Tribal communities in Chhattisgarh enter the election fray to stand up for themselves

  • Tribal people form a significant part of Chhattisgarh’s population and in Bastar region of the state, they are the dominant group. However, this has not translated into real development for them.
  • Even the little visible development in the form of roads is believed to be for the industry and security forces in the region while the tribal people continue to strive for basic facilities like water, electricity, food and their own land.
  • Realising that no one else is going to work for them, a tribal group has now fielded two candidates in the 2018 Chhattisgarh assembly elections despite huge pressure from tribal leaders in established political parties. They are confident of making a huge impact and said that they are here to stay.
  • As Chhattisgarh goes to polls next week, Mongabay-India brings you the final in the three-part pre-election series from the state.

This is the third article in a three-part series on the role of environment in the upcoming elections at Chhattisgarh. Part One describes the paradox of development in the resource-rich state and Part Two examines the impact of coal mining on the ecology of Korba.

It is a sunny afternoon of October 26 on the outskirts of Bastar in Chhattisgarh. Only 90 minutes are left for candidates to withdraw their candidature for the first phase of Chhattisgarh’s legislative assembly elections in which 18 constituencies are up for polls.

Pappuram Nag, who is fighting the assembly elections this time as an independent candidate from the Jagdalpur constituency, gets a call on his mobile. His expression changes within minutes and he carefully starts listening to the call, leaving others next to him clueless. But a couple of minutes into the call and everyone, including the Mongabay-India reporter, understands what the conversation is about.

On the other side of the line is a local influential person from the tribal community, who belongs to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, pressurising Nag to withdraw his candidature. He is even asked to come to the office of the collector earlier than the scheduled time of 5.30 p.m. so that they can somehow convince him to withdraw his name.

Though taken aback with the call, Nag, who was coming back after meeting a group of people in a village in the nearby forest area, maintained his composure and deflected all the pressure.  

“This had to happen. If tribal people vote together as a group then we can be very influential and the votes of such a group can be decisive,” Nag told Mongabay-India.

Pappuram Nag is fighting elections from the Jagdalpur constituency. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

In the 2018 assembly Chhattisgarh assembly elections, Nag, who belongs to Dhurwa tribe, has thrown his hat in the ring from the Jagdalpur constituency which incidentally is a seat for the general category.

Nag has been a social worker and has been working among the tribal areas to ensure their welfare. 

Tribals finally decide to fight their own battle

Nag is associated with ‘Sarv Aadivasi Samaj’ – a tribal organisation working in the Bastar region for decades. It took Nag all his willpower to withstand the pressure from influential politicians wanting him to withdraw his candidature. But not everyone, who first decided to fight the election, were able to.

One among the group of three candidates, who had initially decided to fight the elections in the Bastar region with the backing of Sarv Aadivasi Samaj, backed out due to the pressure on the last day of the withdrawal of nominations. Now, of the remaining two candidates, Nag is fighting from Jagdalpur constituency and Sukhranjan Usendi from the Antagarh constituency, both as independent candidates.  

The group is counting on the basic social welfare work that it has carried out among the tribal villages over the last past two decades.  

Prakash Thakur of the Sarv Adivasi Samaj while explaining the reason behind fielding candidates in elections. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

“Our candidates faced a lot of pressure and people suggested to us politely that we withdraw their candidature. But we braved it all. Tribal people have faced systematic exploitation at the hands of everyone, but now no more. Our experience with all political parties showed us that no one will work for us. Thus joining the politics ourselves was our last resort,” said Prakash Thakur, who is the leader of Sarv Aadivasi Samaj.

He explained that Samaj’s decision was a result of the bitter realisation of present electoral politics involving two main parties. Their disenchantment with the main political parties is not without any reason as they point out that tribal leaders who joined the political parties sooner or later started speaking the language of parties than that of the tribal community.

“We are confident of our work among our own people,” Nag said, with a hint of satisfaction in his voice.

“They will support us. They will support one of their own. We have always been amidst them listening to their grievances and trying to solve it with them,” said Nag.

Nag, who belongs to the Dhurwa tribal community, is counting on the significant Dhurwa population who are voters of the Jagdalpur constituency.

“It’s a start for us. There is no looking back now. We will take the fight forward,” said Thakur.

Why is Bastar important?

The Sarv Aadivasi Samaj’s decision to contest can be significant for the state politics because of the importance the Bastar region holds in the Chhattisgarh’s politics. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress – the two main political parties – have always had a close fight in the state with narrow margins deciding the fate of candidates.

It was the same story of the BJP’s win in 2003, 2008 and 2013 elections. In 2013, BJP won 49 seats with 41.04 percent of the total votes polled while Congress won 39 seats with 40.29 percent of the votes. In 2008, BJP had control over 11 of the 12 seats in the Bastar region while in 2013 Congress won eight while BJP had only four.

Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh knows the importance of the region. He has started his election campaign from the Bastar region in 2013 and now in 2018 as well.

Tirathgarh waterfalls in the Bastar region. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

On the first day of his election campaign in 2018 elections, Singh, while addressing a public meeting in Geedam area of Dantewada on October 27, made it a point to remind voters about the development work carried out in the region while exhorted them to vote for his party.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi too knows the importance of tribal people and reached out to them in his latest ‘Mann ki Baat’ radio programme. He is also expected to address rallies in Bastar after Diwali.

“To live in consonance and closed coordination with the nature has been an integral part of our tribal communities. Our tribal brethren worship trees and plants and flowers like gods and goddesses. My dear brothers and sisters, this is a fact that the tribal community believes in very peaceful and harmonious coexistence but, if somebody tries to harm and cause damage to their natural resources, they do not shy away from fighting for their rights. There is no wonder that our foremost freedom fighters were the brave people from our tribal communities,” said Modi.

“There is a very long list of examples of the tribal communities which teach us how to keep a close coordination and make adjustments with the nature and the nation is indebted to our tribal people for the forest land that is still remaining with us. Come on, let us express our gratitude towards them,” the prime minister said.

Why are tribal communities in Chhattisgarh miffed?  

Tribal people are a significant part of Chhattisgarh’s population. According to official records, Chhattisgarh has about 7.5 percent of India’s tribal population and tribal people form about 30 percent of the state’s population. Of the 90 assembly seats in Chhattisgarh, there are 29 seats reserved for scheduled tribes. Of those 29 seats, 12 fall in the Bastar region.

Chhattisgarh’s population is about 25.54 million and of that, Bastar’s population is about 1.4 million, comprising a large tribal population. The major tribes of Bastar are Muria, Bhattra, Halba, Gadba, Dorla and Dhurwa. The region and the adjoining areas have a good presence of minerals but that has not translated into development for the people.

They are miffed with the system. There is not just one factor that defines or explains the reason behind the anger of tribals towards the present system. The underlying issue of all problems is ‘land’.

Implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, unfulfilled promises about agriculture and poor basic facilities like electricity, water etc. are just a few of the factors that top their list.

According to a study by Community forest Rights -Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA) Process, a group of experts who are working on the issue of community forest rights across India, Chhattisgarh has one of the highest forest-dwelling populations in the country, but is one of the worst performing states on the implementation of FRA.

“FRA has the potential to secure rights and livelihoods of more than 7.4 million Adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers in Chhattisgarh over 3.02 million hectares in over 11,500 villages. Forest rights recognition in the state has faced obstructions from strong resistance and interference by the forest bureaucracy and from the diversion of forest land for projects,” the study said.

Thousands of trees cut for road and rail line to an upcoming steel plant. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

Another contentious issue that tribal communities face is regarding the minor forest produce. The study explained that collection, transit, auction and sale of minor forest produce continues to be under the control of the state forest departments and contractors, as state laws have not been aligned with the FRA 2006.  

“On the contrary, state government has brought out controversial amendment in the excise law prohibiting collection of Mahua in violation of FRA,” it added. Forest dwellers traditionally use the flowers of Mahua to make a local alcoholic drink.

Development is yet to reach tribal areas

Whether it is security forces, Maoists or industrial projects, the tribal people  face the music from all sides.

For instance, for the upcoming Nagarnar steel plant of NMDC in Bastar, thousands of trees were cut in the nearby forests for the railway line and for bringing water from the nearby river.  

“But when tribal people flattened some surface of the jungle to make an approach road for their village they were arrested and were freed only after a lot of protests. But compare it to industries who omit all kind of violations but are never hauled up. What kind of development and justice is this?” said Prakash Thakur.

One undeniable change in the whole region is the smooth roads across the region but many point out that it has been done for the smooth movement of the security forces who are battling the Maoist insurgency.

Despite these roads, tribal people living even a few kilometres away from the highway are cut off from the world, happy in their own homes. Some places have no regular water or electricity facility, at some places there are no roads, there are schools but no teachers and at some places there are gas connections but no money to buy cylinders. For medical facilities they need to travel several kilometres away.

Women near the Degampada village fetching water from several kilometres away. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

While travelling in Bastar, last month in run up to the elections, Mongabay-India visited many such villages to check the ground reality and the story was same.

In Machkot village of Bastar, which is close to state’s border with Odisha, local resident Arjun Nag said, “You can see for yourself there is a problem of basic necessities like water and electricity”.

Bhushan Bhagel, whose village Danpunji is near to the NMDC’s new steel plant at Nagarnar, said they were promised everything ranging from electricity to water. “But who fulfils those promises? No one,” he said.

In Koikimati village, Pradeep Karma said, “What development do politicians talk about? There is no public transport here. We have to walk for kilometres. The nearest medical facility is also 10 kilometres away.”

Few kilometres away from Koikimati village is Manjhipara village where Mongabay-India saw a group of 10 students who were roaming around their primary school centre. As soon as they saw a car approaching, they ran towards the school and sat in a horizontal line with books opened in front of them – something they revealed they were told to do by the teachers who were not present that day.

Students in a primary school in Manjhipara village. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

Lalit Kumar, who works as a labourer in Barsur area, expressed his displeasure with the system. “There is nothing being done for farmers. With dwindling income, we are forced to work as labourers. Their hollow promises means nothing for us,” said Kumar.

Another major issue that has been affecting tribals is something that no one has an answer to – the fight between Maoists and security forces. As a result, the young are migrating from villages to work in nearby towns and cities. “They face pressure from both Maoists and security forces and are accused of working as spies. To save themselves from this crossfire, the tribal youngsters are migrating from villages in huge numbers,” said Prakash Thakur.

It seems the tribal people, for now, have decided to take control of their own fate. But how far will they succeed in their endeavour is something that only the results of Chhattisgarh’s assembly elections next month will tell.

One of the students on his self made fun-ride in Manjhipara village. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.


Banner Image: Tribal people waiting to travel to a nearby village. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India.

Continue reading:

Part 1: Rich in resources, poor in development: Chhattisgarh’s paradox of plenty comes to the fore before the elections

Part 2: Quest for black diamond leaves Korba breathless

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