Wednesday, November 14, 2012

IN THE HINTERLANDS | Sundergarh: Happy Habitat


Sundergarh: Happy Habitat

By Sajan Gopalan

Since there are no medical facilities, there are no major health problems here" says Bishwajith Das in the Bengali flatbay near Baratang, a two hour walk from the  Andaman Trunk Road. The village people  have a wry sense of humour, but this time he was not joking, just being matter of fact.
Sundergarh, as the name denotes, is a beautiful village. Small hillocks, verdant plains, gurgling streams and a general air of calm and serene beauty.
It was with Biju Gurudasan the Pradhan of the Panchayat that we travelled to Khara Nallah a Ranchi Basti a two hour walk from the Andaman Trunk Road.
"This Panchayat has a population of about 3000 living in about 750 families scattered all around the Panchayat." Biju said. "But a look at the map of the Panchayat will reveal certain interesting features. Village population comprise mostly of Bengalis and Ranchis. Bengali farmers came as settlers after turmoil in East Pakistan. But the tribes of Ranchi - Kharia, Munda and Uraon were brought in early twenties since they are experts in clearing forests.  It was believed that they could also resist malaria.  First generation of Bengalis was brought here in the early 60's. But instead of giving them habitation in one or two accessible locations they were scattered around places in distant interior forests adjacent to the sea front. This was to create an impression among Burma and Thailand that these Islands are inhabited by Indians. But settling at such difficult terrains has created problem for all these people. They say that Sundergarh and the Bastis where they live have not changed in the last 50 years.
And there are places and forest camps like Pavaji which can be accessed by a five hour walk and also crossing the creek through a dinghi where there only two people live.
There had to be roads linking Adajig and Bolcha. Then the most difficult path to Ranchi Flat Bay, Bengali Flat Bay and Khara Nallah."
We do not know whether this spatial planning of scattered settlements was intentional. But one thing is sure. The Bastis have not changed much in the last fifty years. No roads could be constructed and no schools, hospitals, Anganwadis and such stuff.
We reached Khara Nallah in a two hour climb through the slippery hills. Beyond a make shift church there are about ten small thatched houses. In the courtyard you cannot miss the presence of the army of pigs, ducks, dogs, cats and hen. The ward member is a smart matriculate who with her pleasant smile will lead you to one of the houses.
Again the most amazing fact is the way in which they deal with their Pradhan. They tease him, make fun of him, play pranks with him, and make him sit on the floor and all this in the midst of a hearty laughter and revelry. No deprivation of modernity can defeat their spirit for survival.
We all sit with them on the floor kept clean with regular wash with cowdung slurry. Then they told us about those days when they came there first, about the jungles, early settlements, farming and malarial deaths. They tell us how they enjoy life with the home made rice beer called Handia and sing songs late into the night.
Walking back to the main road we found something very curious - a lot of unfinished toilets. Development statistics suggest that this panchayat has only 1% household with sanitary toilets. It is a shame in modern India which has decided to stop open defecation by 2014! And a very dedicate NGO took the task of constructing two pit latrines for the whole community. They will provide all basic things except the surrounding wall which has to be built by the community. Strangely no one has bothered to create surrounding walls and continue with their practice of open defecation in the vast jungles around.
Probably what we perceive as problems in the urban context is not valid in such villages. And there could also be cultural aspects to it.
All these were travels into unfamiliar territory in these islands. What we have seen are isolated stories of under development. I don't dare to call it poverty. Because, despite the deprivation of modern amenities, they seemed to be happy. Atleast happier than their urban counterparts who live in a mood of perpetual misery.
All these people were brought to the Andaman Islands as part of a major 'colonisation' scheme. In hindsight it is strange to think that a newly formed country which has come out of a huge colonial yoke decided to call one of their major developmental scheme as a process of colonization. It could have been a Freudean slip. This part of the world originally belonged to a few Negrito and Mongoloid tribes. The British colonization programme is the story of a genocide not much reported in history.
There has been a lot of national and international attention on the Jarawa question. But not much on other people who were destined to flee their homeland and forced to make these islands their second home.
All the Bengalis, Ranchis, Tamilians, Moplahs, Bantus, Karens and many others who live in these interior villages are refugees of development. Their habitats are deployed in such a bizarre fashion that even road connectivity continues to be an almost impossible task. Thus they will be denied schools, hospitals, electricity, or any such modern facility.
But in these travels we have found that they have an unusually candid sense of humour which helps them circumvent all pressures of adversity. They are also simple, innocent and probably little gullible.
"There was a time when the Ranchiwallah will give all his month's salary to the local grocer telling him to take whatever is due to him and return if anything is left" said Zubair.
The first generation has adapted so well that they feel a sense of 'shanthi' and do not want to leave the place.
But the next generation is restless. They don't want this peace. They want to grow and that means moving out.
 This is the same everywhere in the world. Concept of development is moving to the next big city. And this is what big capital wants. They can buy land and send the people to the nearest city where they will be forced to work as wage labourers. The same picture is what we see in Port Blair. People are selling the five acre ancestral land for meager amounts and go in search of a brighter future. They end up in the city slums.
Strange that this is conceived as development and no alternate locally relevant path is sought. For example, in all the villages we visited organic agriculture was a way of life. With a little input from outside this can be made more attractive. Social institutions can be set up which absorbs trained youngsters from the local community. Non-conventional energy sources can provide better and cheaper energy. Ecotourism can attract genuine travelers whose spending will go directly to the local economy.
If you think about it, possibilities are enormous. Problem is that no one thinks in these lines.
Development ultimately is the steam rolling by big capital on the gullible countryside. Resistance to this process is possible if we start at the bottom of the pyramid.

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