A chance to survive
Mayurbhanj is located on the north of Orissa and covered by the Simlipal forest ranges, spread across a radius of 2850 sq kilo meters. The Lodhas are an ancient tribal community living in Moroda and Suliapada blocks of Baripada district.
My involvement in the transformation of the Lodhas is the gist of my article.
I was sub collector, Baripada in the district of Mayurbhanj (Mbj), Orissa, India. Mbj comprises of four sub-divisions, two of these sub divisions, Panchpir and Rairangpur, are covered by the Similipal ranges, a virtual paradise on earth.
History has it that the Lodhas were dacoits and bandits from the time of the erstwhile British Empire. The British had left India more than five decades ago; yet the Legacy that the Lodhas inherited continued to flourish in the minds of generations of non-Lodhas.
The Lodhas were spread predominantly in the two Blocks of Moroda and Suliapada. It happened to be the month of December and the entire sub division was steeped in bone-biting chill. The Collector and District Magistrate called me over phone by mid afternoon asking me to accompany him to Moroda Block in view of some 'law and order problem' relating to the Lodhas. Having been in regular touch with the Lodhas as much as I used to be with the public at large, I could verily guess what was in store that evening.
The villagers – mostly non- Lodhas - from over eight or nine villages had gathered by the time we reached the village. The Collector and I sat under a tree on makeshift tables and chairs arranged for us. To our left stood a huge crowd, shouting fiercely at the two Lodha women - one carrying an infant in hand. The discussion centred around a theft the night before of some money and a wrist watch from some villagers who were on their way back home. It was (Naturally?) presumed that it was committed by some members of the Lodha community who waylaid the villagers and robbed them of their belongings. The non – Lodha inhabitants of these villages thereafter took it upon themselves to teach the Lodhas a lesson of a life time - they drove out every single member of the community beyond the borders of the State. As a result, most of the Lodhas fled into nearby Bengal, crossing the Subarnarekha River.
As the din began to get more aggressive and vociferous, I requested the Collector to permit me to take over. Known for my 'tough administration' (despite being a Lady!?), I asked the two emaciated women standing to our right why they too did not flee like the rest of their clan. The woman with the infant in hand said that their spouses were incarcerated and they had no where to go and had to stay back. My conversation from thereon is related verbatim:
Asked I: what do you do for a living?
1st woman: We have no land, no work. We steal a hen or two or some paddy from their fields
(Then din grew louder as if to say 'we said so. All of them are thieves')
Crowd: No, no they have always been dacoits; their forefathers were dacoits and they will continue to be.
I: Agreed, they were dacoits. But can you tell me what percentage of theft these people commit?
Prompt came the reply from the crowd: 60% (sixty percent)
I: And, the rest?
The crowd: Others
I: Excellent! Those who had for generations been bandits and dacoits and survived on plunder and loot committed only 60% of the theft; whereas, those who had never earlier indulged in such crimes accounted for 40% of crimes committed. So which of you has gotten worse?
There was a big hiss, a culmination of murmurs of disapproval. Point made, I once again turned to the woman with the infant in hand
I: How old is your child?
Woman: One year old
I to the crowd: If you keep pointing your fingers at this infant from this age saying that his mother is a thief and his father a dacoit, how would you expect him to grow up as a normal being?
Before leaving them I asked the women to recall the members of their clan who had fled the villages.
It was a freezing Sunday in December, just two days after the incident. The caller said that there has been a ‘social boycott’ called by the non-Lodha populace of the eight villages and everything that the Lodhas owned was destroyed by these villagers. Local shop keepers were forbidden to sell anything to the Lodhas.
Organizing some rice, salt and some blankets - the last through a NGO- some of my officials and I rushed to the village/s. A few people stopped me at the entrance to the villages and 'informed' me that the local MLA (Member of the Legislature) had called for a social boycott and no one was allowed to enter these villages. I asked him to inform the MLA that I was going into the village/s and if he had anything to say, he could well meet me there.
What we witnessed there was horrifying - clothes in shreds, broken doors and windows, their lean hope of survival - sabai ropes made of naturally grown grass - were burnt to ashes. They were only a few women and a lone elderly gentleman, who was well in his seventies. Two nights after our meeting, the non-Lodha villagers, irked at the support the Lodhas had received from the administration, wanted to teach everyone a lesson. Every male member who had returned to their village after the day of the meeting had been chased away once again. I asked the elderly person how he stayed on. With tears in his eyes he said ' I told them that this is where I was born, and, were I would die, I will not leave'. Saying thus, he climbed on to a huge pile of paddy and asked the attackers to burn him if they so desired.
A new begining
A new beginning
They were 39 women and the elderly gentleman who had dared to stay on.
After distributing the essential commodities that I had carried for them, I sat with each them and engaged in discussion, in an effort to re-assure them, as they were cringing in fear. It transpired that there was only one Lady who was a Matriculate and another girl who was studying in the ninth class. There were nine others who had studied up to class eight or nine. No one had any land nor did the local administration provide them any work. They eked out their living spinning sabai ropes.
Sitting on the mud-smeared clean floor in their midst, I asked them if they were willing to work? Yes, they chorused. I asked the Matriculate to teach all those who had completed their eighth grade to sign their names for enrolling them as Home Guards - (I had earlier requested the Superintendent of Police for this big help and he had agreed); I instructed the Block Development Officer (BDO) to ensure that every adult over 18 years was engaged in development works within a radius of two kilometres from their homes and each one was paid her/his daily wages - DAILY and fully. I asked them to call back everyone who had left to come back without fear of retaliation. Reputation of an Administrator as that of 'terror' works wonders in situations such as these. No one dared to disrupt my attempts to prove them right.
I got special permission from government to provide fund for a community hall to be built - I got it. A NGO organized 100 Sabai grass machines that were placed in a shed for immediate use. The most feared of the Lodhas was made a Villge Level Worker (VLW) and was attached to the Lodha Development office located in their very midst lying non- functional for decades. All eligible students were enrolled in schools. The Lady who had completed her matriculation swore in their midst that should anyone from their League indulged in crimes of dacoits, robbery or theft, she would personally inform me. The unwritten agreement was signed by all members of the villages and a bond (ing) had been exchanged.
Less than six months down the line the 'alleged cases' against the Lodhas dropped from 150 annually to only three.
The community hall was completed in a record six months time, which coincided with my transfer from there. The day of the inauguration, the new collector, the Project Director, Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) and I reached the village. In touching tribal culture, the womenfolk washed my feet with water blended with turmeric, flowers and herbs and carried me to the dias; in tribal culture, once you wash someone's feet in turmeric water, the person should not rest his feet on the floor again. We bid farewell in tears.
The people of Baripada always believed that I would someday be their collector. It was their belief that took me back to 'my roots'.
Putting the House in order did not take much time as they knew my ways of functioning from my earlier stint as sub collector. I went to the same villages in Moroda and Suliapada blocks.
It was around four in the evening.... the children had not returned from schools and colleges. Without introducing myself I asked an elderly couple of the well being of all the Lodhas...
'The VLW was still in the Development office. Nine children had completed their matriculation. One student has attended college. The school has been transformed; the community hall was still in place, homes had become bigger, all the girls are going to school but not regularly. They were 'exporting' mechanically (com)pressed leaves and leaf-cups to Bengal, no one any longer indulged in theft or robbery.... You were our sub collector. You used to come in (a pair of) jeans. You remember this community hall you gave us? We have another one now. Now you are our collector; we always knew you would someday come back as our collector. . .
All three of us had tears in our eyes. I left, saying I'd see them again soon.
Ten years is a long time in the memory of the public. In a decade everything had transformed beyond recognition. A Community had arrived at the threshold of Life - all that it needed was a CHANCE at self esteem; a scope to survive. In the midst of the Great Reformation they never for a day forgot their sub collector who saw the HUMAN side of them and uncaringly went about creating for them a place in society.