Ignorance is not bliss

The experience of my visit to Melghat has left me with the awareness to a reality of a forgotten world that has existed and survived besides the only one I have known and taken for granted.
When I was told that I could go for a project visit to a village called Chikaldhara, my reaction was Chikal…..what?
We reached Bandhera station in the early hours of Tuesday morning. My colleague Madhu Neb and I were greeted by two young chirpy ladies in a TATA Sumo. They introduced themselves at Manisha, Community Development Coordinator and Margaret Daniels from PREM (People’s Rural Education Development.) PREM is one of the institutions that CRY partners with to empower the tribal community there through awareness building programmes.
Tired from the journey, we fell asleep on our two and a half hour drive to the hotel where we were put up. Melghat is a scenic beauty of hills, lakes and valleys. What is hidden from us (and many like us) who visit this part of the country is the history that has plagued it for years. After a short nap, Sanjay Ingle- Project owner, PREM and Sanjay Suman (our colleague) who works with PREM and provides the direction and assistance required as a CRY representative met with us and together we proceeded to PREM.
We were taken to a small independent house that showcased the PREM board at the entrance. Inside the room were a group of people squatted on the floor. They all got up to greet us with the phrase ‘Jindabad.’ We sat with them while they each introduced themselves and the villages in Melghat they work with on issues like malnutrition, child marriage, unemployment and displacement among many others.
The group informed us of the genesis of the PREM sanstha. Let me first introduce the place ‘Melghat.’ Melghat comprises two administrative blocks Chikaldhara and Dharani in the Amravati district. The total population is approximately 2, 40,000. Of this, about 90% is tribal population with Korku and Gond as the main tribes. 73% of the total land is covered by various types of forests. The remaining 27% is agriculture adaptable land. This does not make agriculture the primary source of occupation. The population depends upon forest as the primary source of livelihood. In 1974, Melghat was declared a Tiger Reserve Sanctuary. What this translated for the adivasis was that most of the population was displaced from the forests without adequate thought given to their rehabilitation.
In the mid-nineties, Melghat was given center- stage importance when the malnutrition death cases (arising from the displacement) made headlines nationally. All journalists and TV crew rushed to the village to cover the so called ‘news.’ The villages also saw the first ever influx of around 80 NGOs to work for the cause. PREM was born out of the immediate need to help the tribal people. It soon became imperative that what was required was not just tackling of the superficial requirements of food and health care but the unravelling of underlying and deeply embedded root causes of this situation.
PREM undertook the challenging work of understanding the reasons for these unprecedented deaths. They soon began gathering evidence that leaned towards the fact that malnutrition emerged from a consortium of failed government yojanas, corruption, wrongful evictions, and lack of proper rehabilitation facilities.
PREM colleagues shared with us some of the creative ways that they have devised to engage and create awareness about the need of education and healthcare. Within a few moments, the room resounded with songs that the group composed on the evils of child marriage, and the need for regular checkups for pregnant mothers and infants.
To get a real taste of what was shared, a group of us decided to visit one of the worst affected villages of malnutrition deaths.
The reason was not difficult to discover….it began with a long drive in the wilderness, make-believe roads in some places and no roads at all in others, rocky upswing hilly paths to what seemed like nowhere. After around 3 hours, the trip came to a stand still….in the dark. We had reached a place where all I could see was ‘nothing’. It was pitch dark. What was visible though was the beautiful brightly star-lit sky. I got off the van wondering where I was brought. There couldn’t possibly be anything here….well was I wrong! We were told we had come to a 400 people village called ‘Kutida.’ In a distance, I saw a group of people around a small bonfire. We were told that they had gathered there to meet with us. We went and sat with them. After the initial welcomes and introductions our PREM colleagues, who have worked and supported them in their efforts to reclaim their basic rights, engaged and encouraged them to narrate their small but significant successful struggles.
With a little more coaxing, a relatively young man began narrating his stories of daily struggles of survival. In the course of the discussions, it was revealed how a section of this adivasi group had united to beat the unfair and unjust restrictions that have been inflicted on them. The adivasis consider the forests their home. Now, the authorities had evicted them without providing the pre-requisite ecosystem for them to continue living their lives. The stories of heroism that followed left a sense of slow and steady accomplishments that were being won after episodes of harassments and suppression. The heroes in these episodes are these frustrated, yet motivated bunch of men namely Munshi, Shyamlal and Heeralal who feel that one day things will change for the better and hopefully they will live to see it.
One incident narrated by Munshi was as follows. After much perseverance and appeals, a teacher was assigned to teach the children of this village, he conveniently decided to attend the school as and when he felt like. The adivasis realised that this was bringing more harm than good to the children that have been promised a chance at an educated life. They jointly decided to teach him a lesson by locking the school and sealing the entrance. When the teacher came to the school one day and saw it shut, he enquired and questioned their rebellious attitude. He was politely told that they no longer required his services and was told to go. The authorities realised their mistake and allotted another teacher. There are now two teachers that come to the school.
There were other instances where the adivasis dragged the store manager to the authorities as he was consistently cheating them of food supplies as per the public distribution system and boycotting elections.
The stories were told with so much hurt, sadness and frustration that it left me with the feeling of how long will they endure this and more importantly why. Basic needs that we take for granted like food, shelter, education is something that is so alien to them. For them, this is an enduring struggle under which they feel weak, yet determined to fight it through.
The night ended with some tribal dancing to which I did a little leg shaking myself…not very successfully though.
The next day after a quick sight-seeing trip, we visited a village ‘Pastalai.’
It was heartening to see a school in this village that had been re-started with the support of PREM. The sight that caught my attention was a group of enthusiastic children playing next to a small building that made up for a school. Two of the PREM karyakartas initiated some group games to involve the kids. The teacher shared with us that that the school housed around 60 students till the 4th grade. School beyond that was a 30 minute journey to another village. This government school like all others had enforced Marathi as the language of education. They had however, conveniently forgotten the significant detail that the people here do not understand Marathi. Their language of communication is the tribal language of Korku. The first and foremost challenge that lied before any teacher was to gradually transition the children from Korku to understanding Marathi. This, the school teacher did successfully- phonetically. We had a wonderful experience interacting with the children and left with the hope that they all are given the opportunity to complete their education.
We then went back to PREM, discussed what we had seen and what we felt, thanked them for their kindness, hospitality and the unforgettable opportunity to be a part of this experience.
On my way back to Mumbai, my mind raced with innumerable thoughts. I feel we take opportunities given to us for granted. Our everyday that encompasses regular water supply for a refreshing bath, a good breakfast, public or private transport that reaches us to a permanent wage earning job, meals, socialising with friends and going back home to a secured family life are just some of the things that we have become accustomed to. Most of these things are not even in the close proximity of many people around us. What strikes me about myself and many others like me is that fact that we have grown to become so indifferent to the less fortunate around us. My visit to Melghat has made me realise that ignorance is not bliss at all. It is selfish on our part to close our eyes to the reality around us and it our duty to be a part of making some/ any difference to those who aren’t given the rights to enjoy what we have.

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