India's 'tribals' suffer amid plenty
Bhubaneswar (Orissa) – India has more ‘tribals’ than the entire population of the United Kingdom. They live in resource-rich forests but in abject poverty compounded by decades of exploitation by commercial and political interests.
Most of them – somewhat like the aborigines of Australia – live in the tribal belt stretching from Maharashtra and Gujarat states in the west to the eastern states of Orissa and West Bengal cutting through the central states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
It is from the dense forests of this belt that Maoist rebels launched their ‘people’s war’ to overthrow the government of India more than four decades ago and thousands have died in this warfare.
Besides, mining by corporations has resulted in the forced displacement of multitudes of tribals in these forests. This region has also seen some of India’s most horrific incidents of communal violence.
Orissa in the east, where a quarter of the 36 million people are tribals, is one of the states that exemplifies the dire straits of the aborigines – a blot on India’s much touted economic growth. However, the same state also offer a glimmer of hope – a home for 10,000 tribal children, known as , in the capital city of Bhubaneswar – epitomising the way to alleviate their suffering.
When I met Dr. Achyuta Samanta, the founder of KISS, a 15-year-old boy from Class X, Nanda Kishore, was sitting next to him. He fled a Maoist training camp in the jungles of Malkangiri district barely three days earlier – barefoot, walking over 25 kilometres.
Kishore had been abducted from his home while he was on vacation. After his brave escape, he ran off to his school, and not to the police who seem to have little control in the tribal region.
He had suffered bruises on his hands and legs, doing drills and learning to operate AK-47 and plant bombs for a fortnight, but his optimistic smile was more prominent.
Sitting beside him in the school’s conference room was a 14-year-old tribal girl, Pupren Oram. Maoists recently killed her father in an attack in Sundargarh district – three years after he had saved her life by hiding her under a carpet during a similar ambush. She has now brought even her siblings to KISS.
A talented volleyball player representing her school in various district-level competitions, Oram wants to be in the national team when she grows up. And she seems confident, thanks to KISS, which provides not only sports facilities but also free accommodation, food, healthcare and education from Kindergarten to Post Graduation.
Neither Kishore nor Oram was nervous as they were sitting on either side of Samanta, a well-known educationalist and social worker in the country.
Maoists, who claim to fight on behalf of poor tribes, believe in the ‘annihilation’ of ‘class enemies’ by use of extreme violence and the installation of a ‘people’s government’. They also condone Islamist terrorism, which they see as fighting ‘US imperialism’.
According to a senior journalist and civil rights activist, Kedar Mishra, around 80 percent of Maoist cadres are either tribals or Dalits (formerly known as ‘untouchables’). ‘Ironically the leadership belongs to upper caste groups.