Adivasi festivals showcase cultural heritage in the brightest
of colours. The fanfare that marks such events always overshadows
the real life experiences and travails Adivasis put up with
on a daily basis. The recent Adivasi festival made an attempt
to bring into view issues that have a strong bearing on the
existence of the Adivasis. SWM takes a closer look at displacement,
land rights and the years of living marginally.
no worries about land before," says the old man. "We
believe God possesses it all. He gave us plenty to share and
we just took the amount we needed to survive. After all these
years, we regret why we never cared for ownership of land,
now that we have nothing." These are the words of 95-year-old
Jonik Nokrek from Chunia, of Pirgachsa, Madhupur. While almost
the entire community including his children converted to Christianity,
this old man still has faith in his traditional religion --
Shangsharek. Jonik Marak Nokrek is the oldest man alive with
Shangsharek faith in the Mandi community of Bangladesh.
sits in front of the artefacts on display at the Shilpakala
Academy as part of the three-day Indigenous People's Cultural
Festival organised by the Society for Environment and Human
Development (SEHD). In the backdrop, a huge crowd cheers at
the indigenous girls performing traditional dances. During
the festival held 17 to 19 March, Nokrek was seen telling
stories of his past and showing artefacts to the crowd. He
seemed just happy to be there, whereas at the dialogue table,
conservation of indigenous people's culture was a well mused
for this year's festival is "Cultural diversity is our
pride". Within a few years, much has been said about
protecting this sense of pride. Thus, every year indigenous
women belonging to different ethnic groups perform songs and
dances, amid the thunderous applause that they receive the
demand for the protection of cultural diversity gets postponed
until the next year's Adivasi festival.
of the country demonstrate unique cultures, traditions and
knowledge. There is always debate about the number of indigenous
ethnic groups living in Bangladesh. According to the last
census held in the year 1991, around 1,205, 978 indigenous
people live in Bangladesh and the total number of indigenous
ethnic groups is 27, according to the government estimate.
There are non-government bodies that put the number in between
40 to 50. Even Santu Larma, the Chakma leader, recently claimed
that there are 40 different groups of Adivasis in Bangladesh.
Among them the Chakma, Tanchangya, Tripura, Mro, Murong, Marma,
Bawm, Pankhua, Khayang, Chak and the Lushai live in the Southeast
(Chittagong Hill Tracts) region. The Santal (Saotal), Oraon,
Munda, Malo, Mahato, Koch, Rajbangshi in the north, the Mandi
(Garo) and Hajongs in the north-central plains, Monipuri,
Khasi, Patra and tea garden communities live in the north-east
and the Rakhains in the coastal belt. All of these communities
with their diverse culture, language and tradition contribute
to making Bangladesh a culturally rich country.
boundary of cultural life goes far beyond the occasional stage
performance of dances, songs and drama. Language, knowledge,
thought, belief, tradition, technology, behaviour, rights
and festival-- all these are part of the cultural life of
away from home
The boundary stretches as far as land rights. "If a community's
right to land -- their main source of livelihood -- and its
resources are not secured, efforts for protection of culture
become meaningless," says Philip Gain, General Secretary
of SEHD, at the seminar on Adivasi Life, Language and Culture
held on the second day of the festival. Discussants recognised
land rights issues to be the main source of crisis for the
indigenous people. For the Adivasi people both in plains and
in the hills, management of land and ownership has an altogether
different meaning. Community sharing of every piece of land
is still a common practice. Ownership of the land was never
a concern for them.
settlement started during the 1960s, the huge Bangali settlement
in the hill during the 1980s and the government allocation
of land to them have kick started a major crisis for the Adivasi
people. Land ownership was an unusual concept to them. When
these communities began to apprehend this new idea they have
already been displaced from their land.
plains, Adivasi people like Oraon, Santal or Mandis have never
had any sense of ownership. They simply lost their land to
Bangalis. Bangali and indigenous communities lived alongside
in the plains but always with a feeling of incognisance. Two
entirely different cultures failed to merge. Just like what
happened in every other place in the world, the indigenous
communities of Bangladesh lost their resources to the majority
used to be the determinant of ownership in our society. The
community using the land is supposed to light up a lamp there
during the night. It was that simple," says Surendranath
Sarkar of Puthia, Rajshahi.
an Oraon by birth, is participating in the festival as a member
of the Puthia Upazila Adivasi Unnayon Shangstha. He was stating
how most of the Oraon people of his area are now land-less.
"The government acquired all our land and they are supposed
to distribute it to the destitute of the area. Most of the
time, people with muscle and money get the land. Our boshot
bhita is now being distributed as Khas land."
remarks that there are no examples of any Oraon person ever
receiving land from the government. "Oraons are now among
the most destitute in the area and it would have been wise
if the government, at least, donated the piece of khas land
that used to be our homestead." As the land cannot be
retrieved, Surendranath now feels that the Oraon community
needs special attention from the government or the NGOs to
reclaim what rightfully belongs to them. What is imperative
is the support to revive their traditional living and to improve
NGOs are now working in the Adivasi area to improve their
standard of living. Their work, to some extent, introduced
better and alternative lifestyle to the Adivasi people. However,
Adivasi leaders feel that the participation of the Adivasis
is needed in the policy making of these NGOs. Sontosh Soren,
Regional Director of Karitas in the greater Rangpur region,
points out, "Most of the projects aimed for the Adivasis
do not correspond with their culture and social principles."
Being a member of the Santal community himself, Soren apprehends
the need for Adivasi participation. He says, "Adivasis
are simple folk. Their needs often do not match with the ongoing
projects." According to Soren this has led to 'unusual
problems' for the adivasis.
explains, "For instance, different NGOs are now including
the Adivasi people in their micro-credit programme. The idea
of micro-credit has no meaning for the Adivasi community.
Having no sense of loan and its down payment, most of the
times, Oraons or Santals receiving the loans fail to use it
Adivasis in my working area are now burdened with micro-credit
loans," he adds. Shoren feels that before including them
to any programme, "Adivasis should receive special training.
First they should get acquainted with the new idea."
forest dweller's cry
One of the most disturbing by-products of modernisation is
that Adivasi people's access to land resources is being gradually
curtailed. Similarly, their lives are being detached from
the forestland, another source of their livelihood, and, from
the Adivasi point of view, wisdom. Much of their knowledge,
techniques, values, dances, songs and stories are derived
from the forest. Traditionally, most of the indigenous people
of Bangladesh lived in and around forest regions. As their
lives are closely associated with it, for centuries they protected
the resources and the spirit of the forest taking only whatever
little they needed to survive.
share of the forestland of Bangladesh is now 'reserve forests'.
These include Chittagong (CHT) region in the Southeast (322,
331 ha) and Madhupur tracts in the north-central region (17,
107 ha). The reserve forest is government property and managed
by the Forest Department. There are small areas of protected
forest, which is mainly an intermediate category awaiting
formal recognition as reserve forest. Another legally classified
category is known as 'privately owned forest'.
of the reserve forest has serious consequences on the lives
of the Adivasis. Once a land is declared reserved forest,
the forest-dwelling people lose access. Collection of fuel
wood and other forest resources for household use only is
a traditional right of the indigenous people. Reserve forest
expansion has led to the displacement of many indigenous families
living in the forestland, as they find it difficult to cope
with the changed situation.
refugees' among the Adivasis are on the rise. During 1981/82,
the Forest Department introduced reserve forest plans to CHT
region. Zuam Lian Amlai, President of the Bawm Social Council,
Bangladesh, came all the way from Bandarban to join the festival.
He says, "We did not receive proper notice from the authority
about reserve forest plan. Many Bawm families in Bandarban
moved out of the area, as they failed to manage their lives
without the access to the forest." "Bawm people
reserve forestland for their own need. They used to have trees
encircling their village. The circle protected them from fire.
They collect food, firewood and medicinal plants from the
forestland. It is a part of their heritage," Amlai relates.
forest status, however, has failed to protect the biodiversity
of the forestland. Deforestation of the CHT forest is in full
swing. "Instead of protecting the forestland, we believe
the Forest Department is destroying it. Tree felling increased
after the arrival of Forest Department in the region. Hundreds
of mature trees are auctioned off for commercial felling.
The timber smugglers have close ties with the Forest Department
authority," claims Amlai.
are also threatened by the introduction of commercial or industrial
plantation such as rubber and pulpwood. Huge areas of natural
forestland are usually cleared for plantation, land that used
to be the livelihood source of many indigenous people. While
rubber plantation is considered a major failure in the region,
pulpwood plantation provides raw material, largely for the
Karnaphuli Paper Mill. This commercial plantation has been
blamed for major deforestation in the area, as most of the
trees are felled when they are mature. Hills shaved of their
greenery are a common sight in the region, a devastating blow
for the indigenous people.
As the forest areas are diminishing for the Adivasi people,
their livelihood is gradually changing. The plantation by
Forest Department is hardly recognised as forestland by the
Adivasis. "They have created a garden not forest,"
says Zuam Lian Amlai. "They cleared natural vegetation
and planted alien species like acacia or eucalyptus and also
some segun and gamar. These planted trees
are of no use for the Adivasis and failed to create a forestland
as they are felled when they are mature." However, Amlai
does not want to blame only the Forest Department for forest
destruction. "Large-scale timber smuggling is closely
associated with the poor economic condition of the area,"
also points out that, "Land for jhum cultivation
is decreasing, as huge area of jhum land has now
become reserve forest." As the amount of land has decreased,
the contest for every piece of cultivable land intensified
among the ethnic groups in the hills. Bangali settlement also
created pressure on the jhum land. Every jhum
land requires a long period of interval before another crop
can be cultivated. This interval helps the land to retrieve
all the nutrients and keeps it fertile. But gradually the
rotation period is shrinking.
major cause of displacement of thousands of Adivasis has been
the Kaptai Hydro Electric Dam. Completed in 1963, the dam
created a huge reservoir of water, which submerged 250 square
miles of prime agricultural land and forestland.
the plain land forest in Madhupur is also out of reach for
the adivasi people living there. A similar scenario prevails
in the area. Madhupur was announced a Government Forestland
in the year 1984. The tenants of the forestland, mostly Mandis,
were largely displaced. Very few still living in the area
have access to its resources. Recently, the Forest Department
started building a wall around the Madhupur forest in order
to create a so-called 'eco-park'. To build the 3,000-acre
wall they have cleared a large area of the forest instead
of protecting the sal trees. This wall is considered a major
threat to the culture and livelihood of the Mandi people.
safety net is needed. There is no safety net to protect the
rights of these people. The constitution of Bangladesh in
article 15 of Fundamental Principles of State Policy section
says, "It shall be a fundamental responsibility of the
State to attain, through planned economic growth, a constant
increase of the productive forces and steady improvement in
the material and cultural standard of living of the people."
But Adivasi people hardly see any justice being done to their
problem. There is a SAARC Social Charter on Adivasi people
but the Adivasis feel that it has become a "useless piece
27 of the constitution also says, "All citizens are equal
before law and are entitled to equal protection of law".
Zuam Lian Amlai reveals that most of the times it is not the
case for Adivasi people. "Crime against Adivasis often
go unpunished," he says. Access to legal aid is very
limited for Adivasi people.
important aspect regarding legal aid is that there is no Judge
Court in the three hill districts. There are Magistrate Courts,
however, they cannot settle land-related disputes or severe
crimes like rape and murder. To resolve these matters there
is one Additional Divisional Commissioner appoin-ted but the
office of the commissioner is situated in Chittagong. For
Adivasi communities, or Bangalis living there, it is not convenient
to go all the way there with legal complaints. Adivasi communities
have their own social regulations. They try to solve any problem
through dialogue in the beginning.
are incidents that require going to the police station. "When
we go to the police station seeking legal assistance for murder
or rape, most of the times law enforcers do not respond properly
to our complaints". Article 28(1) of the constitution
says, "The State shall not discriminate against any citizen
on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of
birth". However, state agencies often do not follow the
declaration. Because of lack of cooperation from the law enforcers,
Adivasis try to avoid lawsuits.
is a separate ministry in the CHT, addressing the needs of
the Adivasis in the hills. However, Adivasis in the plains
have no way of having their rights protected. Completely desolated
and forgotten among them are the tea plantation workers' community.
State agencies and the general people are oblivious to their
tea plantation workers belong to various indigenous groups.
Their number is currently 120, 000. During colonial rule,
the British brought these people from India as cheap labour.
Since then their condition has remained virtually the same.
The laws passed in the year 1865 still exist in the estate
and are still in use.
law is a complete violation of the ILO convention," informs
Philip Gain who is currently working on the issue. Daily wage
of a tea plantation worker is Tk 28, whereas according to
the ILO convention the minimum wage of a labourer has to be
Tk 48. "Tea plantation workers are bonded labourers.
Tea plantation workers' offspring become tea plantation workers.
It is like an unbreakable rule," adds Gain.
are forced to work on the tea estates. There is no such thing
as maternity leave, which is why mothers are forced to work
right after delivery with the new-born hanging on their backs.
Health and educational facilities are very poor. "These
people toil hard to earn valuable foreign currency for Bangladesh,"
what is just to the Adivasi people, Raja Devasish Roy, chief
of the Chakma circle, stresses, "The Constitutional recognition
to Adivasi rights is very important." This was a popular
demand during the festival.
Adivasi festival ended with observation that indigenous communities
living in all corners of Bangladesh are marginalised and disadvantaged.
Exulted audiences at the Shilpokola Academy admired their
presence on stage, romanticised about their vibrant traditions.
This romanticised package of songs and dances and colourful
dresses are mere aesthetically pleasing exhibits during the
festival. It is tantamount to turning a spectrum of people
and their cultural heritage into museum showpieces; like some
added exotic elements to spice up the lives of the majority
Bangalis as well as foreign tourists, while the oldest Shangsharek
man living at Chunia conveys that he does not have enough
money to buy even a pair of glasses.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005