What a Bike Trip Through Odisha Taught Me About Tribals’ Plight
“I want to become a doctor and come back to serve our villagers,” said Arjun Kirsangi, who is studying at Kalinga Institute of Social Science, Bhubaneswar. I’m sitting with the 15-year-old at the rock altar-cum-community centre in this remote Upper Bonda village.
All around me is a dense forest full of fragrant sal, the temperature a good five degrees lower than Khairput, searing at 40 degrees, where I have just arrived from.
I’m at the end of my 1,100-km solo cycling expedition around Odisha that I undertook to better understand the land and forest rights issues of our indigenous populations. I should be relieved that my arduous journey has finally come to an end, but this young boy’s pointed questions leave me restless.
Arjun is showing me the bamboo bow and arrow with which he’d hunt as a child, earning him accolades in school archery competitions. In the same nonchalant way, he laments the lives lost in his village due to unavailability of timely medical services.
The public health centre is two kilometres away from their remote hamlet, but good doctors and the nearest hospital is more than 15 km away.
There is no public transport in the village, so everyone relies on jeeps. But by the time the vehicles arrive from Khairput, it is often too late.
“Why is it that even after 68 years of independence, development has still not reached us?” Arjun asks, his piercing eyes and stoic demeanour boring holes into my conscience.
This youngster had not articulated it in as many words, but he was asking me why urban, educated, thinking individuals who shape opinions over social media, elected governments who are supposed to look after their own people, and corporates who rake in billions in profits have consistently ignored the development of one of Odisha’s remotest tribes, the Bondas of Malkangiri district. I have no answers, so I just offer him a weak, helpless smile.
The Birth of #CyclingActivist
A month ago I came upon a video by Survival International. The report was about the Dongria Kondh tribes of Niyamgiri and their David-Goliath-like standoff against the corporate might of Vedanta, the UK-based mining conglomerate.
This got me interested in what drove the people’s struggle in Niyamgiri and also sparked a curiosity to know more about this state with 62 tribes, the highest concentration in any Indian state.
I set out on my toughest and longest solo cycling expedition yet, through the treacherous terrain of Odisha, India’s eastern jewel.
While I was aware that the expedition would be a physical and mental trial, I was not prepared for the emotional test I would have to undergo.
I travelled past several districts which have the highest tribal population in the state, including Primitive Vulnerable Tribal Groups. These included the displaced communities who fought for a living with companies such as Tata Steel in Kalinganagar, the Juang tribe of Banspal, Keonjhar, and the Monda tribes of Serenda.
Often, I was overwhelmed with the generosity of the locals who ensured that my trip went as smoothly as possible. It only contributed to my distress to see how little they had – and how little the country that they’re supposed to identify as theirs has done for them.
“How Can You Reimburse the Cost of Taking Away Someone’s Home?”
One situation that made me acutely realise my own privileges was when I chanced upon an unending stream of locals ferrying heavy loads of coal in plastic gunny bags, strung by old tyre tubes on their bicycles.
I got talking to one villager who told me that he and his peers had been forced off their own lands by the Odisha Mining Corporation and Hindalco when they took over the hills for mining.
As compensation, the villagers are allowed to come and collect coal, free of cost, each morning from 4 am to 5 am. For reimbursement, some had been given quarters. “Can they reimburse us fully for dislocating us from our homes,” he asked resignedly. The villagers collect about 125 kilos in one go, and their multiple journeys helped them earn about Rs 150 to Rs 200 by selling coal to hotels or brick makers.
That’s when a stinging realisation hit me – that the brightly lit malls and offices of our cities glow with the blood and sweat of these locals.
They’ve been rendered practically homeless and are now forced to come and collect dole from the companies who shoved them out – who in turn can comfortably keep up the pretence of benevolence in letting the villagers collect free coal.
Mining My Beliefs Amidst Mines
These 20 days made me question some fundamental beliefs.
What is development, after all?
Does being focussed on our myopic careers, salaries, and designations count as development? Is leading lives dependent on energy, consuming resources that we don’t produce, and living a credit-based lifestyle the definition of development?
Are the tribals regressive because they produce the food they eat, do barter trade for the materials that they need but don’t produce, worship the elements, and sacrifice their lives to protect these elements?
And then I arrived upon some fundamental decisions.
I vowed that I won’t actively participate in the capitalistic consumerism that is leading to the terrible exploitation of our indigenous people. I resolved that, as far as possible, I will not purchase any new commodity, barring food.
I will not indulge in leisure travel, partying, shopping, and eating out. With each of these acts, I am contributing to the mindless mining of resources which is displacing our countrymen from their land, and I cannot remain ignorant of these factors anymore after having experienced them first hand.
I also hope to find the strength to stick to my resolutions. My effort may only be a small step in the right direction, but I will do my part, and continue to trigger these conversations among our privileged elite circles, who live on in ignorance of the impact of their choices.
(Ankush Vengurlekar is an NGO communications consultant and trainer. He’s an environmentalist at heart and when he’s not working with NGOs, you’ll find him trekking in Himalayas or cycling through the country, populating his social feeds with photo stories. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter as @Karmatraveler)