Protection and preservation of tribal socio-cultural heritage is possible only when the Tribals are allowed to maintain their livelihoods in their traditional milieu. But that does not seem to be happening in our country. Take the example of the Uraons living in central India. The tribe is today fighting a losing battle for preserving its distinct identity. Tea estates have emerged as the rather unlikely threat to the culture of the Uraons, who are known for their communistic social structure. Generations ago, they had shifted base to these tea estates to earn two square meals a day. Today, sustenance remains as big an issue for them as ever. In addition, they are facing an identity crisis, too. Their language, customs, traditions and festivals are on the verge of extinction.
Around two dozen districts of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and Odisha are home to the Uraons. It was their misfortune that their ancestral villages were sitting on a fortune of rich mineral wealth. “Development” brought with it indiscriminate mining and the land they had been tilling for centuries was gobbled up by mines. These sons of forest were forced to either toil in the mines or migrate elsewhere. With time, their ties with their land and farming were broken. The situation today is that outside influence has all but destroyed the tribal identity of the Uraons. Around 10 lakh tribals are employed as tea pickers in the estimated two thousand estates in West Bengal and Assam. Most of them are women of the Uraon tribe. They have to compulsorily pluck at least 12 kilograms (25 pounds) of leaves every day. Then they are paid a niggardly 25 paise for every additional kilogram. Thus, backbreaking work from morning till nightfall fetches them barely Rs500 a month.
Leafy vegetables growing in the jungles of Chota Nagpur were the main source of food and livelihood for the tribal residents of the area. That is how the women of the tribes became expert tea pickers. Around 150 years ago, when the British began mining in the area, this expertise of the Munda, Khadia, Santhal and Uraon women came to their notice. From 1881 to 1891, every year, on an average, around 19,000 denizens of forests migrated from south Bihar to the tea estates of Assam. Today, the third or fourth generation of these migrants is working the tea estates. Over the last couple of years, nearly 27,000 tribals have moved to the tea estates of Darjeeling and Jalpaigudi. With the passage of time, their distinct cultural and social identity has faded. They have resigned themselves to their economic and physical exploitation.
The mother tongue of the Uraons is “Kurak”. But the Uraons working in the tea estates now mostly speak “Saadri”. Those who work in the estates hail from different areas of the country and speak different languages. Constant exposure to a potpourri of languages and dialects is affecting the Uraon children. Today, hardly any child living in the tea estates can speak or understand “Kurak”. Instead of traditional names like Chendo or Mankari, the newborns are being given names which have a distinct imprint of the Bengali language.
The modern life at the tea estates is affecting their cultural activities. “Karma” is the traditional dance of the Uraons. Since the “Karma” tree is not found in the mountainous regions, “Karma” dance cannot be organized in the tea estates. The young Uraon women working in tea estates know nothing about “Jani hunt”. The Uraons had defeated the Mughals thrice at Rohtasgarh. In remembrance of those victories, once every 12 years, Uraon women, dressed as men, used to go to the forests to hunt. But the girls born and brought up in tea estates know nothing of this unique tradition. Folktales are no longer passed on from one generation to the next because the women working in the tea estates don’t have the time to tell stories to their children.
Every Uraon village used to have a night shelter, or, if you will, a nightclub, called “Dhumkuria”. Every evening, young Uraon girls and boys would gather there to dance, sing and generally enjoy themselves. But the Uraon youth living in tea estates have no such place for social interaction. In any case, by evening, they are so exhausted that they hardly have any energy left for dancing, singing or laughing.
Girls used to be married between 21 and 25 years of age. However, today, in the tea estates, they are married off in their early teens to protect them from sexual exploitation.
The tribals, traditionally, used to drink hand-brewed wine called “Handiya”. But in the tea estates, Handiya has been replaced by “Chilaiya”, or country liquor. One can find a liquor outlet at the main entrance of every tea estate. One day, Rs10,000 was distributed in a tea estate as bonus, and the “Chillaiya” shop there made Rs7,000. Even the children have not been spared by the degrading atmosphere in the tea estates. When the harvest is at its peak, the contractor (“sardar” in local jargon) herds children from schools and puts them to work.
Ironically, the Constitution of India does not recognize the tea-estate workers as Tribals. So, they are deprived of reservations and other benefits enjoyed by the Tribals. The colour, variety and vivacity of their traditional life are getting sucked into their monotonous existence in tea estates.
Published in the April 2015 issue of the FORWARD Press magazine