Humans Without Borders: Atindriyo Chakraborty
The Bir Hors are a nomadic and traditionally hunting gathering tribe who number below 10,000 on this date, as per wiki wisdom. Presently, they have around sixteen settlements across Jharkhand and Odisha. Those are:
- NTPC-Bolongi, Karanjiya Block, Anukul District
- Kendu-mundi, Mayurbhanj District
- Dhardhora, Jashipur Block, Mayurbhanj District
- Chathan, Bisoi Block, Mayurbhanj District
- Tatiba, Barbil, Jharkhand-Odisha Border
- Dengam-Mariabanga, Block Khunta, Mayurbhanj
- Mahalibasa, Udala Block, Mayurbhanj
- Kular – Tolaipani Block, Deoghar District
- Tilaiboni – Deoghar
- Phalso-Kudar, Kolamati, Deoghar
- Bhandhabhuin, Jaminkera Block, Sambalpur District
- Anandnagar, Kulandi, Jaminkera Block, Sambalpur
- C-telenpali near Maneshwar, Dist. Sambalpur
- Uthansai, Udura Block, District Baleshwar
- Chhatrapur, Kuptipada Block, Baleshwar
- Poradiha, Kuridih, Baleshwar
- Mallarsai, by the boundary of Tata Sukinda Chromium mines, Jajpur District
These are the settlements we were told of by the people from Mallarsai where we visited on the 9th of April, 2015. The people have been staying there and in other settlements around for the past 25 years when the state of independent india finally gave up on its attempts to turn these nomadic hunter gatherers into agriculturists. The state has given up on the Bir Hors in every way. In 2008 there were 10,000 Mankadiya/Bir Hor people altogether, and most of them do not know their Birhor language. No information regarding how much this language survives have been collected by the state beyond the 1971 census. Literature of 2007 (Van Driem) suggests that around 2000 people and those of 1991 (Parkin) suggests that around 1000 people use this language.
The easiest way to go to Mallarsai is through the town of Chandikhol located in Jajpur District, Odisha. A bus can be taken from Cuttack or Bhubaneshwar to Chandikhol, and there are trains from Kharagpur. The Dhauli Express that leaves from Howrah goes up to Dhanmondal Station from where there the buses to Chandikhol.
Mallarsai is around 80 kilometers from Chandikhol, right at the boundary of the second biggest chromium mines of Asia, run by Tata. Chromium is highly carcinogenic. A 2004-05 study by CSE had shown how all the waterbodies around are contaminated by the carcinogen Hexavalent Chromium. Some friend from CSE and/or Down to Earth might have access to the study. We saw overburden heaps all around the mine-region. The way the heaps stand, rainwater is bound to carry much of the toxin straight into the waterbodies.
Picture 1: Mines and Overburden Dump as seen from the Mallarsai settlement.
The motorway that runs from Chandikhol to the mines runs through once-hillocks that have been blasted to ground level by rampant stone quarrying. This is a common phenomenon throughout Chhotonagpur. The hillocks must have been way taller once.
Picture 2: Hill killed by stone-quarry
Picture 3: Hill killed by Stone Quarry
A few kilometers down Chandikhol the Brahmani river cuts by. This is one of the rivers most harmed by the mining and activities of Schedule V Odisha. Endless small sponge-iron factories, stone-quarries, mines of iron and bauxite. Sankh and Koel rivers join a few kilometers upstream village Brahmanitarang in Sundergarh to form this river. Recently, the people of Brahmanitarang and other villages had united to halter butchery strides of the land-grabbing-demon of Rourkela Municipal Corporation. Brahmanitarng means ‘waves of river Brahmani’. The other two important rivers of the Odiya estuarine network are Baitarani and Mahanadi. Environmental flows, Ecosystems, Catchment and Irrigation dependant human livelihoods around all three have been brutally harmed by mining.
The rugged undulating landscapes continue for several miles and square kilometers on all sides, and so do eyesores of crushers and blasters, of dust that flies all day and all night from the tumbling hills. Halfway between Chandikhol and Tata Mines a big green gate says – ‘IDCO Welcomes You to Kalinganagar’. Tata has a factory in operation there, though it’s not a huge one by Messers Tata’s ‘standard’s. But what they did here while grabbing lands for this on 2nd January 2006 is quite big even by their standards. Many friends reading this will perhaps know of the Kalinganagar massacre. Hanuman seems to wink as he hugs Ram in a fresco drawn on a Hanuman-temple wall.
Picture 4: Tata Factory, Kalinganagar. 14 protesting tribals fell to police firing on 2nd January 2006 when Tata was grabbing their lands to build this Factory
Picture 5: Martyrs’ Pillar and plaque in memory of the 14 tribals who fell to bullets on 2nd January 2006 – adjacent to the factory site.
A few miles beyond Kalinganagar – a mining town replete with bars of foreign liquor, big overburden dumps of the Tata Chromium mines can be seen looming on the rightward horizons. There are some mahua and sal trees on both sides of the road but the ravages of rampant deforestation have left self-evident scars everywhere.
The Bir Hor settlement of Mallarsai is adjacent to the mine-boundary. It falls under Gram Panchayat Rasond in Block Sukinda, District Jajpur. There are less than one hundred families in the settlement. All of the Bir Hor/ Banjara/ Mankadiya/ Bene tribesfolk lie scattered across the rugged once densely forested and currently being densely mined climes of Central India stretching from Maharashtra to West Bengal. Other than the seventeen seats mentioned above, Bir-Hor folks can be found in some parts of Eastern Maharashtra and in Puruliya District of West Bengal. Many people call them Mankadia because in Mundari language Mankad means monkey and they eat monkeys. The sharp emic-etic divide is for academics to ponder over. These people call themselves whatever they wish to call themselves – Banhara, Bene, Mankadiya, Bir Hor.
Bir Hor means humans of the jungle. ‘Seat’ is an interesting construct in this context. This is a nomadic community. They used to roam the wilderness and live by hunting and gathering. But then, the state needed to forests to mine. And the forests became, by the grand white European notion of eminent domain, properties of the State. Independent India tried to get them settled in different places, and like it did with all other tribes, it tried to teach them to plough and grow crops for the market. The ‘market’, for the independent state, has nothing to do with the village ha’aT-s where these nomads, like all other tribes, often sell or barter out whatever they collect from the forests – mahua, mahul and sal leaves, mushrooms, lacquer, resisns etc – as and when needed. These ha’aT-s, in fact, are facing extinction too. There is nothing on the PESA Act, Schedule V of the Constitution or in any of the state-laws about the ha’aTs. No serious economic, legal or cultural work exists on the ha’aTs till date. For the ‘market’ the state and the global liberal economy understands, where making more money is the only rule of the game and big fishes are bound to gulp little fishes, the ha’aTs are alien, and like all aliens, they must be enemies to be wiped out to make way for many things – such as mineral ores, tourist guest houses, timber et cetera.
Once the forests became properties of the state (and then of the miners), the nomads had to be settled, had to be taught farming. But what do they know of settling and farming? They had roads of the world to live by, and their wisdom had grown around that. They had the forest to hunt and gather whatever resources they need to survive, and unlike us, they weren’t greedy enough to destroy forests, put poison on rivers and blast out hills through science and technology of progress and civilization – one that thrives by worshipping the production process and glorifying participation in that so that more and more money can be created. The nomads of the world have got nothing to do with this. There is no country for nomads. Thus, the country of India has given up on them.
There are several mines in Block Sukinda. Like in all mineral-abound districts of Odisha, the Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) has extensive mining lease and so does Tata. Jindal is making sharp inroads like in almost all the Schedule V districts on India. FECOR has bared its fecund fangs as well. None of them employ any of the Bir Hor people. Chromium is essential for steel, steel is essential for us.
Out here in Mallarsai, the working folks make very little money. Some of them get Rs. 100 per day by working as hamaals (loaders and unloaders) in the chromium mines. Some sell firewood for living and make around Rs. 70-80 every day. Selling of non-timber forest products in the local ha’aTs had been a major mean of sustenance, like it has been for almost all the tribes of Central India. But around here, the ha’aTs have mostly been stopped by joint actions taken by the Forest Department and the mining corporateers. There is also a CRPF battalion posted very close to the Mines, ostensibly to aid and abet such operations. The miners do not employ the Bir Hors except as hamals. Banjaras all over Central India have been known for the craft of ropemaking. We saw some of them weaving ropes by hand. Here’re two pictures:
Picture 6: Bir Hors of Mallarsai weaving ropes
Picture 7: Wisdom of weaving ropes pass on.
These ropes surely do not have many buyers around.
But there’s welfare. Government run primary school runs close by at the Karaputra hamlet. There is no Gram Sabha or PESA and hence specific classifications of settlements are not possible. There’s an anganwadi too, though there’s no sign for that. The angwadi house is also a church. It’s a mud-house with a haythatched roof. There is a hostel for Bir Ho children in Dhenkanal District at Phooljharan. It’s like an asham/cabins which are all parts of welfare and national development. Though there’s no other welfare scheme or policy operative in Mallarsai because there’s no PESA for Bir Hors, but there are voter cards. The whole block of Sukinda is owned and run by the OMC.
There’s a forest stretch of 52 acres close by. The Government had tried to settle them in a jungle-hamlet called Kumudiha in Sukinda Panchayat. Some pattas of 4 ‘decimals’ of land per family were also doled out. But the land was all rocky and there was no water. Agriculture has not been a way of life for them in any case. Hence, none of them stay at Kumurdiha. But they liked the lands at Dhudhitola at Panchayat Chingripal, at the same Police Station of Kalyapani where this settlement is. They want to go and settle their now. They have given the Forester some money and some poultry but the Forester has not reverted back on this ever since. There are several disputes relating to patta and land titles with the miners and, on seeing this, the nomads are too scared to roam. Having hardly been aware of the construct of ‘ownership of land as private property’, the waters seem to get murkier every passing hour. There is no state employee belonging to the Bir-Hor ethnicity in the region. There is no Bir Hor Sarpanch in any Gram Panchayat in Sukinda Block. There is no proper Gram Sabha around or Forest Rights Committee under the Forest Rights Act of 2005. The Forest Department harasses them day in and day out for collecting forest products, firewoods etc. They have been accused of deforestation. The question of hunting monkeys mustn’t arise because poaching is a grave offence as all states and civil societies agree. Disturbing events involving timber collectors of forests had happened a few days back from this date somewhere in Andhra/Seemandhra/Telengana. Thus, there is no way for them to sustain themselves – other than by occasional collection of timber, sale of ropes or by working as loaders and unloaders in the carcinogen-ridden mines of Chromium.
Welfare measures undertaken by socially responsible corporate is evident from the two tube wells in the hamlet – one was dug by the villagers with money from the NGO run by Tata, the other one from the one run by FECOR.
The situation is reflected by the cultural ‘bankruptcy’ of the people here. The website ‘Ethnologue’ says that there is a Bir Hor language classified as Austro-Asiatic, Munda, North Munda, Kherwari, Mundari. Though this language has no known dialects, it has 55%–72% linguistic similarity with Santhali, Ho, Mundari, and Munda. Use of this language is apparently spread over southern Hazaribag, southern Palamau, Singhbhum, and Ranchi districts of Jharkhand; Raigarh District of Chhattisgarh; Sundargarh, Kalahandi, Keonjhar, Mayurbhanj, and Sambalpur districts of Odisha; Puruliya District of West Bengal; and an Unspecified district of Maharashtra. However, as mentioned before, hardly one to two thousand people must be speaking it. The Bir-Hors of Mallarpur have forgotten their vernacular language. When asked about their ritual-carnivals, they only mentioned of the ritual of Christmas and the rituals of Makar-Sankranti, Rajoh and Nuakhani that are prevalent all over Odisha. The people we talked to could not recall any own parabs or carnivals of the Bir-Hors. Wikipedia hints at their cult myths though. They have a divergence from the prevalent Mundari conception of Bonga (the gods) and Haparam (the ancestral spirits) – for them Bonga and Haparam exist on different planes whereas for most other adherents of the prevalent Mundari norm, the gods and the ghosts are on the same plane. Wikipedia also says that the Bir Hor people worship the sun god Sing Bonga and his wife the moon goddess Chandu Bonga in the wintry months of Pous and Magh. Bright carnivals must have blazed among their ancestors in some different valley, near some other hill in some other forests of Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Bengal and Maharashtra in ancient times when there were perhaps no Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Bengal or Maharashtra but the Bir Hors of Mallarpur, Sukinda Block, do not seem to recall of any today. Their parabs have been eaten by time and history.
This ongoing cultural death is reflected by how the Bir Hor children are taunted by children from other tribes when they go to the state run adivasi schools and hostels – many of which dot the whole stretch from ChhoTa Nagpur to Nagpur. There is one special hostel for Bir Hor children in the district of Mayurbhanj. But Hostel Authorities refuse admission to Bir Hor children who stay in other districts. This school is none other than the Ongarpoda Mankadiya Ashram, Jashipur Block, Mayurbhanj District. According to the villagers of Mallarpur the District Collector of the Mayurbhanj has himself said this. Imagine having to meet the DC to get your kid admitted to a school which is a few hundred miles away from your home. Next, imagine the DC telling you that you can’t do that.
Picture 8: No country for nomads = No schools for baby nomads
Well for that you will also have to imagine that your ancestors had been hunter gatherers once. And they had nothing but the wild free of nature and the mad roads of the world to call their own. But then the forests got ‘owned’. Things the jungles would give them – monkeys, squirrels, mushrooms, leaves, barks, wood, flowers – everything got ‘owned’ by ‘other’ people – most of whom were real people like the king or the alderman or the shaman used to be, but by entities which have many people, much money and much power. And you may imagine that you have nothing to call your own, you don’t know how to own, how to work the land with the things you own, how to make the land give you crops, minerals, factories, power-stations, offices, schools, hospitals, zoological gardens, tribal research centers, shopping malls, humans who can kill other humans to safeguard all these that you own and money – you don’t know all that, and only a few people like you who have nothing but the roads and nature to live by; imagine you have lost your gods because you never had any construct called ‘my god’; imagine you don’t know what your language is because you never had any construct called ‘my language’.
Now we know how our children can be kicked out from the gates of the school hostel by the District Collector. Now we know a little bit of how the banjara community of the Katipurti Nagar mohalla shacks adjoining one of the boundary walls of the Tata Chromium mines in the Mallarsai hamlet of Block Sukinda, District Jajpur, State of Odisha are.
Picture 9: Just a silhouette in sunlight – the light of Sing Bonga!
KaTapurti, Mallarsai, Sukinda, Jajpur, Odisha
Nicholas, Pronab, Atin
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