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The People from within Bamboo

The Soligas are a scheduled tribal community in Karnataka. Etymologically, Soliga means one who has emerged from within Bamboo. Soliga people inhabit the BR hills region in Karnataka along with some associated ranges in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. By some measures, the Soliga population is around 20,000.

We visited the Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK) at BR hills. The VGKK has been working with the tribes in BR hills since 1981. Their efforts have been broad – covering health, education, economy and socio cultural organisation of the tribes. The VGKK largely sees its work in BR hills as tribal empowerment and sensitive integration of tribes in mainstream society. VGKK has acted as a buffer between state policy and tribal communities, working to – as they see it – soften and contextualise the implementation of the state mandate. In many ways, this is a critical function, as the centralised policy structure of the state is often insensitive to nuances of local contexts.

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As you drive into BR Hills, wide flatlands give way to thick forests and winding narrow roads. The forests around BR Hills have been declared a protected tiger reserve and the area boasts a significant number of tigers resulting in the inevitable nature tourism. The VGKK also runs a modest but tasteful resort called Gorukana that is meant to bring self-sustenance to the operation. Gorukana organises daily safaris, one in the morning and one in the evening usually led by young men from the tribal community who have acquired some formal training as naturalists. One senses that most of these men have a deep sense of attachment to the forest and natural aptitude towards guiding outsiders on Safaris. 

Large Indian cities are now completely unnatural spaces and yet have fairly settled character. In the larger psyche of the city the separation from the natural world is experienced in vague sub conscious ways and perhaps, in intellectual ways. In BR Hills and among the Soliga people, however- like so many other tribes around the world – this separation seems raw. To us, as it must be for them, the incongruity between their more tribal philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, behaviour and the mainstream society into which they are being integrated is clear. It is visible in a hybrid house in a village close to a forest where half the house is generic concrete construction and the other half is primarily a wood and mud construction. It is visible in stories where Soliga men move to cities to find work and come back a few years later unable to bear the separation and the overwhelming urban life. However, the forest is a shrinking space for tribes in most parts of the world. Even if forests remain, they would as protected sanctuaries – themselves unnatural spaces unable to contain the scope of all economic, cultural and spiritual activities of an entire people. Therefore in the long run, it seems, the Soliga people must integrate into the mainstream economy and culture. Whatever ideological position one may hold for or against their integration, the inevitability of it, requires us all to contribute to a sensitive and smooth integration. The forests themselves as protected sanctuaries should be largely entrusted to tribal communities. This would serve a twofold purpose: firstly it would ensure that the conversation of forest is in the hands of communities that understand it the best and feel a deep sense of connection to it. Secondly it would soften the separation for the tribal communities by keeping them close to the forest and handing them a stake in its conservation. Additionally the tribal communities must be key stakeholders in any discussion to decide the level and type of access that outsiders are given to the forest. They should be empowered to essentially argue and vote for the forest. This would for example mean that large sprawling resorts are not built in forest areas and instead more modest and sustainable accommodations are provided to outsiders.

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We got a sense that the VGKK understands these concerns even if they don’t clearly articulate it, at least publicly. A lot of their activities are sensitive to some of the concerns raised above. For example, as mentioned before, VGKK helps those young men with a deep passion for the forest to become naturalists and find employment amongst their staff at Gorukana. Gorukana itself is placed as a eco-friendly getaway aimed at those who want to responsibly and respectfully immerse themselves in nature. There is no restaurant at Gorukana, and meals are served at fixed times to guests in an austere dining area. There is no alcohol (though you can bring your own) and no room service. Though Gorukana lacks amenities that are common to other mainstream resorts, it is priced at about the same range. The income generated is meant to be reinvested by the VGKK into its tribal affairs after keeping modest profits. A large number of staff at Gorukana are from the local Soliga communities.

VGKK runs a fairly successful cottage operation out of its BR Hills campus. They clearly understand their limits and see their produce as niche and exclusive. Most of what is produced at the VGKK campus is sold to visitors at Gorukana and in small shops in Bangalore. Perhaps the most unique feature of the cottage production at VGKK is that the tribal communities have been made key stakeholders at multiple stages of the production process:

  • They are involved in foraging and harvesting directly
  • They are, through LAMPS (Large Area Multipurpose) co-operatives involved in financing and wholesale exchange of produce
  • They are involved in processing at the VGKK campus

 

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The VGKK also runs a hospital at its campus and the hospital was the first operation started at BR Hills by Dr. H Sudarshan. Dr. Sudarshan, driven by a sense of duty, wanted to establish contact with the tribal communities around BR Hills and facilitate their integration into the mainstream society. Healthcare, more than any other mainstream benefit, helped in establishing this contact.

Another one of the key initiatives of the VGKK has been the organisation of the tribal communities into representative groups or Sanghas. The members to the Sanghas are appointed by the communities themselves and according to the VGKK, the internal workings of the Sanghas are completely in the hands of these members. Sanghas are envisioned to contribute to both planning and implementation of development programmes in the region by coordinating with the government and other agencies. Sanghas, therefore, are essentially quasi local governance organisations, which, at least in theory, allow the tribal communities to organise into groups to collectively negotiate with the outside in general and the state in specific, the terms of their integration and other activities in areas that they inhabit.

Finally and perhaps most importantly VGKK runs a school as a part of its operations in BR Hills. Even though there are some government schools in the region, most tribal parents who are serious about educating their children send them to the VGKK school. Therefore the training and philosophy that the VGKK school is inculcating in the younger generation of Soligas will play a significant role in shaping the future of the tribe. To their credit the VGKK seem to have a keen understanding of tribal sensibilities and understand the need to continue to preserve tribal traditions and knowledge structures among the next generation. From our interactions with administrators and an ex-student along with some secondary research, we got the sense that the VGKK firmly believes in a values based holistic education that is overall far more sensitive to the context than a government school could be. Additionally, the VGKK provides this education along with food and boarding for free to the tribal communities.

However, even with the best intentions, the mechanics of integration tend to be damaging to human beings caught in them. In our conversations with administrators and teachers at VGKK it became clear that one of their primary goals is to create a batch of capable tribal young people who integrate into the mainstream society as professionals – as doctors, as lawyers, as government officials etc. This goal from the perspective of the VGKK is perfectly understandable; after all it is only through education that true integration can happen. However, to some this may seem as migration of people away from their context which will ultimately result in a collapse of the Soliga identity and traditions. One wonders, what will remain of the Soliga identity 10 years from now. Will their foraging traditions survive as viable means of making a living? Will the Soliga language be still spoken among the communities? Will the people who emerged from within bamboo be able to maintain their deep relationship with the forest? These are large questions that we cannot expect the VGKK to answer. State policy, industrial activity and many other factors will all play significant roles in framing this discourse. What remains critical is that the tribal communities are empowered to articulate their view points on these issues and that these view points are given due consideration by the state and other players involved in this process.