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     Volume 4 Issue 40 | April 1, 2005 |

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Cover Story

Beyond Stage Performance

Shahnaz Parveen

Most 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.

We had 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.

Nokrek 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 over issue.

The slogan 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.

The Adivasis 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.

But, the 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 a community.

Drifted 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.

Although 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.

In the 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 population.

Batidaan 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.

Surendranath, 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."

He also 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 their condition.

Various 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.

Soren 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 properly."

"Many 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."

The 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.

The lion's 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'.

The conversion 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.

'Environmental 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.

The reserve 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.

The Adivasis 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," he adds.

Amlai 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.

Another 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.

Most of 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.

A proper 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 of document".

Article 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.

Another 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.

But there 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.

There 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 condition.

These 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.

"This 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.

Even minors 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," says Gain.

To give 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.

The 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.


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