Vanishing Tribes of Jharkhand
A three-part series
Cut off from roots, Jharkhand's endangered tribes battle against all odds to survive
The reddish tinge of the soil is unmistakable. And the picture-postcard beauty of the countryside as the road meanders through dense forests in Jharkhand’s Pat region, which straddles Gumla and Latehar districts.
Dotted with deep ravines and hills rich in bauxite – which gives the colour to the soil – this region is also home to some of the most endangered tribes in the country: Birjias, Birhors, Korwa, Parhaiyas and Asurs. The area of their concentration is around 150 km from capital Ranchi and an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Bishunpur.
Along with a few other tribes like the Savar, Mal Paharia and Sauria Paharia – settled in other remote pockets across the state -- these eight form the particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs) of Jharkhand.But after decades of half-hearted government intervention to rehabilitate the vulnerable tribes as settled communities, they have been reduced to just another poor section of society, lacking access to even the basic human needs like proper healthcare.
Their categorisation is based on their dwindling numbers, low literacy levels and the threat of extinction looming over their spoken languages. The PVTG category consists of 75 communities across the country.
To top it all, all these tribes are wallowing in extreme poverty due to erosion of their traditional livelihood.
These eight tribes were once nomadic forest-based hunting tribes but were later virtually forced by the government to settle down in remote pockets – arguably with neither the freedom of hunter-gatherers nor the skills of an industrial labour force.
29-year-old Vimal Asur, the first of his tribe to contest assembly elections in the state, explained the conundrum.
“With our land and forests snatched way, our traditional lifestyle is gone. On the other hand, we do not have the required skills and education to be a part of the modern industrial workforce. Thus, we are struck somewhere midway doing menial work or marginal farming and getting exploited,” said Vimal, who was fielded by the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik). He, however, lost the polls.
The 2011 census threw up startling numbers of these tribes –a mere 6,000 of Birjias left in the state, the number of Savars stood at 9,000. The population of other tribes ranged from 10, 000 to 1.35 lakh.
The UNESCO has already put Asur, Birhor and Korwa in its list of world’s endangered languages while Birhor has been tagged as “critically endangered” with just 2,000 speakers left.
Experts said that forest regulations imposed during colonial times infringed upon the PVTG’s rights over forest products and eroded their societies.
Activists pointed out that non-implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 has added to the age-old woes of the forest-based tribes.
“The issue of vulnerable tribes facing extinction can be addressed considerably with the implementation of Forest Rights Act because it basically returns to them the rights over forest products which they have lost over time. The Act can help develop a sustainable livelihood for them,” said Birendra Kumar of the Naya Sawera Vikas Kendra, an organisation working for tribals in Jharkhand.
Vimal Soren, a social worker in Dumka district, said that on occasions Paharias have to carry their ill brethren on shoulders for over 50 km through hilly terrain for medical attention.
Salomi Horo, a government medical officer in Gumla district, said that infrastructural issues and lack of staff members at community health centres often come in the way of extending basic healthcare to these vulnerable tribes.
Ramesh Sharan, head of the department of economics in Ranchi University, felt that “whether the state should attempt at modernising the tribes is a different debate altogether, but once it has attempted at settling them, now providing basic rights like health and food are a must.”
Activists have questioned the very rationale behind forcing nomadic forest dwellers into settled communities and said the tribes should have the autonomy to decide how and where they want to live and what kind of a life they want to pursue.
“How can we pressurise communities into becoming like us leaving behind their traditional lifestyle? Who are we to say that? Who are we to decide?” asked Philip Kujur, a social worker based in Ranchi.
Changing times: In Jharkhand's hinterland Asur tribe loses its traditional skills to modernity
Laldeo Asur passes his days basking in the mellow winter sun, his 70-year-old body now too frail for the rigours of village life.
But it is not his advancing age he is too concerned about but the advance of modernity on his tribe, the Asurs.
Laldeo knows that after him there will be none to practice a traditional technology for iron smelting, a craft perfected by his forefathers but grown obsolete and economically unviable in an age of modern steel plants.
As a matter of fact, Laldeo is among the 22,000-odd left of the Asurs, one of the eight particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs) in Jharkhand. The Unesco has listed the Asur language as “definitely endangered” with only 7,000 speakers left.
“Our hunting, our economy and even our festivities were interlinked to iron smelting. Today, everything is gone,” Laldeo said, his weather-beaten face contorting in anguish.
More than half of the tribe is now settled down in several hamlets in the Pat region of the mineral-rich Chota Nagpur plateau, on the border of Maoist-hit Latehar and Gumla districts. Polpol Path is around 200 km west of capital Ranchi.
The Asurs were once hunter-gatherers whose life was closely linked to the forests they lived in. However, when the British enacted the Indian Forest Act in 1865, several tribes like the Asurs were cut off from their roots as the legislation restricted the use of forest-based products.
After independence, the Indian government too virtually forced these nomadic tribes to settle down and adopt an agrarian lifestyle.
“We needed forest wood to produce the charcoal we used in smelting iron. Once access to the forest was restricted, our forefathers began searching for different means of sustenance and we Asurs began moving towards an agrarian society,” said Yogeshwar Asur, another resident of Polpol Path.
Laldeo explained that their smelting method included putting crushed stones rich in iron ore and charcoal in a cylindrical furnace which is then fanned by deer-skin bellows. The iron was then used to make farming tools and household items and sold in nearby rural markets.
But today none of the tribesmen earn a living by making iron products and the younger Asurs have started working in the numerous bauxite mines in the hills of the Pat region. Some have even turned cultivators and agricultural labourers.
But even decades after independence, half-baked initiatives of successive governments to uplift their lot have failed.
The Asurs still live in mud houses with roofs made of paddy straw and baked, curved mud tiles known as khapras. Power supply is restricted to a few hours in the day but there is no mobile phone network.
The nearest community health centre is 50km away while villagers have to trudge for more than four km up and down a steep, narrow route to get potable water.
According to the Asurs – who worship the forests as a life-giving force – the big mining companies have been exploiting resources from their land but never bothered to give anything back.
“It is the business of only taking and not giving back anything. If only a few small-scale industries employing more tribals would have come up, we Asurs could have developed our skills and got better opportunities,” said Subhash Asur, a young man who works in a bauxite mine.
As government schemes fail, Jharkhand's vulnerable Birhor tribe continues to languish
At the end of a kuchcha road that meanders off the Ranchi-Patna highway, where silver dust from stone quarries sits on practically everything, Tilra village stands like an ancient monolith – crying to tell its story.
It is the story of the Birhors, one of the eight tribes of Jharkhand categorised as particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs) who were forced to leave their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle and adapt to a modern way of life.
It is the story of Ratni Birhor, whose “starvation death” in September, 2011 at the age of 55 had caught the state’s attention, triggered outrage and prompted government interventions.
For a tribe with just 10,000-odd left in the world and who have no skills to use for earning a livelihood, when even social security schemes fail, death like Ratni’s become commonplace.
“Ratni Birhor’s death threw up a lot of questions that authorities didn’t want to face. It exposed the loopholes in the implementation of policies meant to benefit the vulnerable tribal groups,” said Gopi Nath Ghosh, a Ranchi-based human rights activist.
Nath, who had led a fact-finding team to Tilra, had filed a complaint with the Jharkhand Lokayukta.
Earlier in October 2008, at another Birhor settlement in Chatra district, eight persons -- four women, two men and three children -- died in a single night under mysterious circumstances which the authorities at that time had brushed off as food poisoning.
Later, however, a Supreme Court-appointed official had confirmed that the deaths had occurred due to starvation.
At Tilra, 150 km north of capital Ranchi, Ratni’s husband Bhola awaits what he calls his “final re-union” with his long-gone wife.
His 60-year-old body partially paralysed after a bout of severe ailment, Bhola’s condition is a reflection of the condition of his entire tribe – unable to live, unable to die.
In this village, around 50-odd huts stand besides brick houses built by the state —a reminder of the government’s efforts to transform the once-nomadic tribe into a settled community.
But after the houses were built, the authorities forgot the Birhors.
Gopi Nath Ghosh’s team discovered that “Ratni’s MNREGA job card was empty; she had not received even a single day’s work”.
“Food grain supply to the village under TPDS was also not functional. Moreover, Tilra villagers were not getting pension and access to health facilities,” he added.
In a recent order, the Lokayukta acknowledged shortcomings in implementation of government policies for the Birhors of Tilra and proposed setting-up of a committee to monitor the same.
Tilra villagers admitted that food grain supply and access to healthcare facilities have improved since Ratni’s death but they also pointed to the government-built houses to highlight the state of affairs.
“Many of the houses here do not have doors. We use clothes or tin sheets to cover the space provided for the door to shield ourselves from wind and rain,” said Meena, a Birhor woman who makes ropes from strands of jute or plastic plucked out of used bags.
This winter the district administration provided blankets to the families but villagers asked what would a family of ten do with one quilt.
More serious is the fact that the authorities have not renewed the house allotments, forcing the elderly to shift back to traditional houses to make space for the younger generation in the government-built houses.
The development officer of Ichak block Ram Gopal Pandey was tight-lipped in his response to questions on implementation of welfare schemes in the Birhor village. He, however, said that blankets were distributed to the families according to their sizes and pension was regularly paid to the villagers.
“Regarding the doors and other housing problems, I have not been notified by the villagers,” he added.
For the Birhor community settled in hamlets near the ‘steel city’ of Bokaro, the problem lies in the lack of employment opportunities. This, they said, is forcing the youth to migrate to other states despite many acquiring job-oriented skills at the Industrial Training Institute (ITI).
“It is a new government in the state and we hope that something would be done for us,” said Mantu Birhor, one of the youngsters from Dumri village who studied in Bokaro ITI.
(With inputs from Sanjay Sahay in Bokaro)
This three-part series was published on the Hindustan Times (National Edition and Online) from January 1-3, 2015. All rights reserved.