The famous Dongria Kondh tribe wants the benefits of modern age but through alternative means.
“After 10 years or more, I see us as what we are today. We don’t want change. Change will mean that everything will be lost—our culture, our language. Some people are stepping out to study, but when they come back they’ve lost everything. What is a man without an identity?
These words of Lado Sikaka, a leader of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, underscore the connection Dongria Kondhs feel with their land and their way of living. These are the same Dongria Kondhs who gained international attention for their long and successful struggle against global mining behemoth Vedanta Corporation that wanted to open up the Niyamgiri hills for bauxite mining.
The movement led by a small adivasi community of about 8,000 people was likened to many grassroots organic and contemporary struggles. However, the popular perception remained that Dongria Kondhs do not want development. That they may yearn for the benefits of modern age was lost in the din of voices that either sought their mainstreaming or demanded that they should be left on their own.
A recent study conducted by Kalpavriksh outlines a different aspect. It seeks to understand the views of the Dongria Kondhs on concepts like development, territory, culture, and traditions in the context of a changing, individualistic world. It draws attention to the needs of the community which they want to fulfil through means that are amiable to their culture and surroundings.
The Niyamgiri hills, for the Dongria Kondhs, are the living space of their God and ancestor Niyamraja. The ‘sacred law’, as prescribed by Niyamraja, disallows unsustainable exploitation of forest and land at the behest of greed and instead favours an ‘economy of restraint’. Thus, the Dongria Kondhs reject fixed farming as they believe that shifting cultivation suits the forests better as it allows the forest to grow into its own form with little or no human interference.
Even well-intentioned government schemes like public distribution of ration have perpetually been at odds with the way of life of the Dongria Kondhs. Consultation and monitoring of these schemes by involving the community in decision-making can go a long way in ensuring that funds are spent on the right things.
The Kondhs feel the need to graduate from kerosene as a fuel for lighting but they don’t want grid electricity as high-tension wires are hazardous in the dense forest and would mean big vehicles cutting roads into the forests to ferry electricity poles. They instead consider solar energy as a better option.
For education, the community prefers their children to gain knowledge which would help them deal better with the external world. They want government schools to use Kui (the local dialect) instead of Odiya as a medium of education and the curriculum to be more suited to the way of life at Niyamgiri. The teachers also need to be sympathetic about their ways and everyday struggles.
The residential schools run by the Dongria Kondh Development Agency far away from Niyamgiri don’t find much favour with the locals as many children, who have never been out of the safe community environment, eventually run away to be back home. Another reservation is that, by staying away, an entire generation would not learn the Dongria Kondh way of life and get exposed to an unsustainable form of modernity. They would prefer schools to be located inside Niyamgiri.
While many elders are against roads as these would bring greater flow of outsiders to interfere with their rather ‘safe society’, others feel that if roads are built, they should be narrow enough to be accessed only by foot.
The people also believe that government tends to make wasteful expenditures by building community halls and temples. Instead money should be spent on creation of soil and water conservation structures, expansion of solar energy, and setting up of day schools inside the hills.
There is a need, therefore, not only to consult the Dongria Kondhs but also to inform them about alternative and locally appropriate modes of education, healthcare, communication, and livelihoods, that are built on their own practices and knowledge.
Disclaimer: This article, authored by Shruti Appalla, was first published in GOI Monitor.