Tuesday, October 11, 2016
A Dongria Kondh girl collecting forest food in Niyamgiri Hills. Source: Rita Wilaert/Flickr

The famous Dongria Kondh tribe wants benefits of modern age but through alternative means

“After 10 years or more, I see us as what we are today. We don’t want change. Change will mean that everything will be lost-our culture, our language. Some people are stepping out to study, but when they come back they’ve lost everything. What is a man without an identity?

These words from Lado Sikaka, a leader of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti underscores the connect Dongria Kondhs feel to their land and way of living. These are the same Dongria Kondhs who gained international attention for their long and successful struggle against global mining behemoth Vedanta Corporation which wanted to open up the Niyamgiri hills for bauxite mining.

The movement led by a small adivasi community of about 8,000 people was likened to many grassroots-level organic and contemporary struggles. However, the popular perception remained that this indigenous community does not want development. That they may yearn for the benefits of modern age was lost in the din of voices as varied as seeking their mainstreaming to leaving them on their own.

A recent study conducted by Kalpavriksh outlines a different aspect. It seeks to understand the views of the Dongria Kondhs on concepts like development, territory, culture and traditions in context of a changing, individualistic world. It draws attention to the needs of the community which they want to fulfil through means that are amiable to their culture and surroundings. 

That Niyamgiri hills, for the Dongria Kondh, are the living space of their God and ancestor, Niyamraja, is a well-established fact. The ‘sacred law’, as prescribed by Niyamraja, disallows unsustainable exploitation of the forest and the land at the behest of greed and instead favours an ‘economy of restraint’. Thus, the Dongria Kondhs reject fixed farming believing that shifting cultivation suits the forests better as it allows for the forest to grow into its own form with little or no human interference. 

Even well-intentioned government schemes like public distribution of ration have perpetually been at odds with the way of life of the Dongria Kondh. Consultation and monitoring of these schemes by involving the community in decision-making can go a long way in ensuring that funds are spent on the right things.

The Kondhs feel they need to graduate from kerosene as a fuel for lighting but they don’t want grid electricity as high-tension wires are hazardous in the dense forest and would mean big vehicles cutting roads into the forests to ferry electricity poles. They instead feel solar energy is a better option.

The Kondhs prefer solar energy to grid electricity as latter would require clearning of forest and construction of roads 

For education, the community prefers their children to gain knowledge which would help them deal with the external world better. They feel that government schools should use Kui (the local dialect) instead of Odiya as a medium of education and the curriculum should more suited to the way of life at Niyamgiri. The teachers also need to be more sympathetic about their ways and everyday struggles.

The residential schools run by the Dongria Kondh Development Agency far away from Niyamgiri don’t find much favour with the locals as many of the children, who have never been out of the safe community environment, eventually run away to be back home. Another reservation is that by staying away an entire generation would not learn the Dongria Kondh way of life and get exposed to an unsustainable form of modernity. They prefer if schools are located at central locations inside Niyamgiri. 

While many elders are against roads as these would bring greater flow of outsiders to interfere with their rather ‘safe society’, others feel if at all roads are to be built, they should be narrow enough to be accessed only by foot.  

If at all roads are to be built, they should be narrow enough to be accessed only by foot  

The people also felt that government tends to make wasteful expenditures by building community halls and temples. Instead money should be spent on creation of soil and water conservation structures, expansion of solar energy and setting up of day schools inside the hills. 

There is a need, therefore, not only to consult the Dongria Kondhs but also inform them about alternative, more locally appropriate modes of learning and education, healthcare, communication, and livelihoods, building on their own practices and knowledge.

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