thrived in its midst, there now stood a gas station. “I accompanied him to his farm several times. I don’t remember the year. I was very young. Upon hearing the bulldozer’s roar, we would run and remain hidden behind our mother and father. We held their legs in fear,” he said bursting into a fit of giggles, “A year or two later, after the construction of roads, the Bengalis arrived and settled down near the old market. They say they came here in 1964. Many don’t recall their own journey.”
On September 12, 1958, as a part of the Government of India Resolution Law, the Dandakaranya project came into existence wherein appropriate and effective schemes to rehabilitate refugees from East Pakistan (Bangladesh) who suffered religious persecution were implemented. Amongst tribal lands, where they declared a small portion of area as refugee resettlement, they made their homes rebuilding everything they once lost. Alongside their belongings, some carried memories of great loss: loss of home, of people, of land, of humanity. It weighed them down and yet they carried it within them; their burden of loss.
“There is an old friend of mine. His name is Kundu. We would visit the Purana market together. At that time, the buses were red in colour. They had to start the engines with the help of a stick. Many Bengalis who would go to railway work sites travelled by buses when vehicles first arrived in the market. Once, a terrible disease spread in these regions. I can’t remember when it all began. People suffered from headaches, itching and showed other severe symptoms. Many including the Bengali community fled Bacheli. They never returned. Earlier the road to Bhansi passed by this route,” he explained.
It was in the early sixties when NMDC began its investigation and subsequent operations in Kirandul. In 1974, they commenced the construction of roads, colony and campus. By 1977, they commissioned the production of iron ore from Deposit Site 5 which is situated towards the southern end of the western ridge of Bailadila range. “I worked there as a labourer, you know. We would carry iron and bricks, mix concrete and work with masons. All this for Re1 per day! Back then, we barely spoke in Hindi. Contractors would trouble us too. Sometimes, it felt as if they wouldn’t let us breathe! When I first started working, I earned 8 annas. Within a week, they increased it to Re 1. By the time daily wages went up from Re 1 to Rs 5, the construction was complete.”
Before the plant was set up here, on one side of the road there lived tribal communities in hamlets while the other was adorned with dense forests. “There was a time when all one saw was farmlands spread across these regions. Our people are naïve. Our ancestors worked hard. They cleared small patches of the forest to set up agricultural lands where they toiled relentlessly their entire lives to feed the future generation. Today, the youth follow different systems or modes of belief. They would rather sell ancestral lands and indulge in gambling,” said Bhima in a forlorn voice after a long spell of silence. On the roadside, where lay abandoned piles of sticks, where in receding forests one often witnessed lone farmers treading narrow trails towards hamlets near the mountains, we spotted remnants of those farms.
“People kept moving in. They settled down here. They also brought their cows and bulls with them. People from the ‘market’ would milk their cows, and set them free. Stray and domestic cattle barged into farms and destroyed our crops at night. They would arrive in groups of 200 to 300 in search of food. Farming was practised in such an extensive manner that people wouldn’t have pasture to let their cows graze in leisure. Back then, we would pack food at night and herd our cattle in Nerli, Kameli, Mulochnar, Sangari, Tikonpal, Kirandul and wherever we could let them graze freely. Earlier, one farmer owned at least 150 to 200 cows. While NMDC did not acquire great portions of land here, they laid a pipeline at Nerli dam. As the mining project expanded in these regions, pollution increased several folds. The entire employee colony is built on land that belonged to us once, you know. Our animals succumbed to diseases. Even now, one will see cows feeding on plastic. This is another reason why our cattle wealth is dwindling and disappearing altogether. At one point, we had 12 to 13 ploughs drawn by our oxen and bulls. Every animal got severely sick and died. Injections couldn’t save them. Poori tarah pradushit hai yahan par,” he said with a grim expression.
His face turned awry as he stared away from us towards his garden and home. In the town beyond, at a place where abandoned huts stood along the side of the road, where murky waters flowed in the ground and red dust trickled into homes, there somewhere behind the streets where the occasional bridges led nowhere, tractor engines rumbled to life.
“I witnessed changes brewing in here since 1974. They brought in machinery and equipment to cut the jungles and tear apart the earth. What followed was displacement and reckless change! We have been observing the catastrophic impact of mining since 1977 when they first began treating and washing iron ore tailing in our streams. Waste water doesn’t flow to septic tanks built in the colony. Somewhere in the middle, the polluted water splits into tiny streams and eventually joins the rivers. Villagers survive on these water bodies. What else can they do? Jahaan nala hai, wahin gaon basta hai. Their helplessness goes unnoticed,” he said shaking his head in disappointment.
An indignant smile curled his lip. His thoughts spiraled into rage. He set them aside. Under an overcast sky, we sat for a while sharing our silences with one another. He spoke of those men who wore shoes when they first set foot in these lands, of machines that roared all night. They changed the names of their rivers. Their stories were rewritten. Their rivers changed course, and at times vanished before their eyes. In time, when the old perish, he fears the young will no longer recall tales of their ancestors, stories of their tribe and identities of the forests, land and water that once belonged to them.
“I told them these names were incorrect! Aadim kaal ke purana market ka nala ko Nirvam nala bolte hain. This is Mukkam Nala,” he said flailing his arms in the air, “Mukkam is now called Sampeesh nala. Nirvam nala is called 1 number nala.”
“There is a story about Nirvam Nala,” he said squinting his eyes, “Upstream, closer to the source, the nala is narrow. As it flows downstream, it becomes wider. Sometimes, we dig a tiny hole on the banks of the stream. We call it chua. As water slowly seeps through the sand, it gets filtered. That’s why it’s called Nirvam. Nirvam unta: it means water is rising. Today, the nala is polluted. People from Kirandul laid pipes and carried water from Nirvam into their town settlements. Clean mountain water flowed in these nalas all round the year. Now, there’s barely anything left. Septic water flows in these streams. People don’t even wash their clothes in them anymore. If water accumulated in the chua gets filtered slightly, we might use them to clean soiled dishes. Nobody goes to the nala these days. I never go there anymore.
“Paani nikalta hai pahad se. When we were younger, we would drink water directly from streams. There was no diarrhea or tuberculosis. There was no sickness that came from these lands. Our ancestors ate what they grew themselves. My father would only buy clothes and salt from the market. Nothing else! Our chilli and tora wouldn’t rot for five years. It remained pure like ghee. We were truly self-sustained. Now, we consume chemicals day in and day out. Earlier, people carried their produce to Nakulnar, Palnar, Dantewara, Geedam, Tokapal and Jagdalpur on foot. Some even walked to Malkangiri. Itni bhayanak taqleef thi. For some salt, they would walk to Konta. And, they remained healthy throughout their lives. Itne vichitra aadmi the!
“Do you know what our traditional attire was? We would wear a loin cloth. We had to make it last an entire year without tearing it apart. There were no soaps back then. We would boil our loin clothes in a vessel with wood ash and wash them. We used leaves of fruit trees to wash our hair. What else could we do? Our hair turned brittle most days. They made crude scissors from iron which was used to shave our heads. Much later, rice soaps arrived in these regions. It would bruise and cut our skin when we rubbed them against our arms and legs. Some cost 1 anna. There were others priced at 4 annas. The longer ones were expensive. I think they were priced at Re 1. You had to cut them into pieces and use them judiciously. Those were good soaps. However, we didn’t have Rs 2 with us to spare. Those were difficult times.
“I had a sharp mind when I was younger. Yes, I did. I remember everything. I remember faces and events. There was nothing that skipped my attention when I was a boy. Now, my mind has turned corrupt by travelling here and there. I no longer am what I once used to be. I have sworn to mother earth that my mind, body and wealth will serve her. We must practice as we preach, and never break our vows!”
In 2015, government officials arrived in these hamlets and conducted a gram sabha wherein scores of adivasis gathered to share their discontentment on tall promises made by the authorities so far. “They requested for a fresh lease,” remarked Bhima as he rubbed dirt between the palms of his hands. Coarse grains scratched the surface of his skin. He didn’t seem bothered by it.
“I told them unless adivasis living in these villages were promised jobs they wouldn’t get a shred of support from our community. From time immemorial, we have known these lands, forests and water by their traditional names; names that were given to them by our ancestors. You have altered them. We will never forget. Now, you tell us our streams are polluted! Our dense foliage and bed of dried leaves naturally filtered water flowing from the mountains. Now, you ask us to collect water from borewells and boil them. Our children suffer from diseases. Our cattle are starving! Our summers weren’t dreadful back in the day. In the last 6 years, temperatures have soared beyond control. With the establishment of mining projects here, NMDC has destroyed everything! They use explosives and gunpowder to blast away rocks. The dust and residual gas settles in our air and water. Once, a few environmentalists visited our villages during one of the Lok Adalats (People’s Court) held in the area when NMDC wished to open a factory. I told them: Sahib, please don’t talk rubbish! What effects of pollution and mining would you be able to see on the road? Ministers drive through these stretches of land, and assume our villages are now ‘developed’. Why don’t you travel 10 kms where in the interior hamlets, one could see the real face of progress and development!?
“These corporations have done nothing. Their CSR funding is diverted to Jagdalpur, Kondagaon, Kanker and Raipur. What about Bacheli and the surrounding villages? They wouldn’t know Bacheli’s original name. Sometimes, they get nervous when we ask them. Our ancestors called it Bade Bacheli. Its original name is Bdiyavachcha. Our people would tell us how special this village was! We had everything: cattle, crops, forests and water. There was a time when it flourished. Bdiyavachcha became Bade Bacheli. There is another village called Pina Bacheli. Kisi kaal me ek hi gaon tha. We would experience torrential downpour in some months. Our farmlands were massive and we had to walk across them on foot. That’s why the villages were split into two.”
“Despite the forest department governing in these areas, our jungles remain unprotected. Coal is burnt and sold here. Adivasis don’t have firewood to cook food. They don’t have pattal (leaf) to make plates and bowls. Now, we use metal plates. We wash them and use the same utensils over and over again. We would make doni (conical cups strung together with leaves) and consume our meals in them. Our chulhas (traditional mud stove) were built from scratch every day. Even if one spots a functioning chulha where the fire is lit, they would pick up three stones, place them in a distance and build another chulha to cook food. These customs don’t exist anymore. Before the projects began, the land was as extraordinary and majestic as the peaks before you. When it was time for rainfall, the mountains emitted a profound sound; almost like a signal. At times, haze obscures these ranges. On days, when nothing hovered around its crown, it’d rain heavily! They cleared large portions of the jungles for mining projects. Do you see that mountain?” asked Bhima pointing towards its peak, “There thrived a cluster of bamboo forests earlier. We would construct 2 to 3 acre badis with bamboo. Our customary rule included cutting bamboo trees that were two years old or older.
“When it rains, it comes down everywhere. See that open site in the clearing above? Water for the Filter house is procured from there. Tiny cracks and dents in the rock are often sources of water for our streams. Conducting blasts to break our mountains will destroy these sources or bury them. We will soon be dealing with water scarcity in our villages. They say the Government cleared the forest, and established our villages. We have records from 1901 declaring these lands are ours. Amongst us live people who belong to different sects like Tamu, Madvi and Barsa. However, we aren’t different people. We are all one. In government records, we are mentioned as different scheduled tribes or communities. I once read about the geography of Bastar. It said: Dandami Muriya are found in South Bastar. In the North reside the Gond tribe. It also had more information on the eastern and western parts of Bastar. This may not be entirely true!”
“I will tell you what might have happened,” he declared excitedly, clapping his hands together, “Earlier, Patwaris (government officials who keep records regarding ownership of land) carried out surveys. I recall the survey conducted in 1961. Adivasis wouldn’t know how to answer these sahibs. They would merely agree with him. In reality, our people are still known as Koyas. We had a term for outsiders, you know. We called them Poypa.” The mischievous glint in his eyes caught the sun. For a few moments, when we sat beside each other, he had forgotten where we were. A hoarse chortle left his throat.
“Run, Run Poypas have arrived! They will take us to the railway station. They will sacrifice us. Run!”
“We would run away from them,” he said chuckling to himself, “We would show them our knives and say: Come Here. They assumed we were notorious bandits and ran away from us. Over time, we started interacting with one another. The Bengali refugees who came to Bastar built their homes with leaves using traditional techniques. They had just two rooms: one where they cooked, and another where they slept in. They would supply water from the Filter House which still exists in Purana Market to the railway platform which was under construction. My father went there for work. He even travelled to Assam. The Bengali community was excited when they learnt about his travels to the East. My uncle still lives there; somewhere in Gauhati, Assam Lane, 15. I am not certain. I don’t have his address. I have been wondering if I should travel to Assam someday. I must send someone there to inquire if uncle is alive. My brother-in-law lives in Kolkata. I have often dreamt of travelling the vast stretches of the country.”
All afternoon, we sat underneath the large tree in his backyard listening to stories of his ancestors; some forgotten, some lost. He cast a nonchalant glance at the mountain peaks yet again. Stretched before us, were the forests like a cluster of green canvas occasionally interspersed with withered boughs, and speckles of dirt and flowers. A haze rested on the distant hills. There they stood in majestic resplendence as whirls of white clouds wrapped around their crown. They held memories of Bhima’s ancestors; of their land and forests. The earth shattered when men and machines broke the hills. Cracks widened in their peaks, and rocks became unsteady. These stones were valuable, they said to the villagers.
“The entire hilltop has been blasted away by NMDC. When it rains, water gushing to the streams below brings massive amounts of iron dust. During monsoons, everything turns red here: villages, trees, soil and water,” he said with spite, “I saw animals being trapped in murky waters and breathe their last. Something changed in me. Where they built the plant, there was once a stream that flowed from the mountains. They dug a pit beside it. Gradually, iron dust accumulated in these pits. They started overflowing. It engulfed agricultural lands in the surrounding areas. There were mango trees and other fruit trees beside the stream. They died one by one. Red water consumed them all.”
“Something changed in me,” he whispered again. He cupped his chip and sat on his haunches for a while. In the gentle breeze, branches swayed behind him; leaves stirred and twigs fell apart. And, the trees stood there tall both in stillness and motion. In that moment, the forest floor remained dim and hushed. An occasional ruffling of dead leaves awakened the earth. There were clusters of all kinds: dense and withered, diaphanous and forlorn. Red, yellow and brown; they fell to the ground. On a still afternoon, we heard them all: the heave of the forest, the crackling of brittle wood, and whisper of the trees.
“Our trees and animals are dying,” he said harshly, “Tomorrow, our people will die. No one will bother. It wouldn’t matter to anybody. So, I decided to do something about it. I gathered some farmers, one day. There were six of us. And, we fought back! It was in 1981 when the first case was filed against the mining corporation. Yes, we did that! In 1983, they held the first hearing. I endlessly salute our then tehsildar K C Das. I am not sure if he is dead or alive. He was a good man. Polluted water flowed outside his home. He understood our plight! He often wondered aloud if something could be done! We got a stranger to write a letter on our behalf that we presented to him. Later, we acquired the khasra map of our affected land. Kitna chetrafal prabhavit hua hai, ye samajhna tha humko!
“Our Karma mahodaya is no longer with us. We approached him for help too. We told him what they did to our land, natural resources and people. Our villages are polluted. He told us: tum log jano, aur NMDC jano. I speak the truth. Therefore, I will say it without any hesitation that he had NMDC’s support. They aided him in numerous ways. That’s perhaps one of the reasons why he never spoke against them. It was in 2005 and 2006 when we caught our first glimpse of victory!
“Our battle lasted 25 years. Farmers of Bacheli offer a million salutations to both Ritu Sen and Rohit Yadav ji who was our Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM). They lent us a kind ear and helping hand whenever we met them. I met every IAS officer posted in Dantewara district. Unlike those who held District Magistrate positions through promotion, IAS officers treated everyone equally! We shared our woes with all of them. Back then, we also held conversations with Kidwai sahib who summoned the General Manager of NMDC and rebuked him for their lackadaisical attitude in addressing issues faced by villagers living in the surrounding areas.
“For so long, farmers raised concerns, lodged complaints and put forth their demands. Why haven’t you taken cognizance of the situation? You weave tales in your files about ‘supposed’ developmental initiatives undertaken here and there!”
“He was transferred immediately. People adopted villages located within 15 km radius. What about those hamlets in near vicinity? Is it so difficult to develop areas adjacent to the plant? I see sign boards showcasing development projects sponsored by NMDC in Kanker and Kondagaon. Where are these boards in Bacheli? In Chalgi para, they constructed a tiny road. However, one road cannot be a determining factor in gauging progress. Electricity connection remains shoddy in hamlets. Once, I caught hold of our block president and dragged him along with me to the electricity department. His name was Maniram. He died a while ago. We spoke to the authorities together.
“Sahib, NMDC has light and brightness even at night. In Bade Para, we live and sleep in darkness. Please fix it!”
“Who sent you here? Why did you come here?”
“He hurled abuses at us. We left furious. A while later, Digvijay Singh arrived to Bastar to address issues faced by people residing here as put forth by Sarpanch of all villages. Apparently, he was here to listen to our problems. The SDM suspected I would cause them trouble. They forbade me from seeing him. At 2 pm, I somehow managed to meet him in the guest house. I had carried all relevant papers with me. His bodyguard shoved me around. I fell to the ground. I took advantage of his momentary distraction, crawled beneath him and escaped into the room. There were people gathered in the centre of the room, that day. I stood before them and handed the papers to Digvijay Singh. He said he would take a look at it whenever he returned to Bastar.
“We put forth two demands. Farmers whose farmlands were destroyed should get compensation for all those years they suffered owing to continual erosion of land and soil, and crop destruction. Secondly, at least one person from each of the families who lost their farms, and had no means to earn a livelihood save agriculture must be compensated with appropriate jobs in the corporation. That’s it! That’s all we ever wanted! We had no other demands. We don’t want their gold, silver or iron. Yet, they are being evasive in their approach. In the beginning, I managed to secure jobs for six people. Now, they claim there are no roles that could be fulfilled by adivasis anymore. It couldn’t be more further from the truth.
“We can’t afford their bribes. We are poor tribal people, you see. They demand 1 lakh, 7 lakhs, 10 lakhs and even 20 lakhs from potential candidates depending on the positions offered. It is bribery and corruption! That’s what we have to deal with here. Our labourers are immensely talented. If overhead electrical lines break owing to heavy winds or rain, the department gathers local men who trim the branches, clear debris, fix the wires and ensure that towns and villages have electricity.”
Bhima received lucrative job offers over the years. He declined them all. For, he had a far greater purpose. He served the earth, he declared that afternoon. His name appeared on the compensation list along with six others who could fulfill minor roles in NMDC. “I left it all. I told the General Manager to give my job to someone else. I have clarity on what I must do,” he said with a sense of affirmation, “It was in 1972 when I decided I would dedicate my life to organic farming. I have always known what I was meant to do.
“Back then, all our vegetables were procured from Jagdalpur. One day, I thought to myself: Why not grow everything we need here? I already grew red amaranth leaves, amaranth stem and tera bhaji. We grow copious amounts of goat fodder in our farmlands too. So, I prepared and treated the seeds, sowed them and harvested them myself. I cut and bundled the fodder which was later sold for 4 annas.
“We earned Re 1 after toiling in the fields all day. We never practised chemical farming in these regions. It was only natural for us to be ecstatic when we earned Rs 15 after selling fresh vegetables in the market. We had cows, oxen and bulls. I would wash the fertilizer in a khaodi and spread it across the field. It was always a challenge to get water to our fields. I would fill them in khaodis and water the plants. Gradually, I built a shed. We didn’t have any electricity back then. In 1992, I took a land development loan in order to dig up a well in my farm. Unfortunately, it collapsed. I installed a 5 HP motor in it. Within a minute, it could pump water to 10 acres of farmland.
“I am in the process of installing a tiny borewell. We now have some canal water which is a matter of great happiness to us. Earlier, we had hordes of vegetables growing in our farms. We would transform excess produce into fertilizer. There were fewer people to feed back then. Now, the population has risen. Water from the canals reaches all our people sparingly. Yet, I try every day. I won’t give up. I will continue to serve the soil and plants. I am serving mother earth. Maybe she is miffed with us today. She might be angry with our actions. Tomorrow, if she is happy, she will give with abundance.”
“Maa ki seva hum karte hain,” he whispered again with a warm smile.
“These days, not many people wish to work with soil and dirt. If someone graduates from high school, all they want to do us wear jeans, shoes, sunglasses and wander around the market and on the streets aimlessly. Education should have instilled in us the importance of agriculture and land. It has had quite the opposite effect on our youth. Our ancestors may not have had adequate knowledge on efficient agricultural practices and modern techniques. Yet, they did everything they could. Clearing the forest for agriculture, burning trees and shrubs, ploughing the fields, tilling the land, sowing seeds, harvesting kodo, kosra and kutki and storing them in their homes; this is what defined their lives. Whether they would consume everything they had cultivated in one year or ten years, it didn’t matter. They would prepare and treat their harvested produce meticulously and store them.
“I grow everything I can. The earth has been kind to us. Amongst kharif crops, I only grow rice which is harvested in November. In December, I sow seeds for vegetables. Earlier, I would grow some wheat too. Back then, fewer people consumed wheat in Bastar. It wouldn’t sell even for Re 1. Now, the consumption has increased many folds. The demand for wheat in the area has risen with people from neighbouring regions migrating to Bastar. Perhaps, I will sow wheat once again. I will need to make arrangements for a thresher and reaper. I am not equipped with massive machinery like big farmers. I will make do with what I have. Agricultural labourers are dwindling in Bastar. Nobody wishes to set foot in farmlands. In 2005, I planted kosra in 30 acres. I struggled to find agricultural labourers. At the time of harvesting the crop, I gave it out to farmers on contract.
“Earlier, we would start ploughing the fields with the onset of monsoons. By July, we sow seeds of paddy. The stems would grow so high! Nowadays, people use urea and other harmful chemicals. We don’t require anything. Our soil is fertile. Kosra grows in abundance even in those lands that remain un-ploughed for years. We have stopped eating indigenous millets. We no longer understand the importance of farming. I have preserved some traditional seeds. I hope to sow some kosra and kodo this year. However, I constantly worry that I might not find farm labourers at the time of harvest.”
Within a farmland, there lies a complex framework of rules, customs and scientific techniques passed on from father to son, mother to daughter as indigenous knowledge. Over time, as cultural degradation spread its roots far and wide here, the fate of their ancestral agricultural systems and eco-cultural identity remains uncertain.
“We had simple rules of alternating crops every year. Where I sowed paddy the previous year, I will sow kosra on that portion of the farm this year. Segments of the farmland rich in water are always reserved for paddy. We also sowed udad alongside paddy. That variety of udad daal no longer exists today! We would mix it with paddy and spread it across the land. In winter, after paddy was harvested, udad crops would flourish in farmlands by February. I would get at least 7 khandi of udad from smaller portions of land. We would also prepare kosra baat differently,” he said excitedly, “We wash kosra thoroughly and mix it with semi-cooked rice gently. That would ensure nothing gets overcooked! In those days, our elders always prepared rice with kosra. When mixed raw, it has no fragrance. You must place the mixture in a vessel and shake it vigorously. Older women have mastered the technique. Upon smashing the coarse grains gently with their fingers, one could determine if it was cooked. When a light fragrance wafts in the air, it was ready to be dried in the sun, and pounded by hand later.
“Sometimes, we eat it with colocasia roots (arbi) tempered with spices. Sometimes, we prepare tamarind chutney or chapda chutney,” he said with a glimmer of amusement in his eyes.
“If you suffer from fever or feel fatigued, gather some chapda (red ants) within the forest and rub them all over your body. Once you are bitten, you will feel a burning sensation. Within a day, your exhaustion will disappear. You can buy chapda for Rs 10 in the market. People would be disgusted with our eating habits. However, the world is now slowly waking up to the medicinal and nutritional value of indigenous food. Once, I prepared chapda chutney with ginger, garlic, onion and raw turmeric. I pounded the ingredients with a mortar and pestle. I offered it to a Patwari who fondly called me langdu. Many years ago, I had fractured my leg, and walked with a limp.
‘What is it? he asked.’
‘Garlic, ginger and raw turmeric chutney! I replied. I may have deliberately left out the main ingredient,” said Bhima bursting into a fit of giggles.
“This is delicious,” the patwari remarked.
“Why are you eating ants?” I asked him feigning ignorance. The patwari turned furious. However, within moments, a smile crossed his face.
“I felt different after eating this chutney! Where do you find these ants? Take me there at once!”
“They sting! You will be running hither and thither if they bite you,” I warned him.
A lone ant ran astray somewhere in the woods as we set forth towards the tree where red ant nests were found in plenty. Patwari was bitten that day, and off he ran towards paths that took him to the main road away from these hamlets.
“Back in the day, old women and widows would travel to our farmlands in search of work and inquire if they could lend us a helping hand to pull weeds from fields or harvest crops. We would offer them do payli dhaan (1 payli = 1 kg of paddy) for an entire day’s work. Now, nobody wishes to work in the fields anymore. At times, we plead with them. Yet, they pay no heed to us. Ration provided by the government has made our people lazy. Yes, I believe it’s true! People have stopped putting in any hard work towards farming. Why should we struggle to earn a living if we are able to procure rice for Re 1? They ask us. Some people even sell the rice supplied to them at nominal rates. In our village, people camp outside the quota centre,” he said glancing at tiny grass sprouting in between stones. He paused indignantly. “They wouldn’t mind sitting in the heat all day waiting for their turn to procure low quality rice at cheaper rate instead of working in their own farms. On the other side of Kilepal, people wake up at sun rise, carry buckets of water and wooden pickaxes along with them, plough fields and level their farms. They eat a simple lunch and drink some pej throughout the day. They work all day until they can’t anymore.”
We looked for rage seething within him. We found none. We looked for spite lurking in the corners of his eyes. We found none. For within him, ebbed and waned, waves of helplessness and disappointment; perhaps in others, some days with himself. Yet, a strange orb of contentment encircled Bhima. His battles had toughened him; he sought to find peace in the fragments of chaos that whirled within his mind.
“This med was constructed recently,” he remarked gesturing towards low mud walls built in paddy fields nearby. In the rains, a sea of brown immersed those farms. Farmers were unable to extend their fields. “What they don’t realise is that if they break and level the mud pile little by little every day, in two years they would level their farms. The fields you see before you were prepared in a year. If I keep at it, I will be able to construct and prepare at least 4 dolls (segments separated by med). Until every segment is prepared, until every mud wall is constructed, until the farm thrives crop by crop, may the Goddess keep me alive. My son is in high school. He doesn’t wish to study any further. He wants to become a farmer. Don’t chase money, I tell him. We must respect the earth,” he said gently caressing the soil.
Ahead a wanderer strode with purpose towards the trees. Birds took flight in the afternoon skies; their shadows flitted across the road and farms. Soon, their cacophonous shrieks faded into silence.
“Maine boond boond ghada bhara;
Zameen nahin thi, zameen khareedi;
Tractor nahin tha, tractor khareeda;
“I didn’t want to buy a tractor. My family was exhausted! We would plough our fields with 15 cows and bulls. One by one, they got severely sick and died. There were 5 or 6 families who would work in our farms. His animals died. He was supporting so many people! Acha hua marr gaye: remarked villagers at that time. They were envious of my farm. What can I say? Why can’t we emulate good practices instead of hindering progress in one another’s life? It was our misfortune that our animals died. Under the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP), one could buy a tractor as a group. I owned 15 acres of land. I approached the Tehsildar and got them split into smaller portions of 2.5 acres each. Later, I called 5 farmers and told them: I want to apply for a tractor. Please support me! I will take care of food and all other expenditure incurred as a result of this scheme. After they approved the case, it was sent to Jagdalpur. The application returned for some reason. We sent it again. This time, it never came back. I collected Rs 20,000 from my savings at home and rushed to Raipur. In those days, there were no tractor agencies here. I stayed in the city for a day and drove the tractor back to our village. I parked it in my courtyard. People from far and near came to my home to catch a glimpse of the ‘red bull’ that would now plough my fields.”
“His bulls are dead now. What will he eat? How will he plough his fields?”
His prosperity irked them. At times, they sought respite with each other, from one another. They suffered in silence together. Even in struggle, they compared their shade of agony with one another lest one polishes their luster before the rest. “He has a red bull now,” said some farmers excitedly to the rest of the village, “Earlier 12 cattle ploughs ran on his farms. Now, this machine will provide him an equivalent of ‘12,000 ploughs run by cattle’ in a single day. Take a look at it! It is parked under the mahua tree.”
There were more that arrived days later. The magnificent red beast caused a stir in the hamlets. When the last leaf shed its colour, when the boughs and barks turned brittle, when coarse grains of iron dust seeped through the soil, when the last whispers and plaintive sighs of the forest sang a forlorn tune, perhaps then they would have risen in joy; there were such claims made by some who pitied those who remained envious of Bhima.
They awaited his fall.
Against all odds, he thrived!
“Back then, I slept for an hour every day. I had no choice. I had to pay back the installments. I would plough fields with the tractor all day and night for Rs 200 per hour in and around Dhurli, Bhimapal and Mulochnar. If any old or widowed women needed my services and couldn’t afford to pay me, I would ask them to pay whatever they could in a week or later. Some helpless farmers would request me to plough one acre of their land. I would work on their entire farm for free. I have lent 4 to 4.5 lakh rupees which is just enough for me to invest in another tractor. I have given the old one to my son. I asked him not to abandon or sell it. I have gathered enough technical knowledge on ploughing farms over the years. These days, children neither know how much diesel a tractor consumes in an hour nor are they aware of the rate of diesel. They won’t be able to tell you how much one needs to pay farmers for an hour to plough their fields. Some people charge Rs 750 per hour. A few duped naïve adivasis and charge them double!
“Nobody wishes to dedicate their life to agriculture anymore! Many have sold their land; land that once belonged to their ancestors to buy fancy motor vehicles and clothes. A few manage to get a decent education and move away. They leave behind everything they once knew, and were a part of. This isn’t merely land. It isn’t just a farm. Within them lie the memories and identities of our ancestors. This is a generational asset that must be retained. Even if one piles up money equivalent to their height in sacks, it last merely a moment. Give your land to the poor instead. They will at least earn for themselves and eat whatever the earth provides them.
“There’s a customary law pertaining to hunting practices here. People follow it religiously to please the Goddess. If one pleases the Goddess, will morsels of rice mysteriously appear? Once rice obtained through quota disappears from these lands, they will all sigh in grief. In 2014, I met the Chief Minister and told him: Sir, the Re 1 and Re 2 scheme has resulted in lack of agricultural labourers in the region. No one wants to work in mud and dirt anymore. He assured me that the intention of the scheme was to enable people to fund their children’s education instead of worrying about food. Nobody is doing that! People sell excess rice that won’t be consumed at home, drink alcohol and beat up their wives: I retorted. And, that is the unfortunately reality of our villages. Now, ration cards are issued in wives’ names. And, alcoholics in our village mourn that the government has given our wives way too much authority and power. We have nothing! they claim. This is a good initiative.”
Buried in the ground were creatures that seldom rose at this hour. Beside jaunty brittle twigs, lifeless saplings and leaves in peculiar fulvous hues entrenched in damp mud there were signs of life sprouting amidst them. At times, we heard the sullen murmur of insects broken by the languid air. Somewhere butterflies fluttered around tiny blossoms. Somewhere a lone bee scattered across fields of flowers. And, somewhere amidst the pallid gloom of leafless trees and frail shrubs, there would be neither a petal to look at nor any birds to fathom their beauty in late spring.
Bhima looked at others as he looked at himself; at times with agony and spite, with joy and kindness, with content and disbelief at what surrounds him. There were none who listened to what he muttered on days when his misery weighed him down. Yet, there rose a few who stood by him and held him close in moments when they tread paths laden with betrayal. It was a long time before we spoke to one another again. In silence, we glanced at the mountains and distant forests.
“Our ancestors named them differently,” he said sighing in exasperation, “I no longer recall ancient names. They now have numbers! Deposit number 1 and 2 were called Jhirka. Deposit number 3 and 4 were Bhansi. The long winding stretches from the adjacent corner to the other would comprise deposit number 5. On the other side lies deposit number 14. Humare poorvaj kehte the ki is pahad ka naam Nandraj hai. Meri gaadi me bhi likha hai. The English coined the term Bailadila. In halbi, oxen are called baila. A shepherd set his bulls (baila in local parlance) free (dheela in Halbi) after ploughing his fields one day. An English man must have approached him and inquired the name of the mountains by pointing at its peak. The bewildered shepherd in his confusion revealed that he set his animals free. Abi deelo mocho Baila, Sahib. Thus, in official records, these mountains were named Bailadila.
“When our ancestors would go hunting in the forests, they trekked to the other side of the mountains and camped in the woods for one or two weeks in search of game. They carried sacks of rice with them. Nothing else! The forests would provide them with brinjal, chilli, long yard beans and bananas. Woh Nandraj ki den hai. There still lies a temple in the mountains. Forests dwindled over the years, and the mountains where resided our deities were cut and shattered. Winds changed direction. Rainfall reduced over the years.
“Last five days of June, it would get windy. The first seven days of July we would experience harsh weather. We refused to leave our homes. Our elders would thrash us if we dared to venture out on our own. We fashioned crude umbrellas with tarral leaves. We would set forth on a journey towards the mountains and jungle where our deity resided. We consumed kosra baat. However, we always offered rice to Nandraj. We made bowls with leaves and wrapped our food in them. We then tied them around our waist. We carried bamboo umbrellas (reki) too with us. Behind me lies the region we barely traversed! Ahead we would walk through the dense foliage. Fear gripped us. There were many things we were frightened of back then.
“When famine hit parts of Bastar, my ancestors and other villagers travelled to Bacheli and cleared portions of the jungle. Some say we travelled from here,” he said pointing to his left, “Others told us we came from Barsur and settled down in these hamlets. A few believe we migrated from Dantewara and Jagdalpur. My forefathers might have resided in Kameli. My grandfather came from Jagdalpur. By merely surviving poverty and illness, by traversing on foot through these forests, he made history. My parents would often narrate tales of his struggle. He would feed on basta and sarota leaves. He cleared massive portions of the jungle alone to build a home for himself and his children. Bhayanak gareebi thi woh samay! Some days, he dry roasted mahua seeds and ate them. Do you know about the wonders of mahua? If your hemoglobin levels are low, eat mahua for a month. Bhusa til (niger seeds) ke saath koot ke khaoge toh aur bhi fayda hai. There’s a reason why people live longer and healthier lives here. There was an old man who died at the age of 160. Bhoomkal ke zamane me woh itihaas batata tha.”
“I remember stories of drought and famine from that era. Our ancestors recounted those tales to us several times over. Areas that received adequate rainfall were frequented by people from drought- affected belts who arrived in large gangs to steal food, grains and loot cattle and poultry. Starvation and hunger led to extreme poverty in those regions. They would appear with the first bout of rain. I once asked our elders what they did to preserve seeds and food when the Bhoomkal gang arrived to loot everything they had. They told me they would dig a pit nearby and fill it with garbage and fertilizer. They kept their grains hidden in those pits. In the purana market, people built long underground cellars. Before the Bhoomkal gang wreaked havoc in the regions, the locals released their cattle towards the mountains. They kept some grains with them, and hid the rest including kosra and paddy in the cellars. Two or three people kept vigil all day and night. The vigilante groups were fed in rotation by local families.
“The looters weren’t English men. They weren’t outsiders. They were our own people. They travelled to different places to loot and eat whatever they find. The modern day Bhoomkal is an event concocted by Maoists. Kill, chop, loot: that’s all the discussions revolve around. If someone doesn’t give what you demand willingly, slit their throats! This day never originated with our people! This was instigated by someone else. Maoists’ don’t lend adivasis a helping hand in anything anymore. Maybe decades ago, they managed to do something to make a difference. Most parts of our region are now termed as ‘sensitive zones’. Adivasis can neither share their issues with the government nor can they speak the truth amongst themselves. People voicing their concerns with the government will be killed by Maoists, and vice-versa. We are stuck in between,” he explained swaying his head gently.
Those living in hamlets by the road have managed to gain access to education. However, in interior settlements that comprise conflict zones or sensitive areas, Bhima believes that the situation is far worse than one could anticipate at the moment. “Sometimes, I break down listening to horrifying stories about what transpires in these forests. One such terrifying tale includes Salwa Judum which was far more dangerous and catastrophic than the Naxal movement. People were chopped into pieces. There were discarded body parts everywhere. They piled up food grains, crops and paddy and set them ablaze. Ordinary villagers were massacred. They should have tried non-violent methods to address underlying concerns. There should have been a purpose to organising and orchestrating the event. It was a horrifying sight! I remember everything. If Manish Kunjam hadn’t stepped forward and made an attempt to put an end to this madness, we would have witnessed many more deaths and murder.
“Even today, people from Bacheli remain silent over the mass killings and brutality that occurred in those years. They accuse us of being supportive of Maoists. At times, the Thana Inspector wonders aloud why aren’t we aggressive enough? We have nothing to do with Maoists. We work hard and sustain ourselves. What do I tell you about my woes? I too am a victim! I don’t know what their aim is nor am I aware of their principles. People want roads, electricity and education. They wish for development and progress. Neither the government nor the Maoists have helped us. Maoists forbade adivasis from demanding anything that is a fundamental right. Only they know what they are fighting for!”
The earth is changing, he says. Receding waters, empty grasslands, broken mountains; none will be spared. We are at the beginning of an end: his ominous tone fades into silence with the summer breeze. Red water, red dust; he whispered glancing at the mahua tree ahead. “This has had an adverse affect on our plants and trees. With the first rays of the sun, mahua flowers would gently fall onto the ground. This phenomenon doesn’t exist anymore. Now, it either falls too early or too late. Red dust accumulated in the air altered its character. Earlier, we would gather the fallen flowers and store them at home. These days, some wither and die on trees; and some never blossom. Flowers fall all day, now. It never happened before. We did this! It must be a sign. I am not certain. Mango trees bear fruit every alternate year. This was a certainty! Look at that tree,” he said gesturing at a lone tall tree in a distance, “It would yield massive fruits every year. This year, there were no buds. There were no flowers that adorned its branches. Nothing! There used to be a time when we never forcefully plucked fruits from our trees. Mangoes would fall on the ground. Some were consumed; some weren’t. We would walk all over them. People chop off entire branches now in order to gather fruits. This is an unforgivable sin. Prakriti ne dena hi band kar diya hai.
“I have seen before my eyes people uprooting an entire amla (Indian gooseberry) tree to pluck a few fruits. It would have borne fruits next year too had they left the tree untarnished. Aisa durlabh dekha hoon main. This is a stellar example of human intellect! Our intelligence too is laced with chemicals. Earlier, we remained pure! Now, we take pride in injecting our bodies and the earth with poison, and then we claim we have attained greatness,” said Bhima smirking, and looking away into the distant forests once more.
“I am illiterate. I don’t have a degree. I will empower the younger generation to continue the fight after me. We have spent 25 long years trying to save our earth, water, forests and mountains. It won’t be in vain. The younger generation will stand behind us and support us. They are educated, and don’t mind listening to our suggestions. There’s an ongoing conversation about building the housing board here. I have asked them to write to the higher authorities about loss of ancestral land and what it means to us.
“Mining sites are increasing at a rapid pace, you know. The impact on our land and environment will increase many fold. At first, all we had was Deposit Number 5. Now, I think the numbers have risen to 14 or 17. We might hit 20 very soon. By then, these mountains will disappear altogether. Our forests will no longer exist. Our streams and lakes will vanish into the earth. As they dwindle and wither before our eyes, so will the energy of the Gods and Goddesses that reside in these mountains. Along with them, our atmosphere will perish too.
“Now, let me tell you a story!” he said.
“We would have our first meal before toiling in the farmlands for an entire day. We carried no food with us at all. We would never be hungry. The air was cleaner. We were healthier, stronger than what we are. These days, when we travel to neighbouring towns, we will first eat in Bacheli. Then, we will stop at Dantewara for some warm tea and snacks. Once, I went to visit my sister in Priya Gaon. It’s a highly sensitive area! Now, she refuses to let me visit her. It is too dangerous, she says. I glanced upon children loitering around the hamlet there. Their cheeks were flushed and taut. They carried bows and arrows on their shoulder. Their limbs were strong. They are the original children of nature, I remarked to my sister. She offered me some food. I flatly refused. I am conducting an experiment, I told her. I drank some pej and wandered around the forests for a while. I took a bow and an arrow with me. I wasn’t hungry at all. I wasn’t exhausted. In Bacheli, I’d eat twice a day. Here, in the lap of nature, I felt no hunger. That’s when I knew! In towns and cities, we have poisoned our air!
“Earlier, I feared wild animals. No longer! For now, I fear those who walk on two legs. I came across large bears several times in my lifetime. Amongst all the animals that tread these jungles, they are the most dangerous. They will scratch your face and gouge your eyes out if provoked. When drought hit these lands, we relied on the forests to feed our families. Ghar ko bachane ke liye jungle ki sharan lete the. We foraged for fruits, wild roots and other produce that kept us alive. Whatever we discover and procure from the jungle, they are termed moolkand. We also ate wild roost). Our sages would consume them. Whenever farmers discovered these roots in their farms, they would offer some to me. In order to find these roots in the forest, one must dig pits in the ground so deep that a person could stand in it. Gareebon ke liye den hai woh. One variety resembles an onion. The slightly longer breed is what we normally consume. If I had some with me right now, I could have roasted them for you.
“We had a lot of traditional remedies for cuts and bruises too. In order to treat tetanus, we would cut belwaan and toss it in the fire for a while. The oil secreted from it is immediately applied on wounds and cuts. If the blinding pain reaches your head, it means you are cured!” he exclaimed in excitement. A vehicle whirred past us. Within moments, the discordant rumble of engines resounded in the air. Away from the hamlet, on the roadside where stood a tiny hut, a woman walked in the courtyard. Her eyes followed lone trails into adjacent alleyways.
“They built these roads quite recently,” explained Bhima, “Earlier we would travel to Bacheli via Nakulnar. From Nakulnar, we went to Kuapal. We’d pass through Kamlaghat, and then travel to Nerli and Kameli. The Sankhani Bridge did not exist then. However, there was a wooden bridge constructed from Nakulnar. Back in the day, the subedaars (mid-level junior commissioned officers) who collected taxes hailed from Kamlaghat. On king’s orders, the subedaars would travel to hamlets. There was a time when adivasis served the king of Bastar. However, the king’s reign has ended. No one will serve under him anymore.
“Did you know that Saatdhar was constructed without any funding? The forest department used tribal villagers from numerous hamlets in order to build the bridge. They needed villagers to help clear the forest. Those poor men would carry rice from their respective homes and work all day while the officers pocketed their wages. The forest department troubled villagers incessantly. We termed them kuppi. Gradually, a few intellectuals in the area caught wind of the situation here. They wrote to the Indira Gandhi government. Orders were issued to pay any labourer their pending dues regardless of the department they served in.
“The department indulged in several illegal activities back then. They would forcefully ask tribal people to cut sagun (teak) trees. The officials sold them in Konta. They would buy salt in copious amounts from those regions. There was shortage of salt here. Later, they would distribute one sack of salt to our people. Our adivasis were always content with what they received. We cut sagun and were rewarded with salt, that’s what they told themselves. The department collected illegal taxes for grass or cattle fodder. They would count the animals grazing in the forests and impose fines accordingly. They even barged into our homes and levied fines based on the number of animals owned by a family. People would shell out 4 annas or 8 annas. They were helpless! What could they do?.
‘Sahib, I have a goat, hen and some cows. You can take them. I don’t have any money.’ They would plead helplessly before those officers. I have witnessed and heard their pleas several times. If the forest ranger visited your hamlet, you must line up your cattle, goats and cows. They would arrive at 1 pm or 2 pm to collect fines. In those times, we barely had traders traversing these routes. They existed nonetheless. Some of the most renowned or established traders resided in Geedam. They were all Marwaris. There were such scandals back then! For instance, if there is a lone sagun tree or a cluster of trees on a particular stretch of land, they would arrange for a patta (land deed or Record of Rights document comprising the name of the legal owner of the land property) on their name and chop down all the trees. They would urge adivasis to transfer ownership of property, cut down their trees and then return the land. Even now this practice persists in Bastar. Last year, people staged several protests against them. There are many more such illegal trade activities operational here. These practices can be traced back to ancient times. This is the unfortunate nature of trade!
“People from Bihar who migrated to Bastar opened bhattis to sell alcohol. They bought mahua from us. However, they would beat up villagers and forbade them from making alcohol at home. They forced us to buy and consume alcohol that was prepared by them. We taught them everything. Why should we buy mahua from them? There were days when an officer would visit our homes. If he stumbled upon a half-filled pot of mahua, he’d add water to it. He would then poured them into bottles and impose fines based on the number of bottles accumulated per household. He was a terrible human being. If I was there, I would have grabbed his collar and slapped him. However, he used a bharmar (indigenous muzzle loading gun). So, adivasis remained silent around him!
“Our people refused to give up! The bhatti owners would beat them up mercilessly. Apparently, people smeared chicken blood all over their bodies and rushed to the Dantewara police station to file a complaint against the bhatti owners. See Sahib, how they hit us! There’s blood everywhere! They would ask the doctor to not reveal anything. There was a bhatti run by Kaya dokra in Kayapara. One day, a lawyer who must have been a middleman benefitting from people’s misery, gave Kaya some trousers and a stick. Go buy buffaloes, he told him. Nobody wore shoes in those days. Kaya was a short man. He placed the stick on his shoulders, tied a small kettle to it and walked around town. Once, he appeared at the old market in order to sell some milk. Bhatti owners would hire one or two labourers to ensure no one else sells alcohol in near vicinity. One of the vigilante scouts caught Kaya.
“He was beaten up. His necklace worn traditionally by adivasis was broken too. The old man fell flat to the ground. His milk spilled everywhere. Macho gurus ko gira diyo haramkhoro, he lamented aloud. In Halbi, milk is called Gurus. Off he went to Jagdalpur in fury! He caught hold of a lawyer and told him what happened. The bhatti folks treat our people poorly. They threw away my milk. Bhattis should be removed from our area immediately. The lawyer wrote down everything that transpired in the market that day. The report reached Indira Gandhi! Stern orders were issued to destroy every bhatti. Adivasis were called to break down bhattis in their region. Every owner fled from the villages. People resorted to lathi-charge. Even now, one hears of such incidents. Mat karo. Pet ka sawaal hai: some plead with us.”
“Adivasis often remain oblivious to what happens around them. Back then, kodi was the measurement unit of our land. The rate of 1 kodi was Rs 20. People would roughly measure 5 kodis, make appropriate payments and take away our ancestral lands. Adivasis couldn’t comprehend currency and modern money. They simply couldn’t understand it’s worth. That’s how we were continually scammed for years and our lands were usurped by outsiders. What is the girth of a tree? What should be its monetary worthiness? We had no clue whatsoever. It was the middlemen who benefitted from deals. Wood worth one lakh would be sold at Rs 20,000 or Rs 25,000. There is another story, I remember. There was a time when our people couldn’t afford to pay taxes. Mustard grew in abundance here. People would sell it for Re 1 or Rs 2 per peli. They would then inform the patwari that they had managed to procure enough funds to pay them. Patwari, Thana Inspector and the Patel would arrive to our hamlets to collect taxes. The money was then deposited in the Dantewara treasury. It was a rule that none could break!
“The reign and rule of the forest department has come to an end. Back then, they ascertained their authority over everyone and everything that crossed their paths. They troubled us immensely. Today, if anyone from the department speaks against us, I will let them know what their people did to adivasis in Bastar. How we suffered for decades? And, how the plight of tribal communities was forgotten?! Such injustice! You have records. Take a look at them. At Saatdhar, our people planted those beautiful trees. They never received wages for their work. Similarly, the Braham Pita temple was built by the kingdom’s subjects back in the day when ‘nobility’ ruled these lands. We had to follow the king’s orders! That system vanished, eventually.”
Loss; it roamed these lands and consumed its inhabitants.
As we walked towards the road where parked underneath the large tree was our vehicle, we spotted a few farmers speaking amongst themselves. Sickles, gunny sacks and axes lay in reckless abandon on the roadside. Beyond the road, where the hamlets ended and an endless stretch of bustling towns began, somewhere in its midst lay empty grasslands and sunken fields. Some were forgotten; some abandoned.
Loss; it weighed him down some days.
“Their struggle never ends. Even in towns and cities, one hears of such morbid tales. People sold their land to attain an education. Now, they are in search of jobs! Here, an old man had five acres of land. He sold it to buy his children lucrative jobs. Upon reaching the organization, he realised someone before him with a lot more money got the job. His children remained jobless. And, their family became homeless. They lost everything. Such epic fools reside in these lands! What is the point of such an education where we must buy our worthiness?
“We must use science for development and betterment of humanity. We have transformed ourselves into a force of destruction. Can you believe it? We are misusing our knowledge to create more catastrophes. We are making bombs, guns and bullets. Science, technology and knowledge should have been used to nurture human progress not devastation,” he said leading us away from his courtyard. His stoic expression returned momentarily before he trotted into his gardens plucking a few more bottle gourds. He kept examining a bent stem wound on the wooden stick in the corner. His eyes held unimaginable depth. He shook his head in disbelief and smiled to himself.
“Vastra pehnkar bhi nange hai. Gyani hote hue bhi agyani hai…”
[PS: Names and identities of ‘points of contact’, ‘sources’ and ‘interpreters’ changed to protect their privacy.]
(to be continued…)
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