Adivasi Tribe Fights to Save Indian Forest From Mining

Adivasi Tribe Fights to Save Indian Forest From Mining



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In India, the land of an indigenous community is under threat from a mining company. A huge area of forest is going to be destroyed due to the proposed mine. This is despite the fact that the indigenous Adivasi community’s rights in the forest are enshrined in Indian law. The proposed mine is showing once more the threat posed to the world’s last remaining tribal societies by large corporations in India and elsewhere.

There are plans to open a massive open pit mine at Parsa in Hasdeo Arand , which is an unspoiled forested area in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Quartz reports “though the forest sits atop an estimated 5,500 million tons of coal it has been left largely untouched.” The forest is home to many species of animals such as elephants, leopards, birds, and sloth bears. It also has many rare plants, but it is a very fragile environment.

The Hasdeo river and the forest in the background (part of the Adivasi tribe’s home), which is near to Adani’s Parsa coal mine in Chhattisgarh , India. (Raj112887 / CC BY-SA )

Home to Tribal People

It is also home to some of India’s many indigenous communities, who are known officially as Adivasi. They are regarded as the original inhabitants of the Indian sub-continent, but for millennia have been pushed onto marginal land and forest. They are largely tribal people who have suffered a great deal of discrimination under the caste system, despite having a population of up to 100 million people. Many belong to so-called scheduled tribes and have some official recognition.

The Adivasi, among whom are the Gond people, who inhabit Hasdeo Arand and still live a traditional lifestyle. They have developed a sustainable society, based on the resources provided by the forest. The Guardian reports that “every feature of the forest has some spiritual significance” for the Gond people. They and other communities live in small villages in and around the forest.

Smiling Adivasi women and child from Chhattisgarh, India. (Ekta Parishad / CC BY-SA)

Broken Promises

The Hasdeo Arand was legally protected until 2009 and mining was forbidden in this forested area. A new Indian government permitted the opening of a new mine, which opened in 2013. This has resulted in a new railway being built, and it has had a negative impact on the environment and has also resulted in more elephant and human conflicts. Moreover, despite promises from the mining company, the sacred grove forest has been threatened by the development. Quartz quotes Sai, an indigenous woman as saying that “now the company is saying it will cut down our trees.”

The government of Narendi Modi is committed to opening more open-cast mines in the area, in a bid to increase India’s energy security. Therefore, it gave permission for a new mine in Hasdeo Arand in 2019. The Guardian quotes Biphasa Paul who works with an NGO that supports indigenous people as saying that “an estimated 80% of the entire forest area and up to 30 villages - may be lost” if the mine goes ahead.

If the project proceeds it would also deprive the Gond and other tribal people of the forests upon which they depend and also force them to leave the area, which means they will probably end up in the slums of teeming cities. Biphasa Paul states that “losing the forest would mean losing their entire culture,” reports Quartz.

Death of a Culture

The Guardian quotes Bhual Singh, a local man, as saying that “mining will be our death.” It could also lead to an environmental disaster and have implications for forest conservation in India. In many other areas of the country, forests and jungles are at risk because of commercial developments.

The mine was officially sanctioned after the agreement of the indigenous people, which is required by law. However, they deny this, and reports of their consent are false. The new mine will be operated by Adani, which is owned by one of India’s richest men. The company claims that it can legally develop the mine, even without the tribes' consent. The company is quoted by The Guardian as saying that they have benefited the local community by “working closely to improve education and healthcare facilities” in the area.

The Gond tribe of Hasdeo Arand, the largest and oldest stretch of forest land in central India, is on the verge of losing its home in the face of coal mining https://t.co/9lyki2aZAj

— The Ecologist (@the_ecologist) January 21, 2020

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Seizure of Indigenous People’s Lands Across the Globe

Adani is also involved in a similarly controversial mining project in Australia. The Queensland government in September 2019 revoked the legal right of Aboriginal Australians to lands in Wangan and Jagalingou county, and they gave it to Adani. The new coal mine could result in indigenous people being forcibly moved from their ancestral home by the state government. The area is sacred to the local community, and they are also angered by the fact that the government is subsidizing the entire Adani venture. The parallels between the Indian and the Australian case are striking.

Protests against Adani coal mining in Australia. (Stop Adani / CC BY 2.0 )

The indigenous community in Hasdeo Arand is trying to fight back, and they have staged protests. They are demanding that the government rescind their decision, which they believe is illegal. India’s government is offering them compensation and resettlement. However, Bhual Singh states that “we need much more than money to survive. We need nature to be with us,” according to The Guardian .

Previous attempts to resettle the Adivasi have ended in disaster, as they have not been able to cope with the modern world and many promises made were never delivered.


Vedanta fights back over Indian hill tribe’s sacred mountain

FTSE 100 mining giant Vedanta is challenging a ban on mining the sacred mountain of India’s Dongria Kondh tribe. The Orissa High Court will hear the case on Wednesday 2 February.

The Dongria Kondh, whose plight has been compared to the fictional Na’vi in Hollywood blockbuster Avatar, won an historic victory against Vedanta last year. India’s Environment Ministry blocked Vedanta’s multimillion-dollar bid to create an open-pit bauxite mine on the Dongria’s sacred mountain, stating that Vedanta had shown ‘blatant disregard for the rights of the tribal groups.’

Since the victory, both Vedanta Aluminium (a subsidiary of Vedanta Resources) and the Orissa Mining Corporation have filed petitions in Orissa challenging the decision, as well as an associated decision to restrict the growth of an alumina refinery also operated by Vedanta.

Speaking to Survival recently, one Dongria Kondh man said, ‘We do not think that we have won. We hear that mining has been stopped but whilst the factory [refinery] is still there our people, our land, may be taken away some day.’

Vedanta’s billionaire chairman Anil Agarwal held separate meetings with India’s Prime Minister and the Environment Minister recently. Following their meeting, the Environment Minister told journalists, ‘mining is a closed chapter, but so far as the expansion project is concerned we can consider it…provided they meet some conditions.’

In an interview Mr Agarwal said recently, ‘I am more sensitive about our people, about our adivasi [tribal] people, than anybody else’. However two independent investigations commissioned by the Indian Environment Ministry each concluded that Vedanta’s plans were likely to ‘destroy’ the Dongria Kondh

Demonstrations against Vedanta have continued since the Ministry’s decision, with thousands marching to the gates of Vedanta’s alumina refinery, demanding it be shut down.

Stephen Corry, Survival’s Director, said ‘The Dongria’s David and Goliath battle is not over yet, and their supporters around the world are still watching. Last year sense and justice prevailed in Niyamgiri let us hope that it continues to do so and Anil Agarwal finally gives up on his disastrous plan.’


One of India’s largest Adivasi groups has dropped its ancient cremation ritual to save trees

Representational image. | Chandan Khanna/AFP

For the Gond community, one of India’s largest Adivasi people, cremation is a part of the final rites when someone dies – the dead body is put atop a pile of wood and burnt to ash. But realising that they were faced with a choice between holding on to an ancient ritual and protecting their environment, which they consider sacred, the Gond people of Chhattisgarh have decided to bury their dead instead of cremating them, to save trees.

“We [Gonds] have an integral relationship with nature and every feature of the forest has a spiritual significance for us,” Siddh Ram Meravi, a Gond Adivasi and general secretary of Jila Gond Sewa Samiti of Kabirdham district in India’s eastern state Chhattisgarh, told Mongabay-India. “So, we have decided to save nature in every form and save trees for mankind. We are not going to put bodies on a massive pile of wood allowing the insatiable fire churning out ash.”

“The practice of cutting trees and using them for making pyres can be stopped if we bury the dead instead of cremating them. Hence the community decided to include burying in our constitution,” Meravi said, referring to the collective decision taken during the two-day community conference, Gond Mahasammelan, held on March 6 and March 7 in Kabirdham district. The event was attended by more than 2,000 delegates.

Gond tribes depend on the forest for survival. The forest and its trees provide shelter, medicines, water, food and fuel, notes the study Livelihood sources of Gond Tribes: A study of village Mangalnaar, Bhairamgarh block, Chhattisgarh conducted by Srabani Sanyal, Associate Professor at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi and Ramyash, Assistant Professor at Government Naveen College Bhairamgarh, Chhattisgarh.

Gond farmers in their fields. Photo credit: Alina/Flickr

The Gonds are mentioned in the Ramayana, and four of their kingdoms are dated between 1300 and 1600. With more than 1.2 crore Gonds in the country, the major concentration of the ethnic group is in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Telangana and Jharkhand. Notably, many of these states have reported a drop in their carbon stock over the past two years, says a detailed analysis of the Indian State of Forest Report 2019.

‘Mitti sanskaar’ tradition

“The decision to bury our dear ones instead of cremating them is welcomed by the Gonds,” said Chait Ram Raj Dhurvey, a member of the tribal community, as he walked out from the Chuyya forest range in Kabirdham district, with a large crop of grass in one hand and a dried bottle gourd which he uses as a vessel for water.

The Chuyya and neighbouring Banamhaida and Chingldai forest range near his village are rich in biodiversity and home to leopards, wild boar and sloth bears.

A resident of Buchipara, Dhurvey, talks about efforts to revive their age-old Mitti Sanskaar (burial) tradition. Mitti Sanskaar was the common practice earlier, among the Gonds. It is believed in the community that through this ritual, the body mixes with five basic elements of nature: earth, air, water, fire and space.

There are several references in ancient Sanskrit texts about cremation as an ancient ritual in Hinduism. However, it is not known when Gonds started following the tradition of cremation. Some members of the tribal group believe that the Hindu ritual of cremation was adopted by the group during the medieval period when Gond kingdoms had assimilated several religious and cultural influences living alongside Hindu communities.

Women at a local market in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. Photo credit: Inside me Journey/Wikimedia Commons

Environmental cost

While life has changed over the past century or so, the traditional Hindu funeral pyre where the fire burns for hours, churning out ashes is still very common.

According to estimates, funeral pyres consume 6 crore trees annually, producing 80 lakh tonnes of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions and 5,00,000 tonnes of ash which is later thrown into rivers.

Over the years, several governments and environmental groups have also promoted the use of electric systems as an alternate way of cremation.

Mokshda, a Delhi-based NGO working to reduce the environmental impact of funeral pyres, describes its creation of an alternate energy efficient “green cremation system” by maintaining that a body can burn completely in lesser time and with lesser wood than usual.

“A traditional pyre takes six hours and requires 500 kg to 600 kg of wood to burn a body completely, while the benefit of our alternate system is that it takes up to two hours and 150 kg to 200 kg of wood to burn a body,” explains Anshul Garg, executive officer of Mokshda said.

Not only the cost of fuel is reduced, but even the emissions are also cut by up to 60%, he added. Mokshda’s green cremation system consists of a human-sized grate beneath a roof and a chimney which reduces heat loss. Here the wood is placed on the metal slats, which enables better air circulation around the flames.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.


Contents

The Khonds speak the Kui language as their native language. It is most closely related to the Gondi and Kuvi languages. [ citation needed ] Kui is a Dravidian language and is written with the Odia alphabet. [4]

The Khonds are adept land dwellers exhibiting greater adaptability to the forest and hill environment. However, due to development interventions in education, medical facilities, irrigation, plantation and so on, they are forced into the modern way of life in many ways. Their traditional life style, customary traits of economy, political organisation, norms, values and world view have been drastically changed in recent times. The traditional Khond society is based on geographically demarcated clans, each consisting of a large group of related families identified by a Totem, usually of a male wild animal. Each clan usually has a common surname, and is led by the eldest male member of the most powerful family of the clan. All the clans of the Khonds owe allegiance to the "Kondh Pradhan", who is usually the leader of the most powerful clan of the Khonds. [ citation needed ] The Khond family is often nuclear, although extended joint families are also found. Female family members are on equal social footing with the male members in Khond society, and they can inherit, own, hold and dispose of property without reference to their parents, husband or sons. Women have the right to choose their husbands, and seek divorce. However, the family is patrilineal and patrilocal. Remarriage is common for divorced or widowed women and men. Children are never considered illegitimate in Khond society and inherit the clan name of their biological or adoptive fathers with all the rights accruing to natural born children.

The Kondhs have a dormitory for adolescent girls and boys which forms a part of their enculturation and education process. The girls and boys sleep at night in their respective dormitory and learn social taboos, myths, legends, stories, riddles, proverbs amidst singing and dancing the whole night, thus learning the way of the tribe. The girls are usually instructed in good housekeeping and in ways to bring up good children while the boys learn the art of hunting and the legends of their brave and martial ancestors. Bravery and skill in hunting determine the respect that a man gets in the Khond tribe. A large number of Khonds were recruited by the British during the First and Second World Wars and were prized as natural jungle warfare experts. Even today a large proportion of the Khond men join the state police or armed forces of India to seek an opportunity to prove their bravery. The men usually forage or hunt in the forests. They also practise the podu system of shifting cultivation on the hill slopes where they grow different varieties of rice, lentils and vegetables. Women usually do all the household work from fetching water from the distant streams, cooking, serving food to each member of the household to assisting the men in cultivation, harvesting and sale of produce in the market. [5]

The Khond commonly practice clan exogamy. By custom, marriage must cross clan boundaries (a form of incest taboo). The clan is strictly exogamous, which means marriages are made outside the clan (yet still within the greater Khond population). The form of acquiring mate is often by negotiation. However, marriage by capture or elopement is also rarely practiced. For marriage bride price is paid to the parents of the bride by the groom, which is a striking feature of the Khonds. The bride price was traditionally paid in tiger pelts though now land or gold sovereigns are the usual mode of payment of bride price. [ citation needed ]

Religious beliefs Edit

The Khonds were historically animists. But the extended contact with the Oriya speaking Hindus made Khonds to adopt many aspects of the Hinduism and Hindu culture. The contact with the Hindus has made the Khonds to adopt Hindu deities into their pantheon. For example, the Kali and Durga are worshiped in a variety of guises, but always with the sacrifice of goats, fowl etc. The Kond marriage rituals also show the assimilation of many Hindu customs into traditional tribal practices. [6]

Traditionally the Khond religious beliefs were syncretic combining totemism, animism, ancestor worship, shamanism and nature worship. The Khonds gave highest importance to the Earth goddess, who is held to be the creator and sustainer of the world. The gender of the deity changed to male and became Dharni Deota. His companion is Bhatbarsi Deota, the hunting god. To them once a year a buffalo was sacrificed. Before hunting they would worship the spirit of the hills and valleys they would hunt in lest they hide the animals the hunter wished to catch. British writers also claimed the Khonds practiced human sacrifice. [7] In Khond society, a breach of accepted religious conduct by any member of their society invited the wrath of spirits in the form of lack of rain fall, soaking of streams, destruction of forest produce, and other natural calamities. Hence, the customary laws, norms, taboos, and values were greatly adhered to and enforced with high to heavy punishments, depending upon the seriousness of the crimes committed. The practise of traditional religion has almost become extinct today. Many Khonds converted to Protestant Christianity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century due to the efforts of the missionaries of the Serampore Mission. The influence of Khond traditional beliefs on Christianity can be seen in some rituals such as those associated with Easter and resurrection when ancestors are also venerated and given offerings, although the church officially rejects the traditional beliefs as pagan. Many Khonds have also converted to Islam and a great diversity of religious practises can be seen among the members of the tribe. Significantly, as with any culture, the ethical practices of the Khond reinforce the social and economic practices that define the people. Thus, the sacredness of the earth perpetuates tribal socio-economics, wherein harmony with nature and respect for ancestors is deeply embedded whereas non tribal cultures that neglect the sacredness of the land find no problem in committing deforestation, strip-mining etc., and this has led to a situation of conflict in many instances. [8]

They have a subsistence economy based on hunting and gathering but they now primarily depend on a subsistence agriculture i.e. shifting cultivation or slash-and-burn cultivation or Podu. The Dongria Khond are excellent fruit farmers. The most striking feature of the Dongria Khonds is that they have adapted to horticulture and grow pineapple, oranges, turmeric, ginger and papaya in plenty. Forest fruit trees like mango and jackfruit are also found in huge numbers, which fulfill the major dietary chunk of the Dongrias. Besides, the Dongrias practice shifting cultivation, or podu chasa as it is locally called, as part of an economic need retaining the most primitive features of underdevelopment and cultural evolution.

The Khonds, or the Kui as they are locally known, are one of the largest tribal group in Odisha. They are known for their cultural heritage and values which center on respecting nature. The Kandhamal district in Odisha (erstwhile a part of Phulbani district), has a fifty-five percent Khond population, and was named after the tribe.

They go out for collective hunts eating the fruits and roots they collect. They usually cook food with oil extracted from sal and mahua seeds. They also use medicinal plants. These practices make them mainly dependent on forest resources for survival. The Khonds smoke fish and meat for preservation. The Dongria clan of Khonds inhabit the steep slopes of the Niyamgiri Range of Koraput district and over the border into Kalahandi. They work entirely on the steep slopes for their livelihood.

The Khonds have risen up against authority on numerous occasions. For example, in 1817 and again in 1836 they rebelled against the rule of the East India Company. [9] [10]

Vedanta Resources, a UK-based mining company, threatened the future of the Dangaria Kandha section of this tribe as their home in the Niyamgiri Hills is rich in bauxite. [11] The bauxite is also the reason there are so many perennial streams. The tribe's plight is the subject of a Survival International short film narrated by actress Joanna Lumley. [12] In 2010 India's environment ministry ordered Vedanta Resources to halt a sixfold expansion of an aluminium refinery in Odisha. [13] [14] As part of its Demand Dignity campaign, in 2011 Amnesty International published a report concerning the rights of the Dongria Kondh. [15] Vedanta has appealed against the ministerial decision. [16]

In April 2013 the Supreme Court upheld the ban on Vedanta's project in the Niyamgiri Hills, ruling that the views of those communities affected by it must be considered. All 12 tribal villages voted against the project in August 2013, and in January 2014 the Ministry for Environment and Forests stopped the project. [17]

In a case of life seeking to imitate art, the tribe appealed to James Cameron to help them stop Vedanta, reckoning that the author of the film Avatar, which deals with a similar subject, would understand their plight. An advertisement in Variety magazine said: "Appeal to James Cameron. Avatar is fantasy . and real. The Dongria Kondh tribe in India are struggling to defend their land against a mining company hell-bent on destroying their sacred mountain. Please help the Dongria." [18] Other celebrities backing the campaign include Arundhati Roy (the Booker prize-winning author), as well as the British actors Joanna Lumley and Michael Palin. [16] Lingaraj Azad, a leader of the Save Niyamgiri Committee, said the Dongria Kondh's campaign was "not just that of an isolated tribe for its customary rights over its traditional lands and habitats, but that of the entire world over protecting our natural heritage". [16]


Indian Tribe’s Avatar-like Battle Against Mining Firm

The leaders of thousands of forest-dwelling tribesmen who have fought for years to preserve their ancestral lands from exploitation by an international mining corporation have promised to continue their struggle whatever the decision in a key hearing before India’s supreme court on Monday.

Dubbed the “real-life Avatar” after the Hollywood blockbuster, the battle of the Dongria Kondh people to stop the London-based conglomerate Vedanta Resources from mining bauxite from a hillside they consider sacred has attracted international support. Celebrities backing the campaign include James Cameron, the director of Avatar, Arundhati Roy, the Booker prize-winning author, as well as the British actors Joanna Lumley and Michael Palin.

[quote quote=”The battle of the Dongria Kondh people to stop the London-based conglomerate Vedanta Resources from mining bauxite from a hillside they consider sacred has attracted international support.” type=”image” image=�″ ]

On Monday the court [was to]* decide on an appeal by Vedanta against a ministerial decision in 2010 that stopped work at the site in the Niyamgiri hills of India’s eastern Orissa state.

Lingaraj Azad, a leader of the Save Niyamgiri Committee, said the Dongria Kondh’s campaign was “not just that of an isolated tribe for its customary rights over its traditional lands and habitats, but that of the entire world over protecting our natural heritage”.

An alliance of local tribes has now formed to defend the Dongria Khondh. Kumity Majhi, a leader of the Majhi Kondh adivasi (indigenous people), said local communities would stop the mining “whether or not the supreme court favour us”.

“We, the Majhi Kondh adivasis, will help our Dongria Kondh brothers in protecting the mountains,” he said.

India’s rapid economic growth has generated huge demand for raw materials. Weak law enforcement has allowed massive environmental damage from mining and other extractive industries, according to campaigners.

Vedanta, which wants the bauxite for an alumina refinery it has built near the hills, requires clearance under the country’s forest and environmental laws. But though it had obtained provisional permission, it failed to satisfy laws protecting the forests and granting rights to local tribal groups.

A government report accused the firm of violations of forest conservation, tribal rights and environmental protection laws in Orissa, a charge subsequently repeated by a panel of forestry experts.

Jairam Ramesh, the then environment minister, decided that Vedanta would not be allowed to mine the bauxite because “laws [were] being violated”.

At the time, a spokesman denied the company had failed to obtain the consent of the tribal groups. “Our effort is to bring the poor tribal people into the mainstream,” Vedanta Aluminium’s chief operating officer, Mukesh Kumar, said shortly before the 2010 decision.

Since then the company has made efforts to win over local and international opinion. This weekend Vedanta, contacted through their London-based public relations firm, declined to comment.

Many Indian businessmen say economic growth must be prioritised even at the expense of the environment or the country’s most marginalised communities. They argue these are the inevitable costs of development.

Ramesh was considered the first environment minister to take on major corporate interests after decades where legal constraints on business were routinely ignored. But his stance caused a rift within the government and he was moved to a different ministry.

Chandra Bhushan, of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, said the outcome of the court case would either be “very encouraging for business or very encouraging for civil society”.

“There are so many reasons not to mine there [in the Niyamgiri hills], the court could only overturn it on procedural grounds. Otherwise it will send a signal of total political paralysis,” he told the Guardian.

The supreme court may decide to send the case to the newly constituted national green tribunal, a body of legal and technical experts, to consider once more.

Last week the tribunal suspended the environmental permits for the massive Posco iron and steel refinery, also in Orissa. The project would see an £8 billion (US$12.7 billion) investment from a South Korean firm, and would significantly enhance India’s industrial capacity as well as generating hundreds of jobs. The tribunal decided however that studies on its environmental impact had been based on a smaller venture and were thus invalid.

Elsewhere in India, power plants, dams, factories, roads and other infrastructure projects are stalled pending environmental clearance. There are frequent reports of clashes over land throughout the country. In February, Survival International, a UK-based campaign group, said it received reports of arrests and beatings apparently aimed at stopping a major religious festival in the Niyamgiri hills where Vedanta’s bauxite mine is planned.

This article appeared on guardian.co.uk on 8 April 2012.

[* Note: On Monday, 9 April 2012, the court adjourned without making a decision. Apparently a ruling is expected before the summer vacations.]


Why Thousands of Chhattisgarh Adivasis Protested This Forest Officer’s Transfer

“In these parts, a forest officer is considered a big deal and often seen as unapproachable to the common people. But DFO Dhammshil would walk and cycle into the jungle, meet people there, explain government schemes to them and emphasise that this jungle belongs to them, and not the government.”

W hen Ganveer Dhammshil, former divisional forest officer (DFO) of Keshkal division in Kondagaon district, Chhattisgarh, was transferred out earlier this month, thousands from different tribal communities came out in protest against the local MLA who engineered the move. The matter had reached Chief Minister Bhupesh Bhagel’s office.

“Everyone here is devastated about his transfer. He was the first officer to genuinely address those of us at the grassroots. He would walk, cycle or trek and visit our villages deep in the jungle. While addressing us, he would sit with the common people on the ground instead of a chair, and listen to us. More importantly, he helped us understand our rights as forest dwelling people, what we can do with the resources at our disposal, and how to strengthen our livelihoods. He ensured that all our work with the forest department was conducted with the utmost transparency,” says Parshuram Salam, a resident of Themli village and member of the local Joint Forest Management Committee.

Krishna Dutt Upadhyaya, a 65-year-old journalist and social activist from Keshkal tehsil, who has covered events here for the past four decades, also agrees.

“I have seen such an honest officer in the forest department for the first time in my life. A man with genuine passion for the people, he would start his day at around 4am, plan things for the day and visit habitations in these dense jungles. He ensured that 100% of the taxpayer money meant for the underprivileged reached them. For example, the forest department would earlier issue payments in cash to local labourers and villagers for a variety of forestry work like plantation, weeding, construction, collection of minor forest produce, etc. This process was rife with corruption. As DFO, he made online payments mandatory so that all the money owed to them would flow directly into their bank accounts. Earlier, instead of paying the entire sum, these contractors would take a commission. For every work involving the forest department, he would share receipts so villagers would know how their money was being spent,” says Upadhyay.

Members of the Adivasi community protesting the transfer of DFO Dhammshil. (Image courtesy Krishna Dutt Upadhyay)

Besides his integrity and honesty while dealing with people, what local activists like Upadhyay argue is how approachable the former Keshkal DFO was to the people.

“In these parts, a forest officer is considered a big deal and often seen as unapproachable to the common people. But DFO Dhammshil would walk and cycle into the jungle, meet the people there, explain all government schemes to them and constantly emphasise that this jungle belongs to them, and not the government. In instilling this valuable sense of ownership into those from the local Gond or Pardhi tribal community, he has pushed them into the frontline of conservation work,” he adds.

Unfortunately, protestors from the Adivasi community couldn’t stop the eventual transfer of their favourite officer, who, in the span of barely six months, transformed their lives. Today, Dhammshil is the DFO in Durg district. However, locals are now demanding that the new DFO posted in Keshkal and the forest department follow the same system of transparency Dhammshil put in place, and continue the work he started.

Members of the Adivasi community protesting the transfer of DFO Dhammshil. (Image courtesy Krishna Dutt Upadhyay)

From humble beginnings

Thirty-two-year old Dhammshil is an Indian Forest Service officer of the 2013 batch. The son of a small farmer from Amgaon village in Bhandara district of Maharashtra, his education was largely funded by scholarships, which culminated in a fellowship from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) to obtain his MSc in Forestry from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore.

After joining the Indian Forest Service in 2013, he spent two years training at the Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy (IGNFA), Dehradun, following which he joined the Chhattisgarh cadre. Back in 2017, he had a short stint as DFO of Keshkal division in Kondagaon district, which is adjacent to Bastar. As fate would have it, he was posted there again on 23 June 2020. Here are some of the initiatives he started during his second stint which lasted five-and-a-half-months.

DFO Ganveer Dhammshil

Vermicompost manufacturing

Long before his posting there, three women self-help groups with 10-12 members each from the Gond community were running vermicompost manufacturing units next to forest nurseries where the forest department would prepare seedlings. However, what these women didn’t have was the training to brand and market these products. Also, as a result of a communication gap with the forest department, these SHGs weren’t getting paid on time.

“We had scientifically calculated how much they should invest into purchasing raw material and the price for each kilogramme of vermicompost. We came to a price of about Rs 8 per kg. With many plantations under our jurisdiction, the forest department requires a lot of vermicompost. Thus, the department buys it from them and there is ample demand for their product. I ensured they were paid on time. We had even made plans for proper unit-based packaging in 2 kg, 5 kg and 10 kg bags, which could one day be bought in Raipur and other nearby cities as well. This was in the pipeline until I was transferred out, besides plans of starting another manufacturing unit,” says Dhammshil.

Gobar Gas Plants

There are two facts that one needs to understand. One, it’s a common practice among members of the Adivasi community to collect firewood from the forest for cooking and heating purposes. Two, every year, the forest department embarks on timber felling operations in selected pockets of the forest. That timber is then sold in an auction to the highest bidder, which includes private contractors in the construction business.

As standard practice, 20% of the revenue generated from selling this wood is given to the joint forest management committee (JFMC), consisting of members from the local community, who protect and manage nearby forests. Some JFMCs earn anywhere between Rs 10 to Rs 40 lakhs annually from the sale of this timber, depending on how many trees were felled in a given area. But this corpus fund remains untouched or poorly utilised.

“After a series of discussions with members from different JFMCs, we arrived at a decision by consensus that we should decrease the pressure on our forests, but not at the expense of the local community. By installing gobar gas plants, they can, in one fell swoop, save money (instead of buying expensive LPG cylinders), time and their forests (instead of collecting firewood) as well. The JFMCs then sent their respective proposals for the construction of gobar gas plants. We distributed these biogas plants bought with the corpus of money available to each JFMC and piloted this in five villages first,” recalls Dhammshil.

Operations are about to commence in these five villages, while he sanctioned the construction of 250+ gobar gas plants. CREDA (Chhattisgarh State Renewable Energy Development Agency) will construct these plants. Some of the money has also been spent on setting up digital learning centres in village schools, giving them computers, projectors and digital blackboards. These digital education initiatives were sanctioned in five government schools.

Once this pilot takes off, other villages will definitely join in, he claims.

DFO Dhammshil speaking to villagers deep in the jungle of Keshkal forest division. His transfer has provoked a strong reaction.

Planting of fruit bearing trees

The decision to plant fruit bearing trees like cashew, coconut and custard apple across different villages is to ensure the villagers keep on earning money even after the traditional paddy farming season is over. Keshkal division, which comes under Kondagaon district adjacent to Baster, offers suitable climatic and soil conditions for these fruit bearing trees.

“Before distributing seedlings to these communities, we divided Keshkal into a number of clusters for each fruit-bearing species depending on the climate and soil suitability. We proposed this idea of growing fruit-bearing trees to the JFMCs so that they may reap the benefits of earning additional income three to four years down the line. In the 18 villages of the Mari region on the Bastar plateau, we distributed 10,000 seedlings of cashew in the recent monsoon season. These seedlings were given and distributed free of cost by the forest department. The JFMCs of that area were given the responsibility of protecting these seedlings. This is the first time the forest department has taken such an initiative. I also sanctioned the distribution of 15,000 coconut seedlings to Sidavan and another village. Planting of these seedlings will happen in the next month or so. I got transferred out before seeing it through,” he says.

DFO Dhammshil with his team deep in the jungles. His transfer earlier this month angered many.

Community-based eco-tourism project

There are three objectives of any community-based eco-tourism project — educate tourists about their natural surroundings, learn about local communities living in and around these forests and sustain their livelihoods, which in the process protects the forest.

In the Mari region, where he had distributed the cashew seedlings, Dhammshil had found a couple of cottages for tourists built by the department that were lying abandoned. Upon seeing the stunning natural beauty of the region, marked by dense forests and rolling hills, he felt the site would be ideal for an eco-tourism centre.

Barely a few weeks later, on 26 September, the forest department opened the Tatamari Eco-Tourism Centre, which lies at an altitude of 2,150 feet above mean sea level, to tourists with the necessary precautions put in place for COVID-19. Located just 2 km from Keshkal, Dhammshil considers this as the ‘flagship project’ of his short tenure there.

Spread over 150 acres, this region has a variety of flora and fauna, and according to Dhammshil, this is the first eco-tourism initiative in Keshkal.

“In this project, I sought to involve members of the local Pardhi tribe, a community with a long legacy of hunting. There were 20 families of the Pardhi community living in the vicinity and I sought to convince them to give up hunting and engage themselves in the ecotourism project. Embedding their local practices, these youngsters have found work as guides for trekkers who can see 16-17 waterfalls in a 20 km trek into the forests, instructors on how to use bow and arrows they earlier used to kill wild animals or birds, and performers of local dances and other rituals. Besides, we set up eco-cottages made of only mud, wood and stone, night camping facilities, an activity corner for young children, and a cycling trail through the forest that can take you Manjhingarh,” he says.

“With this, he has helped in saving animals, while also giving employment, respect and dignity to members of this persecuted tribe,” says Upadhyay.

“We also take tourists through these parts to understand tribal food habits, delicacies, local dances and other cultural events that tribal communities here undertake. Soon, tour operators began approaching us, asking how they could collaborate with the department. All the income generated from these activities goes to the local tribal communities. Funding for the centre came from the district mineral fund, local communities and the forest department. Tribal youths were given training in hospitality, housekeeping, guide work and scientific knowledge of the local flora and fauna for the Tatamari centre. Dhammshil sir was about to do the same for three other potential centres as well, before his transfer order came,” says another local forest officer, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Other Initiatives

During his tenure, Dhammshil issued 25 Community Forest Resource Right (CFRR) certificates to gram sabhas across the Keshkal division. The possession of a CFRR certificate helps contain outside encroachment on forest land and gives local communities the right to manage and protect the forest in a meaningful way.

Another initiative is the recruitment of young children, who would often kill birds with catapults during their free time, as ‘Chidiya Mithans’ (Friends of Birds).

“In every village, we recruited the children responsible for killing these birds as their protectors instead. Two children were recruited from each village. With assistance from expert ornithologists, we trained these children, who from Class 7 and 8, on how to spot them as well as on the importance of a particular species to the local biodiversity. Under my tenure, we recruited about 60 such Chidiya Mithans to the cause,” says Dhammshil.

Finally, during his tenure, he established a central control room for grievance redressal that residents from all villages can access.

“Anybody could call the DFO or Range officer or SDOs to file any grievance. I also organised a workshop for all the JFMCs, for which about 700 people turned up. During this workshop, I explained to them the role of these committees, how they should draft proposals to government officials, the rights and benefits they are entitled to, how they can utilise the money at their disposal to ensure greater livelihood security and how they can better benefit from the forest, among other things,” he says.

“In his letter seeking Dhammshil’s transfer, the MLA claimed that some of the other officers working there were not happy with his style of working. These must be officers who never wanted to work in the first place or earn money in corrupt ways. After his transfer, we have lost hope because for politicians we are nothing but votes. When it comes to fulfilling our demands, they go missing. We cannot even explain in words what this one officer has done for us and our forests,” says the president of a JFMC, who wishes to remain anonymous.


5 Prominent Indigenous People’s Movements That Hit Back At The State

The indigenous people’s movements in colonial India were organised with strategies of guerrilla warfare and armed revolts. The movements were anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist in nature.

The fights to retain age old practises that were disturbed by colonialism were dominant causes of the movements. The traditional practises of tribes in India were severely affected due to the rise in the systems of indentured labour, taxation policies and immigration of mainland traders and workers into the tribal belts.

The nature of the indigenous people’s movements vary and each have their own significance. The various trajectories of the movements are peasant rebellions, movements for self-determination, identity and ethnic nationalist movements. This article covers a few of the prominent indigenous people’s movements colonial and post-colonial in India.

1. Munda Rebellion: led by Birsa Munda

The movement is famously called ‘Munda Ulgulan‘. The movement was led by Birsa Munda and is a renowned 19th century tribal revolt in the Indian Subcontinent. The movement took place in the South of Ranchi from 1899-1900.

The khuntkattidar land revenue system of the Mundas was replaced with jagirdars and tikhadars as merchants and money lenders in the tribal belt. This process of land alienation had begun long before the advent of the British. But the establishment and consolidation of British rule accelerated the mobility of non-tribal people into tribal regions. The incidence of forced labour or beth begari also increased dramatically. Unscrupulous contractors had turned the region into a recruiting ground for indentured labour.

Born in 1875 to a family in the Munda tribe, Birsa Munda, referred to often by
Jharkhand’s tribal residents as “Birsa Bhagwan”, led what came to be known as “Ulgulan
(revolt) or the Munda rebellion against the British colonial feudal state.

In 1894, Birsa began to inspire people by combining religion and politics. The flames of the struggle spread to 550 sq. miles in the Chota Nagpur region, with several fights and wars between the tribes and the British.

On February 3, 1900 Birsa Munda was caught. Severe cases were filed against him and his comrades. On June 9, 1900, Birsa Munda became a martyr in Ranchi’s Central Jail, aged 25. The Britishers declared that he died of cholera.

The revolt allowed the British Indian Government to enact Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, abolish Beth Begari and recognize the existence of khuntkatti system. Birsa Munda became a lengend to the tribes of Chota Nagapur and for Bahujan groups in India. He is a symbol of the anti-feudal, anti-colonial struggle of that time.

2. Bodoland Movement

The Bodos are the most significant part of the vast Bodo-Kachari, an ethnolinguistic group of Mongoloid origin living in Assam. The tribal groups are the indigenous inhabitants of Assam and it was the Bodos who first created culture and civilization in the Brahmaputra Valley.

They have also maintained their distinct ethnic identity. They ruled vast territories of North East India, parts of Nepal, Bhutan, North Bengal and Bangladesh. For centuries, they survived sanskritization. However, in the 20th century, they had to tackle a series of issues such as illegal immigration, incursion of their lands, forced assimilation, loss of language and culture.

The same period has witnessed the emergence of the Bodos as one of the leading tribes in Assam to pioneer the movements for safeguarding the rights of tribes in the north east. The Bodo movement is a product of the socio-economic and historical milieu of Assam. The movement has gradually grown for decades.

Dominant caste aggression, the dispossession of land and natural resources, loss of ethnic and cultural identities, the uneven process of pre and post-colonial development accompanied with narratives of alienation, disempowerment and poverty of Bodos are the various causes of the Bodoland movement.

The Bodo movement can be divided into four phases. The first phase comprises the time period between 1933-1952 which was largely a phase of political awakening. This phase had also witnessed the formation of All Assam Plains Tribal League. The major demands of this phase is of more electoral participation and a separate electoral system.

The second phase was between 1952-1967, which witnessed the formation of the Bodo Sahitya Sabha. This period comprised the assertion of linguistic identity due to the threat posed by the dominant Assamese community.

The third phase of 1967-1986 constitutes the demand for political economy. The phase had witnessed the demand for a union territory called Udayachal. The All Bodo Students Union was formed on 15th February 1967.

Phase four occurred between 1986-1992, which gave rise to the demand for a separate statehood. The demand to divide Assam into 50-50 was the echo of the movement during this period. The period also witnessed the rise of a militant organisation called Bodo Security Force (BdSF) on October 3, 1986.

The last phase of the Bodo Movement was started in 1993 with the post-Bodo accord which failed to meet the expectations of Bodos. This period has also witnessed the extremist activities and protests of BdSF.

The movement post-2003 was not a part of the mainstream until the declaration of the formation of the separate state of Telangana. The demand for Bodoland is a continuous one that is left unaddressed. It is the responsibility of Government of India to look into this issue and address the problem rather postponing.

3. Niyamgiri Movement

The Dongria Kondh tribe of Odisha resides in Niyamgiri. The mountain range Niam Dongar is also a place of worship for the Dongria Kondh. Niam Dongar is regarded by the tribe to be the abode of their divine god, Niyam Raja (The King of Law).

Niyamgiri is the source of livelihood for the Dongria Kondh. The peaceful existence of the tribe, where they practised sustainable agriculture based on forest produce, was placed under threat on June 7, 2003.

Vedanta signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Government of Odisha for the construction of an alumina refinery, along with a coal-based power plant in the Lanjigarh region of the Kalahandi district. For the purpose of obtaining bauxite for this alumina refinery, the Vedanta-owned Sterlite Industries also entered the picture, with plans to construct an open-pit, bauxite mining plant at the top of the sacred Niyam Dongar mountain.

The Niyam Dongar acts as a sponge that soaks up the monsoon rains and then holds deposits of water through the hot summer months. These reserves ensure the continuous flow of perennial streams across the Niyamgiri hills, which are vital for the Dongria Kondh as they provide water for drinking and irrigation purposes.

Any mining activity at the top of the mountain would cause these perennial streams to dry up. It has been observed that Vedanta also played foul in acquiring environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Further, Vedanta’s dubious methods for construction of the alumina refinery were being ignored by the MoEF.

This allowed three petitioners to file applications with the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), appealing to the authorities to look into Vedanta’s suspicious environmental clearances. When the case reached the Supreme Court, the court refused the CEC recommendations which sided with the Dongria Kondhs. As an aftermath of the decision by the Supreme Court, there were protests and demonstrations not only by the Dongria Kondhs but also from progressive circles in the national and international arena.

The movement became victorious when MoEF set up an experts committee. The team of experts, in their March 2010 report concluded that Vedanta’s proposed bauxite mine would be detrimental to the existence of the Dongria Kondh a consequence which was too serious to ignore.

Finally, 12 Gram Sabhas (village councils) were chosen by the state government to make the crucial decision. In the three months after the Supreme Court ruling, amidst heavy police presence and persistent threats from Vedanta, 11 Gram Sabhas voted against the mining project and on August 19, 2013, the 12th and final Gram Sabha delivered a resounding ‘No’.

In January 2014, the MoEF, which had earlier aided Vedanta’s invasion of Niyamgiri, crushed the company’s mining ambitions by completely rejecting the project. In this sensational decision and in gaining coverage in international media, the Dongria Kondh emerged victorious in the decade-long battle against Vedanta.

4. Santhal Rebellion

The Santhal Rebellion is one of the first indigenous peasant upsurges in the first half of the eighteenth century. The Santhals were the original inhabitants of the Santhal Paraganas in erstwhile Bihar, within the territories of ‘Domin-i-ko’, where they practised revenue-free land holding mechanisms.

The Pakur Raj family who were local zamindars were responsible for imposing taxation and land revenue on the Santhals. The Santhals began to be exploited by the usury practices of the Mahajans, who came from Bengal, Bihar and other provinces of India.

The railway network began to spread from the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, in order to facilitate the process of marketing machine-made goods from England. The Santhals were exploited as cheap labourers in the process of expanding the railways.

The Santhal Rebellion was started in 1850 and called Hul (a movement for liberation). It was headed by four brothers of the Murmu clan – Sidhu, Kanhu, Chand and Bhairav and their two sisters Phulo and Jhano.

On 7th July, 1855, a huge number of Santhals assembled in a field in Bhognadih village. They declared themselves free and took an oath under the leadership of Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu to fight till their last breath against the British and their agents. The Santhals were passionate and fierce warriors but they didn’t stand a fair chance against the firearms used by the British East India Company.

The Santhal Rebellion was subdued by cruel repression unleashed by the English rulers and their local agents. Yet it left behind an enduring legacy of resistance, where the Santhal rebels, both men and women, were supported by the non-dominant caste Hindu inhabitants of the Santhal Pargana region and the adjoining districts of Bengal.

This legacy was subsequently reflected in the peasant movements undertaken in Bengal, including the Tebhaga Movement, till the end of British rule in India. It also inspired the movement for the separate state of Jharkhand led by Shibu Soren.

5. Komaram Bheem’s Revolt against the last Nizam

During the Nizam’s rule in Hyderabad, the government imposed unbearable taxes. The exploitation and atrocities of local zamindars was rampant on the indigenous people of the region. In the midst of this, Komaram Bheem (the legend of the Gonds in Telangana) launched a massive agitation against the state in the forest-based villages or Gondu Gudems of Adilabad.

Jode Ghat was the centre of his activities. Bheem organised a militant struggle with a guerilla army. The movement continued from 1928 to 1940. Bheem proposed a plan of action in order to declare the region as an independent Gondwana state for Gonds.

The uprising threatened the government, who then sent agents to offer Bheem material possessions in order to give up the struggle. An uncompromising leader, Bheem refused government offers of personal possession and continued his struggle.

He stated that his guerrilla army stands for justice and freedom. He gave the famous slogan of ‘Jal-Jungle-Jameen’ during the movement. Komaram Bheem attained martyrdom in a conspiracy plotted by the Nizam on September 1, 1940.

This is by no means an exhaustive or representative list. Suggestions to add to this list are welcome in the comments section.


Indian tribe's Avatar-like battle against mining firm reaches supreme court

The leaders of thousands of forest-dwelling tribesmen who have fought for years to preserve their ancestral lands from exploitation by an international mining corporation have promised to continue their struggle whatever the decision in a key hearing before India's supreme court on Monday.

Dubbed the "real-life Avatar" after the Hollywood blockbuster, the battle of the Dongria Kondh people to stop the London-based conglomerate Vedanta Resources from mining bauxite from a hillside they consider sacred has attracted international support. Celebrities backing the campaign include James Cameron, the director of Avatar, Arundhati Roy, the Booker prize-winning author, as well as the British actors Joanna Lumley and Michael Palin.

On Monday the court will decide on an appeal by Vedanta against a ministerial decision in 2010 that stopped work at the site in the Niyamgiri hills of India's eastern Orissa state.

Lingaraj Azad, a leader of the Save Niyamgiri Committee, said the Dongria Kondh's campaign was "not just that of an isolated tribe for its customary rights over its traditional lands and habitats, but that of the entire world over protecting our natural heritage".

An alliance of local tribes has now formed to defend the Dongria Khondh. Kumity Majhi, a leader of the Majhi Kondh adivasi (indigenous people), said local communities would stop the mining "whether or not the supreme court favour us".

"We, the Majhi Kondh adivasis, will help our Dongria Kondh brothers in protecting the mountains," he said.

India's rapid economic growth has generated huge demand for raw materials. Weak law enforcement has allowed massive environmental damage from mining and other extractive industries, according to campaigners.

Vedanta, which wants the bauxite for an alumina refinery it has built near the hills, requires clearance under the country's forest and environmental laws. But though it had obtained provisional permission, it failed to satisfy laws protecting the forests and granting rights to local tribal groups.

A government report accused the firm of violations of forest conservation, tribal rights and environmental protection laws in Orissa, a charge subsequently repeated by a panel of forestry experts.

Jairam Ramesh, the then environment minister, decided that Vedanta would not be allowed to mine the bauxite because "laws [were] being violated".

At the time, a spokesman denied the company had failed to obtain the consent of the tribal groups. "Our effort is to bring the poor tribal people into the mainstream," Vedanta Aluminium's chief operating officer, Mukesh Kumar, said shortly before the 2010 decision.

Since then the company has made efforts to win over local and international opinion. This weekend Vedanta, contacted through their London-based public relations firm, declined to comment.

Many Indian businessmen say economic growth must be prioritised even at the expense of the environment or the country's most marginalised communities. They argue these are the inevitable costs of development.

Ramesh was considered the first environment minister to take on major corporate interests after decades where legal constraints on business were routinely ignored. But his stance caused a rift within the government and he was moved to a different ministry.

Chandra Bhushan, of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, said the outcome of the court case would either be "very encouraging for business or very encouraging for civil society".

"There are so many reasons not to mine there [in the Niyamgiri hills], the court could only overturn it on procedural grounds. Otherwise it will send a signal of total political paralysis," he told the Guardian.

The supreme court may decide to send the case to the newly constituted national green tribunal, a body of legal and technical experts, to consider once more.

Last week the tribunal suspended the environmental permits for the massive Posco iron and steel refinery, also in Orissa. The project would see an £8bn investment from a South Korean firm, and would significantly enhance India's industrial capacity as well as generating hundreds of jobs. The tribunal decided however that studies on its environmental impact had been based on a smaller venture and were thus invalid.

Elsewhere in India, power plants, dams, factories, roads and other infrastructure projects are stalled pending environmental clearance. There are frequent reports of clashes over land throughout the country. In February, Survival International, a UK-based campaign group, said it received reports of arrests and beatings apparently aimed at stopping a major religious festival in the Niyamgiri hills where Vedanta's bauxite mine is planned.


An Adivasi community in Kerala has united to save the region’s dwindling hornbill population

As you enter the Athirappilly-Vazhachal-Nelliyampathy forests in the southern Western Ghats, you’re welcomed with a heavy whooshing sound from the canopies of large trees. For a moment, you might mistake it for the sound of flying jets. This is the sound of the magnificent great hornbill, locally called Malamuzhakky, roughly translated to bird with a deep call that resonates in the mountains.

“There was a time when we poached them for meat and collected their eggs to add to herbal concoctions with questionable medicinal value. The practice ended completely in the past two decades and now we are undertaking the safekeeping of the birds and their nests,” said Senthil Kumar, a conservation activist hailing from the local tribal community, the Kadars.

“Our nine settlements of 174 families inside these forests had a dubious legacy as poachers and predators. But we are fast shrugging it off in our earnest bid to live in perfect harmony with nature and to safe keep these evergreen rainforests for future generations,” he said.

As per the information available with Kerala Institute for Research Training and Development Studies of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Kadars are a “primitive tribe” from the forests of Palakkad and Thrissur districts of Kerala. In Malayalam, Kadar means forest dwellers. The tribe lives in small communities and used to practice a nomadic lifestyle and shifting cultivation, growing rice and millets. They also hunted birds, including hornbills, and small animals. There are only about 1,848 Kadars in Kerala now, as per the State Tribal Welfare Department. With their lives affected by modern amenities, the lifestyle of the Kadars has also changed with the times.

Hornbills at Athirapilly-Vazhachal. Credit: Rahana Habeeb/Mongabay

Forest land under threat

Around two years ago, the traditional Kadar village gatherings or gramasabhas had passed resolutions against the controversial Athirappilly hydroelectric project in their region. According to the environmental impact study by the Kerala State Electricity Board in 2002, the project was estimated to destroy the habitat of about 196 bird, 131 butterfly and 51 odonate species. The region’s animal population would be affected in addition to this.

What was significant about the resolution was its invoking of clauses of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, which ensures community forest rights for tribals. It was reportedly the first time that central legislation aimed at tribal welfare was invoked for forest protection.

As per clauses in the forest rights act, no government or private project can be implemented in a forest area without the approval of the tribal gramasabhas. The 23-metre high dam was expected to submerge 104 hectares of forest land, apart from causing irreparable damages to the livelihood concerns of the local community.

The Athirapilly waterfall. Credit: KK Najeeb/Mongabay.

“Despite our best efforts, the 163-MW hydroelectric project is still under active consideration of Kerala State Electricity Board and if it gets implemented, the first casualty will be the region’s rich hornbill population,” warned Geetha Vazhachal, chieftain of the tribal community and the first woman in this position among tribal communities in Kerala.

According to conservationists, the unique low-elevation riparian forest of Athirappilly-Vazhachal-Nelliyampathy is the only location where you can find all four south Indian species of hornbills – the great Indian hornbill or Buceros bicornis, Malabar pied hornbill or Anthracoceros coronatus, Indian grey hornbill or Ocyceros birostris, and Malabar grey hornbill or Ocyceros griseus. Incidentally, the great hornbill is the state bird of Kerala.

“This forest region is the only available nesting location for the highly endangered Malabar pied hornbills in Kerala. They are endemic to low elevation forests in limited locations of South Asia,” said Sheik Hydar Hussain, a researcher on the region’s hornbill population.

All species of hornbills have an umbilical relationship with rain forests. Forests undisturbed by humans are crucial for their survival and with forests being impacted, the hornbill population has dwindled too across the entire subcontinent in recent years. The birds nest in the natural hollows of high-canopy trees and remain extremely sensitive to disturbances. Their long bills may prevent them from binocular vision, but their sharp eyes and good hearing alert them to the slightest movement on the forest floor.

Local youth step up

Among those credited for making Kadars the sentinels of the hornbills of the region is KH Amitha Bachan, a researcher and consultant to Kerala Forest Department and the World Wildlife Fund-India Ecological Monitoring Programme, and the organisation under his leadership, Western Ghats Hornbill Foundation.

In the last two decades, WGHF partnered with the Kerala Forest Department to get 72 Kadar youth involved in the task of hornbill habitat protection. The initiative, which began with the protection of 57 nests, has now expanded to safekeeping 114 nests.

The youth keep close vigil against poaching by helping the forest department prevent illegal felling of nesting trees and prevent other youth from their community from joining poaching rings. They strengthen the forest habitat by engaging in wildfire prevention and planting trees. They also ensure human interference is restricted in these regions during the nesting season, which normally begins in December.

The WGHF, which started as a small group of hornbill lovers in 1999, has now turned into a success story in the implementation of community-based conservation programmes. The foundation has conducted several scientific studies and research on the movement, food habits and habitat peculiarities of hornbills. In the process of protecting the hornbill population, it has made large scale interventions in protecting the otherwise precarious rainforests and improving living standards of Kadar tribes.

“There is a significant increase in the hornbill population in the last two decades. The number of nests has increased because of the lack of poaching. In the process of safekeeping the hornbills, we have identified 23 different species of nesting trees of which 60% are found only in the Western Ghats. Thirty percent of them are endangered,” said Bachan.

According to him, the river Chalakudy which flows through Athirapilly and Vazhachal is the lifeline for the bird population.

The tribal youngsters who work with the foundation have got training in monitoring and conserving the birds. They are also equipped to conduct scientific surveys and data collection. “Other than hornbill conservation, our focus is developing a system for long-term monitoring of the rainforest ecosystem. Channelising the traditional wisdom and efficiency of the Kadar youths, the foundation is now watching the changes in nesting of birds, changes in habitat and effects of deforestation. Through them, we are in the process of developing a long-term monitoring system to assess changes in the rainforest and that is crucial for future conservation activities,” says KT Anitha, who works with the foundation.

Who’s the predator?

According to the IUCN Red List, the great hornbill is evaluated as a “vulnerable” species while the Malabar pied hornbill is a “near threatened” one. The population of the Indian grey hornbill is stable and not decreasing. The Malabar grey hornbill is not globally threatened but it faces threats in the Western Ghats region, according to the WGHF. The two larger species, great hornbill and Malabar pied, are also placed under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, which affords the highest levels of protection.

Other than poaching, what had threatened hornbills in Athirappilly region was the powerful timber mafia that used to fell huge trees crucial for the survival of the birds. Now the tribal vigilantes are active against the mafia and no timber smuggling takes place in the forests.

While comparing with other rivers in Kerala, Chalakudy has the highest number of dams built as part of hydroelectrical projects. “The river has half a dozen dams and all of them are coming inside the Athirappilly-Vazhachal forests. Their construction and maintenance too had contributed immensely to the damages suffered already by the riparian ecosystem,” says SV Vinod, another conservationist.

“A healthy population of hornbills signifies a healthy ecosystem. So the hornbill conservation measures in the region are helping comprehensive protection of the environment of the Western Ghats stretch. Now the forest department and the foundation are also in the process of protecting and planting more trees of the seven species in which hornbills live,” said Bachan. The trees include Pali or Palaquium ellipticum, Elavu or Bombax ceiba, Thanni or Terminalia bellirica, Kalpayin or Dipterocarpus indicus, Kulavu or Kingiodendron pinnatum, Vellakil or Dysoxylum malabaricum, and Vellapayin or Vateria indica.

“Hornbills have no predators other than human beings. In the last two decades, the foundation has contributed enormously to make humans friendly with the bird and its natural habitat. The forest department has benefitted a lot through its intervention,” said S Muraleedharan, a retired divisional forest officer.

New threats

Because of the proximity to numerous plantations of tea, coffee and teak, the forest region is always under the threat of fire. In 2004, the forests had sustained severe devastation due to massive fires spread from plantations. Now the foundation and tribals work to avoid forest fires, most of which are human-made.

Displaced many times because of the construction of dams, Kadars have regularly faced the issues of habitat and livelihood destruction. They turned jobless and engaged in menial works in local shops and eateries near the Athirapilly waterfall, a major tourist destination in Kerala. Now, the conservation work ensures a fixed monthly income for the youth involved.

“What we are telling to the outer world is that no conservation would be possible without cooperation of the local community, especially the aborigines. Integrating their traditional wisdom with modern-day scientific approach would definitely yield results,” said Bachan, who hails from Kodungallur, a coastal town near Thrissur.

“In our process, we are treating the tribals as an inseparable part of the given ecosystem. They require equal attention along with animals, birds, trees and other constituents of the forest ecosystem. Economic support also crucial for tribals as that would ultimately turn them, protectors,” he said.

The hornbill guards are now trained in using cameras and operate GPS systems. They record the whole process of conservation. It is estimated that the region now has 184 hornbills and they are enjoying a safe habitat.

However, the recurring Kerala floods of the last two years had adverse effect on the hornbill population, with the floods washing away seven nests. “Climate change is firmly gripping our region too. It is posing a new threat to hornbills,” said Bachan.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.


Contents

Linguistic studies similarly suggest that the Austroasiatic homeland was in Southeast Asia and Austroasiatic languages arrived on the coast of Odisha from Southeast Asia about 4000–3500 years ago. [13] The Austroasiatic speaker spread from Southeast Asia and mixed extensively with local Indian populations. [14]

According to historian Ram Sharan Sharma in his book India's Ancient Past mentioned that, many Austroasiatic, Dravidian, and non-Sanskrit terms occur in the Vedic texts ascribed to 1500-500 BC. [15] They indicate ideas, institutions, products, and settlements associated with peninsular and non-Vedic India. The people of this area spoke the proto-Munda language. Several terms in the Indo-Aryan languages that signify the use of cotton, navigation, digging, stick, etc. have been traced to the Munda languages by linguists. There are many Munda pockets in Chota Nagpur Plateau, in which the remnants of Munda culture are strong. It is held that changes in the phonetics and vocabulary of the Vedic language can be explained as much on the basis of the Dravidian influence as that of the Munda. [15]

Starting from the period between the 9th and 12th centuries, copper was smelted in many parts of old Singhbhum district. It is believed that many immigrants entered Singhbhum from Manbhum in the 14th century or earlier. When the Hos entered old Singhbhum, they overcame the Bhuiyas, who were then inhabitants of the forest country. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, the Hos fought several wars against the Rajas of the Chota Nagpur States and Mayurbhanj to retain their independence. As far as is known, the Muslims left them alone. [16] Although the area was formally claimed to be a part of the Mughal Empire, neither the Mughals nor the Marathas, who were active in the surrounding areas during the decline of the Mughals, ventured into the area. [17]

In 1765, Chota Nagpur was ceded to the British East India Company as part of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa Provinces. The Raja of Singhbhum asked the British Resident at Midnapore for protection in 1767, but it was not until 1820 that he acknowledged himself as a feudatory of the British. The restless Hos broke the agreement soon and took part in a fierce rebellion of 1831–33, called the Kol uprising, along with the Mundas. [17] [18] The immediate cause of the Kol uprising was the oppression of Adivsis by non-Adivasi thikadars (literally meaning contractors) or farmers of rent. The Hos and Mundas were joined by the Kurukh and the houses of many dikku (non-Adivasis or outsiders) landlords were burnt and a number of people were killed. [16] It compelled the British to recognise the need for a thorough subjugation of the Hos. [17] The uprising was suppressed with a good deal of trouble by several hundred British troops. [16] While local troops quelled the uprising, another group under Colonel Richards entered Singhbhum in November 1836. Within three months all the ringleaders surrendered. In 1857, the Raja of Porahat rose in rebellion and a sizeable section of the Hos joined in the revolt. Troops were sent who put an end to the disturbances by 1859. [17]

Ho people speak the Ho language, an Austroasiatic language closely related to Mundari and more distantly related to languages of Southeast Asia such as Khmer and Mon. The Austroasiatic languages of India, including Ho, are inflected fusional languages unlike their distant relatives in Southeast Asia which are analytic languages. This difference in typology is due to extensive language contact with the unrelated Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages. The phonology of Ho has also been influenced by the nearby unrelated languages. [13] There are at least three dialects of Ho: Lohara, Chaibasa and Thakurmunda. All dialects are mutually intelligible with approximately 92% of all Ho speakers able to understand a narrative discourse in both Chaibasa and Thakurmunda dialects. [8] The most divergent dialects are in the extreme south and east of Ho territory.

While fewer than five percent of Ho speakers are literate in the language, Ho is typically written in Devanagari, Latin, scripts. A native alphabet, called Warang Citi and invented by Lako Bodra in the 20th century, also exists. [8] [19]

Ho village life revolves around five main parab or festivals. The most important festival, Mage Parab, takes place in the late winter month of Magha and marks the completion of the agricultural cycle. [20] It is a week-long celebration held to honor Singbonga, the creator god. Other lesser bonga (spirits) are also honored throughout the week. Baa Parab, the festival of flowers held in mid-spring, celebrates the yearly blossoming of the sacred Sal trees. Sohrai or Gaumara is the most important agricultural festival, the date of which usually coincides with the nationwide festivities in the fall. It is a village wide celebration with music and dancing held in honor of the cattle used in cultivation. During the ceremonies, the cows are painted with a flour and dye mix, anointed with oil and prayed over after a black chicken is sacrificed to an image of the cattle bonga. Baba Hermutu is the ceremonial first sowing. The date is set each year in the early spring by the deurior priest pahan who also officiates the three-day ceremony by praying and commencing his first sowing of the year. Jomnama Parab is held in late fall before the first harvest is eaten to thank the spirits for a trouble-free harvest. [20] [21] [22]

Dance is important to Adivasi culture in general and for the Ho, it is more than simply a means of entertainment. Their songs are generally accompanied by dances which change with the seasons. Songs and distinctively choreographed dance are integral parts of Ho culture and art, [16] [23] as well as important parts of their traditional festivals, especially Mage Parab. Most villages have a dedicated dancing ground, called akhra, usually consisting of a cleared space of hard ground under a spreading tree. Dances are organised on a staggered basis in the villages so that other villagers can participate. Traditional Ho music incorporates native instruments including a dama (drum), dholak, dumeng (mandar), and the rutu (flute). [16]

The Ho people brew handia, called by them diyeng.

In the 2001 national census, 91% of the Hos declared that they professed "other religions and persuations", meaning that they do not consider themselves to belong to any of the major religious groups and follow their indigenous religious systems called "Sarna" or Sarnaism. [4] Also known as sarna dhorom ("religion of the holy woods"), this religion plays an important part in the life of adivasi. [24] Their beliefs in gods, goddesses and spirits are ingrained in them from childhood. The religion of the Hos resembles, to a great extent that of Santhals, Oraons, Mundas, and other tribal people in the region. All religious rituals are performed by a village priest known as a deuri. However, he is not required to propitiate malevolent spirits or deities. The spirit doctor deowa takes care of this. [17]

Position of women Edit

Houlton writes, "I do not want to give the impression, by mentioning occasional divergences from the straight and narrow path, that aboriginals are immoral. On the contrary, their standards of post-marital morality and fidelity are probably a good deal higher than in some races that claim to be more civilised. The status of women is high. Wives are partners and companions to their husbands. It is even whispered that hen-pecked husbands are not uncommon among the tribesmen." [16]

There is a system of payment of bride-price amongst the Hos. The bride-price is often a status symbol and in modern times it remains not more than 101-1001 rupees. As a result, many Ho girls remain unmarried till advanced age. [16] Among the total Ho population, females outnumber the males. [4]

Almost half the population is engaged in cultivation and another one third also work as land-less agricultural labourers. [4] The Hos, along with Santals, Oraons and Mundas, are comparatively more advanced, and have taken to settled cultivation as their mode of life. [23]

The discovery of iron ore in Ho territory opened the way for the first iron ore mine in India at Pansira Buru in 1901. [25] Over the years iron ore mining spread out in the area. Many Hos are engaged in mining work but that does not add up to any sizeable percentage. However, small, well planned mining towns dotting the territory have brought the Ho people in close touch with the good and bad aspects of urbanization. Some of the prominent mining towns in the area are Chiria, Gua, Noamundi and Kiriburu.

Sal (Shorea robusta) is the most important tree in the area and it seems to have a preference for the rocky soil there. Although sal is a deciduous tree and sheds its leaves in early summer, the forest undergrowth is generally evergreen, which has such trees as mangoes, jamun, jackfruit, and piar. Other important trees are mahua, kusum, tilai, harin hara (Armossa rohitulea), gular (Fiscus glomerata), asan. The Singhbhum forests are best in the Kolhan area in the south-west of the district. [23] The lives of Ho people have long been intertwined with sal forests and there is a strong resentment against the efforts of timber merchants to replace sal forests with teak plantations.

The reserved forests are the haunt of many animals. Wild elephants are common in Saranda (literally meaning seven hundred hills) and Porahat forests. Herds of sambar and chital roam about the forests. Bison is still found (locally extinct when a study was undertaken in 2005 by Kisor Chaudhuri FRGS). Tigers were never numerous but they are there (locally extinct when a study was undertaken in 2005 by Kisor Chaudhuri FRGS). Leopards are more common. The Hos are keen hunters and have practically exterminated game in Kolhan. They organise great battues, in which thousands of people join. They beat their drums in a huge circle, and gradually close in over hills and across forests, driving the wild animals on to a central point, on to which lines of hunters converge until the animals are surrounded and slaughtered. [16]

As per the 2011 census, the literacy rate for the Ho population was around 44.7% for all and 33.1% for women, much lower than the Jharkhand averages of 66.4% for all and 55.4% for women. [26]

In order to help increase the literacy rates, the government announced in 2016 that it had designed text books to teach Hindi and mathematics in Ho. [10] In 2017 those textbooks were made available on the central government's e-library platform. [11] In a 2016 effort to help promote tribal languages Tata Steel, a private company, began teaching the Ho language on weekends to dropout schoolgirls at a "camp school" in Naomundi. [27] As of November 2016, 100 girls were enrolled in the camp school. The company has also run private Ho language centres in East Singhbhum, West Singhbhum and Seraikela-Kharsawan districts since 2011. Approximately 6000 people have underwent Ho language and Warang Chiti script training in these centres. [28] In 2017 the government of Jharkhand announced it would soon begin teaching five- and six-year-old primary school students in their local language in order to help reduce the high dropout rate. [12] Among the Hos, 19.7% have completed schooling and 3.1% are graduates. [4] The percentage of school-going children in the age group 5 –14 years was 37.6. [4]


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