THE CURSE OF MELGHAT

By Anosh Malekar

Photographs by Vivek Singh

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One

“Korku Madarchod, Jahaan Jagah Mila Baith Gaya (Korku motherfucker, you squat wherever you find space).” The abuse came without warning, followed by a hushed silence in the overcrowded bus. Crouched on the doorsteps, an old man, his sunken eyes lowered with embarrassment, the shaky hands clasping a soiled bag close to his chest, was struggling to get hold of his walking stick and raise himself to his feet. But his spindly legs were too weak to carry the equally frail upper body. “Quick, get out of the way,” the bus conductor yelled again. The old man dragged himself from the doorsteps unto the aisle, his right hand holding the front seat rest and the stick pushing at the closed door of the bus.

“Khada Rahe (Stand up),” the bus conductor won’t let go. The old man, still grappling with the stick, managed to stand on his unsteady feet, only to be told: “Ticket Ka Paisa De Aaur Peeche Ja (tender the ticket fare and move to the rear end).”

The ticket was never issued nor did it matter that the old, rickety bus was jam-packed with passengers, younger and stronger, cramming the narrow aisle. The able-bodied men watched the wretched soul pass them by, shunted to the rear end of the bus, where it was bouncy and dusty for anybody’s comfort. The Korku was shown his place. His fellow adivasis did not react, their faces struggling to digest the collective insult heaped on their tribe.

The Korku elder was headed to Churni, the native village of the bus conductor, who, as he himself revealed later, was a Balahi, a Dalit. In all probability, they knew each other and were aware of the social standing of their respective communities. But the Dalit had achieved upward mobility in India’s complicated caste hierarchy with his khaki uniform. And the Indian adivasi, otherwise a self-respecting species, is perpetually scared of the khaki uniform, courtesy the atrocities unleashed upon him by the forest, police and sundry uniformed personnel since the British era.

 

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In a globalised, urban India a bus conductor’s job may not count for much on the social ladder, but in a godforsaken place like Melghat you could be at the top of it. “My son is a BE mechanical. He has a job offer from Bahrain. My father was a tehsildar (revenue official for the district sub-division) of Melghat,” he bragged. 

Broaching a conversation with the elderly Korku proved futile. He only smiled. “Sarkari Aadmi Hain (he is the government’s man),” is all he said of his tormentor, without a hint of protest in his barely audible voice, before getting down at Churni. 

It was a grey and muggy morning as the state-owned bus headed deeper into Melghat, a remote corner in north-central Maharashtra bordering Madhya Pradesh. The south-west monsoon was living up to its proverbial vagaries in June; dark clouds hovered in the skies but rains seemed a distant mirage.

Mel-ghat, broken into two words, suggests a ‘meeting of ghats.’ In Marathi, a ghat is a difficult pass in the mountains. Travelling in the hills is indeed arduous and tiresome, especially if you come from the plains. The place is 700-odd kilometres north-east of India’s financial powerhouse, Mumbai, and one has to cross the vast countryside to reach it via Amravati, through a landscape of open fields, trees and dry streams that seem unending till the hills rise, wrinkled and hairy.

From the foothills near a town called Paratwada, you travel another hour or so to reach Semadoh, a picturesque camping site for wildlife tourists along a state highway to Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh. You are in Melghat, described on the state’s official website as a vast tract of unending hills and river valleys at the northern extreme of Amravati district. The area has been carved into two revenue sub divisions – Chikhaldara also referred to as eastern Melghat and Dharni or western Melghat – for administrative purpose. There is little evidence of it though, in the physical infrastructure.

You realise this while proceeding to Chilati, a tiny village hidden in a distant valley on the periphery of eastern Melghat, barely 10 kilometres from the Madhya Pradesh border. Its sole connect with Maharashtra is two rickety state-owned buses operating daily but unreliably from Paratwada. At Semadoh you turn right and take a historic back road from the British era. It’s a wild, winding and bumpy ride from here. 

The 40-kilometre journey takes nearly four hours on a narrow dirt road that gets progressively treacherous. The twisting turns of gravel and mud slice through thick forests of teak, rising higher and deeper into the hills, passing over the edge of obscure valleys, the derelict concrete culverts and mud embankments providing a semblance of protection from the steep drop-offs.

The bus service is withdrawn after the first showers of monsoon that make the tyres veer dangerously this way and that on a slippery jungle track. The lack of transport and communication though seems a small price to pay for the natural joys of residing on the serene banks of the Nadpa river that curves round to enclose a rocky cliff in its embrace before descending to a spectacular waterfall, called Ghogra. 

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The 400-odd inhabitants, who speak the Korku language along with a smattering of Hindi, appear quite content to exist in this remoteness. The Marathi-speaking officials at the taluka headquarters in Chikhaldara rarely bother to venture out into the valley to hear their grievances.

The sixty-odd dwellings of the Korku tribesmen form the core of the village spilling over toward the river that marks its western boundary. The sixteen Lohar and four Gond houses are located on the east, at the periphery of the main street, drawing a conscious distinction between the tribe and caste identities of the settlements.  Across the street stand two worn-out, squat buildings, supposed to serve as the forest guard’s quarters-cum-office, but lying abandoned since long. A stone’s throw away is another concrete structure housing a primary school, the only sign of government’s presence in Chilati.

The school, with its peeling plaster paint, presents a melancholy look. Rafiq Sheikh, the teacher, presides over empty classrooms facing a small playground. It is now noon but the students are yet to arrive.

“What do you think of Chilati?” Sheikh, who originally hails from the sugarcane-rich Ahmednagar district in western Maharashtra, asks and proceeds to give his own impression. “There is nothing whatever to do. No shops, no vehicles, no people on the only street. There is nothing to do but to slow down, relax, laze and bore yourself to death.”

That is all there is to life in Chilati. Unless of course one mentions Hatru, located a couple of kilometres across the farmlands, up and down the hills. Once a hamlet, Hatru has over the years expanded into a village of a thousand people, the largest in the vicinity that also hosts the only significant event for the entire valley – the weekly bazaar. 

On Thursdays, men, women and children, dressed in their best, colourful clothes, arrive here in steady trickles, carrying farm and forest produce to sell and barter at the makeshift stalls set up along the main street. Itinerant traders, middlemen, moneylenders and government servants of discontented appearances jostle for space at the bazaar, outnumbered and overshadowed by the tribes in heavy colours. They are matched only by the number of goods sold at the stalls – cheap synthetic cloth, silver ornaments, aluminium utensils, plastic goods, toys, onions, mangoes, sweetmeats, tobacco, toiletries and cosmetics that appear tawdry.

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The women and children gawp the wares with awed but covetous eyes; men nod their heads till the last penny in their pocket is spent. They return late evening, in high spirits, some men so drunk, they are babbling greetings and expletives in the same, stinking breath.

“Welcome to Chilati. Welcome to darkness. Sarkar Ki Maan Ke Chut Mein Mera Lund (my cock in the government’s mother’s cunt)” one of them jokes. He is high on Mahuva, a traditional brew.

Melghat is widely perceived as the hunger bowl of Maharashtra, a fact reflecting in the media reporting of the area since the late eighties. Haunting pictures of frail and anaemic mothers holding their marasmus and ‘kwashiorkor’ children – a native word in Ghana literally meaning ‘red boy’ for a condition caused by a diet high in carbohydrate and low in protein that turns the hair red –  confirmed the horrors in numbers.

“10,762 children died since 1993 due to malnutrition,” said a magazine article in October 2011. Titled ‘Mortality in Melghat is kept in check by fudging records,’ the India Today had published it within a month of the Supreme Court saying no one in the country should die of starvation and malnutrition, and it is the responsibility of the government to provide food to the poor.

A 2008 study led by Dr B S Garg, a member of the state government-appointed Malnutrition Monitoring Committee, had found 5% under-reporting of child deaths at five select PHCs (primary health centres) with high child mortality rates. Analysing ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) data, the study revealed more than 25% children in Melghat suffered Grade 2-4 malnutrition; 2.5 times higher than the non-tribal areas of the district.

A Korku child in Melghat was thrice as likely to be severely malnourished compared with an average child in Maharashtra and 40% more likely to die before the age of five compared with an average Indian child, said a Hindustan Times report published in April 2012. “Every 14th child dies in Melghat before reaching the age of six, often owing to malnutrition-related causes. The statistic has remained largely unchanged over the past five years and puts Melghat almost at par with less-developed sub-Saharan nations such as Senegal and Tanzania.”

Over the years, government officials in Melghat have tried ingenious ways to refute reports of malnutrition deaths. Typically, they cited “poverty, ignorance and obstinacy” of the predominantly Korku population. Government doctors, nurses, anganwadi workers and even revenue and forest officials said the Korkus were lazy and lacked “nutritional sense.”

The mothers refuse to breastfeed even after 24 hours of birth denying the advantage of colostrum to the neonate, lack knowledge regarding weaning and weaning food, the tribe believes in a shaman or medicine man to cure sickness, will not milk their cows due to a strange taboo, sell off nutritious farm products like Soya bean for cash and use Mahuva to extract liquor. The list of what the Korkus do wrong was long.

A government doctor explained the ‘ground reality’: “You must have noticed monkeys lining up the road to Melghat. Spoilt by tourists throwing crumbs at them, they have forgotten how to survive in the jungle and prefer to beg on the roadside. It’s the same with Korkus. Government sops have spoilt them. They’ll never improve.”

The implied excuse was: If the Korkus were bent on destroying themselves, what could the government or anybody else do?

“Siirr, India gained independence from the British, but we feel the Korkus are still ruled by foreigners,” Kalu Bethekar was fuming when told of the Korku elder’s humiliation on the bus to Melghat. “Somebody should’ve slapped the conductor. How dare he?”

Days later when the government doctor likened his tribe to monkeys begging on the roadside, Kalu, sitting across the table, swallowed his pride and kept quiet. The smiling, chattering Korku youth appeared sullen: “Siirr, Kuch Nahi Hoga. Ye Aise He Chalta Hain Idhar” (Sir, nothing will happen. This is how it goes here).”

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Kalu had been an enthusiastic travel companion, helping you explore Melghat. Short, dark, muscular, with a receding hairline and sparkly black eyes, he was a personable character, with more friends, in Chilati and outside it, than any other member of his village.

He had given up studies after higher secondary school to become an activist with Melghat Mitra (Friends of Melghat), an NGO initiative to arrest malnutrition.  In his mid-twenties now, Kalu was keen on contesting the local body elections to become a member of the Hatru Gram Panchayat later that year.

“We need power, political power,” Kalu would keep saying as if to remind himself of the task that lay ahead. The characteristic chuckle that preceded each sentence he uttered did little to hide the anger toward government apathy. “He-he…Siirr, my greatest fear is someday I am going to flog a government official.”

Kalu had done that before, beating up a teacher for reporting drunk at the primary school in Chilati. “I beat him black and blue, till he begged for water. Then I poured some water in his bloody mouth and continued hitting him till he fell unconscious.”

But Kalu, ever the fighter, belied the Korku psyche, which abhors violence and is fearful and ever suspicious of the outsider.

The women and children would disappear inside their houses seeing you approach the village. The men would barely acknowledge the traditional greeting and hurriedly move on; “Ram Ram” and “Ram Ram.” You were stuck.

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The Korku hovels – rows of tiled roofs facing each other,  rising and sagging precariously over walls of mud and brick –exude a stage-set simplicity from the past; things haven’t changed for years. They are usually single-room, and as a rule without a window, small and dark inside, unfurnished and empty apart from the few earthen and metal utensils and an odd parkom (string-bed) or a dolar (swing) placed in the outer extension.

Family photographs, drums and flutes hang on the walls competing for the visitor’s attention. A granary, mounted on stilts, stands at the centre of the room serving as a partition between the hearth and the sleeping area. Women and toddlers hangout in these empty spaces during the day.

The houses have an elevated barn-cum-cattle shed in the front, facing the road, to shield the livestock from predators straying into settlements. An outer extension behind leads to patches of turned earth that are supposed to be vegetable plots. The vegetables are not visible though. Old persons sit wiling their time around these empty plots, doing nothing in particular.

The villages are devoid of any visible activity during better part of the day, except some women with pots on their heads making rounds of the river for water, and the odd youngster with an axe hanging from his shoulder, cattle in tow. The men are out in the fields.

The villages come alive as dusk falls, heralded by the approaching chant of cattle bells, interrupted by high-pitched calls of the Gond herdsmen straining the vocal chords to keep their flock together. Their paths are crossed by children running around gleefully, moving gracefully like antelopes in the opposite direction, in search of hidden joys in the cool clumps of trees, open fields and trickling streams known only to them.

The tired men drop their farm implements and puffing at their chillums engross themselves in animated discussions. Women get busy around the hearth, the grey smoke from their cooking fires escaping the tiled roofs and fading away into the pinkish sky. There is an unusual rush to cook the only proper meal of the day before it gets really dark. The families will eat it together in the stillness of the night. 

“You are not late,” Kalu said. “We start gathering around the village square after eight o’ clock to discuss the events of the day.”

 

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Two

The air whirred with mosquitoes as the men began to gather, their torch lights illuminating the night-filled village square in elongated, blurry patches. Most of them wore a white head cloth, a symbol of the tribe, and were in vests that clung to their muscular brown bodies. They gazed at the skies and wondered if the rain gods were angry. It had been more than a fortnight since the fields were ploughed and readied for sowing after the first showers of monsoon in the middle of June. The wait is killing, the elders said before settling down.

Earlier in the day, a young man had reportedly committed ‘theft’ at the village solar unit to charge the batteries of his mobile phone. The area has no mobile connectivity, and energy from the solar unit, a recent government initiative to power street lights and pump water into public taps, was a precious commodity. It was without an alternative.

The traditional electricity network set up across Melghat in the early eighties, in anticipation of a visit by late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was a bad joke. The high tension wires connecting the electricity poles were just that – a sight to behold. 

While the villages remained in the dark, the network of wires had come alive for the rare high profile visit by a politician.  Kalu recalled the area had witnessed electric power on three occasions — first in 1988 when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi came, in 1999 when Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh was there, and in 2009 when Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi visited Melghat.

Presently, the guilty party was summoned from his house to the village square. The young man admitted the crime without much prodding, presenting a rather curious but weak defence for his act; he desperately wanted to recharge the batteries of his mobile phone so he could listen to music to kill the afternoon boredom.

The elders were livid and handed him a fine of Rs 5,000, subsequently cut to half the amount, to be paid in cash within a week. The young man protested but the entire village stood united behind the elders.

Tribal justice, brisk and effective, had been delivered.

“Who is this Jhangdi?” Ambai Mawaskar, the dai (village midwife), asked Kalu as we walked past her house next morning. It was a rare acknowledgment of the outsider in their midst, something you anxiously waited for days.

The Korkus go about their lives quietly, preferring to be left alone. Though agriculturists, the adivasis remain jack of all trades. They possess skills, like making ploughs, axes and other farm and household implements.  There is little or no formal education, no occupational specialisation except for some traditional positions like the dai and bhumka (village priest-cum-medicine man).

Few Korkus act without the bhumka’s divine guidance. They are aware of Bhagwan or God, but know nothing of the Supreme Being.  “Who is Bhagwan?” and the reply is “Kya Maalum (who knows).” 

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The Korku’s faith in nature, the sun and the moon, worship of ancestors, both male and female departed spirits, and a belief in magic rituals to propitiate offended deities or evil spirits, binds them as a community.

All important events, birth and death, other critical and decisive phases in human life, call for antique ceremonies whose origins have been long forgotten. The adivasi memory rarely stretches beyond the grandparents.

There is little excitement in the Korku lives except when they are hunting or fishing, feasting or dancing. The Korkus seem aware that outsiders tend to view them as ‘junglis.’

Jhangdi conceivably is the Korku response to jungli.  All outsiders are Jhangdis or foreigners.

The remarkable Englishman-turned-Indian, Verrier Elwin, regarded the foremost spokesperson for India’s tribal peoples, had noted this decades ago: “The aboriginals are the real swadeshi products of India, in whose presence everyone is foreign.”

“I am not a foreigner. Look at me, don’t I look like you.” The elderly Ambai, diminutive and delicate, her wrinkled skin indicating a lifetime spent in hardships, remained indifferent, scrutinising you through the corner of her sharp eyes.

“Come on. We live in the same country. You and I are Indians, B-H-A-R-A-T-I-Y-A.” She smiled, but persisted: “You are a Jhangdi.” Then she got up and hurriedly climbed up the ladder leading to the elevated barn in front of her house and disappeared, like a squirrel. 

So we approached Babu Mawaskar, the bhumka of Chilati. He was busy in the fields and told us to come in the evening. “Bhumka Bhumka Hota Hain (A bhumka is a bhumka),” he said, smoking a bidi, fully satisfied with his riposte. Nobody makes fun of him, Babu added a rider, because he had divine powers to turn away evil spirits and cure sickness.

For a Bhumka, Babu was an unassuming man, his gaunt, stubbly face welcoming and always smiling. Should I be afraid of him? He laughed heartily at the open challenge.

“Korkus are simple people. We live in this jungle. We are not intimidated by the deep, dark woods and the wild animals inside it. If a Korku comes across a wild animal, he will chase it away with a stick or an axe; call his fellow tribesmen for help. But he will not be scared,” Babu said, preparing to lie down near a fireplace inside a temporary, low-roofed straw hut on the edge of his field, where he would spend the nights to protect the crops from wild animals.

“What if a Korku comes across a tiger and a Jhangdi, who would be more frightening?” It did not take him a second to answer the hypothetical question: “Jhangdi.”

A tiger, he explained, avoids humans. 

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Not long ago Melghat was rich in tigers, and according to some old accounts, a fairly large number of people lost their lives annually in tiger attacks. But the Korkus showed great confidence in their powers to deal with the tiger. Babu recalled the times when Korkus possessed powers to exorcise man-eating tigers. They would call a tiger at will by reciting certain mantras; touch it with impunity and even converse with it, persuading the man-eater to go away from their village. “The magic defence would turn the tiger into a dog, obeying human orders,” Babu boasted.

The same cannot be said of the so-called foreigners. “Jhangdis keep coming and going. Nobody can stop them. They earn money. They have monthly incomes. They have education. They pick quarrels and pull you to courts,” Babu was now talking.

“Shaher Me Maarta Hain, Jalata Hain. Aeisa Suna Hain, Dekha Hain Paper Mein. Aeisa Hain… (They beat you up, burn you in the cities. We heard so, saw it in newspapers. That’s how it is…).”

You ask another hypothetical question, “Do the Korkus find their position reversed with the Jhangdi vis-à-vis the tiger.” And the bhumka broke into another rasping laughter.  “The Jhangdi has turned the Korku into a dog ha…, obeying his orders…, hau, hau (yes, yes),” he agreed

The bhumka turned apologetic when quizzed about malnutrition deaths and seemed to wander off in unknown territory…

“Poshan Ki Jaankari, Anubhav Nahi Hain…Humko Batanewala Koi Nahi…Karke Thoda Haar Gaye…Garibi Hain…Kya Karein (We are not familiar with nutritious diet…There is no one to tell us…That is why we appear a bit overwhelmed…There is poverty…What to do),” he said haltingly.

He admitted his ‘medicine’ was of little help in preventing human deaths. “I take some water from the river and recite a mantra, perform a puja, to save lives. It does not work all the time. But if I cannot cure a person, I ask them to go and see a doctor. Bhumka and doctor are the same. We are brothers. We try to save lives. But what can a bhumka or a doctor do if the sickness is of serious nature. Wherever there is life, there is death. Can you stop the air from escaping? It’s the same with life…”

“Choti Tut Gaya To Jana Hi Hain. Aapun Ko Bhi Jana Hain Bhagwan Ke Paas. Sabka Jeeven Bhagwan Ke Haat Hi Hain (When the cord breaks, one has to leave. Even we have to go to Bhagwan. Everybody’s life is in the hands of Bhagwan),” Babu philosophised.

The Bhumka wondered why educated people value human life over everything else. “The grain too is God’s creation. When we consume grain, it goes to Bhagwan the same way we do after our death. But have we stopped eating?”

Ambai, the dai, was more circumspect: “What do I tell you now. Ab Marne Ka Time Aa Gaya (It’s time [for me] to die). I brought to life, with my own hands, all the people you see in this village. Ask them. I used bamboo slits to cut their umbilical cords. Now nurses and doctors use a razor in hospital. But if required I still perform deliveries at home.”

The bhumka and the dai did not appear the blood-sucking witches they were made out to be by the government propaganda machinery. The Korkus trusted them more than doctors and nurses. 

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The Korku attitude toward Jhangdis was a major challenge when seven youngsters from Pune set on a trail of the area in the summer of 1997 disturbed by media stories of child deaths in Melghat; 894 children had died in the year 1994-95, 931 in 1995-96 and 1,070 in1996-97.

Starting April 27, they trudged the forests for seven days.  “It was an emotional reaction. All of us were young, in our thirties. None of us were doctors. And we did not know a thing about the Korkus or Melghat. But we wanted to find out what can possibly be done to prevent malnutrition among the Korkus,” recalled Vinita Tatke, founder member of Maitri, now a Pune-based NGO.

Before them, human rights activist Sheela Barse had spent time in Melghat and filed a petition with the Nagpur bench of Bombay High Court in 1993, seeking information about and redressal of hunger among the Korkus.

The issue had come up in the Lok Sabha on March 19, 1997, MP Geeta Mukherjee drawing attention of fellow-parliamentarians to the situation in Melghat;

“The Korkus are one of the oldest pre-Aryan aboriginal tribes of India and today they are one of the smallest tribes in the country. Their population is approximately 1,13,800 according to the 1991 census. They mainly live in Melghat, one of the best forest areas of Maharashtra. It is officially disclosed that 4,000 infants and toddlers of this tribe have died among 20,000 to 21,000 families within four years from 1993 to 1996. An average of 1000 children die every year. They die because of malnutrition and for want of health care. Now if this goes on, this tribe will be wiped out in the near future…My submission is that the Union Government has to act positively on this question. They should become a party to the Public Interest Litigation (filed by Barse) and thereby try for expeditious disposal of the case. Moreover, some special schemes for the nutrition and health of these children thereby saving these children from malnutrition and death must be taken so that one of the oldest tribes, the Korkus (sic) tribe is saved from extinction. I think this will be supported by the whole House.”

Presenting the findings of a study conducted by National Nutrition Monitoring Board (NNMB), Hyderabad, Barse told the High Court that growth among tribals in Maharashtra was ‘wasted’ (their weight was lower than the prescribed standards, and declining).

The High Court passed an interim order in 1997 agreeing to several of Barse’s demands, which included proper classification of malnourished children with help of paediatricians, working out a proper diet for the children based on their individual health status, and monitoring of the scheme by three members of the village panchayat.

As reported by The Hindu, the High Court said: “We are prima facie of the view that it is the primary responsibility of the government of Maharashtra to provide adequate food, health care and adequate employment opportunities to Korku tribes and other tribals in Melghat area… It specifically pointed to Article 47 of the Constitution, which postulates a duty on the state to raise the level of nutrition and standard of living and to improve public health.”

By late nineties, Melghat, like Kalahandi in Orissa, had become a synonym for malnutrition in the country. But the Maharashtra government was in denial mode, saying not all deaths were due to malnutrition. It blamed diarrhoea, pneumonia and even snake bites for the high child mortality rate.

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Dr Ashish Satav, who, along with his ophthalmologist wife, Kavita, had set up a hospital near Dharni in 1997, found the Korkus lost their children to birth asphyxia, premature birth, low birth weight, neonatal sepsis, diarrhoeal diseases, respiratory tract infections, malaria and protein energy malnutrition. “Lack of development in Melghat and poor socio-economic status of the Korkus, who depend on rain-fed agriculture and migrated for work during rest of the year, was a major factor contributing to malnutrition,” he said.

“The problems were numerous and interlinked. As we tried to understand them, we encountered more problems,” Vinita said. With no funds or NGO status, Maitri decided upon the Melghat Mitra initiative, and launched a ‘Dhadak Mohim’ (campaign to tackle child deaths) inviting volunteers and donors across Maharashtra to help record every birth and track it continuously.

“We decided to work in the Hatru-Chilati area, because it was remote and no NGO was present here. I cannot explain it, but there was something magical about this place,” Vinita said. The area is remote and pristine, unlike other parts of Melghat, especially near the towns, Dharni and Chikhaldara, where the forests have been degraded and semi-urbanisation has replaced the adivasi way of life.

“For the first batch of volunteers, it was an experience in extremes,” said Jayashree Shidore, founder trustee of Maitri. “Some of them went into depression by seeing the wretchedness of the place and wanted to leave the day they landed. While some actually fell in love with its natural beauty.”

The volunteering students, professionals and pensioners, had to carry their own provisions – tea powder, rice, dal and medicine supplies to last a week or a fortnight – and were put up with the local teacher. There were no bathrooms, no toilet. They had to walk endlessly, visiting each village, each house, enquiring about the children, tracking their health status.

In the years 1998 to 2000, social activist Dr Abhay Bang led a path-breaking field study to measure child mortality in 13 different pockets of Maharashtra. “This study told us that the pocket where we chose to work had the highest child mortality – 126. This meant that out of every 1,000 live births, 126 children died before they reached the age of six,” Jayashree said.

Dr Bang helped design a health programme wherein ‘Arogya Maitrini’ – young, married women who could work as village health workers – were identified and trained in maternal and child care. Another team of Boko Mitras –  Boko, in Korku, means child and Mitra, in Marathi, is friend – were picked and trained from among the Korku youth with some schooling, to help the Korku child learn amidst difficulties like an alien medium (Marathi), absentee teachers and dilapidated or non-existent classrooms.

“We decided that our intervention should be organic and strictly avoided an aid-centric, project approach. We stayed with the Korkus and became friends. They were not our beneficiaries,” Maitri’s Madhukar Mane, who co-ordinates Melghat Mitra activities from Pune after having spent a decade in Melghat, said.

“Living in Melghat had its benefits,” a nostalgic Mane said. “The land is beautiful, and so are the people. They are happy in spite of the daily drudgery of their poverty-stricken lives.”

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Three

Spread over 4,060 square kilometres, Melghat is a tiny dot on India’s map, tucked away like a trinket in the sylvan hills and ravines of the Satpura mountain ranges.

The Satpuras in Central India lie mostly outside the northern limits of Maharashtra, but a part of its high ridges are in Amravati, the uneven protrusion shaping the district’s upper contour like a rhino horn. The Tapi flows here between two faulted edges of a lava plateau and defines the state’s border with Madhya Pradesh.

The hills, rising up to an average 2,000 feet, are well spread out, forming several scenic plateaus that are separated by high ridges and deep valleys covered in dense forest of valuable teak and sparse bamboo woods.

The forest itself is monotonous, mile after mile of the same trees, almost no diversity in age or species, but still populated by the tiger, leopard and Indian sloth bear among a fairly diverse wildlife, the herbivores sustained by rich grasses – there are114 types of nutritious fodder available in Melghat.

The Korku settlements are a reassuring presence inside the wild, tiny dots that are an integral part of the awesome views, especially during the monsoons when the deep brown valleys turn green and the rows of corn and rice lift themselves above the scattered weed and grass, promising sustenance for rest of the year. 

But the monsoon rains, that are ruthless and heavy in the hills, must relent to allow the men and women into the fields to remove the invasive species before they smother the crop.

Typically, monsoon demands hard labour from the Korku adivasis. The grain stocks of the previous agricultural season are exhausted. The tribal families eat whatever little is available, mostly jowar roti and kutki, a local variety of rice, with an occasional serving of dal. It is supplemented by edible plants and tubers gathered from the surrounding jungle that provide plenty of carbohydrates to sustain them during the season. There is little else. But the men and women are driven by their empty stomachs and the hope for a better yield than the previous season.

It’s a hard life that begins in childhood. Breast feeding takes a backseat during the monsoons as nursing mothers abandon their new-borns at home to toil in the fields alongside their men. The mother’s milk is not supplemented for the tribe has a taboo about animal milk. They will not drink it for fear of robbing the calves and goat kids of nourishment.

If the new-born survives the monsoon, it will be all right, probably. For if the monsoon yields are not sufficient, the food supply is going to remain irregular for rest of the year, triggering migrations by families to nearby towns and cities in search of daily wages. It will be a grim survival challenge till the child is six or so. It will lack vital minerals and vitamins. If it endures all this and grows to be an adult, it will be to lead a life ruled by the monsoon’s vagaries. 

Life’s been so for the Korkus who have lived here since time immemorial.

Korkus are believed to be Mundas of the Chhota Nagpur Plateau, settled in the Satpuras. A sizeable population of Korkus is spread across Madhya Pradesh – mainly in Khandwa and Burhanpur (formerly East Nimar), Betul and Chhindwara districts – sandwiched between the Bhils to their west, and the Gonds and Baigas inhabiting the Mykal range to the east. How they came to be here is a mystery of sorts.

“The Korkus, a small tribe of Mundari-speaking people (50,279 in the 1961 census) living on the extreme edge of north-central Maharashtra, are of scientific and historical importance inasmuch as they represent the westernmost people speaking a Mundari language. The Gonds in their northward march have apparently driven a wedge between the Korkus and other Mundari speaking tribes further east. This surmise has not been investigated yet,” says eminent scholar Irawati Karve in ‘Maharashtra- Land and its People’ bought out by the state’s gazetteer department in 1968.

Karve, who initiated a research programme to study the cultural and physical characteristics of the Mundari speaking people while heading the department of anthropology and sociology at the University of Pune in the 1960s, links them with eastern Neolithic cultures, who unlike their western counterparts, have no animal husbandry or pastoral pursuits associated with them. The time for their penetration into India has not been fixed with any certainty but Karve believes they might have been there certainly before the Aryans and possibly before the Dravidians.

“Linguistically and ethnically the Korkus are an isolated, intrusive group in the Maharashtra region,” Karve concludes. They lived in the forested hills, while the Hindu and a few Muslim peasant communities occupied the lower slopes and fertile plains. The Gond tribesmen settled alongside the Korkus, tending their cattle, and were followed by the Balahis and Lohars who took to agriculture. The Gawli pastorals came much later, drawn by the ample grasslands.

When the British arrived in Melghat in 1853, they found the Korku aborigines wild as the forests they lived in, independent and high-spirited hunters and forest gatherers, who also practiced shifting cultivation. The first serious attempt to “end their destructive propensities” was made during the settlement operations in 1867-69, not so much to save the forests from the aborigines but “to civilise them and make them useful members of the Commonwealth.” 

The colonial masters also wanted to transform the otherwise wild and uninhabitable hills to a useful timber-producing area. And by1878, the aborigines, “by far the best wood-cutters,” were reduced to “our labour supply in service of the Queen,” condemned to labour colonies, euphemistically called “Forest Villages.”

The British had savagely exploited the forests for building a railway network to boost British trade and capital investment across the subcontinent. Great chunks of timber were cut to meet the demand for railway sleepers, over a million of which were required annually. The British were kind, of course. In exchange for the forest they had given Korkus jobs as woodcutters and land for cultivation, so they could feed their hungry children.

“Life has been tough since the Angrez left,” claimed Bisram Jamunkar, an alert and mischievous Korku elder with seventy years of practical experience of surviving the jungle.

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“I’ve seen the Angrez leave the country in their aeroplanes.” The twinkle in Bisram’s sunken eyes accompanied by a permanent smirk on his gaunt, stubbly face made any guess really tough. But Bisram believed he must be eighty-eighty five. “Give or take a year or two,” he chuckled, trying to balance his lanky frame, almost skeletal, on a pair of spindly legs.

Bisram had proved rather elusive. It had taken two days to track him down in the forests, where he was foraging, away from the prying eyes of the forest department. Remu, his wife, would say he had left for the fields early morning accompanied by their son, Babulal. By the time we reached there, Babulal would inform he had proceeded to the jungle to collect brushwood for fencing the fields as they were almost done with the ploughing operations.

Then Bisram had appeared, rather mysteriously, near a forest clearing, balancing an axe on his droopy right shoulder. “Ram Ram,” he accepted the familiar Korku greeting with a question mark written large on his bushed face. “My eyesight is poor. I am not able to see you clearly. Sit down and tell me where you are from,” Bisram murmured as he settled down beside a jungle track.

Despite poor eyesight, Bisram had no problems finding his way inside the forest. In his youth, Bisram had lived in the jungle, surviving on whatever it had to offer, till he was accepted in Remu’s household as a ‘Lamjana,’ a prospective groom serving the bride’s family for up to 12 years to compensate for the bride price, a common social custom among the Korkus of Melghat.

The British would employ young, able men like Bisram as loggers in the teak forests and as coolies accompanying the British and Indian aristocracy on expeditions to hunt tigers, deer and rabbit.

“The Goras (British) were tough task masters, they would descend upon villages early morning to shepherd the men for forest cutting. We would wrap ourselves in sarees and squat among the women in the fields to avoid the hard labour. Still the soldiers would spot us. They wouldn’t give you time to wipe your sweat or catch your breath, and would whip you for refusing to work,” Bisram recalled.

But there was work and enough to eat. “The Angrez rarely ate what they hunted. They would take the skin and leave the meat for us,” Bisram said and then, in an unguarded moment, let his mind speak out against the Indian government’s attitude:  “Now they are more concerned with the survival of the tiger. Let the humans die…”

A melancholy shadowed each sentence he uttered. “We were paid in silver coins then. You could buy a whole lot of grain for an anna. Today’s paper currency is useless. What can you buy with a 100 rupee note?”

With that Bisram got up to go. He had revealed a lot more than he should have to a stranger. It could land him in trouble with the authorities. “I told you everything. What are you going to do with all this information?” he asked before being convinced to meet again for a chat.

The Indian government had sequestered Melghat as one of the nine original reserves under Project Tiger in 1974.  Ever since the area assumed a new name ‘MTR’, an abbreviation for Melghat Tiger Reserve. The locals were robbed of the only employment guarantee they have had for centuries. The forests which had served as a vital source of nourishment for centuries were declared out of bounds for them. Worse still, the traditional custodians of wildlife were declared its enemies, perceived as compulsive hunters who would compete with tigers for prey.

Almost overnight, the people of Melghat joined a worldwide category of “conservation refugees” or what Charles C. Geisler, a professor of rural sociology at Cornell University,  would term “endangered humans,” because the area happened to be a prime habitat of the Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera Tigris).

Of the 4060 square kilometre area, 1676.93 square kilometre is declaredMTR, buffered by another approximate 1200 square kilometre of reserve forests, termed multiple use area or MUA. The present population of 3.20 lakh in 322 villages is left to survive on marginal lands with marginal rights. Some 20,000 of them, who live inside the reserve, are declared a threat to the 30-odd tigers.

The MTR has meant no paved roads. Forest officials reasoned the tar would heat up in summer and cause blisters on the tiger paws. Concrete roads too were a strict no because trackers won’t be able to trace the pug marks of the rare tiger crossing them. The electricity network posed yet another problem. Official anxiety was the electric current could be misused by poachers for trapping tigers.

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The journey to Melghat felt bizarre. Most people in Maharashtra had not heard of the area or the tribe that lived here. The predominantly Marathi-speaking populace of the state rarely crossed path with a Korku, except perhaps as tourists on a wildlife safari. A rare sighting of the tiger was much sought after but the Korkus went unnoticed.

The Korkus did not seem concerned by their invisibility.  Bisram was hardly impressed that someone had travelled by bus all the way from Pune to meet him in Chilati. “You should’ve come by aeroplane, seen a tiger and gone back a happy person,” he said.

The Korkus had a strange fascination with the aeroplane. “Do you think someone from our tribe will ever fly? How much does it cost to get entry into one of those machines,” they would ask, squinting at the distant object flying across the clear blue skies.

The ground reality offered little hope.

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Monsoon arrived on July 22. It came hissing across the teak woods, huge drops of water, falling straight and hard, first in occasional showers, and, then in a downpour so heavy it seemed the whole sky had ripped apart over the hills. The torrents beat the standing crops, laying them flat and wasted across fields.

The rivers and streams kept rising, covering the bridges and culverts to a depth of more than six feet. At many places, cattle perished, while people were stranded inside the fields and villages, with meagre or no food supplies.

Some 25 villages in the area had lost all contact with the outside world. Three bridges had washed away on the Hatru-Raipur-Semadoh route, with no hope for repair works till end of monsoon. The Jarida-Churni road, the only alternative, was made operational months after rains abated, with a quick-fix to a damaged culvert near Karanjkheda.

Melghat Mitra activists conducted their own survey and conveyed the losses to the Zilla Parishad and district administration. Nearly 400 acres of Soya bean, tur (pigeon pea) and til (sesame) had washed away, supplanted by silt, which had also damaged 73 wells, the diesel pumps submerged underneath heaps of muck.  Fortunately there was no human loss, though four houses were damaged, one in Chilati. But the rains had claimed over 40 bovines.

The elected members of Hatru, Ektai and Rui Pathar gram panchayats sought emergency assistance from the district administration. Meetings were held in Amravati and Semadoh. But no senior official visited the affected area, citing bad roads. Instead, the lowly village patwaris and gram sevaks were ordered to conduct panchnamas to assess the damages.

Jhapu Mawaskar of Khutida lost a pair of bullocks. He had bought them a year ago for Rs 10,000 from Madhya Pradesh, hoping they would work his five acres for at least five years. “All my plans have washed away with the Jodi (pair). I don’t know how I will carry on,” he said. The patwari or the gram sevak never came for panchnama.

In Bhutrum, Shamlal Akhande was hoping for six quintals of Soya bean that would have fetched him Rs 20,000. His farm was under water for a week and the entire crop was destroyed. The patwari determined Shamlal’s losses at Rs 5,000, citing government rates.

“I wanted to kill myself. But that wasn’t possible. There was no money for buying poison, and the well in my farm was choked with silt,” Shamlal said.

The Korkus called it ‘Paani Kaal’ (rain catastrophe).

“It was like never before,” they said. “It was as if Bhagwan wanted to destroy the world.” 

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Four

Chilati reported its first monsoon casualty on August 26. The bereaved family insisted the baby boy was healthy at birth. It was a home delivery, attended by the village dai and anganwadi worker.

“We could not reach the PHC at Hatru for the delivery. It was well past seven and pitch dark outside. The condition of roads was bad due to heavy rains, and there was no vehicle available,” Chotelal Mawaskar, the grandfather, said.

A soft spoken, diligent Korku, who had no other aspiration but to cultivate his plot of land and feed his expanding family, Chotelal failed to understand why it had to happen. “He was my son’s first offspring.”

His son, Devidas, and daughter-in-law, Mitaye, stood nearby, visibly tense, as if it were another grilling session.

“The dawakhanawalla came next day and took the mother and child to the PHC. The doctor said Mitaye had blood deficiency and put her on saline. We were asked to stay. But there was no staff, no electricity during the night. No food. So we went to an acquaintance in Hatru, had food there and somehow passed the night,” Devidas said.

Early morning, the family decided to return to the comfort of their home. Devidas and Mitaye came riding on his motorcycle, while the baby was carried home by the grandparents on foot.

The baby took ill within next couple of days.  “Uska Gala Rok Raha Tha (He had difficulty breathing)” Mitaye, who apparently also had problems breastfeeding, said.

Around 11 pm, Chotelal rushed to Kalu, saying they urgently needed to shift his grandson to the PHC. Kalu left for Hatru to fetch a jeep. He couldn’t locate one, and the family had to walk the two kilometres with their baby in arms.

After admission, the baby was kept on saline for an hour or so. “Then we saw blood oozing out of his nose and mouth. The doctor told us to shift him to the rural hospital at Churni. It was well past midnight and still raining. There was no vehicle. The baby died,” Devidas said.

Medical officer Dr Bhasker Shembekar said the baby had suffered hypoglycaemia, caused by an abnormally low amount of sugar in the blood leading to convulsion and coma, and hypothermia or abnormally low body temperature. “He was born underweight, barely two kilograms, but the parents refused to keep him in the PHC and instead took him home. When they returned it was too late,” he said. 

Dr Shembekar said the baby could have survived had it been moved to Churni, 35 kilometres away. But one ambulance was stuck in floods at Domi, a nearby village, where a medical team was rushed to attend an emergency call, while another one parked outside the PHC had a flat tyre, with no one available in Hatru to repair it in the middle of the night.

For the record, ‘Munna’ Devidas Mawaskar was born at home on August 21 and died during treatment at the PHC on August 26. A baby without a name is routinely mentioned in PHC records as Munna, meaning ‘little one,’ like so many others in Melghat.

There was confusion over dates. The family claimed he was born on August 26, but hospital records said he died that day. Devidas said the PHC staff may have erred, while the staff said the Korkus were terrible with dates. The family hadn’t sought a death certificate.

“What use is a death certificate? We lost our child on the Panchvi (fifth day),” Devidas said. The Korkus celebrate a birth with a ritual feast on the fifth day, introducing the new born to fellow villagers.

Kalu said the boy could have been saved if there were better roads and transport facility, but Devidas wasn’t sure: “Bhagwan Ko Pataa (God knows). The transport and hospitalisation may have required a few thousand rupees. Truth is we did not have the money.”

“A medical emergency in the middle of monsoon is a disaster for a Korku household,” the grief-stricken father said.

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A strange disquiet engulfed Chilati hereafter. Everything was dark by seven. Hardly anyone could be seen in the village square. Late at night, the silence would be broken by the abrupt barking of dogs. Was it a stray predator?  Or merely the fear of the unknown? The inhabitants of Chilati, in deep slumber at this late hour, seemed unconcerned. 

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“Korkus never fret or fume over their fate. There is no word for future in Korku language, no word for education or health,” Rameshwar Phad, project co-ordinator of Melghat Mitra, said. “It is we who want the Korkus to contemplate the future, educate themselves and live healthy lives.”

Hailing from a small town in Maharashtra’s drought-prone Marathwada region, Rambhau had consciously chosen to work in Melghat rather than covet a government job or pursue ‘big city’ dreams. “I was born in a makeshift shelter along a road construction site where my mother was employed as a labourer. I’ve come up the hard way,” said the man with a masters in political science.

The thin moustache, fine features, slight built and a prominent stammer, belie the man’s inner resolve. Rambhau still remembers his first night in Melghat. “It was July 15, 1998. A state-owned bus dropped us at Hatru around 8 pm. It was raining. Our group of volunteers from Pune and Gangakhed in Marathwada decided to sleep on the veranda of the government guest house. I could not sleep till four. We woke up at six to learn from the villagers that a tiger had entered the village in the middle of the night and devoured a goat.”

Melghat has some 300 NGOs located at Amravati, Paratwada and Dharni, ostensibly working for the welfare of Korkus. In Chilati, activists, volunteers, journalists, researchers and government employees keep coming and going. But Rambhau and his group of Melghat Mitras are the only ones staying among the Korkus. In his late thirties now, he has been here since the dreadful night at the Hatru guest house.

“They say Korkus trust the bhumka more than a doctor. But look at the state of healthcare facilities. Not long ago, the nearest government hospital was at Semadoh. It would require an entire day to transport a patient by a bullock cart to that place. The PHC in Hatru came up in the early nineties. It is still without electricity. It has a telephone that is often out-of-order. Doctors, if present on duty, refer critical cases to Churni, not bothered if the two ambulances at the PHC are in working condition. One is always in a state of disrepair. Sometimes both. Who will trust the government?” Rambhau said.

“We do our best, given the circumstances,” medical staff at the Hatru PHC said in defence, citing immense pressure due to constant media focus, which made the top administration and political establishment hyper-sensitive to malnutrition and child deaths.

“Every birth and death is recorded in detail by us, with medical, socio-economic and family details running into several pages. The place of delivery, birth weight, mother’s health status, breastfeeding, weaning and immunisation details are not enough. We also record the parents’ education, employment and income details, condition of house, whether it has a bathroom, toilet, access to water, electricity, telephone, and road connectivity,” Dr Shembekar said.

The PHC in Hatru, which catered to8,777 people across 15 villages falling in the Hatru, Ektai and Rui Pathar gram panchayats, had recorded 19 child deaths in 2009-10, 20 in 2010-11 and 12 in 2011-12. In 2012-13, six children had died, two each in April, May and June, mostly due to complications arising from low birth weight. Post-monsoon, the number of child deaths had steadily risen to 13.

Across Melghat, it had touched 400 and authorities were still counting.

The way schemes for women and child development were planned at the Centre and implemented by states, the onus was on the doctors and nurses, the anganwadi worker and ASHA or accredited social health activist.

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Parvati Mawaskar, the anganwadi worker at Chilati, runs the day-care centre and mid-day meal scheme in her house, which also serves as a makeshift godown for the mid-day meal rations.

She had her grievances; the sanctioned premises for the anganwadi was nowhere in sight, the supply of rations was irregular and there was no storage facility – the mid-day meals were regularly raided by mice. There were other, universal problems; salary not paid on time, unearthly working hours and indifferent and uncooperative babus.

Parvati also had a personal health issue, she wanted to share with somebody. “I’ve sickle-cell anaemia. It was detected last month. And I don’t know what it is. Whether it will allow me to continue with my work. Can you tell?”

A demoralised staff, public infrastructure in a shambles, poor communications facility, non-existent roads and unreliable public transport; did the government exist here?

The Panchayat Samiti headed by a block development officer (BDO) was in Chikhaldara, 65 kilometres away, while the chief executive officer (CEO) of Zilla Parishad and the district collector were in Amravati. There was supposed to be a tribal development officer (TDO) posted in Dharni, but the state government won’t spare an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer for the remote area, despite High Court directives.

The district collector, accompanied by Congress MLA Kevalram Kale, tried to reach Hatru during the monsoon, but couldn’t cross the overflowing river at Beladoh bridge. “They expressed regret and returned from Raipur, a village 21 kilometres away. Later, the Zilla Parishad CEO visited Hatru, but it did not solve any problems,” said Munna Bethekar, a member of the Panchayat Samiti representing Hatru.

The locals wanted an asphalted road to Semadoh, a distance about 40 kilometres, and to Jarida, 33 kilometres away, but the district administration cited lack of funds and permission from the forest authorities.

The Hatru-Raipur-Semadoh road stretch was repaired 11 times in as many years, Munna said, quoting details accessed through the Right to Information (RTI) Act. In 2010-11 alone, the administration had spent Rs 45 lakh under the hilly area development scheme, and Rs 70 lakh from budgeted schemes, for emergency repairs and ‘hard surfacing’ using gravel and mud. “The repairs don’t last a single monsoon. Where does all the money go? Does it simply go down the drain every monsoon?” Munna wanted to know.

The official reply was, “repairs were subject to conditions by the forest department, limiting the road width to 7.50 metres, prohibiting asphalt and use of fire.” The foresters won’t tolerate any threat to wildlife, trees and shrubs. “All raw materials had to be procured from outside the forest area, and the contractors and labour were not permitted night halts.”

“Why does the forest department refuse permission for an asphalted road in our area, when excellent roads were built to Semadoh, Chaurakund and Kolkas to promote eco-tourism inside the tiger reserve? Tourists and nature-lovers are welcomed with open arms. Only the locals are seen as a threat to tiger habitat,” Munna said.

Munna led the locals to oppose plans for landing a helicopter near Hatru for a proposed visit by district guardian minister Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil on Republic Day. “How can you flatten a hillock for a minister, while we are denied a road,” Munna questioned the officials. The minister cancelled his visit, promising to visit Hatru by road at a later date.

It took another round of agitations – blocking traffic on the inter-state highway at Semadoh and picketing the sub divisional officer (SDO) at Dharni – before the road was finally repaired and bus service restarted early this year. The state transport authorities had their doubts, but agreed to the ‘risky proposition’ of running buses on the jungle path after the SDO offered to travel on the bus to Hatru.

SDO S. N. Mishra, who had studied in a Zilla Parishad school at Dharni and volunteered to serve in the remote area, was one of the few officers, better aware and well-adapted to the ground realities of Melghat. The mild-mannered, middle-aged officer knew his presence can make a difference, and make things work.

In Hatru for a special drive to issue Aadhar cards, Mishra said: “I am here just to motivate my staff. You can see the drive’s also getting a good response from the Korkus. Everything is going smooth.”

Mishra wanted to improve anganwadis, ration shops and boost employment guarantee works, to ease the hardships caused by a recalcitrant monsoon. “The area needs regular food supplies at both anganwadis and ration shops. We have 32,000 persons covered under MGNREGS. But we can do better,” he said on the sides of a meeting between government officials and NGOs in early March.

Strangely, employment guarantee works were launched after most people had moved out in search of work. In Chilati, 150 persons were employment for nine days under the Hariyali project by the forest department, while 100 persons, from the same pool, had found work on MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) sites for another 18 days. But an equal number had already migrated.

The previous year, some 1,200 people from the 15 villages around Hatru had migrated leading to underutilisation of the Rs three crore set aside for employment guarantee schemes in the area. 

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Five

The contactors’ pickups had begun making rounds of Chilati post-Diwali. Men, women and even children as young as nine, were gathered in groups and packed like sardines, before being transported by the contractors’ men to towns and cities across Maharashtra, some of them lured to far off places like Pune and Mumbai, with the promise of a higher wage.

Chotelal’s family was one of the few lucky households. The Soya bean in their fields had survived the monsoon onslaught, while wheat, paddy and chana (chickpea) had been partially destroyed. Going by the market rate of Rs 3,200 per quintal for Soya bean, he was looking forward to making enough from his 7-8 quintal yield to survive till the next monsoon. “I could save some wheat and paddy, and a little chana, for our consumption. That should see us through,” Chotelal said.

Devidas and Mitaye said they were depending on the river to feed their vegetable plots during summer: “We will grow tomatoes and sell them in the market, but won’t migrate.”

The families of the bhumka and dai were not so lucky. Their sons and daughters-in-law had already migrated to Paratwada looking for daily wages, leaving the children behind.

“What to do. Our farm yields are pathetically low this year. We have to feed ourselves for rest of the year. The young people will find some work, somewhere, as farm or construction labourers, and earn some money. We hope so,” Babu, the bhumka, said.

Ambai, the dai, said her elder son and daughter-in-law had migrated, while the younger son, Nandlal, and his wife, were mourning the death of their seven-month-old boy, Amar. “My daughter-in-law was breast-feeding him around midnight while lying down. When she woke up after an hour or so, he was choking. We rushed him to the PHC. But he did not survive.”

Amar had died on October 24.  His was the second child to die in Chilati, after Chotelal’s grandson in August.

Doctors at the PHC said it was a case of snakebite. The villagers guessed he might have choked while suckling. The dai’s family denied both possibilities. Nandlal, ever the quiet guy, said nothing. “I will be helping my mother in harvesting whatever survives of the wheat crop. What else can I do?”

Kalu, now an elected member of the gram panchayat, wanted the Korkus to rise up and demand their rights. “I tried to organise gram sabhas to demand 100-days work. But the gram sevak in collusion with some influential and corrupt locals was misleading the villagers,” he said, frustrated.

“Migration puts a lot of strain on families,” Kalu said, recalling his childhood. “My parents used to migrate to Madhya Pradesh to escape starvation. I must have been eight then. My baby brother wasn’t well. When his condition worsened, an uncle collected ‘chanda’ (small contributions) and told us to return to Chilati. For three days we walked, without food, spending the nights under open skies. My mother would beg for food, so she could feed her sick child. What she got in alms was stale food. After we reached Damjipura, near the state border, my parents left me in the care of an aunt, and proceeded to Chilati. But my brother did not survive the journey home.”

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Kalu said his parents have never migrated for work ever since. His father would occasionally do odd-jobs in Paratwada to raise money for his school fees. But he never took the family along.

“It’s not only about the children’s health. Women are often exploited by contractors, and the men are rarely paid the promised wages. Healthy, young men have died in accidents at work sites in Bangalore and Hyderabad. No compensation paid. Migration is no way to escape poverty,” he said.

Kalu said his parents had pawned aluminium utensils, their only possession, to pay for his schooling in Nagpur. “After SSC, it was Melghat Mitra and Mahadev Dhurve from Khoj, an NGO in Paratwada, who paid for my junior college years. We could pull ourselves out of poverty only after I started working for Melghat Mitra. I owe it to them,” an emotional Kalu said.

“Siirr, you will never know what poverty is. It pains me whenever I recall my childhood days. Yet people say Korkus are lazy, they’ll never improve.”

“Given half-a-chance, Korkus do improve,” Dr Parvati Halbe, a paediatrician from Pune, vouched for them. Dr Halbe had conducted a door-to-door assessment of their nutritional status in 2007, following it up with regular visits.

“In the five years that I have been here, I have witnessed a noticeable change among the Korkus. They are visiting the PHC, though home deliveries continue. There is a distinct fall in levels of protein energy malnutrition (PEM), and a drop in bacterial and parasitical infections and infestations. Their diets have improved and so has hygiene,” she said.

The Melghat Mitra initiative has proved a virtual lifeline for Korkus in the Hatru-Chilati area, bringing in health volunteers, medicines, nutritious diet, and initiating development activities across 30 villages. Hundreds of full-time and part-time volunteers from across Maharashtra, besides a dedicated team of workers, including Korkus, have over the decade endeavoured to halve the child mortality rate.

Maitri believes simple measures to improve health, hygiene, cooking, farming, livestock care and helping Korkus read and write, can go a long way in improving their lives. “We believe these are small but steady steps towards a promising future. Force will not work with a tribe lost to the outside world,” Vinita said. “Besides, it is too early for the Korkus to step in. It will take another 15 years for them to take charge of their lives and for us to move out of Melghat.”

Dr Halbe felt the need of the hour was to have more communication with Korkus, especially mothers. “Earlier a mother would feed a thin paste of kutki, kodon or such lighter grains that were available, to her children. Now we see the Korku families are consuming better varieties of rice, pulses, jowar or wheat, soya bean and even milk. We need to educate them on the nutritional value of these food items, which are now available to them, unlike in the past.”

Non-availability of nutritious diet was one of the primary reasons for the Korku condition. The denial of access to forests had deprived them of their natural diet of animal meat, fruits, vegetables and roots that were freely available in the jungle and were rich in protein, carbohydrates, fats, mineral salts and vitamins.

Historical circumstances had forced the tribe to take up settled agriculture. But the land in Melghat, hilly and rocky, afforded only lighter grains that could grow in less time on uneven soil without irrigation or fertilisers. They had survived on this meagre diet of low-nutrient rice, cereals and coarse bread, supplemented by crabs and fish during monsoons.

It was, as Dr Halbe described it: “At best, a compromise diet.”

Recent studies on the Korkus’ dietary habits said protein deficiency due to lack of meat and vegetables was causing stunted growth, dry lustreless hair, broken skin, anaemia and lack of resistance to diseases among the tribe. While starch deficiency, due to substandard grain and lack of greens, was one of the main reasons for general weakness, causing disinclination to undertake any activity. The Korku diet also lacked enough fats, salts and vitamins. Thus a bout of diarrhoea or pneumonia was reason enough for deaths in Melghat.

Try telling this to the officials, who think Korkus are monkeys.

Range Forest Officer (Project Tiger) P K Lakde insisted we visit a rare, successful government initiative at Simori. The trenches taken by the forest department as a soil conservation and drought proofing measure in the previous years had provided a boost to agriculture in the village, besides ensuring employment to locals.

“The villagers are so busy harvesting winter crops that migration is a thing of the past in Simori,” Lakde claimed. “But Korkus won’t learn from others. What can you do?”

The forest department wanted to replicate the trenches in farmlands across villages in the Hatru range. But the farmlands were mostly ‘atikraman’ or encroachments on forestland, necessitated by the Korkus’ growing families.

Bisram said nearly half of his agriculture land was acquired by slash and burn. He had toiled for it, for years. He had three sons and a married daughter, and every year there was an additional mouth to feed. It would be difficult to survive, unless government regularises his ‘atikraman.’

The Korkus only material possession was their landholdings. But it was a contentious issue, with a history of dispossession since the British era. This had left an indelible mark on the Korku psyche, affecting his way of life, to this day.

The year 1878 may not ring a bell in Melghat today. But the ghost of the Forest Act imposed that year by the British continues to haunt the Korku subconscious to this day. “Why should we dig trenches in our farmlands? Yet another sinister ploy by the foresters to grab our land and get rid of us?” Chilati was abuzz with doubts.

When the British took away their forest, the indigenous people were in no position to fight back. As historian Ramachandra Guha points out, quoting a forest official from that era, in his essay ‘Democracy in the Forest’: “The right of conquest is the strongest of all rights. It is a right against which there is no appeal.”

Anthropologist K. P. Chattopadhyay’s ‘Economic conditions of the Korkus of Melghat forest’ published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1946 throws some light on this period;

“In 1853 the Melghat taluka was under Nizam’s domination. The forest at that time could be freely exploited by the Korkus. But after some period it was assigned to the British government. Before this the Korkus followed shifting cultivation with hunting and by sale of timber and firewood they could subsist themselves. Forest reservation laws were introduced and shifting cultivation was forbidden by 1878. This led to serious discontent among the aboriginal forest population, and as a result a part of area was kept unreserved. After sometime they were given selected areas for settled cultivation at nominal rent and also were allowed to use free supply of firewood and timber for (house) building purposes. In return they had to work in the forest at the time of (timber) cutting and repairing the roads.”

Forest and game laws introduced by the British had reduced the Indian adivasis to encroachers in their own land. As Elwin put it in 1941;

“He was forbidden to practice his traditional methods of cultivation. He was ordered to remain in one village and not to wander from place to place. When he had cattle he was kept in a state of continual anxiety for fear they should stray over the boundary and render him liable to heavy fines. If he was a Forest Villager he became liable at any moment to be called to work for the Forest Department. If he lived elsewhere he was forced to obtain a license for almost every kind of forest produce. At every turn the Forest Laws cut across his life, limiting, frustrating, destroying his self-confidence…A Forest Officer once said to me: ‘Our laws are of such a kind that every villager breaks one forest law every day of his life.’”

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Elwin’s account was true for Melghat. The cultivated lands were not wholly owned by Korkus. They were on a nominal lease from the government with a bond that said every family who took land to cultivate should provide one able person as a labourer whenever the forest department demanded. 

Chattopadhyay described the situation, quoting an old Korku, who was working in a (timber) depot, as follows: “The work is hard, the labour is forced. What can a whole family purchase on four annas a day? My house is dilapidated for I have no time to repair it. My son is away with the Shikari Saheb tying up buffaloes at night in the forest in the rains. We prefer work in the fields. Mother Earth gives good crops…”

But the forced labour hung like a Damocles’ sword on the Korku’s head. There was no certainty when he would be called and for how many days to the forest. Nor was the land his own. Years of servility had caused a lack of economic drive among Korkus.

Lakde said he faced a strange dilemma. “I am supposed to protect the wildlife and the forest. But I also have to provide employment to the Korkus because they are incapable of feeding themselves.” The forest ranger failed to understand the government’s benevolence, that too favouring people who were habitual hunters and encroachers.

Among his 22-member staff, with the exception of a few permanent guards, rest were Korkus, Lakde said. The Korkus were employed on short contracts for menial tasks like cleaning, fetching water, cooking, acting as guides to the ranger and the guards, and their influential guests, besides reporting and putting off forest fires, keeping an eye on poachers and tracking wildlife.

It would earn them about Rs 5,000 a month, a princely sum, though without a job guarantee beyond three months. “My only problem in Melghat is the Korkus. One would like to employ them (on permanent basis), but they have no skills, nor are they honest. They’ll rather side with the poachers,” the forest officer whined.

But how could someone have skills and be honest without a regular income?

A Korku family, typically comprising of a minimum seven members, was used to surviving on an average annual income of around Rs 20,000. This meant an individual subsisted on Rs 2,800 or US $ 48 a year – barely Rs eight a day.

The ranger sahib had little time for such queries. A full-grown male tiger was making its presence felt in the area, attacking cattle near Marita village, devouring a deer further down a stream.

The forest officer had to act, before the villagers took matters into their own hands.

Late evening, a team led by the ranger crossed the Dolar Baba shrine on the Hatru-Raipur-Semadoh road, and moved another kilometre or so inside the deep woods. After an hour or so it reached the forest camp, in pitch dark.

“Let’s not tempt fate,” the ranger said in a hushed tone. “Let’s get a couple of Korkus to accompany us. Let them lead. They have sharp eyes and ears, and a great sense of smell. Only they can tell if a tiger is lurching around.”

There were instructions for the urban, educated lot. “Don’t be scared. Take a torch and a stick. But don’t use them, no way. And no abrupt movements, they scare away tigers and prompt them to attack. Follow the Korkus.”

You follow Jhapu, a Korku youth from Hatru. He had spotted the tiger near a watering hole in the evening. The entry in the camp register said so. But there was no time for details. Jhapu was busy cooking for the team.

Then he put on his slippers and started walking, as if it were a walk in the park.

You felt the weight in the air, the presence of the beast, lurking behind a thicket, or hiding behind a bamboo clump.

Jhapu stopped abruptly, near a thicket. You stopped breathing. Five, ten, fifteen minutes. Twigs snapped and branches parted. It’s was a bear. Jhapu gestured with his eyes in its direction. You saw it in silhouette – busy, ignoring your presence. But Jhapu decided to change track. “It’s a female with kids. It may attack without a warning.”

An hour goes by. The tiger is still elusive.

Then, Jhapu pointed to a clearing in the forest, and signalled the team to sit down in a circle. “He is sure the beast will pass this way,” Lakde whispered, instructing the team to keep a headcount. “It’s no joke. You are in the middle of tiger country.”

We didn’t have to wait long. A member of the team spotted a pair of glowing dots, some 50 metres away. They seemed to be observing us, moving slowly, as if encircling a herd before the attack.

Jhapu was on his feet, without anybody noticing it, peering in the dark.

It’s Him, he confirmed, rendering the team motionless.

Then He disappeared before anyone realising it.  

“He may return once we’re gone,” the ranger predicted, hastening the team back to the safety of the forest camp.

Back in Chilati, Bisram was happy. “You met the tiger, ha? How did it feel?” His eyes were moist and he spoke as if somebody had brought news of a long-lost brother. “The tiger is the real thing. We humans are like grass. We live. We die. Who cares?”

Then Bisramsaid something in Korku.  It was an old adage: “Jhara Rengo Khaduba, Jhara Rengo Gadjuba,” which roughly translates as ‘humans grow as does the grass, and perish like the grass.’

Monsoon had gone. Winter too had passed. Summer was on its way.

The residents of Chilati were looking forward to Holi. Those gone in search of work would soon be back in the village for the festivities. The intoxicating Mahuva would flow freely. Meat would be served to strangers. It’s the only time of the year the adivasis let go of worry.

Money, or the lack of it, wasn’t an issue. The moneylender was always there. Who else responds to the pleas of the poor?

END