Friday, October 28, 2011

Barter, Hindi, and Goodbyes

We had spent the night with Venkatrao's family, since they lived closer to the settlements we would be visiting today. He and Kamleshwari had an adorable daughter, Dhruvati, who quickly befriended us. Whenever she spoke to me with great earnest, I'd listen patiently and then shake my head. Telugu raadu. We resorted to non-verbal high-fives instead, or she sat in my lap as we watched Telugu comedy films.

Kamleshwari - Health Worker Extraordinaire (Photo Credit: Naveen Ramisetti)

Chukulla Padu was isolated when we got there. Save for a few families, everyone else had gone to the weekly market where they bartered their produce (mahua seeds, a leafy plant called gongura, and gum extracted from trees) and got essentials like salt, tomatoes, and onions in return. One of the men whom we met was dressed in nothing but a loin cloth. His head was shaved except for a small lock on the top of his scalp which was tied into a ponytail. Of all the individuals we had interacted with, he looked the most "tribal". It turns out he was the priest of the village. He spoke a great deal, but much of it was in Koya, the language of the Murias. Kamleshwari translated between Koya and Telugu, some of which made it to English for my comprehension. The priest had migrated to this area some thirty years ago. Others also had come a long time back. I looked around. The presence of pigs was another indication of a longer presence in the settlement.

A feeding centre as well as an Alternative Learning School could be found in Chukulla Padu. Some men had gone to Hyderabad to construct handpumps. This sort of work paid Rs 5000 a month, for which the men would live in the capital itself. In the summers, the villagers dug up ponds for water. Otherwise, they cultivated chilli peppers on leased land. Along with ASDS' intervention, the settlement also had Christian influences. A few families went to church in a nearby village. The church had even given each family chickens, a larger breed than usual which yields more eggs. Most of the chickens died within a few months.

The tribals who have come for land and that too many years before 2005 do not clearly fall into the category of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). IDPs are typically those who have migrated due to violence or conflict, whether it be in Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Mizoram-Tripura, Gujarat, Orissa, or Central India. Of course, it is difficult to gauge the exact reason for displacement in such a short period of time, since tribals could migrate for a combination of reasons. What makes these labels even more more murky is that there is no official definition for Internally Displaced Persons. The United Nations came out with a report titled Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in which the focus lies on those who have been forcefully displaced due to armed conflict or man-made/natural disasters. What if a community migrated due to a drought? Would they classify as IDPs? The flexibility of the term is a double-edged sword.

The last settlement we visited was Chimlipadu. Since many people spoke Hindi, I was able to communicate directly with the community members for the majority of our time there. Their story was similar to those we had heard many times already. Rs 100 a day for manual labour. Unreliable water source. Cutting large tracts of forest land. Infrequent visits by the doctor. The Health Worker was a woman from the village itself. She had been hired by the government to provide tablets and other medications to the settlement. She is my mother. The teenage boy I was speaking with pointed to a woman sitting in the corner. She has not received her salary for four years. And how much was this salary the government had not paid her yet? Rs 400 a month for 48 months - according to the boy, nearly Rs 20,000 had been denied to his mother as of now. The Health Worker quickly interjected. I have asked them many times. They said 'We are not going anywhere, you are not leaving. You'll get it next month'. Next month never came. Most families in Chimlipadu possessed Aarogya Shree Health Cards which entitled them to free treatment for certain diseases at private hospitals.As the afternoon waned, we bid our goodbyes and made our way to Bhadrachalam for one last stop.

One of the locals who had traveled with us today worked for the international organization Medicins Sans Frontieres, better known as Doctors Without Borders. They had an office in Bhadrachalam where we spent some time speaking with the Project Coordinator and a MSF doctor to better understand the health situation. For the past five years, MSF has been working in southern Chattisgarh, holding mobile clinics as well as providing healthcare to the tribals living in Salwa Judum camps. MSF found skin diseases to be the most prevalent condition amongst the people, followed by respiratory tract infections, body pains, malaria, and gastrointestinal disorders. They were also working with the Centre for Action for Disabled Rights and Empowerment (CADRE) to provide surgeries for children with physical disabilities. MSF performed an average of 3000 consultations per month.

MSF Worker in Chattisgarh (Photo Credit: Doctorswithoutborders.org)

We drove back to Hyderabad, bidding adieu to the experiences we shared and the people we met in Khammam. The interactions with locals, the conversations with volunteers and Cluster Coordinators, the Telugu, the peserettu, it was all new to me. This newness, combined with the company of like-minded individuals, contributed to making the past two weeks memorable. Lots of answers were given, but questions still remain. What exactly is an IDP? How can the study be carried forward? Visiting a few settlements over the course of two weeks built a superficial understanding of the overall situation the IDPs were facing. A much more in-depth study is required to truly understand the causes of displacement, its consequences, and future actions to rehabilitate the tribals who are, like all of us, on the search for a better life.

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