The Melghat tribulations


The infamous Melghat malnutrition deaths of the 1990s are still fresh in our minds and sadly, the situation has not really improved much, two decades hence. A recent confluence of the Melghat tribals with academicians and writers, addressed some of their problems and fears, says Shatakshi Gawade.

As a light breeze rustled through the numerous teak trees around the assembly hall, the Korku tribals sat in a contemplative silence. Eminent author Milind Bokil had just made a sharp observation: “Tribals live a life of fear. They are not scared of the dark, wild animals, or any other aspect of nature. But it is the police, the forest official, and the zamindar (landlord) who can still instil fear in their hearts.”

And it is this fear, according to Bokil, that has stopped the Korku tribals in Melghat from taking charge of their development.

Inglorious record
It has been over 20 years since Melghat, in Maharashtra’s Amravati district, shot to infamy on the back of malnutrition deaths of children. The first time malnutrition was reported, 5,000 children had died between 1992 and 1997. Ever since then, special committees have been formed to resolve the problem, and politicians and bureaucrats religiously visit Melghat.

But malnutrition deaths in the region are still reported after the monsoon every year by all the major news organisations. The situation has not changed. According to Lalita Bethekar, a tribal resident of Melghat and worker in NGO Khoj, the situation is actually worsening day-by-day. To back her claim is the data from September 2016: 6,000 mothers and children have died due to malnutrition in the past six years.

In an attempt to bring more attention to the region and to look for new solutions to development problems, Khoj facilitated a unique meeting between writers and members of the community on March 4 and 5, 2017. Author Milind Bokil and researchers Dr. Nilratan Shende, Dr. Kashinath Barhate, and Dr. Shantaram Chavan shared their research and suggestions for the development of the region. About 30 Korku tribals of different ages were also present at the meeting. The two-day affair took place in a simple forest resort in Semadoh, a village in the Chikhaldhara block of Melghat.

Right at the beginning of the meeting, Punyaji Kaka, the most senior Korku tribal in the group, shared a simple fact: The tribals would be able to understand what was written if it was in Hindi! The common misconception, which has also bled into the education system in Melghat, is that Korku tribals understand Marathi. The truth is that after their mother-tongue Korku, they are most comfortable with Hindi. And prefer Marathi the least, despite being geographically located in the Marathi-speaking state. Other tribals were quick to agree.

The Korku tribals in Melghat have been a subject of countless articles, research, news pieces, documentaries and even a feature film. But they still do not have access to all this work which can influence their actions.

Mahadev, a resident of Melghat, confirmed this fact. “Though a lot has been written about our region, it does not reach us. So there is no discussion. And I know what is written makes a difference,” he says. Vinod Kale, another resident, was quick to share that a journalist’s visit to Melghat always puts officials on their toes.

The presentations and discussions on both the days captured the complete attention of the Korku tribals. At every point, they shared their opinion.

The main roadblocks
Dr. Shende shared his Ph.D research with the group, going into the nitty-gritty of the most discussed problem in Melghat: Food security and hunger. Through his work he also highlighted coping mechanisms the tribals resort to. He had attempted to understand the structures of exploitation in Melghat as well. “Because unless we understand these structures, we will not be able to have development,” he said.

He found that the tribals in Melghat are exploited in all sectors of production. He believes that when the tribals make economic strategies to counter this exploitation, they will be able to progress.

Once again, Mahadev spoke for the group: Economic exploitation by external agencies is a reality. But within the village, the tribals have a strong, democratic structure in the form of a village panchayat which deliberates on some economic matters like labour rates, and even mango distribution.
Through his research Dr. Shende also found that the people here are not mute spectators. They work hard to overcome food insecurity by migrating, taking loans in the form of money or food, and have multiple sources of income. They have access to some forest resources, like mahua flowers, which they rely on in times of food scarcity. Necessity, here, becomes the mother of innovation.

In the discussion that followed Dr. Shende’s remarks, the Korku tribals shared that a lot of traditional food sources were not available any more. The higher rates for cash crops had diverted farming away from nutritional food grains. As for migration, the tribals still prefer staying and working in the village over leaving.

But in a smaller meeting in Makhla village, the tribals are not so clear about migration. The government has offered them compensation for leaving their homes which lie inside the Melghat Tiger Reserve. The older villagers have no intention of leaving, and speak strongly against the proposal. But the youngsters seem undecided. After all, as one Korku tribal said earlier, being closer to a road means assured access to development and opportunities.

Ultimately, Dr. Shende repeated the same observation that Bokil made: Even today, the tribals are scared. Bokil, for his part, chose to use strong examples from history of tribals in India to show the Korku tribals that the village can be self sufficient.

“The tribals have an innate strength that has kept them alive. It is this strength that must be used to fight external assaults,” he said. While talking about the successful tribal revolution in Lekha Mendha and among the Warli tribals, Bokil stressed on the need of a formal organisation of the tribals in Melghat. He also impressed on the group the necessity of deciding the price of their produce. His rousing stories were followed by Dr. Barhate’s talk about his work on the Korku language. He also shared his observations about Korku tribal culture’s richness and diversity.

His words about the enchanting culture were followed by Dr. Chavan’s angry observations. “The people here have been accused of destroying the forest. But this is completely wrong! The tribals are protectors in every sense! We need to put this across very strongly.”

A cursory glance at the assembled group showed their complete agreement.

Korku tribals at the meeting in Semadoh, Melghat

Korku tribals at the meeting in Semadoh, Melghat

He continued, saying that it is the tribals who should tell the government what they need, instead of letting the government alone decide. “An example is the tin sheets the government sent for roofs. Now in this weather, a grass roof is perfect. The tin sheets are lying around unused!”
The discussion, however, turned back to fear.

While some, like Ramesh, agreed that the Korku tribals live in fear, others, like PHC (Primary Health Centre) helper Shivdas, believe that they are not afraid anymore. What has made Shivdas fearless? Information. “If we get adequate information, there is no need to fear anyone and anything,” he stated matter-of-factly.

Though Ramesh feels fear, he knows the way out of it. A writer of sorts himself, Ramesh believes that such dialogues with learned people will end a tribal’s fear. “Not just this, if a part of education is in Korku, we will be more confident. And yes, even I feel a formal organisation is necessary to end the fear of forest officials, police and the rest.”

With that, the consensus for making a collective for development slowly gained traction. Armed with the researcher’s encouragement and new information, a majority of the Korku tribals agreed they needed to come together to lead their development. All they need is guidance from informed people.

Ramesh went a step ahead and said, “Literature brings revolution. Ever since I started writing two years ago, I have a dream for us. I wish for a weekly or monthly newsletter that will reach each person of Melghat.”

With a date set for the next meeting Namdev, a Korku tribal, confidently addressed Bandu Sane, the director of Khoj. While gesturing to Lalita he said, “Bandu Bhau, you can rest now. Lalita can lead us.”

Like the breeze rustling through the trees, Namdev had given voice to the winds of change blowing through the tribals. Quiet, resilient, and eager to move ahead.


Shatakshi Gawade

Along with two journalist friends, Shatakshi Gawade is on a journey across India to tell stories about environment, rights and culture. Before beginning this project (named Ekatra Bol), she worked for about two years at The Asian Age in New Delhi.