Dongaria Kondh Adivasis
Travelogue from the world of Dongria Kondh Adivasis
Conflicting statements have always puzzled people and generate the curiosity to find the truth. Of late, I have been reading a lot about human right’s issues, pollution, concern for environment, NGO’s allegating industries globally and the melting of glaciers. Being in India and deeply concerned about Indian issues, I decided to take a call on Vedanta's Lanjigarh, Niyamgiri issue. Traveling via Raipur and road to Lanjigarh was an experience. As I reached Lanjigarh finding Vedanta Industry was never difficult. I could coordinate with a local who took me on route to the Vedanta Lanjigarh Factory.
My local Guide name was "Majhi". My conversation started with a series of queries as when this factory Started? What is the issue? Why so much controversy? and Why only NGOs that also International NGOs taking so much interest in Indian Industries? TATA's in Singur, Reliance in Uttar Pradesh and POSCO in Orissa are other names that always puzzled me. The way Tata's , Vedanta , Reliance, Birla, Godrej, Mahindra's and Mittal's , have shaped India into a Global force, no doubt the world is taking a strong presence of India in international scenario.
Its already 4 in the morning. Dongria Kondhs are early birds. I can see a lot of their community members gathering at center location of the village. Soon they will disperse for their daily work. The whole family works and eats together in the field. They generally travel to their orchards and collect fruits, which are either for sale or for their own consumption. The younger generation is more inclined to help their parents in the field or at home. Kumtadi, who was standing just behind me informed that Dongria Kondhs normally practice shifting cultivation. 'Agyan', Dongria grow a variety of crops which include fruits, vegetables, pulses and cereals. A Haru (piece of land) is cultivated for about four years and than left for another 4-5 years for it's regeneration. What a natural process.
I saw Majhi coming from a distance along with 4-5 members of his community. All of them were carrying a small basket on their head. When he came close I could see these baskets filled with fruits and vegetables. Majhi was looking very happy, as he was returning a favour by handing over these fruits and vegetable to one of the Dongria friend in the village. Majhi smiled and said, 'Agyan' you too have got up very early, like us. He showed me the quality of fruits which were very good. Kumtadi told me that not all fruits are used for consumption or barter, some of them are sold in market also, but they are very less. We normally exchange fruits in our own community only. Barter is quite famous in Dongria community, Majhi informed.
They grow pineapple, banana, jackfruit, and papaya in plenty. They also grow high quality turmeric and ginger that has the highest demand in the state. Despite that, due to no marketing facility they often get very low price for their produce and all the profit is usurped by the middlemen.
Kumtadi wanted me to meet some of the women of her community in another village. She asked me get ready fast, as they would be waiting for us. I got ready and moved with Kumtadi. On the way Kumtadi told me that Dongria Kondhs live in close harmony with nature, and that is the reason that they have developed natural arts within them. The colours, lifestyle, our dresses, ornaments, dance, music and in our crafts, you will find a theme directly resembling nature. The Dongria women are extremely good artist, and they make beautiful embroidered shawls called "Kapda Ganda". This embroidery is very neat and has sharp piece of needle work and is always filled with bright natural colours. The Dongria women also like playing traditional musical instruments called "Goani". Dongria women like singing, dancing and celebrating the occasions. Suddenly, I could hear Kumtadi singing. It was like a singing of Humming Bird that hums during rains. Kumtadi was custodian of a soft voice, which had a heart of simplicity, honesty and rhythm of nature. She was smiling and continued singing till we reached the near by village. I tried matching her voice so many times, but failed to come up to her level. This was very rare, that I enjoyed loosing to a traditional woman.
I could see 7-8 women of Dongria Kondh community waiting with scores of Traditional Embroidery Work, Earrings, Bangles, Goani, Dhapu (a drum instrument) and colourful costumes. What an amazing collection and combinations. They are world class designers of their own traditional art.
I was amazed to see the minute work the women of Dongria Kondh were doing. They were working in groups like a Self Help Group and producing the best of their traditional art. The colour combinations of the minute work and finishing were enough to compare them with any professional hand. I could easily make out that given a chance their traditional art can surely become a strong alternate source of their income. When asked Kumtadi informed that like fruits, theses pieces of traditional art are used for barter only but a small number is also sold in the market.
Why confine this tremendous art only within the community, and why not it be admired and shared with millions of art appreciators. I was thinking of a mode through which their traditional art would get them better economic results. What they need is an organized way of marketing and promotion of the products. I decided to speak to Majhi about this issue. I was sure he would able to convince them.
I wanted to see the songs and dances of Dongria women in a group. Kumtadi smiled and said, 'Agyan' they will not dance in front of the elders. I noticed few elderly people were sitting and adjusting the drums and other traditional music instruments. Their voice echoed in the Niyamgiri Hills and the rhythm of their steps actually blossomed the land.
It was so divine to be with the community which is practically away from all controversies, but dragged into it by some very mean and selfish interests.
What prompted so much interest in Dongria Kondhs?
It will be a long night, with the people you hardly know, but still feel safe with them. Kumtadi made me sleep inside her house. The house was clean and well ventilated. Majhi had left for his village by now. Before leaving Majhi had told me that I should be careful about mosquitoes as deadly malaria is quite prominent in this region. He had also informed me that recently there were many cases of malaria and help came from only Vedanta for the treatment.
Kumtadi was sleeping next to me on the floor. "It's a strange feeling to be with the unknowns and yet feel quite secure because of them only". Kumtadi in her broken language tried to explain me the different notions flowing around about their community. "We are made international figures, though we clearly don't allow people to peep in our community life". It was very clear that, like her, none of the Dongria Kondhs like the way they were being presented and paraded in various forums, particularly by International NGOs.
The night was getting darker and as usual, I was going into my thinking mode. So many questions and their temporary replies, but one question that still traces my mind is that what prompted so much interest in Dongria Kondhs?
A primitive tribe, not written by anyone so far about their habits, liking and disliking, their temperaments and their actual culture, but only about their resentment towards Vedanta project . Is it a spread of perception by International NGOs against Vedanta Bauxite project or is it their actual concern about the Dongria Kondh Adivasis. My heart does not allow me to believe that these International NGOs are actually concerned about Dongria Kondhs Adivasis at all. To be honest Dongria Kondhs have become a subject of their survival and livelihood by way of funding. The issues are directly connected with Bauxite mining in India forget about Orissa. Vedanta happens to be only the company who is putting a lot of investment to built up Bauxite mining in India after a gap of good many years.
Then why Dongria Kondhs Adivasis have been involved in the entire issue?
In a democratic country like India, the softer issues like Environment & Forest, Pollution, Tribal, Land acquisition, Displacement etc. become more of political issues rather than issues of concern. The International Activist NGOs have understood to exploit these issues to their advantage and stall big projects in India. But it is pathetic to involve such peace loving, Dongria Kondh tribe for their personal agenda. You can see every other International NGO or people having now connected with tribal issues, getting unnecessary media attention and prominence.
"Dongria Kondhs Adivasis have not authorized any person to talk on their behalf", Majhi
Kumtadi said, "Dongria Kondhs are very peaceful people and the families remain united. We care for people around us and have high mutual respect. Though the man of the house earns, but we females have equally important role. The eldest of the family and village elderly are highly respected. You will not find our children, dis-respecting their parents or village elders". It was amazing to feel the organized family structure of Dongria Kondhs. I wanted to know about Kumtadi's marriage, she blushed. "Haidi" (marriage) is very auspicious and we prefer marriage, only once we become adult. My instant question was weather she had a love marriage? Kumtadi started laughing, and refused "No No…No love marriage, it is all arranged marriage. I got married 3 years back". What about your children, I asked laughingly. "Two, both girls, the darlings of their father", she said.
We could now see some structures like a village from a distance; it was where Kumtadi lived with other people of her community. As we reached close, we could see some ladies and a few male members sitting under a tree. We walked straight towards Kumtadi's house. Her house was like a hut, built on a strong floor and had two partitions. Majhi told me there is one big room and a "Dhapa" (small room). There is also one small balcony in the front. Kumtadi took me inside her house. I could see a small kitchen with many utensils, clean drinking water stored in metal pots, a small "chulah" and a "lantern". The house was clean and well ventilated. Her kids were being taken care by mother-in-law, "Kustaddi", who was sitting next to a cowshed, which Majhi told me is called 'Hada Sala'.
Kumtadi introduced me to other Dongria females, I can recollect only two names, 'Rami and Rinjai'. My mind was ticking towards so many questions. Is it the same Dongria Tribe that is being projected for blood shed and demonstration by a number of NGOs and individuals. I can bet, these NGOs would have never interacted with them and now I'm also sure they have a different undisclosed agenda. Majhi told me, "Dongrias do not interact with strangers and are very simple. Our innocence and non-connectivity with other communities deprive us from correct information. We believe what people tell us. We are known for living in our own system". This was strange. Then how come so much is available on the net and in print about Dongrias speaking about so many things – pollution, demonstration & protests and violent behaviour?
"You must be referring to some photographs being circulated where Dongria Kondhs Adivasis are holding some banner against Vedanta factory. These banners with slogans are completely misleading. Dongria Kondhs Adivasis have held some banners, but they do not know what is written on them. If you see who all are holding the banners, you would understand what I mean." continued Majhi.
"Dongria Kondhs Adivasis do not know who talks about them, their desires, their issues, and their sentiments to the outside world. Dongria Kondhs have not authorized any person to talk for Dongrias. So much is being spoken but so far we have just laughed it away. But now it is affecting us. Dongria Kondhs Adivasis privacy is being exposed by these NGOs. We have lived in poverty for years, with no schools, no medicines, no doctors and over and above the epidemics. Today, Rami's daughter goes to a nearby Vedanta Child Care Center with my son and daughter. Two females from this village learnt making Leaf-plates. They are getting more money now and their living standard has changed, we have medical facility", said Majhi. Then who is this Kumuti? who has been advocating on behalf of Dongria Kondhs. "Oh Kumuti, he is from a village called Kendubardi, and has two sons and two daughters. We heard he has been talking to a lot to foreigners and NGOs and has also travelled abroad. He has been talking on his own, and we do not support him. I told you, Dongrias are shy and do not engage in day to day conversation with outside world. Perhaps the NGOs and few people are taking advantage of it", said Majhi.
Majhi, Kumtadi, Tudu, Rami, Rinjai, Kustaddi and so many Dongria Kondhs Adivasis I met. Perhaps their innocence is being taken for granted. I did not find any person other than their community member interacting with them, or Dongria Kondhs engaged in any kind of conversation with any stranger. This made me accept that the voice of Dongria Kondhs circulating all over the net and the world, is actually the voice of certain NGOs and people, with an agenda of their interest, and certainly, not for the benefit of Dongria Kondhs.
It's late and Kumtadi is not allowing me to leave, she has cooked dried fish with rice for me. She has also brought "Irpi Kalu" (it’s a natural liquor) in a bowl. By that time Majhi had brought "Mada Kalu", which he described as palm juice. Kumtadi is a good cook; more so, I could feel her warm hospitality. I have to spend the night in this beautiful village with so very much genuine people.
"Dongria Kondh popularity being encashed by NGOs", Majhi
My anxiety for Dongria Kondh was taking a new turn. I was trying to match few steps, but though I failed the happiness of being with them was enough to keep me, as well as them smiling. Their rituals are their own and they want to live with them.
I could not find Majhi as he must be busy celebrating his festival, but I could make a friend "Kumtadi", who too belonged to Dongria Kondh. We could only connect through gestures and greetings. Kumtadi wanted to speak to me so much, but I could not understand what she actually said. While searching for someone who could interpret her language, I came across a gentleman who voluntarily offered to help me out with the needful. My interest was, "What is this festival and how it is celebrated?". He spoke something to Kumtadi and the reply I received, "Vedanta is destroying our culture". A question raised on the reply received. I looked at Kumtadi as if trying to relate the reply and could see only a broad smile. I asked again, "Would you teach me how you dance?". The gentleman again asked her, she said something and the reply came, "Vedanta is creating pollution". I was again surprised as I still found Kumtadi smiling. But I needed one more question to ascertain that there is something wrong. My next question was a simple three word, "Who are you"? and came the reply, I'm a social activist. I could see Kumtadi was still smiling. I could get all the replies instantly. I remembered Majhi telling me that the Dongria Kondhs reply something else, but it is published something else.
I thought of Majhi and here he comes. I narrated same questions and the replies changed. Kumtadi knew one of the tribal women who learnt the art of making leaf-plate, vastly used in rural India for having meals. Kumtadi was so proud to inform that she was earning more money than ever before. Kumtadi explained that the leaf-plates are made of Siali and Sal leaves and are quite durable. A large women group was formed and many women from Dongria Kondh community learnt this art of making plates from leaves, said Majhi.
Knowing the Festival, I wanted to know more about Dongria Kondhs and the deity, "Niyam Raja". Majhi and Kumtadi, smiled as if telling me what I exactly want to know. The one which is being spread or the one which is the truth. Of course I wanted to know the truth. Three of us, we moved from the festival site towards the Bansdhara. The green trees and the lush green mountains always attract me and bring me close to the nature. Shortly we reached moving through the dense forest with so much sound of birds, and a breathe of fresh air. Majhi asked me to wait with Kumtadi promising to return instantly. I was sitting with Kumtadi on the bank of Bansdhara and admiring her so very natural beauty. The tribal bangles in her hands and a variety of nose rings and more number of pierced earrings were just part of her tribal gracious presence. I could not make out the beads of her necklace as they resembled a natural fruit. Kumtadi, offered me one of her bangle and her necklace. I wore them too, but could not match amazing natural beauty of Kumtadi.
Here was Majhi running back with a book in his hand. Agyan, see this book "The Kandha of Orissa – Sacred Objects and Places". The book published in January 2006, by the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Research and Training Institute, Bhubaneswar . Majhi said, We Dongria Kondh worship Earth, entire Earth is sacred for us. Among the Gods worshiped by Dongria Kondh is Niyam Raja, a male deity. Niyam Raja, does not have any permanent adobe in any village. A hill at a place, Hundijali in Niyamgiri Mountain Range, situated about 20 kilometers away from here is worshipped as a sacred place, the main place of the deity Niyam Raja. This was a news to me, as all the NGOs and reports by various groups claimed Niyam Raja placed at the Vedanta's Mining area. I asked Kumtadi, as if trying to ascertain what Majhi said. Kumtadi smiled as if agreeing to what Majhi said. Before I could question, he showed me the proof of what he said, prominently mentioned in the book.
I was amazed at the kind of misleading information about these innocent adivasis being spread by few prominent NGOs and wires, not belonging to India. With no trace of pollution, scores of health facilities, education and measure to improve their monthly income, what all do you expect from a corporate in terms of looking after local community, to be precise Dongria Kondhs. Are some foreign NGOs and their blogs and wires biased against Vedanta? Majhi wanted Kumtadi to reply, interpreting what she said, "Agyan, Dongria do not know what is being written about them. Very few people, hardly 2-3 speak to the outside world. They do not talk what we want, rather they never speak to us before talking. So many people fighting for Dongria Kondh, not for the interest of Dongria, but for their personal interest. "Dongria Kondh Popularity is being encashed by NGOs".
Vedanta Resources, Youth
"Saberi goes for learning, my son Kame goes for eating at Vedanta Phuldumere Child Care Centre, Lanjigarh", Majhi
It is an amazing feeling to travel in the forests of 'Niyamgiri 'of Kalahandi in Orissa. I believe, though it is difficult to except the change with pre-notions, but it is always a satisfaction if they are proved wrong. I'm continuing from where I left.
Majhi was waiting for me much before I reached the village tea stall and greeted me with his traditional tribal style. A simplicity wrapped in dignity. He had promised me to show the Vedanta factory. I had read on wires, referred by various reputed NGOs about its pollution and disposal of waste material in the streams.
After having a good cup of village tea I began my journey to take a complete round of the factory, of course with my guide, Majhi. The lush green forest is a divine to watch and feel. As I'm use to trekking I could match up with Majhi. In between he offered me some local fruits. I was a little reluctant to have because of hygiene issue. Majhi could sense my hesitation and smiled "have it please, we have learnt to wash fruits and vegetables before eating". I smiled but a little embarrassed. Passing through the lush green forest, Majhi showed me few small streams which must be tributaries of a large stream, "Agyan (this is how he was calling me) these small streams have sweet water and their sound is beautiful in the night, it is like a musical instrument". He smiled and informed that some people even talk about pollution in these small streams". My instant question was, are these small streams polluted? "No". Till now I have not seen any pollution happening in these streams. He lifted some water in his hand and drank. "See it is not polluted, you drink it". Going by his confidence I took some water from the stream in his style and drank. He was correct, the water was actually very good, drinkable. My next query was, "if so many NGOs and people talk about streams being polluted, there must be some truth about it, and what about 'Bansdhara'?. He was quite innocent in this reply, "If I cannot see any pollution, you cannot see any pollution, my people cannot see any pollution, than how come only these NGOs see pollution.” We will reach the 'Bansdhara' shortly and you can taste the water there as well.
Majhi thought of educating me on pollution, he said "Agyan, the pollution in stream need a passage which is not there. The factory and the stream needs to be connected somehow, which is not there, so how will there be pollution". I remembered Majhi telling me the human waste being projected as factory pollution. Majhi said "people talk about Dongria tribe being affected by factory pollution. Do they know only about 15% Dongria tribe live in Kalahandi and rest live in Rayagada. Do they know it is difficult to interact with Kondhs as very few know our "Kui" language. I'm one of the very few who can talk and understand little English. I have seen Dongria talking something else and it is written something else". There are three tribes here, Dongria, Kuttia and Jharnia . All are peace loving.
Crossing through the woods we reached 'Bansdhara', the stream referred by many NGOs being polluted by Vedanta factory. I was searching for some pollution in the stream which has been repeatedly seen and mentioned by NGOs in their various reports available on the net, actually I wanted to prove them factually right. I was wondering, how true Majhi was, "if there is pollution and it is being seen by NGOs and some people, then I should also see it. I don't understand how can they see which Majhi and I can not see".
I asked him about how educated he was? to which he replied, not much it's only that so many people from outside have come in last few years, and most of them spoke English, I learnt a little bit of this language. I asked about education to his children. His eyes twinkled, as he mentioned his daughter's name 'Saberi' who is 3 years old and his son 'Kame' who is 4 years old and are going in 'Phuldumer' Child Care Center of Vedanta. Child care Center of Vedanta?, in these hilly villages?. "Yes, they have a number of Child Care Centers and many children from Phuldumer and Khemdipadar go in these centres. Vedanta people teach our children with toys and the children also get good food. My daughter is very happy and I drop her every day. My son goes only for the food, he smiled. Saberi has learnt so many words that I have learnt in this age. Vedanta is also opening up a Child Care Center at 'Palberi'. Dongria and other kondhas children are very excited going in Child Care Centers. Something our children had never seen.
By this time we had crossed the 'Bansdhara', which was less than a kilometer away from the Vedanta factory. I actually forgot I had come to see pollution, factually I couldn't find any. Taking a complete round of the factory and not finding any sort of pollution was quite satisfying. I couldn't relate to what I have been reading in NGOs reports.
It is most difficult to undo the mind which has already been fed with much of negative information. Perhaps, the solution lies in actually seeing and believing your own eyes. Something I have always been advocating.
"Timely medicine, saved my son", Majhi
Majhi told me that there are basically two issues one, people who need development of Lanjigarh and the second, who desperately wish to stop every positive thing happening in Lanjigarh. Majhi said, "I have seen the poverty in Lanjigarh. My son had no food for two days and was suffering from high fever, Malaria. No doctor, no medicine, I almost lost my son. when in night my friend 'Tudu' came with a Health Jeep with a doctor and medicine, my son was saved. Later, I came to know that this Jeep was Mobile Health Van of Vedanta”. I was surprised by his statement. Here a poor villager was talking about medical facility at door-step by Vedanta. I wanted to know more about the Infrastructure development in terms of Roads, Bridges, Community Centers etc. He asked me to stop the car and showed me the bridge we were crossing and said, "this Bridge you are crossing has been made by Vedanta. Everybody uses and still they talk against the company. They cannot go to the market without crossing this Bridge”.
We realized that we reached the Factory. A neat, clean and tidy place, here I was standing in front of one of the most talked about factories in the World. I asked Majhi to take me for a round as I wanted to see the forest, the river, and of course the much talked about pollution. We walked and Majhi made me sit in a small shop for a village tea. Other villagers were also sitting there, they all knew about Vedanta. With a little conversation I could find that they were employed youth, perhaps came for a little break. One of them 'Janak' told me that he was employed by Vedanta and he has a regular job. Proudly he said”I have build this Factory”.
Majhi told me all these 7 people work in Vedanta factory. I wanted to see the forest and also the stream, that Vedanta factory was polluting. Majhi replied “what pollution?? People misunderstand hot streams as gas leakage. Human waste in river is told as factory pollution. People in Lanjigarh want to come out of poverty. We have been living in poverty with no food, no drinking water and no schools for our children. When something is changing people from outside Lanjigarh come and create a problem”.
There must be something, why everyone is talking about. I decided to take entire round of the Vedanta factory it was getting late and we decided to meet at the same tea stall tomorrow.
Written by Shobhana
Edited by the Editors of Adivasis.com