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  Two days with tribals  
  Experiences of a Collector  
   
  The writer is the District Collector of Kozhikkode, Kerala. Recently he visited 10 tribal colonies in his district. He recounts his experiences in an article in the Malayala Manorama (August 28), translated into English by A.J. Philip:

"SIR, please don't go. Vellachi wants to meet you". While returning from a visit to Muthukad tribal colony, someone from the hilltop shouted.

Vellachi is a tribal woman who is over 90 years old. "Let's hear what she has to say". My colleagues and I waited. With great difficulty, two young men brought her from the hills to where we stood. Everybody was anxious to hear what Vellachi, drooping of age, had to say.

With a pat on her shoulders, I asked: "Mother, what do you want?" Raising her head, she said, "I want nothing. I heard that you have come. I wanted to see you. I am happy. Now you can go". Everybody laughed hearing Vellachi's answer. For a moment, they forgot that they were tired.

What Vellachi said is the truth. They don't want anything. Nobody has any complaints here. Vellachi represents tribals who remain happy despite all the hardships and sufferings they undergo.

The Central and state governments earmark crores of rupees for tribal welfare. If the money reached their hands, most of them would have been worth at least a lakh of rupees. But the truth is that not one of them is a lakh-pati. This means the money meant for tribals reaches someone else. This is what prompted me to visit 10 tribal colonies in the district.

Tribals supposedly enjoy many rights and privileges but those whom I met were living in abject poverty. Among them there were those without ration cards, those suffering from various diseases, those who have been deprived of electricity and water connections, those without their own houses, those who have no access to toilets, those who have no agricultural land. I personally saw a long list of deprivations.

Yet, nobody complains. Not only that, they are all very happy. They celebrate everyday with songs, dances and gossip sessions. They consider these as luxuries and lead a contented life.

Here, in one colony, a water pipe burst. They did not ask anyone to repair it. They abandoned the pipe and have been managing with locally available water. If this had happened in a town, the people would have blocked the road the next day in protest.

They do not know about their rights. Even those who know never bother to run after officials with their complaints. It was only when I reached there that I came to know that hundreds of tribal families did not have ration cards. All of them are entitled to BPL (Below Poverty Line) ration cards. All tribals, except those holding gazetted posts, are entitled to receive 35 kg of rice per family per month under the Antyodaya BPL scheme. But in these colonies the law has been violated.

I met tribals who did not get electricity connection because they had not submitted their building plans. What do government officials want when they ask the tribals to submit plans of their houses, which are in any case built by the government for them?

I visited the colonies with the district-level heads of all the departments. The visit was to find immediate solutions to the problems brought to our notice. To some extent, we succeeded in this. The most satisfying step was the on-the-spot sanction given to 100 temporary ration cards.

I think the main problem is the unwillingness of government employees and people's representatives to either interact with the tribals or understand their problems.

When people in towns and villages were suffering from Chickengunia and other contagious diseases, there was no such case in any of the tribal colonies. Forget Chickengunia, there were no mosquitoes even. There was no dirty stagnant water that allowed breeding of mosquitoes. In the Collector's bungalow, there is no escape from mosquitoes despite using air-conditioners, fans and mosquito coils. In contrast, in the house where I slept in the colony, there was not even a fan!

Personal relations are strong among the tribals. Since nobody can survive on his own, they maintain strong inter-personal relationships. This is a peculiarity of the way in which they live. With no electricity and other facilities, it is difficult to live in forests and hills without others' help. Since television is not a part of their life, they have a lot of time to meet one another. They find enjoyment in singing, dancing and telling stories. A three-year-old child and a 90-year-old grandmother will join hands to sing and dance. They have no stage-fright at all!

Women and men enjoy equal rights. There is no discrimination whatsoever. On administrative matters in the area, the last word is that of their chieftain. He solves all their problems. Their social consciousness is, in fact, better than that of the urbanites. The only thing we may find objectionable here is drunkenness. Everyone, including infants and women, drinks. They do not know about the ill-effects of liquor. As a result, the old and even children suffer from various diseases. The only solution to the problem is proper conscientisation of the people.

I slept in Vattachira colony in Kodencherry. It was the first time a senior government official stayed in the colony. It was the chieftain's duty to receive the guest in traditional style. It was his right too! I stayed in the chieftain's house.

For dinner cooked cassava and fish curry were served. Though the curry was slightly hot, I enjoyed the food. Some of the officials who accompanied me also stayed there. They organised a post-dinner cultural programme for us. We set up a campfire. Those who initially hesitated to come close, clutched our hands later. Playing tribal musical instruments, they sang and danced around me. They were all in a celebratory mood. By the time the programme ended, the clock had struck 1 a.m. The next day I visited the colony and returned.

I began my official life as an assistant collector at Lalgarh in West Bengal. Yes, the same Lalgarh, which the Maoists had occupied. It was hunger and poverty at Lalgarh that helped the Maoists to consolidate their hold. Similar conditions exist in our tribal areas too. The best antidote is not to let outsiders (read, Maoists) enter the area.

I have stayed with the people in Lalgarh. The experiences I gained at that time are now my strengths. My attempt is to create a situation whereby the tribals have no complaints so that they do not come under the influences of extraneous forces. Whatever highly paid job you may have, it is not a substitute for a job in the civil services which enables one to serve the poor. That is the greatness of this job. (Courtesy: Malayala Manorama)

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  By  Dr P.N. Salim  
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