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The End Of The Rainbow

Indigenous Peoples

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Mari Marcel Thekaekara has a radical rethink about her experience of development in rural southern India.

‘Someone has to say it, and I’m willing to be the one,’ the professor announced dramatically. ‘If you have to choose between the birds and the bees and the adivasis (tribals), it has to be the birds and the bees.’

There was an infuriated roar from the back of the room. Stan, my husband, was on his feet bellowing at the top of his normally loud voice. His response, telling the professor in not terribly polite terms what he thought of his brand of ‘greenness’, brought other meetings to a stop.

A meek-looking woman got to her feet. ‘You say we cut the trees,’ she said. ‘Whose houses have wooden chairs and tables? Yours or ours? Who uses paper and books? We or you? Whose children go to school? Ours or yours?’

There was a shamed silence in the large hall. The green people, mostly middle-class environmentalists from Delhi, Bombay and other metros, had nothing to say. It was a human-rights meeting in Bangalore about five years ago – a sort of development Woodstock where people from all kinds of movements had converged. There was a pitched battle between the activists and the ecologists.

We’ve come a long way since then. But the basic premise of development still appears to be that progress must take place even though it’s people who have to pay the cost. Even the terminology is revolting – ‘exploiting’ natural resources, which generally means displacing people to extract mineral wealth and the like. Then there’s the other side – evicting people to create sanctuaries for animals.

I think, though, that both ecologists and activists (greens and reds, in broad terms) have begun to realize that simplistic solutions don’t solve problems. Take Stan and me. We started ACCORD in 1986. Our political understanding was based pretty much on a leftist analysis of the distribution of wealth. The adivasis of the Gudalur Valley had been cheated and dispossessed of their land and forest wealth. They had lost control of their resources. If they regained control of these resources all would be well. Power to the people and all that.

We spent the next few years working to spread awareness about their rights, about fighting injustice, exploitation and so on. As part of the process to prevent land alienation we helped people plant tea, coffee, pepper. All our objectives were met.

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Mutthiamma the matriarch 

Then, in 1995, we had a huge four-day evaluation meeting called the Mahasabha where the team and adivasi leaders talked about the past and future. Somewhere in the course of the discussions we received a rude shock. As a result of increasing the income of individuals, a lot of the community spirit had been destroyed.

Adivasis had always looked on land as a community asset, not to be owned by anyone. We fought for people to get title deeds. This created inheritance problems in a society where the question never arose before. Families are now moving out of the village and building houses in the middle of their individual plots. Introducing this individualistic dimension to development destroys much of the social fabric of what is still essentially a community. But all of us bought the same message: development according to the dictates of the very same colonial powers we drove out is the desirable model.  

We love to become cheap imitations. Brown sahibs.

In India people’s attitude to the Green Revolution – the use of high-yielding seeds with huge inputs of artificial fertilizer and pesticides – often clarifies where they stand. Environmentalists, for example, condemn the Green Revolution unequivocally, while agricultural departments rave about India’s transformation from a begging bowl to a bread basket.

So what is an Indian Red-Green to think? Recently I came across an elderly farmer, reading out a newspaper report about a government plan to import manure. He spat into the gutter, utterly disgusted. ‘When we were kids we ate decent-sized prawns from our paddy fields. We had enough waste fish to manure the fields with it. Now we sell our prawns to Japan and the five-star hotels, while our grandchildren have never tasted them – and then we buy shit from other people! A fine state they’ve brought this country to.’

His words aroused my curiosity about the old days. What was it like to have been a part of the Green Revolution? I decided to try to find out by talking to people who had been through it, and phoned Stan’s uncle in Kerala, the progressive state where the Green Revolution was most likely to have been used for the benefit of ordinary people and where it went hand in hand with land reform. James Thekaekara had been an Additional Director of Agriculture for the Kerala Government and bang in the middle of things 30 years ago. He set up a series of interviews for me and also came along for the ride.

One of the first people we met was Joseph Chacko, who’d been farming for 30 of his 45 years but had still taken time to study for a Masters degree in economics. He’d returned to the old system, using cow dung and bone meal to manure his fields. Why? Because farmers were sure that the chemicals attracted pests, the taste of the vegetables was better and there was considerable demand for his karela (bitter gourd).

Turning organic due to market compulsions! I was amazed. This would confound the theories of the doomsday prophets. But Joseph had stopped growing rice: no profit in it.

‘Why was it profitable in the old days?’ I asked another experienced farmer, 80-year-old Zacharia Edayil.

‘Inputs were less, we didn’t have to spend on expensive fertilizers. We used cow dung from our own cows. Nothing was wasted. All the rubbish was burnt and the ash used on the fields, even the ash from the hearth. We cultivated only every alternate year, but the rice was enough to feed us for two years. We paid the workers in grain, not cash. They worked harder then.’

‘Why should they have worked harder then?’ I asked, intrigued.

The old man laughed: ‘Different times.’

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Joseph Chacko, Master of Economics 

‘They didn’t have a choice,’ Uncle James explained. ‘Fifty years ago, if a man didn’t work properly they’d tie him to a coconut tree and flog him. If a worker had to guard the fields all night, he jolly well did it. No workers’ rights then. When the bandhs (dykes) were built, if one broke, the worker responsible would be killed and buried under it – to teach others a lesson, but also because of superstition. They believed human sacrifice strengthened the bandh.’   

Zacharia, who had raised rice for his family for 60 years, had sold most of his land. His six sons had moved to Delhi to new professions. He had just leased out the last hectare. For this family, farmers for generations, it was the end of an era.

We moved north, to Palakkad and a village called Chulanoor, to listen to a farming family describe the old days. Mutthiamma, the 85-year-old matriarch, had an indescribably beautiful face. I imagined every wrinkle having a tale to tell. She’d been married at 13. Her first child was born when she was 15. She’d had six sons and three daughters.

Mutthiamma insisted that the old days were better. The family had been tenants, leasing land from rich landlords for generations until the 1970 Land Reforms Act made them owners.

‘We had everything we needed within our compound,’ the old lady explained. ‘Cows so there was plenty of milk. Fish from our ponds and paddy fields. Goats and chickens, all our own vegetables. In summer we dried vegetables in the sun. Grew pulses, yams, tubers. Life was hard though. We women carried water from the well for the household and for the cows. There were enormous meals to cook. Everything from scratch. A lot of work.’

She’d also been a famous healer, specializing in dog bites and snake bites. Her hour-long stories were amazing. She showed us the ancient palmyra leaves on which the secret herbal remedies and mantrams (magical chants) were written. But the knowledge would die out with her. No-one was ready to undergo the rigorous training, the debilitating sacrifice entailed in studying the ancient systems.

Something about my interviews bothered me. Then I realized what it was. Kerala’s famous land reforms had not touched the poorest of the poor, the landless labourers. Tenants like Mutthiamma’s family and Zacharia had benefited but their workers had not. For the very poor, escape had come through education and the Gulf route – they had moved to the Middle East as labourers.

Yet even here the redistribution of wealth has created problems. It has brought in a consumerist culture and broken down most of the old values. There is a tremendous surge in alcoholism and sleazy sex scandals. Kerala also has the dubious distinction of the highest rate of suicides in India.

So even when ‘progress’ has come on an egalitarian, redistributive basis it has caused problems. Which brings us back to ACCORD’s work with adivasis. At our 1995 Mahasabha meeting, the elders talked about community wealth. When asked to define it, they classified as ‘wealth’ their children, their elders, their knowledge, the forest, their unity and their culture. Not a single person said ‘money’ or ‘property’. We were astounded. We, not they, needed to redefine our ideas and priorities.

ACCORD’s intervention has changed the economic scenario. But our challenge now is how to get the younger generation of adivasis to hang on to their community’s definition of wealth. Otherwise we’ll have the tragedy of these people leapfrogging into the millennium, plunging into the ‘normal’ consumerist cycle just as people in the North are attempting to jump off.

Or maybe all of us need to reach the end of the rainbow to discover that the pot of gold was an illusion.    

A regular contributor to the NI, Mari Marcel Thekaekara continues to work with adivasis (tribals) in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

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New Internationalist issue 307 magazine cover This article is from the November 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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