An Evening on BaigaChak
Interview with Mr. Balwant
5th of April, 2019
The sun has already set, it has become dark now. As I hurriedly walk towards the residence of Mr. Balwant, a development practitioner working in the villages of Samnapur for the past nineteen years, I spot a bunch of screeching bats flying above the huge eucalyptus trees standing across the road. I am suddenly reminded of the varied kinds of birds that I have encountered while traveling through the villages of Samnapur: I know not their names but these are birds of myriad colors, as if new to the eye, taking long flights across the open fields of Maikal range, coming down towards the river once in a while. The hue of the setting sun, the stillness of the passing night, and the pleasantness of the rising mornings: nature feels so much more alive here. The farther one goes into Samnapur, the deeper one gets into the forests. It is about these forests and their inhabitants that I seek to interview Mr. Balwant about. He has been working as the District Coordinator of the National Institute of Women, Child and Youth Development, and has been in Samnapur since 2001. Given the elaborate time that he has spent with the peoples of Samnapur (particularly the Baiga) I intend to listen and document his experiences. Someone who once was an outsider, perhaps still is but has been a close observant of the lives of the peoples for more than two decades: it then becomes worthwhile to take a moment out and listen to his experiences, especially in times when varied communities are moving towards homogenized cultures and ways of life. I am interested to understand the Baiga's relationship with its forest. The questions that I have selected for the interview inquire the same. Additionally, I have also attempted to understand: if, with time, the forests have changed, if the Baiga's association with them has changed, what kind of movement this space has witnessed in the last two decades? Transcribed below is his response (with minor editing of content) to the questions posed.
Nirmala: Sir, please tell us something about yourself and your arrival in BaigaChak
Mr. Balwant: Namaste, my name is Balwant. I hail from Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh, and moved to Dindori in the winter of 2001, shortly after the district was constituted and carved out of Mandla in the year 1998. Back then and even now, Dindori is considered to be one of the most backward districts of the country. And within Dindori, BaigaChak is popularly understood to be one of the most backward regions of the district. Spread across three blocks of Dindori, the southern part of BaigaChak falls in Samnapur while the central and eastern parts fall in Bajag and Karanjia (respectively). In the present date, the forests of BaigaChak host habitation to 52 villages with Sarai (Shorea Robusta) being the most populated specie of the forests. However, the forest wasn't always like this. Back in 1927, with the enactment of The Indian Forests Act, management of the forests of BaigaChak went into the purview of the forest department. From the Working Plans of the said department, one gathers that, back then, with timber being the priority of the department, Sarai plantations were encouraged (in this region) which moved the forests towards a kind of monoculture.
Nirmala: Sir, tell us something about the people(s) of BaigaChak
Mr. Balwant: The chief inhabitants of BaigaChak, the Baiga, are dominant in numbers here. They have been categorized as one of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) of the country. Here, I would also want to reiterate a bit of history and speak about the inception of BaigaChak. When it was first carved out by the Colonial Settlement Officers of Mandla, sometime during the late 19th century, it was meant as confinement for those Baiga who were not willing to give up their traditional methods of cultivating the forest. This method of cultivating the forest is referred to as Bewar by the Baiga (popularly it may be understood as a kind of Shifting Cultivation). These Settlement Officers wanted the Baiga to give up their nomadic ways of life and settle down. However, there were some who resisted, and BaigaChak was carved out to contain those who resisted. In recent times, BaigaChak has come to be habited by other communities such as the Gonds, Ahir, Yadav, Panika, etc. However, overall, approximately speaking, 80% of the population is that of Baiga, 15% are Gonds while the remaining 5% are Yadavs, Panikas, Ahir, etc.
The Baiga of BaigaChak identify themselves as Bhumia Baiga, often referred to as Bhumi Putra as the very essence of their life finds itself derived from nature. There was a time when with the exception of salt and clothes, there was nothing more the Baiga desired from the market: the forests provided for everything else. Presently speaking, within BaigaChak, there are other communities as well. However, from my own experience, the kind of knowledge that the Baiga holds about the forest, no other community does. Even the Baiga child can tell names and associated details of the various species of the forest. This knowledge is eroding with time. However, despite this, the relationship that the Baiga shares with the forest is like a mother-child relationship. One of the reasons for their resistance towards ploughing demonstrates this mother-child relationship i.e. the Baiga resisted to ploughing because, to them, it was equivalent to tearing the breast of their mother earth. I feel that as long as the Baiga is around, the forest is safe as they know how to be with the forest. The only concern is that this relationship is fast changing as the Baiga, in response to the changing times, is beginning to move away from the forest.
Nirmala: You have been emphasizing a lot on the Baiga's relationship with the forest. Can you elaborate on the particularities of this relationship on an everyday level?
Mr. Balwant: Now that you have asked me about Baiga's relationship with the forest, in reference to that I want to recount that there is a particular specie called Mohati in the forest, it is a shrub. And Baiga is the only one who worships it and observes a festival called Rasnawa. The said festival is observed after every nine years when the shrub called Mohati bears flower. It is around Dusherah and Dipawali that the flower blossoms and it is only the Baiga who observes this festival. A particular specie of honey bee is worshipped during this festival, and till the festival gets celebrated, none of the Baiga interferes with the said honey bee. These aren't mere incidences or coincidences. There are ecological reasoning behind the observation of these festivals and the associated rituals.
If one comes to think of it, the very naming of the Baiga's jaati (or the organization of their jaati) is to signify the responsibility of preserving some forest specie. There are various jaati of the Baiga such as Rathuria, Pachgayia, Samardaiya, Nandia, Saradia, etc. The very naming of their jaati is after some local tila (hill top), pathar (stone), ped (tree), vanaspathi (specie), etc. For example, Samardaiya are the ones who are supposedly the protectors of the animal Samal Cheetal and thus the naming of their jaati as Samardaiya.
Now, I will recount their other festivals like Hariyali when they gather different kinds of forest species and worship them. This is also an act of preservation. There are many practices that the Baiga observe on an everyday basis e.g. when the Baiga goes to collect jadi from the forest, they take only as much as is required and not more than that. For example during monsoon, Baiga women and children venture into the deeper parts of the forest for collecting kaanda (tubers). Through their experiential knowledge of the forest, they know exactly where to dig to get the tuber. Once they get access to the tubers buried under the earth, they leave behind that part of the root or the tuber that is necessary for further regeneration.
If a Baiga is also a vaid (the one who holds significant knowledge about the jadi of the forests), he won't readily impart information to an outsider or show the jadi to the outsider. The vaid would first test the outsider so as to avoid the possibility of causing harm to the species. The Baiga are also careful and selective of the time they go inside the forest. Certain points of time are critical to the growth of some species. Too much of human movement or the chances of stepping upon the species might be detrimental to their regeneration, in times like these it is preferred to not venture into the forest. Thus, they have had their own rules and regulations regarding the accessibility and availing of the forests. They existed in oral tradition, passed down from one generation to another.
I shall provide another example: Baiga believed that jharna (spring) occurs only in a forest. And Baiga considered only freshwater springs for drinking purposes as they believed surface water to be the only pure form of water. They never believed in the idea of storing water or pooling water at one spot as it happens in case of water storage structures, wells, or hand pumps. The government thinks that the absence of hand pumps or wells is a symptom of poverty, not realizing that some communities might have their own mechanisms for availing water. In 2001, when I had just arrived here, I thought of working upon the availability of drinking water sources for the Baiga, but I realized that they prefer surface water. However, with time and (due to lack of options and unavailability of clean surface water), they have begun to access hand pumps and wells too.
In regard to the Baiga's relationship with forest, the presence of other communities (particularly the Yadavs and the Panikas) has altered it for no good. It is for this reason that the Baiga's relationship with forests is different in case of habitations wherein they live in mixed social groups and habitations wherein they live by themselves. In case of the latter, the houses are much smaller, the needs are much minimal. It is because of this minimalist attitude that they provide protection to the forests.
Nirmala: Can you speak a bit about 'forest as food' for the Baiga?
Mr. Balwant: To your question regarding forest produce availed by Baiga for self-consumption (particularly kaanda i.e. tubers), there are a few points that I want to highlight. When I had started working, I gathered that there were some eighteen varieties of kaanda that occurred in the forest in those days. From amongst these, the most important, favored and liked by the Baiga is Kaniya Kaanda. It is interesting to note that the naming of these kaanda is after the natural processes associated with them. E.g. Kaniya Kaanda, the one for which one needs to dig as deep as waist height. From Sikari Singh of Ajgar (of BaigaChak) I gathered that from one digging, around 25-30 kilograms of Kaniya Kanda can be obtained from one bela which can suffice as food for almost a week. This kanda not only works as food but also medicine.
About the availability of tubers, the likes of Dundchi and Kirchi are dug out from September to October but the likes of Kaniya and Lorgi are available between December to January. The former becomes possible also because of winter showers which make the soil soft and easy to be dug. Moreover, by this time, the bela also grows back to visibility. It then becomes possible to locate the kaanda. Then there is Daang which bears fruit during October. However, in general, December and January are the most important months for digging out tubers. One may also choose to dig in between May to June however, the availability is limited during these months. Also, the ones who dig out, always leave something behind to let the roots spread.
Now, if I am to speak about bhaaji (leafy vegetables), there is a huge range here too i.e. some 43 varieties of these are available across different seasons. Each season has something useful to offer e.g. Siroti Bhaaji happens in summers when the human body is believed to need khattai. Here, I want to recount some of these important ones. One such bhaji is Charotta, it is in the month of September that it is plucked, cooked as well as stored (to be used throughout the year). Another important one is Pakdi Bhaaji which becomes available from December end till January end, this one can also be stored and used in future times but Charotta lasts throughout the year. And then there is Chench Bhaaji, this one is also stored. The one bhaji which is available throughout is Dhobe (usually occurring near rivers or ponds).
If I am to talk about fruits, there is a range here too e.g. Chilwa (the inside of which is like cashew), Chaar Chironji, Menar and so many more (approximately some 29 varieties). One very important one is Sihaad Phal of Mahilaain bela, the seeds of which are roasted to make a sweet delicacy. The availability of this fruit coincides with the time the forests here catch fire so at times, the fallen seeds get roasted by the forest fire. When this bela was around, families would gather these seeds so much so that one family might collect seeds ranging from 50 kilograms to a quintal.
Then there are flowers which are cooked to be consumed as vegetables. And then the honey bees (some around seven varieties of them), one of the smallest amongst these called Kotiyaar (with many other names)... In this sense, there is always something or the other occurring in the forest. In gone by times, when there wasn't enough connectivity with the outside world, produce from the forest was enough as medicines. These days people here grow paddy which is a new addition to their life, however, they have had their own grains like kodu, kutki. There are hardly any grains that contain iron but they have had grains which did e.g. sathia, madia, etc. Their food is also medicine to them. During the early 2000s, there wasn't connectivity in terms of roads or transport facility, there have been times when I have walked for 45 kilometers in a day. Thus, dependence upon the market wasn't there; except for salt or clothes.
Nirmala: Have you observed any changes in the forests of this region? And how do you look at the future of these forests and the people(s) living herein?
Mr. Balwant: Yes, it is changing. To begin with, I am observing an erosion of the biodiversity of the forest. The single most impactful event which caused harm to the forest and its bio-diversity occurred in the 1980s. Back then, Mahool bela (Bauhinia Vahlii, referred to as Mahilaain by the Baiga) was in abundance, there were some which were thousands of years old. If one looks at a mature bela, it is astounding to realize that it can't be distinguished from a tree, such is the appearance of the bela; and it spreads around 10-15 trees. However, the forest department planned to cut down this bela. The department believed itself to be the owner of the forests while in truth, the tribal community was the true owner. The assertion from the department made the Baiga accept that the forests don't belong to them. Moreover, the department functionaries argued that the bela works as a hiding spot for lions which can potentially attack cattle. In some ways, people also agreed, not realizing that this cutting would entail disappearance of the bela; and this way the bela got cut down.
In regard to your question about the changes in forests, I consider the 1980s a very significant decade in that sense. I didn't personally witness that time but in regard to the forests here, it was a major watershed year. In this region, every kilometer has a pahaadi. The rainfall is high as it is in the range of 1400-1800 mm. Due to rocky terrain, roots of trees here spread laterally. The high rainfall and strong winds can make the trees fall down. In this sense, presence of bela in the forest, particularly the likes of mahilaain which creates network around trees, is helpful to hold the trees together. The bela's presence provides shade and space to so many other species on the ground as it helps to retain moisture. So many such species (jadi buti) are now disappearing as the moisture is losing out. It is often understood that presence of 40-60% of canopies provide protection to the rest of the forest. It also helps in regulating soil erosion. A well-connected ecosystem supports bio-diversity. However, the forest department which wanted timber decided to take off the bela. Thus, the 1980s was a major setback and led to significant reduction of forest cover; enhanced visibility gave accessibility to outsiders. The naming of forests by local communities dwelling in them comes from a place of significance. And this naming also reveals the nature of the forest. The forest department, on the other hand, classifies the forest in terms of compartment numbers which speak nothing of the personality of the forest. The locals even know of the location of species (including animals) from within the forest, and would accordingly plan their movement. Now, with bela gone, animal species have also departed (or lost). In the same time period, bamboo also reduced significantly. There was sudden flowering of this specie and eventual death. Alongside, in 1995, there was saal borer attack which significantly affected the trees. As a solution, the department took down more than required. When I had just come in, people didn't have grains enough to even arrange for two meals (a day) but they had forests to sustain them; it's not that they had grains before, but they always had forests to sustain them. However, now, the different kinds of tubers, bhaaji, fruits, mushrooms, fruits, etc, are fast disappearing. Contrary to what is popularly believed, outsiders are responsible for this disturbance, and not the local communities.
Moreover, when forests depleted (or deteriorated) and department cleared off land, people's livelihood began to get compromised. In response to compromised livelihoods, people are encroaching forest land for agriculture. If at all the locals are causing any harm to the forests, it is only because the outsiders are creating circumstances that haven't left many options with the locals. There is increased tension between the forest department and the people. Thus, the years between 1995-2005, major changes were witnessed in the forests. Today, one may sense that summers and monsoons have got severely affected. In the years 2001-03, I witnessed constant rain throughout the monsoon. It would continuously rain or drizzle for a good three months. Now, the monsoon span has reduced to only 2 - 2.5 months, with rain falling for a few hours (only) in the day. Soil erosion has also increased. These changes have caused major setbacks to their traditional crops. For regeneration of forests and returning of species, forest fires and rampant felling of trees (by the forest department) have to be dealt with. Otherwise, we are moving towards difficult times.
Mr. Balwant lives in Dindori and works as the District Coordinator of the National Institute of Women, Child and Youth Development. He has been working in BaigaChak since 2001.