Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Ethnocentric bias, starvation deaths and vanishing natives

People can die because of malnutrition, tuberculosis, fever and pneumonia, but they can never die of starvation. A recent report of starvation deaths in Birbhum triggers controversy that government and other key players have found hard to dodge. At least 19 tribal people have died because of starvation. There are several sporadic incidents of such deaths that go unnoticed. The question that becomes important is a historical one. The large scale starvation deaths occurred during 1942-43 do not report much death of tribal population of the state. The starvation death among tribal population while seen historically is a much recent phenomenon. What changes have taken place in last 70 years? More crucially it is important to explore what changes have taken place in last 20 years that have radically altered the tribal ways of life?

Post neo-liberal India sees lands being classified as barren, one to multi crop land, land having mining potentials and so on. Similarly forest policies kept displacing tribal access to the forest. Forest trees are replaced by eucalyptus and others adding noting to daily life of the people who depend heavily on the forest. Furthermore large scale displacements, often induced by development  have continued.

While a land which is seen as barren is actually used for cattle grazing, cultivating wild and high calorie cereals for local consumption, collection of tribal medicines. These lands are then taken for either developing connectivity or stone mining or much recently for industrialisation. The land grab under which tribal people are going through for last three decades are unprecedented.  

Case - I: dam construction and a close call 

The place is known as Mukutmanipur where thousands of families were displaced because of the construction of a river dam which is supposed to irrigate parts of Bardhaman, Bankura and Paschim Medinipur. My two seasons of fieldwork reveals that the impact of the dam construction is still quite detrimental. Apart from the loss of their homes and families who are now resettled far off, the neighboring villages have lost their grazing land and valuable forest resources on which they used to depend. Now the alternative economic pursuit is to work as a hotel boy in several hotels developed surrounding the mukutmanipur lake. Furthermore, the nature of the jungle is transformed and people can no longer depend on the forest resources which used to provide vital nutrients. The result is large-scale migration of men folk to neighbouring urban centres. If the neighbouring urban centres would have been far off many of the existing family members would have died.


Displacement leaves long term effects and undermines local and micro value orientations.
Policies of development usually underestimates existing man and other resource relationships

Case - II: piggery project and child malnutrition

 What happens when government decides to do something for the people. It usually happens like this.

step - I something clicks in the mind of a minister or IAS or the like in one fine morning
Step - II S/he prepares the plan over cups of high-tea sessions
Step - III An expert committee is formed and the project is implemented with the help of local agencies including NGOs.

No one even asks or seeks to explore the feasibility of the project. Once in  one of my fieldworks in Manipur it is seen that after the implementation of piggery development project child malnutrition become extremely high. The assessment team populated by anthropologists finds that because of high cash value of the piggery project people have stopped cultivating wild maize and other cereals. In consequence because of the lack of fodder which used to come from the stems of those wild cereals people have sold off their goats and cows. As a result children started to suffer from mal-nutrition triggered by low milk intake. 


Long-term effects are often undermined
Possible consequences of any initiatives are not properly addressed.  

Case - III: barren land and a halted industrialisation  


Understanding of the natural resources are never done from the persepctives of the people who depend on these resources.
Value judgement of any resource depends on perspectives and policies lack the perspectives of the people who tend to depend on those resources

Case - IV: Maoists and armed forces

In another long term fieldwork which continued for three consecutive seasons in several regions of Paschim Medinipur I have seen that people are systematically being denied from the resources on which they have historically depended. While in pre 2011 election Maoist violence have occupied the news headlines people's everyday lives have largely been unseen. The most severely affected people were the tribal. They could not go into the forest because of the fear of maoists who would see them as police linkmen and they could not come out of the jungle because of the fear that police would see them as a maoist sympathasier. The consequence have been devastating. Because of frequent bullet exchanges cultivation was virtually stopped people have starved, if not have died.  


Policies and sometimes armed ideological conflicts tends to undermine people for whom the fight take place.

The accumulations:  

One of the anthropological cornerstones have been the idea of cultural relativism. Although hotly debated, whether or not we should observe cultural relativist stance there is a need to make policies free of ethnocentric bias to the extent possible. Often we find people saying tribal and natives eat rats, snakes, insects and ant larvae because of the paucity of food. There should be policies to feed them for which we need their resources. This is an utter lie. Tribal people eat those items because they consider those as their foods and not alternatives to chicken/mutton or rice and wheat. We have continually damaged their resources. We have transformed their grazing lands to mining grounds, stone crushing factories and water reserviors. We have transformed their forests into bunch of eucalyptus trees which do not yield anything but fuel woods. We never try to explore the systematic relationship between tribal and their habitat. Sadly, anthropologists and other social scientists including activists who do understand the process are either sidelined by the policy makers or are too romantically involved in so called "going native". Instead we see site for industrialisation in their barren lands, we tend to calculate profit and loss from the land yield according to our mode of calculations. 

Now the question is how long are we going to prepare policies that has nothing to do with the natives? The answer however, is known, it is INDEFINITELY. 


  1. A continuation of hundred years of superiority complex. This reflection of policy will continue, no doubt.

  2. A nice one Kaleidoscope!