Whose Development? (Short story about Tribal Exploitation)

This is a work of fiction and is not based on any real events. 

“We are here to enable your development,” she said. She was the founder of the NGO that worked for the development of tribal areas. Today, she was representing a proposal from an MNC.

Whose development? wondered Gogi, the aging tribal leader. His ancestors learned to be wary of people who voluntarily offered help. His tribe had suffered enough already – both the British Government before Independence, and Indian Government after Independence were interested in their development for only one reason: acquiring forest land & resources.

There was a time when all tribal land belonged to the community and there was no individual ownership of land. It kept caste divisions out and encouraged tribals to practice sustenance farming that allowed them to grow different types of crops at different locations or abandon a patch for sometime to regenerate its soil nutrients. It was predominantly that way over the last two thousand years, until the 19th Century.

The British India Government – in the name of development – occupied forest lands  (often through third party developers) to build dams, extract minerals/metal-ores, cut trees, grow tea, and made tribal people their slave labor. Nothing changed with Independence – tribals were only exploited by their fellow countrymen.

It took decades-long struggle to claim even a portion of the forest land, back. And they lost so much in their fight. Gogi had lived through this tumultuous period and knew the methods of ‘civilized’ people, very well.

“What do you want?” he asked her.

“We are going to open a paper manufacturing factory here and we will make sure your tribesmen get the first preference for jobs. Imagine, all of you can earn a lot of money, send your kids to schools, buy fancy products, build large houses and you can all be very happy,” she said.

Age taught him to read between words. So, now they wanted to clear off the remaining portion of the regenerated forest which was zealously guarded by the tribal population. As a tribal leader, his consent was critical.

He was very young when his elders allowed a paper factory to be built in this region, and as a consequence, almost the entire forest was razed to the ground. That was the main reason for all the struggle they underwent during most of his formative years. It took many years to reclaim a small portion of the forest, and the greedy ‘civilized’ people have already set their sight on the new trees.

“You know,” he said, “we also cut trees and grow crops, but we never destroyed any forests. We don’t take anything more than what we need and allow trees to grow back. Last time when a paper factory was set-up here, this forest was almost destroyed.”

“Don’t you worry, we will make sure that we will not cut more trees than required,” she said.

“Is anything, ever, sufficient for you people? Nature provides abundant resources for our needs, not for our greed,” he said.

Her smile tightened. She might lose the MNC contract (and commissions) if this negotiation failed. All her ‘development’ work in the region over the last 6 months would become a waste.

“Gogi-ji, I am talking to you because I am concerned about the well being of your people. We are a social organization and we take the interests of everyone into consideration. Personally, I can even arrange some shares in the company for you,” she put forward an enticing offer.

Gogi just smiled. The kind of smile that only a wise man with a lot of experience could afford.

“If you don’t give me a satisfactory reply, you’ll have to deal directly with the MNC officials, Forest Department and the Government. I am sure you know what that means,” she threatened.

“It means,” he raised his voice, “that time has come for another struggle. Another uprising. But this time, we will not give anything away easily. Go and tell your people that it will be a difficult and a long struggle. We will be able to face your might both legally, and if required, illegally through armed resistance. Before that, your company might want to check if they have enough time and funds to fight for the limited resources available in this region.”

She left.

“Why are these companies so greedy?” asked a younger member of the tribal community, after she left.

Gogi replied, “Companies only produce what people demand. ‘Civilization’ creates the kind of people who cut trees, make paper, then hold placards that read Save trees, made of the same paper.”

Destination Infinity

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6 Replies to “Whose Development? (Short story about Tribal Exploitation)”

  1. Loved the story until I read: “We will be able to face your might both legally, and if required, illegally through armed resistance.” Armed resistance is unacceptable in a democracy. Civil resistance is fine.

  2. A very emotional story. The plight of tribals, as depicted by you, is very painful. They have been suffering since ages but who is there to take some positive action forf their welfare.!!

  3. The lady from NGO is clear that technology has its minuses and pluses.
    While education can be spread by paper factory trees can also be destroyed. Gogi should have been confident in leading his own people towards right technologically suitable leadership.
    Technological norms have to be strictly followed. There can be relaxation. However there cannot be negation.

  4. Just to correct you a bit – at the time of Britishers – they wanted revenue from the tillers & that is the main reason for them to make the tribals settle down on a particular piece of land. Eases the collection of taxes.
    And Tirbals do not have the conception of a country or a nation. They have a conception of Land, the mother nature – with no boundaries of civilization.
    You know during preparation for UPSC – i have many times thought about what one officer should do once posted in tribal districts. I find my self ignorant of many realities which are faced by both our tribals & our countrymen.

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