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The people and forests of the Niyam Raja

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Timi Vadakka, a Dongria Kondh woman in Khambesi village, district Rayagada

Timi Vadakka, a Dongria Kondh woman in Khambesi village, district Rayagada

This is a further extract taken from the document, ‘Report of the four member committee for investigation into the proposal submitted by the Orissa Mining Company for bauxite mining in Niyamgiri’, dated August 16, 2010, by Dr N C Saxena, Dr S Parasuraman, Dr Promode Kant, Dr Amita Baviskar. Submitted to the Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India. The pictures accompanying this post are also taken from the same report.

“Kutia Kondh and Dongria Kondh – The two communities believe that that the hills are sacred and that their survival is dependent on the integrity of this ecosystem. The proposed mining lease site is among the highest points in the hills and is considered especially important as a sacred site. The proposed mining lease (PML) area is used by both Dongria and Kutia Kondh for their livelihoods as well as religious practices. Their customary use of the area, including for grazing and the collection of forest produce, is well documented.

[Other posts on the Dongria Kondh and their struggle: Who the Dongria Kondh are, what Niyamgiri is to them, A victory for the Dongria Kondh, India’s unseen Niyamgiris, Images of Niyamgiri, The last stand of the Dongria Kondh]

Dongria Kondh women at the market in Muniguda, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh women at the market in Muniguda, district Rayagada

Mining operations will have significant adverse impacts on the livelihoods of these communities. Mining will destroy significant tracts of forest. According to the assessment of the Wildlife Institute of India in its 2006 study, as many as 121,337 trees will have to be cut if the mining lease is granted. Of these, 40% will be in the PML area and the remaining 60% would have to be removed to make the access road and other planned activities. Since the Kutia and Dongria Kondh are heavily dependent on forest produce for their livelihood, this forest cover loss will cause a significant decline in their economic well-being. It must be noted that the Vedanta proposal assumes that no displacement will be caused by the mining project whereas there is overwhelming evidence that mining will not only result in widespread resource displacement but may well permanently undermine the survival of the Dongria Kondh.

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

While both Kutia and Dongria Kondh communities will be adversely affected by mining in the area, the likely negative impacts on the Dongria Kondh are a particular cause of concern. The Niyamgiri hills are the sole and unique habitat of this tiny community. Any major disruption of their relationship with their environment is not only a serious violation of their rights under the Indian Constitution and forest laws, but also a grievous threat to their cultural integrity and their ability to survive as a distinct social group. The Committee found convincing evidence that mining will destroy Dongria Kondh livelihoods and culture.

Data collated from the DKDA (Dongria Kondh Development Agency, a government body) and the Forest Department shows that, of the total Dongria population of the 7,952, at least 1,453 Dongria Kondh live in villages in and around the Forest Blocks of the proposed mining lease area. Their cultivated lands lie in close proximity to the PML area. Mining-related activities such as tree-felling, blasting, removal of soil, road building, and the movement of heavy machinery will deny them access to lands that they have used for generations.

Dongria Kondh prayerhouse showing the triangular motif signifying the Niyamgiri hills, in Kurli village, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh prayerhouse showing the triangular motif signifying the Niyamgiri hills, in Kurli village, district Rayagada

Further, these activities will also adversely affect the surrounding slopes and streams that are crucial for their agriculture. Given the almost total dependence of these villages on the eco-systems of the Niyamgiri hills, mining operations will severely threaten the livelihoods and basic survival of the Dongria Kondh. In addition, the influx of migrant workers and the demands that their presence will make on the landscape will entail major disruptions in the economic and social well-being of these small and self-contained groups.

If permitted, mining will directly affect a substantial section — almost 20% — of the Dongria community. An impact on such a significant fraction of the population of the community will have repercussions for the overall viability of the group and its biological and social reproduction. All the 104 Dongria Kondh villages are linked by marriage, since the member of a clan must seek a spouse from another clan. The circulation of women and bride-price between villages is essential for maintaining the social and economic integrity of the community as a whole. It is clearly indicated that if the economic and social life of one-fifth of Dongria Kondh population is directly affected by the mining, it will threaten the survival of the entire community. All the Dongria Kondh that the Committee spoke to stressed that mining would destroy their economic, social and cultural life: “Niyam Raja has given us everything. If they take the dongar away, we will die.”

Dongria Kondh women with mushrooms collected from the forest, near Parsali, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh women with mushrooms collected from the forest, near Parsali, district Rayagada

Anthropologists who have conducted research among the Dongria Kondh are of the view that they are unique community whose distinctive identity is evident in their language, kinship relations, expertise in agro-forestry, and customary practices. For example, Dongria Kondh speak two languages, called Kuyi and Kuvi, with a proto-Dravidian structure and vocabulary which is unrelated to Oriya, the state’s official language. Their religious practices anchor them in the landscape of the Niyamgiri hills and any severance or disruption of that relationship will be a grievous blow to the community’s self-identity as well as material well-being. As a Primitive Tribal Group the welfare of the Dongria Kondh is mandated for special protection by the government. It is clear that the government is responsible for protecting their rights and that mining in this region would seriously undermine the fulfilment of this responsibility.”

Cereals grown on forest fields by Kutia Kondh in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Cereals grown on forest fields by Kutia Kondh in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Prasanna Kumar Nayak of the Utkal University, Orissa, has written on tribal development in Orissa for the newsletter of the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS). This is a postdoctoral research centre based in Leiden and Amsterdam. His account provides a contrast to the effort made, around 30 years ago, towards providing the tribals of Orissa health and education infrastructure without disturbing their identity. Nayak’s article is titled ‘The rise and fall of tribal development in Orissa’.

“Already in the early 1970s, at a time when tribal development received new impulse from the Indian government’s Fourth Five Year Plan, many development activities in the field of horticulture, animal husbandry, agriculture, health and education, as well as the construction of roads, buildings and dug-wells were undertaken in rapid succession in the tribal areas of Orissa. Political will for making tribal development a priority continued with the Fifth Plan, from 1974 onwards, with activities reaching a peak in the early nineties, the end of the Seventh Plan.

Sikoka Lodo, Sikoka Budhga and other Dongria Kondh men from Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Sikoka Lodo, Sikoka Budhga and other Dongria Kondh men from Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

At that time, I was making frequent trips to different tribal areas in the north, south and west of Orissa. What impressed me most during my extensive field visits was the host of activities pursued by the field officers and staff of development agencies and the schoolteachers in residential tribal schools, and their concern for and commitment to the tribal people. Added to that, the frequent supervision and monitoring of the activities and assessment of progress by government officials was really quite noteworthy. Despite lapses and many shortcomings in the execution of the development schemes it remained satisfying to observe that there was discipline in the government machinery of development administration.

Among the tribal development success stories in Orissa from that period are the orange, lemon, ginger and banana plantations, as well as the high yielding rice cultivation in Ramgiri-Udaygiri areas, home to a large population of Lanjia Saora. The orange, ginger, banana and pineapple plantations in the Niyamgiri areas where mostly members of the Dongria Kondh tribe live were also very successful development schemes. The same can be said of the cultivation of vegetables in the hills which gave people the opportunity to earn cash in addition to pursuing their traditional subsistence agriculture on the hill slopes.

Kutia Kondh women in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Kutia Kondh women in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Cash crops and vegetables were also encouraged among the tribal villager’s adept at plough cultivation on the plateaus, plains and terraced fields. They were also trained to raise bovine animals. Orissa’s tribal schools were well managed, and provided a congenial environment for their pupils. Teachers worked hard at teaching and shaping these children with a spirit of dedication.

The children responded with good performances and examination results were satisfactory. Although there were severe public health issues in most of the tribal areas, primary health centres (PHCs) were established and free medical services were available for tribal people. At the same time, road networks were developed at a rapid pace, facilitating the communication and transportation of development input to many villages.

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Dug- and tube wells were installed in most of the villages and many families availed themselves of the benefits of irrigating their land. It can certainly be argued that the quantum of infrastructure work and economic development activities undertaken during the seventies and spilling over into the early eighties resulted in significant progress and lasting development in the tribal areas of Orissa.

Initially, the pursuance of economic development programmes and the modus operandi of the development agencies were in no way disruptive to the socio-cultural and community life of the tribal people. Instead, development personnel were enthusiastic about their development goals and engaged with local people when problems arose. Politically, these tribal areas were relatively quiet. The development policy plan, the project personnel, people and politics seemed to be in harmony with each other! The result of the development activities undertaken in tribal areas was a slow and steady progress with tangible results and lasting effects.”

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Who the Dongria Kondh are, what Niyamgiri is to them

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Medium de la tribu Kandha dans l'Orissa (montagnes Nimgiri)

Medium de la tribu Kandha dans l'Orissa (montagnes Nimgiri)

This extract is taken from the document, ‘Report of the four member committee for investigation into the proposal submitted by the Orissa Mining Company for bauxite mining in Niyamgiri’, dated August 16, 2010, by Dr N C Saxena, Dr S Parasuraman, Dr Promode Kant, Dr Amita Baviskar. Submitted to the Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India.

SECTION 2: Likely Physical and Economic Displacement due to the Project, Including the Resource Displacement of Forest Users 2.A. The Kondh: Social Identity and Livelihoods

The forested slopes of the Niyamgiri hills and the many streams that flow through them provide the means of living for Dongaria Kondh and Kutia Kondh, Scheduled Tribes that are notified by the government as ‘Primitive Tribal Groups’ and thus eligible for special protection. In addition, the Dongaria Kondh, whose total population is 7952 according to the 2001 census, are regarded as an endangered tribe. Schedule V of the Indian Constitution which enjoins the government to respect and uphold the land rights of Scheduled Tribes applies to the entire Niyamgiri hills region. While the Kutia Kondh inhabit the foothills, the Dongaria Kondh live in the upper reaches of the Niyamgiri hills which is their only habitat.

In the polytheistic animist worldview of the Kondh, the hilltops and their associated forests are regarded as supreme deities. The highest hill peak, which is under the proposed mining lease area, is the home of their most revered god, Niyam Raja, ‘the giver of law’.

They worship the mountains (dongar from which the Dongaria Kondh derive their name) along with the earth (dharini). These male and female principles come together to grant the Kondh prosperity, fertility and health. As Narendra Majhi, a Kutia Kondh from Similibhata village, said, “We worship Niyam Raja and Dharini Penu. That is why we don’t fall ill”. Sikoka Lodo, a Dongaria Kondh from Lakpadar village said, “As long as the mountain is alive, we will not die”. Dongaria Kondh art and craft reflect the importance of the mountains to their community— their triangular shapes recur in the designs painted on the walls of the village shrine as well as in the colourful shawls that they wear. All the Dongria and Kutia Kondh villagers that the Committee conversed with emphasized the connection between their culture and the forest ecology of the Niyamgiri hills. Their belief in the sacredness of the hills is rooted in a strong dependence on the natural resources that the mountains provide. Their customary practices in the area include agriculture, grazing and the collection of minor forest produce (MFP).

The Kutia Kondh in Similibhata village and Kendubardi use the foothills to cultivate cereals such as mandia (ragi, finger millet), kosla (foxtail millet), kango and kedjana, pulses such as kandlo (tuvar, pigeon pea), biri (urad, black gram), kulath (horse Gram) and jhudungo, as well as oilseeds like castor and linseed (alsi). Two women, Malladi Majhi and Balo Majhi, while showing us their millet stores said, “This is why we need the forest. All these things come only from the forest”. We can buy rice [at Rs 2 per kilo], but these [millets] are tastier and more filling’. Their cows and buffaloes spend six months grazing in the forest.

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

They listed some of the items that they collect from the forest: different kinds of edible tubers (bhatkand, pitakand, mundikand); mahua flowers, siali (Bauhinia) leaves and jhunu (aromatic resin from the sal tree) for sale; and bamboo and wood (for implements and fuel) for their own use. Different parts of the PML [proposed mining lease] are identified by specific local names depending on the nature of the vegetation. The grassland edge area of the PML is locally known as Aonlabhata for the large number of amla (Emblica officinalis) trees found on the plateau which the Kondh harvest for medicinal use and for sale.

With small land holdings that average 1-2 acres, the Kutia Kondh of Similibhata depend heavily on the forest for their livelihoods. Since the forest resource satisfy the bulk of their material needs, only four households out of 50 supplement their income with wage labour. The tiny community of Dongaria Kondh, who live in the upland areas of the Niyamgiri hills, depend on the hills even more intensely. Their distinctive cultural identity is intrinsically linked to the Niyamgiri hills where they have crafted a diverse and intricate agro-forestry system that uses mountain slopes and streams to great. The tiny community of Dongaria Kondh, who live in the upland areas of the Niyamgiri hills, depend on the hills even more intensely. Their distinctive cultural identity is intrinsically linked to the Niyamgiri hills where they have crafted a diverse and intricate agro-forestry system that uses mountain slopes and streams to great advantage.

Dongaria Kondh cultivate patches of land cleared from the forest, that are rotated to maintain soil fertility. Since their population is very small, they regard land as plentiful and leave most of it forested. Besides the crops mentioned above, the Dongaria Kondh also cultivate bajra (pearl millet) and beans such as kating (lobhia, cow pea) and sem (broad bean, Lablab purpureus). However, the skill that they are renowned for is horticulture: pineapple, banana, orange, lime, mango, jackfruit, turmeric and ginger. This produce grown on forest plots fetch them a handsome income throughout the year. In addition, they collect a variety of forest produce: all the ones mentioned above as well as edible mushrooms and honey (both these items are important sources of nutrition in the Kondh diet as well as marketable commodities that fetch them a good income), edible leaves (koliari, betka and kodi kucha) and tubers, grasses for making brooms, and herbs for medicinal use. They also rear chicken, pigs, goats and buffaloes.

Special mention must be made to the livestock that the Dongaria Kondh rear, especially the buffaloes that have particular cultural importance for them. Livestock is not reared for milk but for draught and meat. Buffaloes are highly valued for ritual purposes — religious and wedding-related festivities involve the sacrifice of buffaloes. Their biggest festival, Meria, is celebrated every three years in the month of Magh (January-February). During this festival, buffaloes are offered to Niyam Raja and their blood is allowed to seep into the earth. Buffalo meat is eaten fresh and dried for later use. Payments of bride-price also usually include one or two buffaloes.

The maintenance of buffaloes is a challenge, because pasturage is scarce on the hill slopes where the villages are located. Hence villagers’ customary rights to graze livestock in the forest is crucial for their livelihood economy. When the Committee visited the grassy plateau that forms the PML area, we found a herd of fifty buffaloes grazing. Since they were unaccompanied by any person, the village they belonged to could not be ascertained. Traces of old campfires at the edge of the plateau indicated that the area is used extensively and regularly by cattle and their herders. Given that the PML has excellent grass growth, this large number of buffaloes on the site was not surprising. In discussions with villagers in the neighbouring villages of Rengopali, Bandhaguda and Kendupardi, the Committee was repeatedly informed that their cattle graze on the PML for substantial lengths of time, ranging from four months to eight months each year, as part of their customary rights.

The Dongaria Kondh from Kurli, Khambesi and Lakpadar villages to whom we spoke appeared to be substantially better off than the Kutia Kondh of Similibhata and Kendubardi villages. Their crops, animals and forest produce not only provide them with enough food for self-consumption (mandia and kosla are their staples), but also fetch them substantial returns from the market. One indication of this economic well-being is the bride-price recently paid in the Dongaria Kondh village of Lakpadar. Besides a jhaula payment of Rs 8000 to the bride’s village for a community feast, the bride’s family was given a maula payment of Rs 50,000 in cash, two buffaloes, 20 kg of rice, 10 kg of ragi, salt, chillies and two canisters of mahua liquor. Despite the scale of such outlay, no funds were borrowed from moneylenders. This self-sufficiency is a testimony to the prosperity of the upland hill economy. This entire sum was raised by the sale of agricultural and forest produce. Notably, no one in the village has ever worked for wages.

The Dongaria Kondh we met were proud of their economic independence and freedom from want. Over and over again, they attributed their well-being and contentment to the Niyamgiri hills and their bounty. All Dongaria Kondh that the Committee spoke to expressed their strong attachment to the Niyamgiri hills, their stewardship of the land, and the legitimacy of their rights arising from their long-standing presence in these hills. They strongly voiced their contentment with life and their opposition to any destructive change of the ecology threatening their culture. As Sikoka Budhga said, “We can never leave Niyamgiri. If the mountains are mined, the water will dry up. The crops won’t ripen. The medicinal plants will disappear. The air will turn bad. Our gods will be angry. How will we live? We cannot leave Niyamgiri.”