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Encountering ‘Development’: The Sad And Sorry State Of Baiga Tribals

The Baigas remain one of the most vulnerable Adivasi groups in India

Encountering ‘Development’: The Sad And Sorry State Of Baiga Tribals
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On the peripheries of the Achanakmar Wildlife Sanctuary in Mungeli district lies Sargi village where Mehku Baiga and his wife, Itri Baiga, along with 20-odd families reside. This is a settlement of the Baiga, classified by the state as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG). The hamlet is located in the forest so one can’t reach there by car—one has to either walk or go by bike.

The Baiga tribe in Sargi village have no electricity, no gas cylinders, and no television sets. They have small, makeshift huts made of leaves and tarpaulin. One can’t find any traces of modern life until one notices a few phones, though not smartphones, and a few solar panels fitted in some huts. In several other districts, especially in Madhya Pradesh, many Baiga families can be found using electricity, TV, and bikes.

At 4 pm, Mehku is sitting on a charpai with his friends, rolling his cigarette. He smokes and drinks like any other male Baiga. Itri is standing near him, carrying her youngest son. “He doesn’t leave me”, she says, grinning and tightening her hold on him. The couple has four children and one died. They still don’t have any plan in terms of their family, like many other Baiga couples in the region.

Their day starts with a visit to the deep forest to collect wood, medicine, and food for the day’s use. By the evening, they finish off all their remaining chores, because, with dusk, their love for alcohol starts brimming. They often drink a homemade brew prepared from mahua flowers. Itri and other Baiga women also drink. They smoke too, but most women do not.

Girls have the agency to choose their husbands and leave, at will. During marriages, “the boy’s family either bears the entire expense of marriage, which involves the arrangement of clothes among other things, or can offer the girl’s side a mahua brew party,” says Mehku. “The arrangement of the brew is one of the major preconditions. It determines the lavishness of a marriage,” he adds.

Unlike conservative Indian societies, no moral policing bars premarital relationships. But marriages generally happen after puberty. The Baiga allow remarriage and even divorce. For instance, 20-year-old Bishram was married for two years, but his wife left him as he was not able to fulfil the economic needs of the family, “I don’t do any work, my family is poorer than her family.” The majority of the Baiga population resides in the Kabirdham and Bilaspur districts of Chhattisgarh, and in Kawardha (Kabirdham) they are the highest. The Baiga are one of five PVTGs in the state along with Abhujmaria, Kamar, Pahadi Korwa, and Birhor. In Madhya Pradesh, they can be found in Eastern Satpura, Mandla, Dindori, Balaghat, Baghelkhand and Sidhi Janpads. A tribal group is classified as PVTG based on attributes such as declining population, forest-based livelihoods, pre-agricultural level of existence, extremely low literacy, and a subsistence economy. Researcher Devendra Prasad Pandey of the Mahatma Gandhi Chitrakoot Gramoday Vishwavidyalaya in Chitrakoot conducted a study to build a contemporary socio-economic profile of the Baiga tribe in Sidhi, Anuppur, and Shahdol districts of Madhya Pradesh. It was published in The Economic and Political Weekly. He found that 68 percent of respondents are involved in agriculture, while 29 percent are contractual labourers.

Behind ‘development’

The word baiga means sorcerer-medicine man. The Baiga tribe is known for its knowledge of medicinal plants. Still, health is its greatest tragedy.

Parvathi, a woman in her late 20s, recently lost her five-year-old daughter to an unknown disease that she still has no clue about. “She fell sick and died immediately,” she says. She couldn’t take her to the doctor. Even if she would have time to take her daughter to the doctor, she would have to walk to the Sargi village and then ask someone to drop her to the hospital or wait for the bus.

Ramkali, a young girl, could only manage to study till the fifth standard, the highest level of education among Baiga families in Sargi village

Most Baigas don’t see doctors until some government or NGO-appointed doctor visits their habitation or they require immediate medical attention. In Sargi village, they rely on the advice of a vaid (local medicine man) named Gunia Baiga who has knowledge of medicinal plants.

Health indices paint a dire picture. According to a study, there are 1.5 times as many cases of stunted and underweight Baiga children than the state average of Chhattisgarh, as well as a very high level of malnutrition in children under the age of five. Studies also suggest that numerous cases of diarrhoea and malaria go undetected, which further increases the mortality rate.  Pandey found that 43 percent of the respondents still use ash and oil to wash their hands and 63 percent said that they don’t have access to toilets. Still, no heed is being paid. Instead, government policies for PVTGs have been focused on increasing fertility rates.

PVTGs were not allowed to access permanent contraception – enforced from 1979 till 2017. This archaic order was quashed by the Chhattisgarh High Court in December 2018. The court was hearing a public interest litigation (PIL), filed by ten families of the Baiga tribe, along with two NGOs Jan Swasthya Sahyog, Ganiyari and Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA), Chhattisgarh.  The PIL filed in court found this order that stopped PVTGs from accessing contraception a violation of the fundamental right to “personal liberty” under Article 21. In an earlier judgment, the Supreme Court had recognised reproductive choices as one of the ‘dimensions’ of personal liberty under Article 21. The government brought such a law to control the ‘diminishing’ population of PVTGs. But data suggests a different scenario. As per the ‘Statistical Profile of Scheduled Tribes in India, 2013’ by the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the population of PVTGs has been steadily rising since the 1960s. It increased from 0.77 million in 1961 to 2.76 million in 2001. Tho­ugh the latest data is unavailable, all extant data clearly suggests that it is not a low fertility rate that needs redressal but poor health matrices.

A lack of awareness is keeping the Baiga away from availing even temporary contraception like cond­oms. Almost no Baiga male uses cond­oms or any of the temporary contraceptive methods. Moreover, despite the order, access to contraceptive surgeries remains out of reach in Chhattisgarh. For several years, “they are going to Madhya Pradesh to avail contraception to private clinics known to them”, says Santosh Kaiwart, a worker for Jan Vikas Parishad and Anusandhan, a local NGO. Here, they claim, they are not allowed to undergo any contraceptive operations. The group of people from the Baiga tribe which Outlook met is under the impression that contraceptive surgeries are still banned in Chhattisgarh. Therefore Mehku and Itri say, “We get it done in Madhya Pradesh.”

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Education among the Baiga tribe is another sad story. Nobody is educated among the group of Baiga families that Outlook met, though a few were literate. Ramkali, a young girl, could only manage to study till the fifth standard, the highest level of education among Baiga families in Sargi village. Owing to some efforts by local NGOs and the government, a new generation has started going to school, “Our kids go to school,” says Mehku. “The state of education is bad across all tribal areas, especially among primitive tribes,” says Kaiwart. Still, in Pandey’s study, 27 percent of the respondents don’t send their kids to school. Moreover, 54 percent of the respondents said they are unaware of the provision of welfare schemes under the National Food Security Act, 2013, Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, and the Right to Information Act, 2005. The fact that a 90-year-old Manglu has an Aadhaar card that lists his birth year as 1980 makes policymakers’ indifference clear. Given that his son is older than 40, the age on Manglu’s card sounds like a macabre joke. Nobody cares about their disappearance.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Encountering ‘Development’")

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