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Devastated by ‘Development’
By Yoginder Sikand
It was almost three decades ago and I have only very hazy memories of the trip. We, a batch of university students, accompanied our Anthropology professor to a remote tribal village in northern Maharashtra, to study the likely impact of the controversial construction of a series of giant dams being built on the Narmada river.

We crossed the Narmada on a round-bottomed boat, the boatman deftly avoiding the enormous whirlpools in the swollen river. Then, several hours later, after a long trek into the forested mountains, we arrived at a hamlet, which was to be our home for the next fortnight. The village headman arranged for us to be accommodated in a hut, a modest, one-roomed structure made of mud and straw. There were no beds, and we had to sleep on the floor. ‘Development’ was still ages away—fortunately—and there was no electricity or running water. At night we used oil lamps, and in the mornings we trekked to a bubbling brook nearby to bathe.

Life in the hamlet, home to a small number of families of the Bhil tribe, was simple and uncluttered. There were then no roads in the area, and communications with the world outside were strictly limited. The jungles and mountains acted as a barrier to the infiltration of outside influences, which meant that the denizens of the hamlet lived much as their ancestors must have centuries ago. Bhil men donned just a small loin cloth, woven at home, and the women left their torsos uncovered. There were no shops in the area, indicating that the Bhil villages were largely self-sufficient.

By urban standards, the Bhils were poor but not impoverished. Few Bhils worked outside their villages, and most of them seemed to be content with where and how they were. They grew most of whatever they required, and their methods of cultivation were simple: they simply scattered the seeds on the slopes of the hills and let them grow naturally. The forests around were rich in fruits, vegetables and herbs, which were generally collected for domestic consumption.

Few outsiders ever bothered to come to the Bhil areas—it was too much of a difficult journey. And that was all to the good because it meant that the Bhils could carry on with their lives much as they had for centuries. There were hardly any schools in the area—mercifully, for what need, I thought, was there to study books in an alien tongue which would inevitably alienate them from their own culture and make them look down upon it? And of course, thankfully, there was no TV, which has played such havoc with local cultures and has triggered off uncontrollable consumerism even in isolated communities that were once happy with their simple way of life. After a tiring day’s work in the fields, foraging through the jungles or fishing in the streams, men and women would gather in a communal hut, where youngsters would sing and dance together to the throbbing of drums. Others would work prepare a drink made of the mahua flower, served in leaf cups. Yet others would sit around and smoke mahua flowers mixed with tobacco in giant pipes made of the dried gourd shells.

It wasn’t easy communicating with our hosts, because none of us knew Bhilala or Bhilori, and hardly anyone in Bamini knew Hindi or even Marathi. But, still, we managed to get our way, mostly by using sign language. I can’t remember much of what we talked about—but it must have mostly been about the dam that was coming up on the Narmada. The village folk were, naturally, unanimously opposed to it, mocking the authorities’ claim that it would usher in a period of unparalleled ‘development’. They knew that the dam would soon drown dozens of Bhil villages, including possibly their own, where their ancestors had lived for longer than they could remember. They had no faith in the promises of the government of being suitably rehabilitated. In any case, money probably didn’t count for much for them, for they hardly used it, leading a life based on barter and mutual exchange for centuries.

At the same time, the inhabitants of the hamlet probably suspected that their opposition to the dam was futile and must have known that, like thousands of other tribals displaced throughout India in the name of ‘development’, they might soon have to flee their homes once the dam came up. And for all I know, with the dam now firmly in place, their village might now have been completely wiped off the map of the world, sunk deep in the swirling waters of the Narmada, its denizens being reduced to beggars or manual labourers in some dusty, nondescript Indian town.
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News Updated at : Wednesday, December 5, 2012
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