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The Indian Express : Editorials & Analysis


Friday, July 20, 2001

Kings turn paupers

Tribals have only tales of exploitation to narrate


IT was a meeting in the Capital of tribesmen from all over the country. But I found myself thrown among kings and princes, people who were so wealthy that they did not need any money. Darbar Singh Padei, among them, was more like Hamlet, a prince with a grudge. He was supposed to have been the monarch of all he purveyed in Satphude in Maharashtra. He wore no flowing robes. He wore a safari suit which looked as soiled and sad as his face. He spoke of the 128 villages of which he was once lord and master till they were taken from him by the government in the name of the Sardar Sarovar project. He and his villagers were promised Rs 100 crore as compensation 25 years ago which never came, says the king.

And he found out recently that the government of Maharashtra has, in fact, given one of the villages to the Tatas. He says he will not take this lying down. I hear the rumble of invisible and probably non-existent arms of an invisible army. Time has not stripped just him of his powers but also that of his kingdom, his palaces not of gold but of green trees.

But in 25 years the ‘kingdom’ of Satphude which has been with the government has lost all its forests. The ‘palaces’ are gone. The king is also apologetic that he and his people have to go to Surat and other places to make a living these days. But there was a time when ‘‘we grew everything we needed and therefore did not have to buy anything’’, he says. ‘‘Our currency was different from the rupee. It was a silver coin with a hole in the middle. Our women strung them in their necklaces.’’

Another king at the meeting was Pourus Surya from Jharkhand. His Highness who had a turban on his head spoke little while another Munda ‘king’ from the area swore that they had kept the self-rule system of the tribals intact through the ages from 6000 BC when they settled in the area. ‘‘We remained independent even during the British rule and now would throw out all non-tribals and all parties opposed to tribals from Jharkhand.’’

Premaram Karma, a Hindi teacher at Bhrumpal village was a chieftain, not a king. He too remembered the days when the tribals were so self-sufficient they they did not have to buy anything except salt and kerosene.

Among these kings and princes was a princess too. Not a blue-blooded one but a princess by her imperiousness, by the anger on her mane and her determination to take on all who try to uproot tribals from the soil.

She was Indu Nitam from Bastar. ‘‘We were bamboo eaters. Bamboo was our food. But after centuries, the Indian government on the advice of some agency of the United Nations tells us that we are responsible for depletion of bamboo forests. And they fenced us out of the bamboo forests snatching our food from us. But their ‘protection’ has harmed bamboo more than it was ever harmed,’’ she says.

The princes and princesses of the forests are today ready to take on the forces of darkness which are conspiring against them and their rights. They swore by Schedule V of the Constitution as if it was their main forest deity, their sole protector. They vowed to fight every move to amend it. ‘‘They will face our wrath,’’ said Nitam.
As I walked out, it was drizzling. The tribals too were walking out with placards proclaiming their right to jal, jungle and jamin, warning those who planned to plunder the natural wealth of the country.

Who was plundering it? Who is opposed to himself, to the air he breathed and the water he drank, I asked myself, as my eyes filled with drops of rain water. And I walked on with the procession that was going towards Rashtrapati Bhawan, where they set all their hopes now.

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© 2001: Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd. All rights reserved throughout the world.