The Baigas, an indigenous community spread across central India were, according to folklore, God’s chosen ones to carry forward the human race in India. 21st century India treats them with little regard. While on one hand the demands of modernity and industry threaten their traditional forest-dwelling life, a new order of things brings them few benefits—muddy drinking water, lousy healthcare, little education and no land security.
According to the 2011 Indian Census, there are 390,000 Baigas spread across the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand. Scheduled Tribes like the Baigas make up thirty per cent of Chhattisgarh’s population; their own population however is nominal in the state. Like with most tribal communities in the country their ability to access basic facilities like healthcare, jobs, education and sanitation is tenuous compared to other sections of the population. In the north-western districts of Kawardha and Mungeli various Baiga settlements have been repeatedly displaced and denied access to the very forests they depend on for their livelihoods. This is despite the fact that they are granted the use of minor forest produce such as Tendu leaves and other roots and vegetables that grow in the area under the Forest Rights Act 2006.
Since 2000, at least 25 villages home to 726 Baiga families have been evicted from forest reserves and also in some cases, to make way for mining projects in Chhattisgarh. In February 2013 30 huts of a settlement in Bhoramdeo Reserve Forest in Kawardha district were levelled to the ground by officials who cited reasons of protecting the wildlife. No alternative settlement or relocation plans were made for the 60 families. 19 more villages are reportedly on the hit list. Some officials themselves admit that major highways running through such protected areas and mining projects in the vicinity cause more damage than a handful of Baigas living there. So it goes…
The best-case scenario for such families is that they get put in concrete settlements, completely alien to their traditional ways of living. Many end up having to live as encroachers on the borders of such forest areas as they are given no land in return for the ones they have lost.
Deena Ganveer, a Community Correspondent for Video Volunteers has spent the past decade amongst this community, to help them access their rights to the forest and to the facilities they need to survive. For the past three years she has been documenting the struggles of those who live in Chhattisgarh’s Kawardha and Mungeli Districts. Many of the communities whose lives she documents have been resettled into newer villages. She has been working to implement the many government schemes for tribal development in these areas.
Twenty years after they were settled in Mauwamaccha village, this Baiga community has never received the benefits of an anganwadi (child care) centre. When Deena had filmed, there were about 50 children between the ages zero to six. With access to an anganwadi they would have received nutritional supplements, regular health check-ups and vaccinations as well as a primary education. Government data shows that at an all India level 56.1% Scheduled Tribe children had never received nutritional supplements available at such centres; 68.2% had never had a health check ups. In the same survey, women cited problems such as distance to health care centres and the unavailability of doctors and medicines as major factors that deterred them from seeking government or private health care.
Access to electricity remains another major problem for Scheduled Tribes across India with only 51% using it as a main source to light up their houses. Chhattisgarh fares better than neighbouring states of Odisha and Madhya Pradesh with about 56.8% of the ST population being able to depend on electricity. There are still about 40.1% of the ST population, women like Kotwarin Baiga, who have to depend on kerosene or other sources to light up their homes at night. Kotwarin is one of 22 people living in Kawardha District’s Sajankhar village. “I light candles in the evening and cajole my children to study,” she says.
On speaking to Rohit Mandavi, (Electricity Department Official) we were told that the village has been recently surveyed for electrification under the Rajiv Gandhi Electrification Programme (Phase II). They are waiting for funds & approval from the Central Government.
Deena, now armed with a deep understanding of the pitfalls of development schemes and the many ways in which they fail to reach their beneficiaries, has been able to bring about a few instances of change in the areas she works in. In an earlier phone interview she explained how this is working out for her and the Baiga community she serves:
“Over the years, I’ve found that it’s become easier to approach administration. They pay attention to me when I show confidence, especially now that I have evidence. The camera has become crucial for my confidence. See, we have always submitted applications, requests, complaints etc. in the past. Now that I show them the reality, they usually respond faster, with more empathy.”
In one such impact, Deena was able to help set up a school for children living in Sajankhar village:
The literacy rate for Scheduled Tribes in Chhattisgarh is 59.1% compared to an overall 70.3% for the whole state’s population. Villages like Sajankhar epitomise this situation. Having known the nature of her work, the community specifically reached out to Deena for help to get a school started in the village. After taking the matter to the Block Education Officer and following up regularly, a small thatched-roof school welcomed some 10-15 children for the first time in July 2013.
A study in Madhya Pradesh, with a considerably larger Baiga population, suggests that the average sources of livelihoods for the community are dwindling. This has been a direct result of Baigas being forced to move away from the forests they depend on which meant income from basket-weaving, fishing and shifting agriculture among other activities. With few choices they now seek work as wage-labourers in mines or construction sites across Chhattisgarh and its neighbouring states. There is also a heavy dependence on schemes like MGNREGA, India’s national rural employment generation scheme. But working at such jobs comes with their own share of problems. Deena found that in Mungeli district’s Lormi block, 89 people hadn’t been paid the wages due to them for a road construction project under MGNREGA. Deena helped them get their wages by filming these testimonies and taking the workers with her to the District Forest Official who was in charge of settling the dues.
In the tussle between holding on to their identities and being forced to integrate into the mainstream, it remains unclear how ‘God’s chosen ones’ will fare over the next few decades.
Written by Kayonaaz Kalyanwala