Particularly vulnerable Adivasi speak of despair, hunger at tech “disruption” of social schemes

mgdoybjewn-1544705794
Parhaiya Adivasi families arrived for a public hearing at Manika, Latehar

Jirua Parhaian and Dhaneshwar Parhaiya sat in front of the large crowd that had gathered to take stock of the effectiveness of public schemes in Jharkhand’s Manika block, under which which their village falls. They belong to the Parhaiya Adivasi community, which is classified as a “particularly vulnerable tribal group”. The elderly couple listened quietly while government officials acknowledged the problems that have prevented Parhaiya Adivasis from availing of government schemes meant for them.

Both were frail and walked with difficulty. But they had traveled to Manika, the block centre, 15 km from their village Uchvabal, to attend the meeting because they faced a dire predicament. “There is not enough food at home,” said Jirua Parhaian. She and her husband went to bed hungry at least a few nights every month. “Our ration card was cut without any explanation three years ago,” she said.

The couple had carried with them their Aadhaar card bearing the 12-digit unique identity number attached to their biometric data that the government wants all Indian residents to have. They submitted the number to a kiosk manned by government staff at the public hearing. “What more do we have to do to get our rations of rice started again?” asked Dhaneshwar Parhaiya.

108039-sxaeceorvz-1544706287
Jirua Parhaian and her husband Dhaneshwar Parhaiya whose ration cards have been cut off without any explanation, making it harder for them to afford all meals.

The government recognises Adivasis such as the Parhaiya and 70 other communities as particularly vulnerable tribal groups because of their precarious economic condition and dwindling populations.

These communities are also entitled to Antodaya ration cards meant for the “poorest of the poor”, which entitles them to 35 kg of rice at Re 1 per kg every month under the National Food Security Act. But they continue to face dire hunger and malnutrition.

In Jharkhand, which is going through a period of drought, these families are falling through the cracks in the absence of adequate social protection. A survey in November conducted among 324 Parhaiya households living in 15 villages in Latehar district found nearly 43% of the families had missed meals in the last three months because there was no food at home. The survey was carried out by National Rural Employment Guarantee Act Sahayata Kendras and Gram Swaraj Mazdor Sangh activists. The survey also showed that though the government has aggressively pushed Aadhaar as a way of streamlining welfare schemes and improving access to social security by providing everyone with an identity document, ground reality was different.

It found that Aadhaar, in fact, acted as a barrier to accessing social schemes. For instance, the survey found that 42% of Parhaiya families surveyed faced problems due to Aadhaar in the form of data entry errors, network glitches, biometric authentication failures or complications related to their failure to complete Know Your Customer norms for banks far removed from their hamlets.

Left out of social security
Traditionally, Parhaiya Adivasis survived by collecting forest produce such as honey and mahua flowers, roots such as gethia and kanda, and by making bamboo brooms, said Mahavir Parhaiya, an activist in Latehar district, which Manika block is part of. “But the dense forests are now gone,” he said. “The government made forests into plantations, handing them to contractors. Now our people struggle to find the jadi[roots] or saag[vegetables] that we survived on.”

This is one of the reasons why the community is dependent on government support to eat.

At the public hearing, several Adivasi families described corruption in schemes meant for them. Those who had ration cards said they frequently received less grain than they were entitled to despite having Aadhaar, which the government had introduced in the public distribution system in order to end pilferage.

Nearly a dozen Parhaiya women from Uchvabal and Pagar villages said they received only 30 kg or 31 kg of rice every month instead of their 35 kg entitlement. “After the surveyors came to the village, for the first time, yesterday the ration dealer Dinesh Rai gave [me] 35 kg rice,” Sugiya Devi told local officials at the hearing. She said the ration dealer had followed a “tin” system for years. “He fills two tins with ration and says we have got only this much,” she said. The tins were filled with grain and weighed at the meeting, while officials watched. They weighed only 31 kg.

The delivery of rations in tins also violates a system the Jharkhand government has put in place to ensure that families from particularly vulnerable tribal groups got their full entitlements, without any pilferage. Under the dakiya or post system, the ration dealer is required to deliver monthly food rations to such households at their doorsteps in sealed sacks clearly marked for such groups.

Read the full report here.

ngkxvtrhze-1544705921
Dasiya Kunwar Parhaian said the customer service center kiosk operator meant to connect the residents to government services online demanded a bribe of Rs 2,000 for her pension application.

In December 2017, several Adivasi and Dalit families living in the same district, Latehar, at a public hearing in Manika block had described the problem of how their subsidised food rations had been abruptly stopped. The government in Jharkhand, like in several other states, had in 2017 asked for all ration cards to be linked with Aadhaar and mandated that only card holders whose fingerprints are authenticated online from the Aadhaar database would get subsidised grain.

DQhciWeVwAEZoeZ.jpg large
Jirmunya Parhaiyan, Sumati Kunwar, Dasiya Kunwar, all Parhaiya PTG Adivasi, from Rankikala and Sedhra who could not access rice rations after Aadhaar linking errors, at the right to food public hearing at Manika in December 2017.

Advertisements

Radha Devi: Managing maladies in Bhuiantola

A path winding through paddy fields led to Bhuiantola, a hamlet where Bhuian Dalit families lived, on the outskirts of Tarwadih village in Jharkhand’s Latehar district.

That month, eight individuals in Tarwadih were on treatment for tuberculosis(TB), a serious bacterial infection that most commonly affects the lungs. Four of them lived in Bhuiantola.

The previous night, Radha Devi, the village sahiya or frontline health worker, an Accredited Social Health Activist(ASHA) had finished helping a woman delivery a baby in the hamlet. Now, walking down the paved path, she called out to Ramavtar Ram who was working in the fields. “Nine number” medicine is over for you. You will be on “CP” from now on,” she told Ram, a farmer in his 50s who was afflicted with TB, and had grown leaner from the infection.

Sahiya Radha Devi1 (1)
Devi did not train as a doctor or a nurse, and studied till only class IV. As one of over 1,325 health activist appointed under the National Health Mission’s community health programme in Latehar, she had supervised Ram’s TB treatment and infection control for the last six months. “I am not fully literate, but I can recognize the medicines as a number or an alphabet in the drug’s name,” said Devi, explaining how she had memorized the long, complicated names in english, an unfamiliar language, of 13 drugs used in TB treatment.

TB is fully curable by antibiotics taken for six months. Yet, India accounts for a quarter of new cases of TB infection, and a fifth of TB deaths worldwide. In Jharkhand, nearly 40 people die of TB every day.The government recognizes those living in remote tribal districts who get poor nutrition and face difficulty in accessing treatment as a priority group for reducing TB transmission.

Crucial infrastructure is absent in Jharkhand’s Adivasi villages. Dr Rajabau Yole a World Health Organization TB consultant in Jharkhand said that though every community health center was supposed to have a X-ray machine for radiological examinations and a courier system to transport sputum samples that needed to be tested for TB, this was missing in most districts.

There is also a major shortfall of doctors. Dr Raksh Dayal, Jharkhand’s state TB officer, said that the state had only 2,200 of the 3,400 doctors and about half of other contractual health staff it needed, and this affected the TB treatment programme. In Latehar, where Tarwadih lies, for instance, in the district TB hospital, 13 of 23 posts were vacant, including the post of a medical officer for TB, which had not been filled since five years.

In such a situation, health workers like Radha Devi filled a vital gap.
Latehar, where Bhuiantola lies, is one of the poorest Adivasi regions in Jharkhand. The families here are especially vulnerable also because they migrate to work in brick kilns in Varanasi in UP, and Aurangabad in Bihar when the paddy produce is exhausted in a few months. Working in kilns, they are exposed to smoke which damages the lungs, and reduces immunity to infections such as TB.

Sahiya Radha Devi counseling women in Tarwadih in Latehar (1)
“Many migrant workers hide it if they develop TB, and often they take medicines for only 3 to 4 months and do not complete the treatment,” said Ramesh Chaubey, Latehar’s district welfare officer.

Radha Devi, who was chosen as the sahiya in 2007 by the village’s residents while she was in her late 40s, had worked in brick kilns most of her life. The labour contractors offered sums of Rs 10,000-12,000 as “advances”, she said, and this was a big draw, but later did not pay regular wages. “At the kiln sites, away from towns, there are no health facilities,” said Devi. “Many workers develop alcoholism at the kilns. Some do not like the taste of the medicines, and some worry about adverse side effects. All these are the reasons why they do not complete treatment.”

Of the eight TB patients in Tarwadih, whom Devi was administering treatment to, Bartu Oraon, an Oraon Adivasi, was undergoing treatment for a relapsed infection. Mohan Bhuian, a brick kiln worker, had developed Multi Drug Resistant(MDR) TB, a more deadly form of TB infection, that develops if a patient gets incomplete or inadequate treatment. In MDR-TB, two of the most powerful TB drugs stop working. Those with MDR-TB can transmit this deadlier form infection to others in close contact through air droplets in the same way as regular TB. MDR-TB is treated with highly toxic drugs over a protracted two years period.

Devi said to control the spread of infection, she had been trained by the staff at the TB hospital in Latehar to ask ask patients to spit in a pan and cover it with ash. “I ask them to take precautions, to use ash to cover their spit, or cough only into a gamcha and boil it in water to prevent further infection,” said Devi. “If they don’t like the aftertaste of the drugs, I even buy them small packets of namkeen with the drug,” she said, showing a small packet of snacks she had carried for a patient. She had also been counseling Neetu Devi, a young farm workers, who had recently delivered a boy, that while she had TB she had to cover her mouth while breastfeeding to prevent the infection from spreading to her baby.

Seeta Bhuian, whose husband Mohan Bhuian had the most serious infection in the village with MDR-TB, said Mohan had taking TB drugs irregularly for five years while migrating to work at the kilns and over time, he had got so sick that he could no longer stand. After he was diagnosed with MDR-TB last year, Bhuian had to take 13 medicines and an injection daily for six months and since the last three months, he had been on seven drugs daily.

“The sahiya came home to give him the medicines daily,” said Seeta Bhuian, Mohan’s wife. She added that Radha Devi had also traveled with Bhuian twice to Itki, 110 kilometers away. This is where the government ran a TB sanatorium, an indoor facility where Bhuian had been diagnosed with MDR-TB.

After nine months of treatment, Bhuian had recovered enough strength to walk, and had taken the cattle grazing that afternoon. But his family was anxious and concerned because one of the medicines, Kanamycin, had had a severe adverse effect on him making him lose his hearing four months into the treatment.

Radha Devi with Mohan Bhuian who is on treatment for Multi drug resistant TB in Tarwadih in Latehar (1)
Radha Devi had traveled with Bhuian to Itki while he was in the most infectious state, accompanied by his younger relatives. “At the sanatorium, the doctor told us the medicines were so toxic that they could make Mohan depressed, paralyzed, or deaf,” she said. “Sadly, I have seen Mohan go through all of these stages this year.”

After getting Mohan Bhuian admitted, Radha Devi had traveled over a 100 kilometers from her village to Itki a second time to act as his counselor when he started developing side effects. “Mohan called me on the phone and said he felt he was going to go mad,” she said. “I was scared I may get lost while traveling alone from our village, but somehow I managed to get to the city. I felt like he was my son and was worried.” For her travel costs, Mohan Bhuian had later reimbursed her Rs 400, after the government hospital staff did not pay her anything for the trip.

As a sahiya or ASHA worker, Devi is supposed to get Rs 100 as “incentive” for each TB case that she reported, but she said she had not received any payments till now.

Devi added that she had heard that the government had promised to double the honorarium of ASHA workers and other ground health and nutrition staff this year. “I have heard ASHA will get paid high amounts of honorarium totaling Rs 3,500-5,000 a month for the work we do,” said Devi. But in the past 16 months, there had been delays in sanctioning sahiya payments, said Suranjeen Pallipamula, a health activist in Ranchi.

“For more than a year now, I have not got paid anything,” said Devi.

An edited version of the story in The Hindu Sunday Magazine here.

All photographs by Manob Chowdhury.

In Jharkhand, more militarization following tribal farmers’ pathalgadi assertion

IMG_5768.jpg
It was dusk, the time that farmers usually return home after working in the paddy fields. But the hamlet of Uduburu in eastern Indian state of Jharkhand was deserted. The village square was empty and the mud huts had locks on the doors.
It was only after darkness fell that a few women cautiously came out to draw water from a hand pump at the entrance to the village. Lucia Soy, a tall gaunt middle-aged woman, spoke in Mundari, the language spoken by the local Munda tribe, explaining that the villagers had gone into hiding fearing police action.
Thousands of people from across several villages in the area have been accused in criminal cases by the police for agitating against alleged forceful land acquisition of their farm and pasturelands.
“On several successive nights last month, the police came to the village and started beating anyone they could find,” she said. “They did not spare even domestic animals. They thrashed our pigs in anger when they did not find the men.”
Maga Purty, an elderly woman, said the security forces had thrown the rice she had cooked on the floor, and took away her blankets and her farm tools. “They locked me inside my hut while they beat my son outside,” she said.
After the violent police raids on their and neighbouring hamlets, the farmers had fled to the forest, and remained in hiding for nearly a month, the women said, missing the window of sowing paddy in their fields. They are now struggling to resume work.
Several women and men had slowly gathered around the water pump. In the faint light of a torch, they showed injuries and swellings on their feet from the police beatings that had not healed even after weeks.

An assertion
The hamlet of Uduburu in Khunti district lies near the birthplace of Birsa Munda, an Adivasi (indigenous) community leader who had led a guerrilla resistance against the British colonial rulers in the 19th century. Birsa is now a nationalist icon, and many state institutions are named after him, including Jharkhand’s main airport in the capital, Ranchi.
Uduburu is also the home of Joseph Purty, a teacher at the government college, who over the past one year led a movement for a boycott of all government institutions against alleged forceful acquisition of tribal lands for “development work” – an euphemism for industrial or mining projects.
Hundreds of farmers joined in the demand doing “bittdiri”, or “pathalgadi”, which means carving stones, a centuries-old Munda tradition in which the community engraves stone monoliths to mark significant milestones in the village.
The farmers organised ceremonies in which they carved the constitutional provisions on tribal autonomy on large rocks, and erected these at the entrance to the hamlets.
But the assertion by the Munda farmers that the government follow the laws and the constitution’s special provisions granting self governance in predominantly tribal areas such as Khunti has drawn the ire of the state.
Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das has promised to crush the movement, while the police launched crackdown on defiant farmers.

IMG_5706 
Criminal cases
Between February and July, more than 3,300 farmers, including the heads of the gram sabha (village assemblies), and unnamed farmers, have been charged under the section 124 (A) of Indian Penal Code or the law of sedition. 
Those found guilty under the colonial era law may face up to three years in prison.
First Information Reports (formal police complaint) was filed in March, invoking charges of sedition and rioting for “wrongly interpreting the constitution”, and for demanding the administration remove police and paramilitary camps from Kevada and other villages.
More than 2,000 paramilitary forces were deployed in the area, stated the district police superintendent. Now, over 300 security personnel are camping in schools in Khunti’s interior villages, forcing students to drop out.
The police have also registered several criminal complaints against Joseph Purty, the college teacher in Uduburu. He was also named along with other youth from pathalgadi movement in a complaint of gangrape filed by five women on June 21. One of the rape victims has since stated in a news interview that she did not name Purty or any other pathalgadi movement leaders in her complaint, but their names were added later by the police, raising questions about the police investigation in the rape case.
Purty, who is in his late forties, and his wife, a teacher in a local government school, are currently on the run.
Khunti Superintendent of Police AK Sinha declined to speak on the rape investigation. But he justified sedition cases against the tribal farmers. “These tribals were not merely installing stone edicts,” he said, adding “they were inciting people” and “insulting officials who visited the villages”. saying that the governor and the chief minister are public servants.” 
“The farmers were demanding that tribal farmers arrested between February and August this year be released from prison, merely on orders of their gram sabha (village assemblies). They were threatening to not allow entry to diku (outsiders) into the village even if they had to use force, and claiming they will raise their own armies.” 

On several of the megaliths, the farmers had engraved added demands that in protected tribal areas, no one from outside the village could reside, or enter the village boundaries without seeking the permission of village assemblies. The tribal farmers denied police allegations that they were raising an army, adding that following pathalgadi ceremonies, they had taken out large public rallies carrying traditional weapons including sticks, axes, bow and arrows, but not assaulted any one.

Inspector P Prasad, who is investigating officer in the rape complaint, also declined to speak on the investigation.
He said the police had filed multiple criminal cases against the farmers because they were “not allowing the administration’s movement in the area”.
“We wanted to acquire land to expand police camps in Khunti’s Saiko and Marangahada villages, but the farmers refused to give land for this. They regularly obstruct developmental work,” he said. 

The police officials accused the residents of siding with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist)’s cadres and of illegally growing opium.

The impoverished forested “tribal belt” in central and eastern India, the region where Jharkhand lies, is conflated with the area of a decades-old Maoist insurgency. Of 30 districts most affected by the violent conflict between the Maoists and Indian security forces, 13 are in Jharkhand, and include Khunti. The Maoists have played no visible role in the pathalgadi movement. The farmers have long-standing grievances, fear being displaced from their farmland, and oppose the steady militarization in Khunti and adjoining districts in the name of snuffing out the Maoist insurgency. They accused the administration of being corrupt, domineering and exploitative, and diluting the land tenancy laws meant to protect indigenous communities’ land rights.

“We want to ask the police administration, why are they raiding and beating us?” said a Munda youth in a village in Murhu block, who did not wish to be identified in the report. “They beat me and my wife from head to toe with fibre lathi (polycarbonate batons used by the police) when we had not even touched any policemen. “We organised pathalgadi ceremonies following our tradition. We were simply stating that all Adivasis in Jharkhand must unite,” he said.

Netram Munda, a village elder in Murhu, told Al Jazeera that they had organized pathalgadi ceremonies as a necessity to save their ancestral farmland.
“In Khutkatti (forest patches first cleared by the Munda indigenous communities), no one outside the community has the rights to buy land, but the Chief Minister Raghubar Das is framing new laws allowing district commissioner to sell our farmland to anyone.” 

What the Constitution promised
A large number of areas predominantly inhabited by the indigenous communities had been declared Excluded/Partially Excluded Areas under the British under the Scheduled Districts Act of 1874.
After India’s Independence in 1947, the government accorded special protections to the tribal areas under the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution. The government in free India recognised the historic wrongs the tribal communities had faced, from the British colonial rulers, as well as people from the mainland. 
There are restrictions on sale and transfer of tribal land and property to non-tribals in the Fifth Schedule areas, such as Jharkhand.
the Governor of a state holds special powers to restrict transfer of land and property rights from the tribal communities to non-tribals, and to regulate money-lending, acting on the advice of a Tribes Advisory Council. Tribal communities, or Scheduled Tribes as they are categorized in the constitution, are approximately nine percent of India’s population.

In Jharkhand, tribal communities, or Adivasis, form 28 percent of the population, but suffer from the worst levels of poverty, at 54 percent of the tribal population in Jharkhand’s villages living below poverty line.

In 1996, parliament had enacted the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA), acknowledging the continued threat to indigenous communities rights and resources, and upholding their rights to self-governance in tribal areas.
PESA acknowledges all adult members of a habitation constitute a gram sabha (village assembly), which can act on its powers to prevent land loss to the community, and are competent to should be consulted on land acquisition and on grant of certain mineral leases.

Besides these national legislations, land cultivated by indigenous communities in Jharkhand are additionally protected under the colonial era tenancy laws.
Though Birsa Munda had died in prison at the age of 25, the British in a concession to the Munda rebellion had enacted the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908, which confers protections to the land of small cultivators.
In the state capital Ranchi, Ratan Tirkey, a member of the state Tribes Advisory Council, a government body appointed in all Fifth Schedule, or protected areas said, “Khunti is on the boil because the government is ignoring Fifth Schedule provisions, and bypassing consulting the gram sabha on acquisition of farmland and pastures.”

Dayamani Barla, a Munda land rights activist in Ranchi, [explained that one of the first steps the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had undertaken after coming to power was to propose changes to dilute the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, the region’s unique land tenure system. 
But the proposed changes could not be passed following deadly agitation launched by the tribals. 

The Governor returned the proposed amendments that allowed use of farmland for non-agricultural purposes in August 2017 after several agitations by the tribal farmers, including a protest in Khunti where an elderly farmer, was shot dead by the police, less than 20 kilometers from Uduburu. The government however, found ways around the tenancy laws, reducing the scope of progressive provisions in land acquisition laws despite questions raised by the Tribes Advisory Council, Tirkey said.
The government has created several categories of projects for which acquisition laws’ rules for the social impact assessment of projects, and of obtaining the consent of affected communities no longer apply, he explained.
“If after all this, people analyse the constitution’s Fifth Schedule provisions themselves and inscribe it on rocks or megaliths, or anywhere in their homes, how is that unconstitutional?” he asked. Ironically, Tirkey pointed out, the first pathalgadi ceremonies inscribing the Constitution’s tribal area provisions had been organized by government officials in 1996 after PESA law was passed. Several of these megaliths are still standing in Khunti. “The only difference now is the language has turned more assertive, reflecting people’s bitter experiences with the administration,” he added.

On the phone, Neelkanth Munda, member of the state legislative assembly from Khunti, and the state’s minister for rural development, declined to comment on the changes made to the land acquisition laws by the government. He said that “normalcy has returned” in Khunti after the whittling down of the pathalgadi movement.

Tirkey compared the ongoing pathalgadi movement as being in continuation of a practice started by BD Sharma, a bureaucrat, one of the architect of the PESA law, who had in 1996 helped organized stone carving of PESA provisions on self governance in villages in Khunti, several of which are still standing today. “The only difference now I perceive now that the language of the engravings has turned more assertive and blunt in rejecting government interventions, perhaps reflecting the experience of the village inhabitants with the administration.”

Increasing militarization
IMG_5786.jpg
In Khunti, the Adivasi inhabitants expressed a growing distrust of the government’s ongoing land acquisition projects.
Durgavati Odiya, an activist with the Central Sarna Committee, a Munda religious organisation, who has also been named in several criminal complaints, claimed the police were threatening the village assemblies to “vacate land for projects, or face repercussions”. She said the administration continued to disregard norms for gram sabhas’ consent, and were not transparent on the purpose of land acquisition.
“The officials told us they were acquiring land for a “Knowledge City”, and people thought it was to build a university, but now they have stated that they will be building a military training school and an airstrip on the land,” said Odiya. “In Japud village, 84 of 130 households in the gram sabha opposed diverting 14 acres of pastureland for an electric sub-station, but the administration still went ahead with the construction,” she said.

Khunti Deputy Commissioner Suraj Kumar, the head of the civil administration, confirmed that a training centre for security personnel was going to be built on the land acquired for the “Knowledge City”.  He said that officials had documents to prove that consent of the village assembly had been obtained for a power sub-station in Japud. Kumar accused the village functionaries of working under the influence of the banned Maoist revolutionaries. “We also support traditions such as pathalgadi, but under the Maoists’ influence, the tribal communities are inscribing inflammatory statements and this can turn into a violent movement, which it is our responsibility to prevent.”

fb4ba021b95841cba6f2faedb8c2c338_18
After intensifying raids, the Jharkhand Armed Police and paramilitary now occupy school buildings in remote villages of Kochang, Kurunga, Sinko and Sarda leading to more resentment. In Kurunga and Kochang forest villages, Veronica Soy, an elderly farmer, said the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force had occupied the only government primary school building, with no prior information to the community. Soy questioned how this could be termed as being tribal communities’ “development”.
“The paramilitary met our village head only after occupying the school and said they will remain here until “peace” is established,” Soy recounted. “But even the school principal was not informed.”

She said the security forces had told the residents that their local school had been “merged” with another school in Ruggudi, four kilometers away.
“The younger children cannot walk so far to classes through the forest, they will be forced to drop out of school,” Soy said.

An edited version appeared in Al Jazeera here.

Lunch break atop bauxite hill

IMG_5115

A doctor tells stories

1466151_10201084611382805_2122444597_n

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, the story of a Santhali family over four generations, is remarkable for a deep and masterful observation of lives and descriptions of a tribal village – its tree groves, weekly markets, festivals, fights, and gatherings.

The debut author, a doctor with the government of Jharkhand, lives in Pakur, along the state’s border with West Bengal. Once or twice, in descriptions when Rupi and her husband Sido visit doctors to seek cure for Rupi’s mysterious ailment, the writer’s professional knowledge seem perceptible in the narrative. At others, the descriptions of the characters’ emotions of envy, loss, uncertainty are so natural, the supernatural seamlessly flows from them in the story.

What does being shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2014 mean to you?


I think it means that something good is being expected of me. So I should try to work harder and write better books.

How did your closeness, or distance, from the lives of the people you were describing affect your writing?


The Santhal village, as I have shown in my novel, is how I have seen my village. I have always lived in a Santhal village. My village, Kishoripur – where I revised Rupi Baskey – and my hometown, Ghatsila – where I wrote Rupi Baskey – are just 40 km apart. We would always be at our village for one reason or the other every 10-15 days, or so. Sometimes I would be at Kishoripur in the morning and return to Ghatsila in the evening. There was no question of being close or distant here. I was both. What I have written in Rupi Baskey is from my own life.

How do you compare observing as a doctor to observing lives around you as a writer? Was there ever a temptation to diagnose Rupi’s ailment in the plot, or in your mind?


I remember, when I was working as a house surgeon at my medical college in Jamshedpur, my colleagues and I once saw a very fair young lady in a ward. Our immediate response was: Is this lady really this fair or is she anaemic? You wouldn’t get such a response from ordinary people; only from medicos. Doctors pay attention to the minutiae, the finer details. That is, I think, the beauty of being a doctor.
While writing Rupi Baskey, though, I felt neither as a doctor nor a writer. I did use my experience as a doctor in writing the childbirth scene in Chapter 1, but I never tried to consciously put my knowledge of medical sciences into my book. I was not comfortable thinking of myself as a writer at the time. In fact, I am not comfortable even now being called a writer. What you read in this book, was more as a person seeing an other person and then telling that other person’s story. And no, I never felt like diagnosing Rupi’s ailment. There would have been no mystery then.

What is your writing routine like? How did your novel come to be published?


The less said about my writing and revising routine the better. I am not a disciplined writer. Although, while writing Rupi Baskey I was a bit more focused than I normally am. Now, however, I have returned to my lazy ways. I don’t know when my next book or even a short story is going to come. I write only when I have something to write.
As for how Rupi came to be published, well, I sent the usual synopsis and first 50 pages to various agents and publishers. I had submitted to Aleph, too. My package was addressed to David Davidar. Two months later, I received an email from Ravi Singh – who was the publishing director of Aleph at that time – that Rupi Baskey had been accepted for publication. And I lost sleep after that.

Did you write the short story Adivasis Will Not Dance published in 2014 in The Dhauli Review before or after this novel? What was the thought behind it?

I wrote Adivasis Will Not Dance in 2013. I wrote it after there was the foundation stone-laying of a thermal power project in Jharkhand. I thought, thermal power projects located in other states take their coal from Jharkhand, hydroelectric power projects have their dams in Jharkhand, but people in Jharkhand do not have electricity. I find this tremendously unfair. In August, a neighbouring state stopped supplying potatoes to Jharkhand, which led to a rise in price of potatoes here, and potato is an essential food item. I wonder what the scenario would have been like had Jharkhand, too, stopped all the coal from here going to the thermal power plants in that state.

An interest, or love other than writing that you enjoy.


My favourite activities are sleeping and eating. I sleep a lot; I can fall asleep in buses, trains, anywhere. I am a glutton. I find eating therapeutic. If I am happy, I eat; if I am upset, I eat. At 1 A.M., when people are tucked into their beds, you could find me munching on a kaju barfi, chocolate, or potato chips, or stirring a glass of nimboo paani.
I love watching films.

I want to learn how to knit; but all I have been able to do so far is buy a ball of yarn (the end of which I was not able to find, so I cut the yarn at some random point) and a pair of no. 10 knitting needles, and save knitting videos on my YouTube.
I think I need to stop being so lazy.

Do you believe in ghosts, spirits, witches?
Yes, I do.

(:) An edited version appeared in The Hindu here.

Tribals torn apart by religion

The Hindu
Whether due to economic disparities or the stoking of enmities by different religious groups, the chasm between Sarna and Christian tribals has widened

Photo by Manob Chowdhury

Photo by Manob Chowdhury


Two months before polling began in Jharkhand, Ajay Tirkey began dividing his day between campaigning for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Ranchi and attending to his real estate business. Mr. Tirkey, who heads the Central Sarna Committee(CSC), with lakhs of animistic Sarna tribals as members in urban parts of Ranchi, Gumla and Hazaribagh, believes that the BJP’s Narendra Modi will get the community what it has been demanding for decades: the distinction of being a minority religion with all attendant benefits. “We submitted a memorandum to Modi in December to introduce a Sarna code in the census, and [the] BJP’s State leaders agreed,” he says.

Mr. Tirkey — tall, stout, dressed in white shirt and trousers and wearing a golden watch on one wrist and a vermillion thread on the other — speaks softly and smiles often, even while narrating the violence that has broken out following his organisation’s attempt to stop religious conversions in the last decade. The office of his company, Deoshila Development Private Limited, is sparsely furnished, with only a poster of Hanuman for decoration. Mr. Tirkey owns the commercial complex we are sitting in. “This is a century-old fight. I have not let the Christians get away with conversions since I became the head in 2000,” he says. “We broke the walls of a church in Tape in Ormanjhi while it was being constructed. There was a case of conversion of five families in Ghagrajala village in Ranchi; we re-converted three. Then a few families in Gaitalsud, Angada, of whom only one member escaped because he worked somewhere else. He has not come back since; he fears us,” he recounts, beaming.

Mr. Tirkey, the BJP’s mayoral candidate from Ranchi in 2013, describes the “re-conversion” ceremonies as being similar to the ghar-waapsi (homecoming) ceremonies conducted by BJP leader Dilip Singh Judeo in Chhattisgarh, in the mid-2000s. Mr. Judeo used to wash the feet of the converted person with holy water and declare the person Hindu again. Sarnas, Mr. Tirkey says, besides washing feet, made the converted person taste a drop of blood of a freshly sacrificed rooster and sprinkled water on them. A member of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) or Dharam Jagran usually accompanied CSC members for this ceremony, he says. Sitting by Mr. Tirkey’s side, Manoj Kumar, a member of the BJP’s Jharkhand Kisan Morcha Pradesh Samiti, nods in agreement.

Conversion politics

In the last century, religious conversions in the Chotanagpur region have led to tensions. The first missionaries to arrive were the German Protestants in 1845, followed by the Catholics. The rift between Christian and non-Christian tribals was visible in 1947-48. Concerned with the growing influence of Christians, Sarna leaders formed a ‘Sudhar Sabha,’ notes academic Dr. Alex Ekka in an essay on the Jharkhand movement.

The former captain of the Indian hockey team, Jaipal Singh Munda, is credited with getting equal rights including reservations for Christian tribals, as a member of the Constituent Assembly. A few Sarna leaders opposed this move then. Congress MP Kartik Oraon introduced a bill in Parliament in 1968 to de-schedule Christian tribals, albeit unsuccessfully.

The Jan Sangh and the RSS began making inroads in the Chotanagpur region in the 1960s, initiating developmental activities in forest villages to counter the growing reach of Christian missionaries. While the VKA already has a strong presence in the Gumla and Latehar districts of West Jharkhand, more recently it has focused on increasing its influence in Sahebganj and Pakur along the State’s border with West Bengal, close to Bangladesh. Both districts feature in a map of areas from Uttar Pradesh to the north-east as “Areas of high Muslim and Christian influence” in a publication by Sankat Mochan Ashram, New Delhi.

“The church was trying to proselytize in Pakur but slowed down after we increased our presence. We recently performed ghar-waapsi for 50 families there. Sarna groups are doing re-conversions themselves now; we prefer it this way. We explain to them that 2000 years ago, we worshipped trees. Sarnas are Hindu too,” says Prakash Kamat, the Bihar-Jharkhand zonal secretary of the VKA.

Tribals constitute 26.3 per cent of Jharkhand’s population. According to the 2001 Census, of the State’s population of 3.29 crore, 68.5 per cent are Hindus and 13.8 per cent are Muslims. Only four per cent follow Christianity. Though Sarnas, who worship their ancestors and nature, are not counted separately, they make up most of the ‘Other’ category, estimated at 11 to 13 per cent of the population. Sarna groups claim that the actual numbers may be higher, given the absence of a separate category for them. A common perception is that despite their small numbers, Christian tribals have better access to higher education and jobs. Whether due to economic disparities or the stoking of enmities by different religious groups, the chasm between Sarna and Christian tribals has widened.

A deep divide

The most stark instance of this was in 2013 when a spate of protests erupted in Ranchi soon after the Cardinal Telesphore Toppo unveiled the statue of a “tribal” Mary — a dark-skinned Mother Mary wearing a white and red saree and bangles, holding an infant Jesus in a sling, as is common among tribal women. Sarna dharamguru Bandhan Tigga, considered more moderate than Ajay Tirkey’s group, gave the Church three months to remove the statue, describing it as a conversion tactic. In August, over 3,000 Sarna tribals marched to the site, a small Catholic church in Singpur on Ranchi’s outskirts, threatening to bring it down. The police imposed Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code in the area to stop the protesters. Three days later, a FIR was registered against members of Sarna groups after they threatened families in Ormanjhi, 50 km from Singpur, who had converted to Protestantism several years ago, to re-convert to Sarna religion within a week, even breaking the gate of the house of one of the families.

Sources close to the Cardinal claim he had not known that the statue was that of a “tribal” Mary before he reached the parish for the inauguration, but have chosen to stay silent, fearing that a step back now may only weaken the church’s position. Before this, in 2008, the church was on the back foot when Sarna groups questioned the ‘Nemha Bible’ published by a Lutheran church in the tribal language, Kuduk, which they said contained portions offensive to animistic worship.

In Singpur, the residents still recount last year’s protests cautiously. “Thousands marched from Dhurva to the parish. While the march had been called by Sarna groups, several Bajrang Dal members wearing saffron bands marched with them. Even tribals from neighbouring Odisha, Chhattisgarh districts reached here,” recalled a member of the community. It was done by evoking Sarnas’ pride, say Dharam Jagran members.

Jharkhand SPOs and their families under attack from Maoists

In response to a Public Interest Litigation, in July 2011, the Supreme Court while asking the State to disband the Salwa Judum, ordered the Chhattisgarh government to desist from using SPOs in countering the Maoists. Following the July order, the recruitment of SPOs in Jharkhand too was briefly paused, but resumed after a Bench of Justices Altamas Kabir and SS Nijjar in November said the July order applied only to Chhattisgarh, not to other States. Jharkhand has a sanctioned strength of 6,400 SPOs, though senior police officials put the current number at 3,000. Police officials cite the State Police Acts to justify use of SPOs.

A squad of CPI(Maoist) on March 21 night opened fire at a social gathering in Khunti, 30 km from Ranchi injuring two villagers and set fire to a jeep. The tribal villagers said they suspected the rebels targeted the family and friends of Raila Dhingra Munda for his work as a Special Police Officer (SPO) gathering intelligence for the Khunti district police. Before this, Mohammad Sajjad, a 30-year old SPO had lost his right leg while assisting Assistant Superintendent of Police (Operations), R.S. Mishra defuse an Improvised Explosive Device in Chatra last week.

Mara Munda, 20, whose older brother Raila is a Special Police Officer (SPO) in Khunti and his father Sande Munda after Mara was treated for a bullet injury at RIMS hospital on Saturday. Photo by Manob Chowdhury.

Mara Munda, 20, whose older brother Raila is a Special Police Officer (SPO) in Khunti and his father Sande Munda after Mara was treated for a bullet injury at RIMS hospital on Saturday. Photo by Manob Chowdhury.

On Saturday, Mara Munda, Raila’s younger brother who had been shot in his right thigh and had fractured his bone lay in Rajendra Institute of Medical Institute, Ranchi’s orthopedic intensive care ward.
“We had invited more than 400 villagers to celebrate the “kaan chhedni” (ear piercing) ceremonies of both my sisters. At 8 30 pm I stepped out of our courtyard and heard a gun-shot. The next moment I had fallen. There was panic as everyone tried to flee, I cried out for my friends to pull my body inside the house or I would have died,” recounted the 20-year old with effort as his father Sande Munda who spoke only in Mundari looked on.

The Maoists had killed his oldest brother Rupu Munda who also worked as a SPO in a market in Adki in 2010, he said. He said the rebels numbered around sixty, and after shooting at him and his neighbour Birsa Munda, 40, in their legs, they had set fire to a Tata Magic jeep that Mara had started been renting to ferry passengers from the village to Khunti town since four months back. “They set fire to the soundbox (speakers) too before they left,” he said.
Mara’s older brother Raila, who works as a SPO, was away in Khunti when the incident happened. The family’s neighbours first brought the injured to Khunti Sadar Hospital, and then to Ranchi in the morning.

jeep_1805284f
Villagers in Hembrom in Adki block said the police had not even visited the village since Friday night, going no further than a concrete road 500 meters from the village. District police officials said the investigations were on.“Our search operations are on for the Maoists,” said Khunti’s Superintendent of Police Anish Gupta.

Raila Munda, Mara’s brother said he had started working as a SPO in 2008. “I finished matric exams and started working for the police because the Maoists had terrorized our entire village, coercing us. The police officers, the previous Sps Manoj Kaushik, Tamilvanan paid me Rs 3000 or so every three months for information. The Maoists killed my older brother in 2010 and now they did this while searching for me, and the police did nnot even visit my house yet,” said Raila Munda on the phone from Khunti.

Since 2010, Maoists have killed at least 16 persons in Adki and Tamar in Khunti and the adjoining area Bundu in Ranchi targeting them for acting as SPOs for the police.
This report in The Hindu here.

A previous post on Maoists’ violence against SPOs and their families in Khunti here.