Ahwa, Dangs: Dangs, a remote tribal district in the Saputara hills of Gujarat, conjures up images of people living in penury, debt-ridden farmers killing themselves because they can’t repay their loans and, perhaps, of people dying of snakebite for lack of medical attention.
These are the images that even official reports seem to invoke—the Planning Commission had, in a 2005 survey, listed Dangs among the country’s 10 poorest districts. Tribals constitute at least 93% of the population of the district.
But the reality is somewhat different. This forest district, home to 186,729 people, according to the 2001 census, may indeed be a so-called backward area with scarce water resources and job opportunities, but it is not an archetype of abject poverty. The district doesn’t have any record of agrarian distress, said Sudip Kumar Nanda, a principal secretary in the Gujarat government.
“The people of Dangs are into organic farming, and their main crop is millet,” said Nanda. “The marginal farmers, who account for over 65% of agriculturists here, don’t take loans from banks as they have no need for (financial) assistance to buy seeds or fertilizer,” Nanda said. “Therefore, there is no question of their being in distress.”
The Planning Commission used some “doubtful” parameters such as the proportion of scheduled tribes in an area for its 2005 survey, according to the civil servant. The commission believes that a high proportion of scheduled tribes signifies poverty, given empirical data, he claims.
While agriculture ensures food security, most families here also send their sons to work at sugar mills in neighbouring Maharashtra.
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Snakebite is a common occurrence, but it needn’t be fatal. A 25-year-old tea shop owner in Ahwa, the district headquarters, said the state government’s emergency ambulance service has helped save the lives of hundreds of people bitten by snakes.
Wrong belief: Motibhai Manjia, 70, a resident of Vasurna village in Dangs, believes that the NREGS was introduced by the BJP. K.P. Narayana Kumar / Mint
“The (Gujarat chief minister) Narendra Modi government has started an emergency ambulance service which helps us take snakebite victims to primary health centres located only a couple of hours away,” said Mangalia, who uses only one name.
In a region where dealing with the likes of the cobra, krait and viper is a part of everyday life, the vocation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Lok Sabha candidate, D.C. Patel, is interesting.
This is because Patel, a physician based in nearby Dharampur, is popular among the people for treating victims of snakebite in the region. He is contesting against sitting Lok Sabha member and Congressman Kishanbhai Patel.
Dangs is one of the seven assembly seats that fall under the Valsad Lok Sabha seat where polling will be held on 30 April.
The people of say that in the past five years, there has been improvement in road connectivity and education in the region.
“The main issue that is yet to be resolved in the area is that of water. Almost none of the interior villages have access to piped water supply,” said Ishwar, a tribal youngster who works for a local non-governmental organization that specializes in health services.
According to Ishwar, who also uses only one name, the money allocated for sinking wells in the villages is siphoned off by district officials. The district officials refused to comment on this allegation.
“Despite being in a remote location, we do have enough schools in the area and nearby districts. But there are simply no job opportunities for tribal youth once they finish education. I feel trapped here,” Ishwar said.
But for people such as Motibhai Manjia, 70, who is from the nearby Vasurna village, job opportunities have been opened up by the Union government’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), which offers 100 days of employment per year to at least one member of a poor rural household.
Unfortunately for the Congress party, which introduced this programme, Manjia believes the scheme was introduced by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led state government.
“The job scheme has helped me earn extra money. My sons are working in an adjoining district... Earlier, I had to wait for them to turn up to get some money. But now I have some money of my own,” Manjia said.
Until recently, Dangs had managed to preserve its forests from illegal encroachment. But after the passing of the Tribal Rights Act in Parliament in December 2006, there have been some instances of people trying to grab forest land.
“The Act says that if an Adivasi (tribal) has been farming in the forest in recent years, he may be given a title to the land. So last year, there were several instances of people trying to clear the forest land to start farming in order to show that they were already cultivating these lands,” said a forest department official who didn’t want to be identified.
“Although there has been some speculation that Maoists from Maharashtra were operating in the area and were behind (some forest) fires, we have not come across any evidence to confirm this theory,” the forest official said. Tribal population and landless farmers have been targeted by Maoists for indoctrination and recruitment elsewhere in the country.
According to Gautam Parmar, the district superintendent of police, no Maoist groups are active in Dangs as of now. “But we are on the alert,” he added.
Dangs is also split along communal lines between Hindus and the Christians over the issue of conversion of tribals. The district has witnessed communal clashes since 1998 when Hindu groups were charged with burning churches and attacking Christians over the alleged conversion of tribals to Christianity.
Kishanbhai Patel, the Congress party’s Valsad Lok Sabha candidate, has accused the Gujarat government of “outsourcing” education and health services to Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its sister organizations. “The motive behind getting Sangh Parivar groups to run education centres and health clinics in the district is to pursue the agenda of reconversion of Christians in the area. This is a dangerous trend,” he said.
The BJP’s candidate, Patel, refused to comment on the issue of conversions, and seemed to suggest that it is irrelevant in the elections. “So many new roads and schools (by the state government) have been built. People can see development, and so they will vote for the BJP,” Patel said.