The Silver Lining: Notes on a Short Trip to Adivasi Odisha

By Pranjal Rawat,

Being a part of urban circles, the only thing in the way of my complete ignorance towards the Adivasi was the fact that I have already met a few cultures in both rural and urban India. Like the other fools in time, I believed I was truly globalised. My thoughts were one of fascination and curiosity, that bordered on what I now realise was a subtle sense of superiority. “How can we help them?”, “What can we learn from them to improve our democracy?” or “How do we protect their primitive practises?” were some exemplary questions that were the forefront of my thought-process. Currently, I study Economics at Presidency University, Kolkata and I left Kolkata during two very important set of events were occurring. One, the formation of a non-partisan independent left Students’ Union in my politically charged college which embraced some crude idea of participatory democracy and with it the Union General Body Meetings that would theoretically allow any student to initiate movements or swing public opinion with reason and dialogue. Two, the upcoming General Elections for the State of India have forced us to rethink our conceptions of India and for me, this brought up an existential question for the nation-state. These two happenings are I think important to know before I proceed laying my experiences by conceptual basis.



The first place to begin our exploration of Adivasis is how we perceive them. By the words itself- “Adivasi”, we are homogenising a great many cultures that have differ multi-dimensionally. The manner of our recognition is prey to the immense intellectual distance that we maintain from the Adivasis. The word Adivasi refers to the descendants of the aborigine tribes who lived in the Indian subcontinent before the Aryans and the Dravidians. Today Adivasis can be found throughout Central India, and particularly in Odisha. The Indian Constitution recognises about 62 tribes in Odisha, which is a state that remains to this day largely reliant on agriculture and still holds considerable hunting-gathering activities. Odisha, like the rest of world is being forced to globalise. With the entry of player like Vedanta and Arcelor Mittal, in this agrarian state, there have been instances of catastrophic damage to the environment and livelihood. Take the example of the tribes of Dongria Kondh, on whose mountains Vedanta had set up its huge factories. These factories lie right beside small homes and grounds where children play. As the story goes, the men of the closest village were taken to the nearby beach in Puri for superstitious reasons by con men while Vedanta swiftly cut across their ancestral graveyard with the factory wall. The danger and hazard to the Adivasis is extraordinary, only a wall separates residence from industry. Globalisation, it is said can be seen in vivid imagery, and the factories of Vedanta have brought two entirely different worlds within arm’s distance. The massive pools of waste disposal operate right beside a small cricket field where children come out and play. The industrial waste has already seeped into the soil and emerges randomly near habitation. The winds blow the industrial dust into people’s homes, and this has caused the rate of tuberculosis to shoot upwards. Environmental and safety norms seem to be non-existent in the silver lining where massive industrial expansion meets indigenous Adivasi culture. I believe that there is no doctrine on earth, or any such -ism that could defend the shocking atrocity that we barely glimpsed.

Naveen Patnaik the leader of Biju Janta Dal (BJD) has held power for about 14 years now. The BJD government is definitely humane with extensive welfare schemes and pro-poor policies, this humanity having been revealed with its speed in executing relief during Cyclone Phailin. It’s development agenda is rights based that focuses on minimum guarantees over market based trickle down economics; thus being provenly more effective than the maliciously false ‘development’ claims of the Bharatiya Janata Party that is poised to win the upcoming General Elections. The ugly side to this welfare state is the advent of neoliberal policies that are meant to go side-by-side pro-poor policies. This however remains a misnomer, for the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are undemocratic and coerce fertile land out of people, and displace their culture, society and home. The entire Vedanta crisis revealed a horrible underbelly of the welfare state and an ugly direction that Odisha may be heading. Despite immense resistance by tribal populations around the Niyamgiri where the mountains is both spiritually and scientifically the bedrock to the Dongria Kondh’s harmony with nature. Despite these setbacks, Odisha remains relatively untouched by neoliberal forces for the time being, with the future not being very optimistic. Another developmental arm is found in the strong central government schemes particularity the National Rural Employment Guarentee Act of 2005, which has succeeded in safeguarding the rural populations from absolute poverty and changed the developmental debate in Odisha completely. A revival of the Public Distribution Scheme has allowed lakhs of people to acquire cheap food grains. However for all the development, there remains no substantial disillusionment with the Maoist militant group and its shadow state that has based itself around Malkangiri. There remains little acceptance of the development within the tribal communities as well, who lament the great changes that their societies have been through. The fact remains that to the adivasis that even a fairly benevolent state remains an alien presence and an unsocial one as well. The point which I am slowly getting to is that the crisis may not even be about development. If you ask whether any development has taken place to social activists or to the tribals themselves- the response will be in the affirmative. The fact is that development and acceptance may not go hand in hand. The question is, although difficult to grapple with, a much bigger one: what right do we have to be in control of the lives of the Adivasis. For hundreds of years and as long as they were unreached, they were in absolute control of their destiny and today they have but nothing of that. How do we even know what is good for them? And why do we get to decide?


There is a common perception among many NGOs and global institutions like the World Bank and even the Centre, that the underdeveloped people are ‘uncultured’, ‘uncooperative’ and with this line of thought, they are led to a conclusion that even though there exist resources to help uplift the under-privileged, due to uncooperative and diffident behaviour the Adivasis hamper their own development. This argument presupposes the existence of a metaphysical hierarchy between the New Delhi or Brussels and the villages of Niyamgiri. However, as history reminds us, the society of the World Bank and the New Delhi is not really all that better. Women still do not have any major representation in New Delhi’s parliamentary democracy, child health has not improved on a national level and secessionist regionalism runs wild within the Nagas and Kashmir. As for the World Bank and other global institutions like the IMF, we must remember the chaos caused within Least Developed Economies (LDCs), in the period after the World War II, where debt ridden poor economies were forced to ‘structurally adjust’ in order to scavenge lower interest payment. The terms ‘uncultured’ and ‘un co-operative’ could as easily honour both the World Bank and the Centre, but the only difference in reality is that New Delhi and the World Bank hold immense power over the Adivasis. And then we come to the question about whether the Adivasis are considered ‘uncultured’ and ‘unco-operative’ just because they are weak? Once we begin to dig into the details of Adivasi life, we may find many progressive traits and likewise we may find regressive traits within the Indian nation-state. As social activist, Sharanya of Action Aid says, “when have we been ‘developed’? and who are we to ‘develop’ them. All the evils that we want them rid of, for example patriarchy or the lack of liberal democracy, can be found present in our state itself. So if they are doing something wrong, or going to hurt themselves later on, instead of interfering and providing a different albeit fundamentally similar end,leave them alone and let them do it to themselves.


Development, can be defined in many ways. We also find that during the 2014 General Election the word ‘development’ or ‘vikaas’ can to the forefront. Be it the high profile academic debate, or the noisy controversy caused by the public debate organised by the media, or the high tempo political rallies and marches, or yet even the small confession one voter makes to his friend; development is one of the most popular words around which both polemic and praise arise. Development, is movement along a presupposed direction. There is very little consensus about development, and it appears to have become a very personal term. A few urban college students going to the South City Mall in Kolkata may describe South City to have developed a bit. A highly educated economist sitting in Columbia, may feel that creating public infrastructure (flyovers, highways) smoothens the supply chains and helps commerce thrive and that is development. A professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), may feel that providing welfare in the form of food grains, helps people eat better, and thus that is development. A young Muslim girl in Ahmedabad, feels that there would be development if the Hindus boys were not allowed to trouble her while she walked backed home from tution, late at night. A middle-aged leader of an Adivasi tribe in Nagaland, might say that there can be no development unless Independent Nagaland is carved out. An old temple priest in Vishakapanam, might feel that there would be an improvement if the Dalits were not allowed to enter his temple once more. For him, development would imply greater social status for the upper castes. A young middle class student from Delhi University, feeling angry at losing the top seats to lower castes, would believe that development lay in removing old dogmatic caste-based reservations. A poor cobbler living on the streets of Kolkata might find it a major development if he were not removed from his residence during Durga Pooja. Why? It would be a major development if they’d at least not use lathis, to evict him. In short, development as it is used today, has become even more vague than before. Whose version is right? We may never know.

Now let me try to put together differing views on development, and frame my own conception of development that I derive from my experience: to develop is to enhance the human potential of human civilisation. Firstly, by human potential I imply the core qualities of human-ness- the ability to love and to communicate, create, cultivate and foster human association. I know not of any greater joy that to love someone and to be loved in return, and it is upon this narrow definition that I believe human potential should be judged. Here we do not forget human association with non-human objects like nature that remain to this day more universal than human association with commodities. To add a personal remark, I know not of any thing more beautiful than the stark cosmos as seen on a clear night, and it is this relation between man and environment that is worth retaining. We live not just to merely stay alive, but to foster cultures, form associations with other members of society and even the environment. Secondly, by human civilisation I refer to the social institutions that are transformed by specific historical processes and are central to the foundations of society. Human civilisation is only means, not an end, to human development and the glories of humankind should not be measured by the number of industrial parks or rockets launched into space. If we accept this definition of development then a lot of trouble arises. India might as well be the largest barrier to free association for Indians, simply because they remain ‘Indians’, carrying the baggage of the nation-state they had the fortune or mis-fortune of being born into. The Indian nation-state can no longer justify the current version of modernisation that they plan to sell to the Adivasis, particularly when it  has produced the horrendous hypocrisies of poverty amidst plenty in modernised Indian cities. The Adivasi, if current trends continue, will become extinct like the Dodo, relegated to the sullen tales of human folly which in the future, mothers will narrate to their children. Amidst the long stretches of green and the people’s culture in variety, the process of change will continue to uproot man, woman, child and tree. And with the General Elections and the General Body Meetings, overtime I have lesser and lesser hope, that they will indeed change the horizon. And this, unfortunately for me, is the Silver Lining.


The writer is a student of Economics at Presidency University, Kolkata. He can be reached at

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