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‘Climate change, global warming price we paid for displacing tribals’ – Times of India


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Tribal activist Dinesh Sheram, also a member of the senate and management council of Nagpur University, sounded gravely concerned over the changed climatic pattern, global warming and environmental deterioration. He says the mindless displacement of tribals is responsible for the adverse effects on nature, climate and the environment. Sheram, also associated with the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Yuva Parishad, New Delhi, was awarded the ‘Adivasi Sevak’ in 2002 for his efforts towards empowerment and upliftment of tribals. Following in his mother Umatai’s footsteps, Sheram too has dedicated his life for the cause of the tribal community of which he is a member. The 47-year-old activist also runs a hostel for tribal students and is engaged in several empowerment schemes for women too. He spoke to TOI at length about the challenges faced by tribals.
Excerpts from an interview…
Q. How has the displacement of tribals from their native forest lands affected the climatic patterns?
A. The tribal community considers the flora and fauna of the forest as their venerated deities. They would not think twice before laying down their lives to save the forest. In fact, this duty of protection and conservation is divided among the community and alloted to different groups who got their surnames from such divine responsibilities. For example, families with the surname ‘Yeti’ will protect goats, Uikey (meaning tiger’s nail) will protect big cats, Madavi (meaning sagwan tree) will protect the same ones and so on. There are 750 such surnames who are entrusted with the responsibility of saving either some animal, bird or a particular tree. This way, the tribals as a community knew how to balance various aspects of nature. They would use their native skills and conscience to save nature which would directly control and influence the climatic patterns too unlike what is happening now with the disturbed unpredictable cycles leading to delayed rains, a prolonged summer and erratic weather conditions. As the tribals are no more there in most stretches of their earlier forest lands, they are falling prey to the greed of some non-tribals who are finishing the greens and inviting disasters like erratic climatic patterns and related adversities.
Q. How has deterioration of the forest in the absence of tribals leading to climatic changes and global warming?
A. The champions of fast modernization and urbanization are an impatient lot. They are in a mad rush to convert each and every inch of the forest into their wealth and keep them in safe vaults. The manner in which forests are being depleted for construction and mining activities, minerals and ores are extracted by blasting Mother Earth and animals are being hunted down for various reasons will have serious implications which we are not trying to realize either intentionally or in an unintended manner. The outcome of global warming would be disastrous. People are out to destroy the forest. They inflict irreversible losses on the ecosystem. With the tribal community present in the forest, the government could not have made such deep inroads into our homeland.
Q. Why do you feel the tribal community is indispensable as the last saviour of nature and the environment?
A. Tribals were the first community to thrive on Mother Earth. They are the indigenous people and original inhabitants of forested lands which once encompassed almost all the lands barring a few arid regions. Their lifestyle evolved from nature and revolved around forest life. They learnt from nature, adapted their lives according to nature and in return, protected it. From elephants, the tribals learnt the art of community living and its significance. On the contrary, one can now see the ill-effects of the individualistic urban society and its nucleus families. The tribals observed how a deer consumed a particular leaf from a tree to neutralize the snake’s venom. They also learnt from the tiger how to cure their stomach ailments by consuming bamboo leaves. Hence, they started respecting nature and worshipping it. That’s how they had become the saviour of the mother earth and nature in her lap.
Q. Under what circumstances were the tribals compelled to move out of the forests?
A. The deterioration of the condition of the tribal community began from the Britishers who were the first to target the forests, their rich resources and had started plundering them. Tribals like Birsa Munda resisted and fought single-handedly. In Jharkhand, thousands of tribals laid down their lives years ago to save the ‘Jal, jungle, jameen’ (water, forest and land) from British imperialists. Despite the struggle, the expanding British colonies in India and their commercial activities started taking a toll on forest lands and the tribals got displaced. They were settled with menial jobs or money or forcibly evicted. Even today’s laws on forest and forest lands are nowhere sympathic towards the tribals and their natural rights. Hence, climate change and global warming are the biggest price we are paying today for displacing tribals from their forest lands.
Q. With tribals shifting or being driven towards the city, how are they doing in the urban set up?
A. There are three lakh tribals living in the city in 60 slum pockets. These pockets are never developed. The tribal community struggles to adapt to the urban set up but fails. Their forefathers lived on herbs from the forests for medicines and healthy drinks but they don’t get them in the city. They collected Mahua flowers from the forests which can be preserved for 10 years and used as a healthy drink for rejuvenation and boosting energy. In the city, they could not find anything upon which they and their forefathers lived across the ages.
Q. Tribals are also responsible for excessive hunting and chopping trees for firewood and construction?
A. The notion is not correct that tribals engage in any excesses whether hunting or chopping. Though the tribals are natural hunters, pluckers and gatherers, we know how to balance. If one group hunts or collects something, the other group would essentially protect and conserve it. If a group hunts an animal, the entire community would share it without killing another one. They believe in frugality and community living. If they need to chop a tree, they would prefer a dead one. If any tribal is compelled to chop a green tree, he or she would first apologize and then seek its mercy before axing it. Even when he or she would cut it, they ensured the entire tree was not uprooted. The kings and the emperors followed by the Britishers killed and chopped far more for leisure and pleasure than what we did for mere food and shelter. The tribals felt that cutting or chopping or excessive killing would bring them bad omen and curses.
Q. What would you say is the way out?
A. Firstly, tribals must not be displaced anymore. Secondly, the government must allow tribals to remain and settle in their own lands with a livelihood by providing them with some work in the vicinity of their hamlets. Tribals must be engaged by the forest department as no one but members of our community know how best to protect and preserve nature and find solutions. The government must ensure afforestation is done scientifically and not as per the whims and fancies of their officials. Trees that are planted by the government at the afforestation site basically belong to foreign origin and breed whose leaves and fruits cannot be consumed by birds and animals and they too start getting extinct. The tribals, on the other hand, can be your guide and tell you which plant would grow and how it would support the local ecosystem.

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