10 March, 2005
In Chhattisgarh a large number of communities and people have been living by sustaining the mutuality of life. Chhattisgarh is the name given to the collection of south-eastern districts of the erstwhile Madhya Pradesh. Scholars have different opinions about its nomenclature. It is believed that it is the land of thirty-six castles, once situated on the bank of river Shivnath by which it is named as Chhattisgarh.
However an historical analysis of this region will bring out the aspects like sustainability and mutuality from the very life and style of the people’s intimacy with their surrounding environment and eco-system. Proper understanding and study of the people’s history is essential to know the basics of creativity of life and to take inspiration and impulses for future action. Some of the basic aspects that I would like to mention here from my experience and understanding are noted below in brief.
1. The balance between nature and culture
Probably the original inhabitants of this region are Gond, Kumhar, and Halba towards the south of Bastar and Oraon and other Adivasi communities in the north-eastern parts of this region. In the plains of Khalsha, i.e. some portions of Raipur, Drug, Bilaspur, Rajnandgoan, Mahasamund, Dhamtari & Kawardha, it was mostly different Dalit communities, out of them a major section turned out to be the follower of Guru Ghasidas who preached the “Satnami” religion – an alternative to the Brahministic religion or Hinduism. That is why there is a sizeable proportion of Satnamis. They constitute more than 80% of the total Dalit population.
The life of a community is sustained through nature and cultural modifications, which are done by human beings on the basis of mutual dependency. Nature sustains human beings and human beings sustain nature. The mutuality is so intense that it is impossible for one to live/exist without the other. The balance based on the mutuality between nature and culture has been continuing since pre-historic period, particularly among the Adivasis in the region.
Reflection of this sustainable life practice could be observed from the very aspect of their faith and worship of forest. An elder man from a village once told me, “Forest is our mother. Our forefathers lived on it. It takes care of us. We worship her, give offerings, and pledge to protect her from all external invasions. It is also our livelihood. However the so-called drama of forest department disrupts our life style, our co-existence with forest. Community life will wither away and the land of our ancestors will become alien to us.”
The faith that the forest and people are mutually responsible for the well being of each other itself implies to the fact of the balance between nature and culture.
2. Accommodative History
Historically speaking the people of this region had an accommodative history where they allowed various cultures to enter here and thrive. Population of many ethnic groups have entered here from different directions within the country, during the last 2000 years, having brought with them their own religions and faiths.
Allowing different faith and culture to in and provide space has undoubtedly done a lot of damage to the communities of this hinterland, but on the contrary this also represents their openness towards others and their concern for humanity and human beings. Further it is also a part of their mutuality and sustainability that these reserves are not only for them, rather all human being have a right on it.
It is here the Sangam of Adivasi, Dalit and other cultures. For example Dalits living in a Adivasi village has their freedom to celebrate their customs, faith and festivals. Both of them join each other in such celebration, although there was not much of social interaction. Perhaps, one reason of evolution of common festivals like Karma is due to this Sangam only.
3. Community based economic system
Till recent times the economic system among the people was more a community-based one, rather than private property, according to which land, forest and water are community resources and every member in the community has a right to use it based on this need. Hence a need-based assessment of utilisation existed rather than a greed-based assimilative economy. Briefly speaking the whole community is based on a sharing, caring and co-operation instead of competition, consumption and market.
For example the forests, which have immense resource potential, people consume what they require for their living but also preserve it for others. There is no concept of surplus and accumulation among them. No storage system. Even today among most of the people surplus and accumulation of wealth are not widely recognised and appreciated ideology among the majority of them.
4. Democratic policy based on consensus
This has been one of the oldest regions in the country where a federal system of administration has been in existence for long. Every village had its own village mukhiyas (leaders), most of the Adivasi villages were almost independent republics, although there were kings and castle kings and princely states. Hence a federal system of governance existed in this region of the country until the arrival of the British. In some parts it started changing with the interaction with the Marathas, otherwise it was utmost affected by the British empire.
One could easily observe various things suggesting the space of ordinary people including women in each community. For example the Dalit women in Chhattisgarh have more space than the upper caste women even today. This is not a spontaneously sprouted phenomena. It has a longish history of people living in small groups and community in Chhattisgarh. Resembling to this is the case of the Adivasi women, who enjoy more freedom than the mainstream communities. They used to control the economy. Even important decisions like marriage in the family were never taken without the consent of women. This is very crucial when looking at the human-human relationship from a sustainable culture of life and practice.
5. History of resistance against oppression
Chhattisgarh has got a lot to speak on resistance to oppression in the past. One of the tremendous movements of the nineteenth century was the Guru Ghasidas movement. It was absolutely a movement against the upper caste oppression. He championed the cause of the Dalits and gave an open call for to quit the Brahminical Hindu religion and join the casteless movement. This procured immense support from the people.
In this process the then British government observed this very militant character of resistance and revolt of the Satnami community for which they gained the grade of a criminal community. In other words the British were also frightened with the sort of militancy of the Dalits.
Likewise, various other movements led by Adivasis of Chhattisgarh against external domination of invaders are there. One has to acknowledge the indispensability of such movements to sustain the very life and existence of a community.
The Present Situation
Now coming to the present situation, things have changed a lot from the earlier days. The political segments in India, by and large, strive and thrive to cater the global and national capitalist market. Targeting the resources is one major strategy of this and this itself is a direct assault over the benevolent communes. Also this is coupled with Hinduisation of faith, culture, beliefs, customs, culture, art forms, etc. Altogether it consummates them to problems like large scale of displacement and migration, heavy loss of land and resources, robs them of their rich tradition and culture and lead to the irreversible and perpetual loss of natural livelihood sources.
Nonetheless these aforesaid instincts are still there deep in the abyss of their life and culture. One has to search and find it for better understand and analysis. Given a chance with proper space and perspective these communities could retrieve their earlier stature of nature-friendly, however that is not possible in the present context. I would like to place a few examples of the instincts of sustainability and sustainable livelihood practices in recent past/history.
In Bastar for more than 30 years the people of 40 villages have been protecting the forests without the support of the forest department officials. There have been numerous attempts from the forest officials and other revenue departments to fell the trees from the forests, but they have not moved back. This is a crucial example even today.
Another is the example of people who wound themselves on the trees when the forests were planned to be reduced to a monoculture pine plantation in Bastar. This was a project being funded by the World Bank. Mitkibai, an old Adivasi woman was the one who initiated it. People here started getting organised and eventually it grew into a big movement and the World Bank’s pine plantation project was scrapped.
People in Jashpur and Surguja are mostly engaged in organic cultivation. They have been doing it without any NGO guidance. It is a natural phenomenon. It evolved among them only due to their close involvement and emotional attachment with the environment. Even today the shifting cultivation is practised among the Baiga and Korva primitive tribes. This is very crucial when they leave the land for a few years, after cultivating it for 3-4 years, for regeneration of the quality of soil. This prevents the soil and preserves the water and further exemplifies the amicability towards nature.
On the other hand people in this hinterland are fighting against the forces of casteism, globalisation and fascism. These are rays of sustainable practises and development in Chhattisgarh. Hence sustainability doesn’t only connote an eco-friendly way of life but also it is the impulses of a community in fighting against oppression and injustice.