A world beyond the hills for an Adivasi girl

What is the government doing to assure the future of these millions of tribals?


A Katkari Adivasi joint family in Maharashtra. Photo: Alamy
A Katkari Adivasi joint family in Maharashtra. Photo: Alamy

Did you know that although most of the stars you see are really twinkling up above the world so high, some are already gone? Eta Carinae, for instance—we can see its light, which is only now reaching us from long ago, but chances are it’s already dead.

A small Adivasi girl in a hot pink polyester frock with a gold border runs barefoot along the muddy road. An unbelievably tiny boy in acid green balances on the handlebars of a rusty bicycle that a slightly older boy is trying gamely to control as it wobbles down the road. A girl in a blue blouse disappears around the corner. This rural Maharashtra valley can look empty, but children flash by, sometimes so quickly that it’s like glimpsing stars that vanish under monsoon clouds.

The Adivasis of Raigad district have been here longer than any of us. They were here before the Hindu villagers, before the British, certainly before those of us who came 30 years ago and thought we had discovered paradise. Mati, the woman of many years and few teeth whom I’ve written about in this column, came here from a neighbouring valley when she got married. She has no education, but it hasn’t mattered much—she and her family eked out a living from farm and forest. That is all changing.

These days, both farm and forest are shrinking rapidly. Deforestation is rampant. Our government’s commitment to economic growth and disdain for environmental concerns form a toxic combination. Nobody has to bother too much about rules that try to preserve land rights for Adivasis, the forest habitat for leopards or a spot under the waterfall for the Malabar Whistling Thrush.

Along with deforestation, there is the allure of “good land for investment”. Just the other day, a real estate agent from the nearest city came in here to talk to us. He had a gold chain nearly as thick as the last gorgeous keelback snake that had slithered across the path where he stood. His clients might buy our land. Our hearts will break, but we will not be figures of pity by any means—we have other homes, other choices. Imagine if we didn’t. Imagine if this was all we had and it was being inexorably swept under by a tide of garbage and greed.

Mati’s great-grandchildren all go to school, and I assume the grand plan, if anyone is including them in a grand plan, is that they will grow up and be able to make lives that don’t depend on farm and forest. Even if that is possible, what about all the children in pink and green and blue who are running along the road instead of going to school?

Tepwadi is a tiny little hamlet near our house—it’s just a collection of about a dozen houses on a hill. All the residents are Katkari Adivasis. Some, not all, of the children go to school, some, not all, of the time. The others help out at home and start working as soon as they can.

My daughter and I are taking a sunset walk near their hill just as a group of Tepwadi children are playing a singing game at the top of their voices. I can’t make out the words as I stand watching them holding hands and jumping around in a circle, but the tune is instantly recognizable from my school days: Ringa ringa roses, pocket full of posies, husha, busha, we all fall down—the bastardized version of a 14th century European song about the bubonic plague.

Tribal people make up 8.6% of India’s population, according to the 2011 census. That’s 104 million people. If they had their own country, they would be the 12th most populous nation in the world. If they stood up for their rights, they could be mighty powerful.

What is the government doing to assure the future of these millions of people? Is there a plan for what happens to the colourful scraps of humanity that flit in and out of view here in the valley?

In a 2014 speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “As a student you might be having many dreams. I don’t believe that situations in life can stop anyone. If the determination is strong, then I believe that youngsters and children of this country have the strength and talent to move forward.” That’s all very well, Mr Modi, but these little girls are going to need more than determination to move forward. They need opportunity. They need to know there’s a world beyond the hill, and a place for them in it.

This is my final instalment of Mind the Gap. It’s been great fun to rave and rant in these pages for almost three years. Thank you for reading what I had to say. I want to wrap up on a positive note because I am an optimist to the core—about the world, about the future, about change. But I’m having a hard time finding the positive spin today, here in this iridescent monsoon valley. I’m not exactly pessimistic. I’m just wondering: What’s the plan? How are we going to usher 104 million of our citizens into the future?

I have to squint to avoid the trash. I have to step aside to avoid the fishtailing Maruti driven by the man with the gold chain and sweat-stained armpits. There’s not much room for me here any more. But I have some place to go. Where are the children in green, pink, blue and orange going to go? Will they grow up to embrace the golden future our government has promised us, or will they twinkle briefly and disappear, stars who were doomed long before we ever saw their light?

Husha, busha, we all fall down.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. This is her last column on women in the 21st century.

Also Read: Sohaila’s previous Lounge columns

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