Saturday, January 27, 2007

Raigad Dairies II - Tribal instinct

Part II – Tribal instinct

Tomorrow promised to be more antiquated and I could not have been more exited to experience it. …

The most pleasant revelation, when I woke up next morning, was the difference in the air. It was much more clean and fresh. My asthmatic lungs were overjoyed. It was a welcome change from the carbon monoxide spewing city that challenged their very existence. I wonder what makes people leave this serenity to migrate to ugly, congested and brutal cities, more on this later.

If there is one thing that I am grateful for in the city, then it has to be sanitation and the toilet. My morning dilemma was complexed with the thought of ‘doing the dirty’ out in the open. Even though some may romanticize the whole ‘being one with nature, when nature calls’ thing, I for once was skeptical.

Armed with toilet paper (yes, couldn’t help it…) and water we scouted the area. We walked for what seemed like an eternity till an apt zone with enough foliage to camouflage our deed, was selected. After we scoped out the area for snake holes and other insects, it was time.

To avoid further onslaught on one’s senses, I won’t delve into the details. But yes, it is an interesting experience nonetheless. An act and an amenity that we almost take for granted. It is a must for those who feel secured in their claustrophobic walls, to sense this vulnerability. It is disconcerting yet intrinsically human, organic.

Who knew shitting could be so difficult!!!


The trek to Kelat from Varathi was brutal, a 3 hour long walk through a rocky terrain. The steep slopes and treacherous climb up a hill took a toll on all of us, but we persevered. Some of us harden by daily field work found it relatively easier. The view from the top was magnificent. As though nature’s blue prints were laid out in front of us.

The sun spewed its anger, smiting flesh that dared to challenge it. Saddled with a heavy bag breathing became a task in itself.

This is the exact route that the adivasis take to reach rationing shops to get their groceries, medical clinics and to seek other necessities. A river runs through the middle of the route, which becomes hostile in the monsoons. A fallen tree acts like a bridge to cross across the stream. They traverse this distance, carrying their sick and even pregnant women to the clinic in Roha.

We reached the outskirts of the village and were greeted by a small water reservoir, which was a sight for sore eyes. Also, there was a huge land mass covered in greenery, a vegetable patch, I was informed by Ganesh, which was a sharp contrast against the brown contorting terrain. Like an emerald set on a golden broche, it gleamed with pride.

There at last

We were greeted with eager eyes and shy, gingerly smiles. I was first taken aback by the warmth and friendliness of the people. I remembered the hostile, territorial faces back in the city, ready to snap at an inkling of perceived invasion of privacy. Here, there were open doors, open houses, open faces and open smiles.

We kept our bags in a room allotted to us and proceeded to explore the area, talk to the people.
The poverty was conspicuous but so was pride, in their way of life. I felt slapped in the face by reality. It was time to wake up.

Laxman’s story

We gathered under a huge Mango tree in the middle of on open field, to begin our session of discussion and sharing experiences. Laxman Sutak, a tribal youth and Sarvahara karyakarta for seven years now, joined us. He is a 3rd generation tribal, as far he can remember or knows. He narrated his experiences and of his community to us. We were later joined by the elders of the village.

The Khot (Zamindar/ Landlord), Kulkarni duped the villagers and acquired their land. He initially lived in Roha and established a coal mine around Kelat. He lived in Kelat for a while under the hospitality provided by the indigenous people.

When a survey was carried out to establish land ownership, he made the officials believe that he was the true owner thus confiscating tribal land. He made the adivasis labour in the fields for a majoori of 15-20 rupees.

Also, he initiated a ‘makta’ system, revenue (tax) earned on the crops, where he decided a particular percentage of quintals to be given to him. Even though the farmers were not sufficient grains for survival, they had to pay the tax.

He exploited the people and beat them up on a regular basis to a point, Laxman says, that getting beaten cruelly or being raped became a routine. The complex relationship that the tribals shared with zamindars made it difficult for them to rebel. They depended on him to bail them out if caught by the police, for their sustenance and survival. He had a strangle hold on their psyche and every aspect of their life. To go to a doctor, lawyer or police they required his consent.

Initially 150 families lived in Kelat, now only 50 remain, as most have left due to the rampant exploitation.

Sarvahara worked on empowering the local people to fight for their rights. A police complaint was lodged against the landlord. It was decided that for 1 year ‘makta’ would not be paid. Also they demanded right to own their land.

He was booked under Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989, but was immediately released on bail. Two trucks full of people from neighbouring villages and the landlords touts, tried to remove the villagers from their land. The fight got violent and they were hitting the villagers and beat up two women mercilessly. Ulkatai called up the police and demanded immediate action. Till they came, the violence continued.

Laxman tells us of a similar struggle when he was small, in which his father was mercilessly beaten by the Khot (landlord). He died a month later, due to the injuries incurred. His mother told him about the incident as he was just a little boy then.

At this point I began to wonder about the relevance of my own reality. We use words like “life”, “death” and “survival” as rhetoric, but these are questions intrinsic to their daily existence.

To be continued

Monday, January 22, 2007

Raigad Dairies I

Part I – A reflection

I visited a tribal hamlet “Kelat Wadi” as a part of a workshop. Looking back in retrospect, I feel such rural exposure visits are a must for city slickers like me. It puts life in perspective.

I stared at the myriad specks of light; they never did shine so brightly. Adjusting myself, rather uncomfortably, I looked straight into the darkness surrounding us. Ronald, Sanket, Sagar and I decided to rough it out, get a feel of the outdoors. We lay in our sleeping bags and blankets, telling dirty jokes contemplating the impending morning dew which would add to the penetrating chill.

It was the first time I slept in a chawdi (village courtyard), vulnerable to the environment around me, free from the ubiquitous walls. The star filled sky mocked my limited vision, as if to signify the mysteries that lay beyond my comprehension. It is a very humbling experience, subtle yet effective.

I began my journey on the 11th of January, with a group of students mainly from Nirmala Niketan and Tata Institute of Social Sciences. It takes 6-7 hours to reach Roha station from VT (It still remains VT for me). I wondered what lay ahead of me. Ronald Rebello, friend and a social activist, briefed me about our itinerary for the next two days. From Roha we would move to Taregarh, a small village, were we would stay in the community school and local temple. The next morning we take a bus to Varathi and then begin the long trek to the small tribal hamlet, Kelat Wadi.

Some of the students were placed here as a part of their field work and were the coordinators of the trip. Many were and still are associated with the local people’s movement active in Raigad called “Sarvahara Jan Andolan”, spear headed by the fire-brand activist Ulka Mahajan, since 1990. Kelat was one of the villages that were assisted by Sarvahara (literally, one who has lost everything) in solving their socio-cultural problems and was “liberated” as one of the locals put it.

Katkari – a brief intro

Ganesh Sodaye
, TISS student and associated with the movement for 10 years, filled me in with the history of the movement and the social structure prevalent in Kelat. The sangathan actually started functioning from August, 1990. The three adivasi tribes residing in Kelat are Thakar, Warli and a majority of them Katkari.

The traditional occupation of making ‘kaat’ (used in paan, made from betel leaf) from Khair trees which gave them the name Katkari was inadequate for sustenance as the forests depleted. Not having any special skills in farming, the Katkari were alienated from the mainstream and were forced to migrate to seek work for livelihood. This led their exploitation as the contractors took advantage of the landless, jobless labourers and trapped them in a vicious cycle of debt-bondage over the years.

Six months of migration leaves the children largely uneducated growing up on wisdom that comes from surviving on the fringes of life. Schools and formal education are not a part of their world. Daily meals constitute of bhakri (thick bread), rice and if possible some watery dal. Until sometime ago, his expectations were limited to these bare essentials for his survival.

The perennial instability and faced consistently with treachery, it has become difficult for this community to put their trust in anyone. Sarvahara took a holistic approach to their problems and worked on the principle of empowering the adivasis to fight their own battles. This has led to a radical change in the social and cultural life of this community.

The community dynamics are very complex, Ganesh explained. Hierarchically, the Thakars occupy the top position amongst adivasis, followed by the Warli’s and the lowest being Katkari’s. The Dhor Katkari, a non-vegetarian section is looked down on by the Son Katkari, largely vegetarians. This presumably happened due to the Hindu cultural influences specific to this region where pure vegetarian Brahmins are generally considered more pious than meat eaters. The divisions persist but are gradually on a wane.

Journey continues

We approach our destination in Taregarh. Sheilatai, a local activist, helps us find accommodation. Due to the community service done here by Sarvahara and the group we are allowed to stay in the school and the village temple, both modest places in terms of space.

Here we could see influences of the Hindu religion on the indigenous place of worship. Tribal Gods now had Hindu deities for company, a recent development I am informed, due to cultural proximity of the two.

We end our day, under the watchful eye of the local deity. I see a big lizard crawling on the wall, not the most comforting sight. Also, a dog keeps barking all night, ensuring that I was beady eyed and drowsy next morning. In the silence of the night, rumbling of a truck could be heard. Tomorrow promised to be more antiquated and I could not have been more exited to experience it.

to be continued...

Point of origin

I do not wish to write, but my silence stifles me.

It has been a month since I entered my personal musings, mundane ramblings or general thoughts in these pages. The ‘sabbatical’ has left me with more questions than answers. Then again, I suppose that is a good thing.

I intend to be far more honest in this space than before. Instead of skimming the surface of deep rooted thought which I may not have necessarily expressed are open to scrutiny. It renders a disturbing feeling, but is immensely satisfying at the same time.

I began this year by traveling and being in the most unlikely places that one would find me in. Amongst people! I begin my writings by trying to recall my experiences during the same.