A Paradigm Beyond “Development”

Text: Dr. Bitasta Das

Illustrations: Manimekhala Yajaman

Sociologically, “development” is the degree of economic growth and modernization of a society. For this change, societies often depend upon the available mineral resources for raw material to fuel its economy. Odisha has 700 million tonnes of known bauxite reserves of which 88 million tonnes are estimated to be found in Niyamgiri. Bauxite is an aluminium-rich ore that is used for aluminium production and for production of refractory materials, chemicals or cements. In the rush to acquire mining rights, consent of the local population was not sought and stringent environmental laws were flouted by a multibillionaire mining company. In 2013, the Supreme Court directed that mining clearance can only be given if Gram Sabhas, comprising the local population, agreed to the project. Touted as India’s first environmental referendum, all 12 villages selected by the government voted against the project. What makes certain groups reject the idea of “development”? What are the imperatives that inspire them to reconcile in indigence rather than plenitude

The Niyamgiri hill range is home to the Dongria Kondh tribe. Niyamgiri is an area of densely forested hills, deep gorges and surging streams. The Dongria Kondhs farm the hills’ fertile  slopes, harvest their produce, and worship the mountain God Niyamraja, who resides in the 4000 meter mountain range Niyam Dongar. For them the mountain range is alive with the soul of their supreme male deity Niyamraja, their ancestor and is represented by a sword. The Niyamgiri hills are therefore, “the hills of law”, the dwelling of Niyamraja, who rules the hills in accordance with these laws. The Dongria Kondh worships other deities too who are associated closely with nature, significant among them is Dharini or Earth. They believe the male and female principles come together to grant them prosperity, fertility and health. The Dongria Kondhs believe that animals, plants, mountains and streams all have a life-force or soul, Jela, which comes from the mother earth Dharni. The “sacred law”, as set by Niyamraja, prohibits exploitation of forest and land for greed and ordains an “economy of restraint”. Thus, the Dongria Kondhs reject fixed farming as they believe that shifting cultivation suits the forests better, allowing the forest to grow back into its own accordance with little or no human interference. The Dongrias consider that the right to cultivate hill slopes has been conferred to them by Niyamraja and unless the hills are tilled, one can hardly call himself a Dongria. They believe that the spirit of Niyamraja helps in plentiful growth of crops and as reverence to him, the Dongria Kondh do not cultivate at the top of the hill as it is where Niyamraja governs from. For a Dongria Kondh their language, way of dressing, songs, marriage rituals, livelihoods are all linked to the hills. They have a very specific idea of labour as ordained by Niyamraja. Working for wages is not a respectable living. They prefer to work for the members of their own community either in exchange of a nominal imbursement or on labour-exchange basis. Among them there is no employer-employee relationship. They treat each other as equal. Mutual exchange of labour is still in practice and traditional labour cooperatives based on sex and age still continue to be functional.

The deep association of the Dongria Kondhs with their gods, hills and streams is best exemplified in their art and craft. The shrines are entrenched with the depiction of mountain god, rivers and forests as well as their traditional shawls. They derive their name from dongar, meaning “hill” and the name for themselves is jharnia which means protector of streams. Probably an effort to understand the world-view of the people, apparently outside the pale of “development”, will lead us to understand why the conventional idea of “development” is not adequate to entice everyone and why lessons on biodiversity, co-existence and sustainability can be learnt from the most unexpected places

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