Baigas are Adivasis who live primarily in Madhya Pradesh and parts of Chhattisgarh. According to their belief system, the soil is sacred and so in the past they never touched it with a plough or a sickle
This environment day, let us recall the Baigas, who were once considered as the protector of the soil, who would never plough as they had felt that ploughing was like scratching the breast of the mother earth. But they are not like this anymore, they have been tamed and ‘civilized’. The Baigas (mostly landless) now learn to cultivate as sharecroppers and migrate to the cities in huge numbers in search of wages without having any safety and social security. Baigas are now considered to be part of the particularly vulnerable tribal groups (Bureau 2019) and you would find their names in the list of the most malnutritioned and low life expectancy rate chart. The government and other CSOs are now trying out different welfare schemes to safeguard the interests of the Baigas to preserve the populace that is on the verge of extinction. But the once free tribe with their own language, culture, and pride are now struggling to survive. Who is to be blamed?
Know the Baigas:
The name Baiga means a sorcerer. British observers felt the Baigas had migrated into Baigadesh from the east many centuries before, probably much before the more numerous Gonds who established political control over the highlands around the fourteenth century. Hindu villagers viewed the Baigas as the original inhabitants and accepted their decisions in boundary disputes. (McEldowney 1980) The Baiga appear to be a branch of the great Bhuiya tribe,whom we find in sizeable numbers in the Chota Nagpur region. The Bhuiya or Bhumia, are as their name implies ‘lords of the soil’. This title is also claimed by the Baiga who call themselves Bhumiaraja or Bhumijan, and Bhumia. (Elwin 1939)
We find earliest accounts of Baiga when Captain Thomson, (Thomson 1867) in his Seoni Settlement Report, briefly described them as ‘the wildest of the tribes, inhabiting the most inaccessible hills and the remotest forests; Using on what they can secure with their bows and arrows, in the use of which they are very skilful, and on the forest produce, and the small crops which they raise on the hill sides. They are extraordinarily shy, so much so that it is often difficult to get hold of them, unless you are accompanied by someone they know. They fly out at one end of the village as you appear at the other, and you can see them scrambling up the hill sides amongst the stones and bushes, or hiding and peeping at you from behind bushes like wild animals.’
Bewar : socio-cultural and ecological significance
Bewar was practiced by the Baigas before it was prohibited by the then Forest Department in the British Period. Bewar (like shifting cultivation) is similar to Jhum in the North-Eastern part of India and many other tribal communities across the globe. The Baigas would select a patch of forest land and burn all the biomass that is found in the plot into ashes. After the first rainfall, they would scatter seeds into the ashes. They got good yield in the first year and subsequently the amount of yield was reduced. They would practice bewar in one field for a maximum period of 3 years and then they would abandon that place for regeneration and would not disrupt the land for 10 to 15 years. The whole village might migrate to a new location every three years to be closer to new bewars. Evidently each "village" changed sites within a recognized broad area which was mutually accepted by surrounding villages. (Elwin 1939) They would not use axes and small sickle for bewar and would never use plough as they had been prohibited from doing so by their god. They created a macha (watch-tower) for looking after their crop. They used to cultivate Kodo, Kutki, Mardhiya, rahar, cucumber etc. Rice was grown in very small amounts. Bewar had ecological and cultural significance. The Baigas only cultivated enough food to feed themselves and did not harm the forests other than to practice the cultivation technique. The process was natural and completely organic. Their agriculture only required traditional seeds (stored and preserved by themselves) and labour (contributed by their family members and community members). In such a manner, much of their food came from Bewar and the rest were sourced through fishing and hunting. They also collected fruits and roots from the forest. This way the Baigas maintained an ecologically balanced lifestyle for centuries.
Plight of the Baigas in Independent India:
The misfortune of the Baigas started after the British invasion and their suffering has continued till date. The development process, creation of national parks, and the setting up of tiger reserves have displaced a sizable number of Baigas from their natural habitat depriving themselves of their traditional livelihoods and way of living. (Bramhayya 2017)
The traditional way of living of the Baigas clashed with ‘civilized society’ even in relation to their Gond brothers in Balaghat and Mandla. After the forests of India were nationalized and they were brought under the Forest Department, Government of India, the Baigas and such other Adivasi communities could not even access the forest for collection of forest produce. Another misfortune struck the Baigas in 1971-79 when a large number of villages (51 villages) in the area declared as Kanha National Park were forcefully evicted. Bairag Singh Tekam, 67 year old Gond tribal leader from Baihar tehsil, Balaghat District says that many families were displaced during that time.
Tekam says that even after they got PESA 1996 and Forest Rights Act, 2006 (Scheduled Tribes And Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition Of Forest Rights) Act, 2006), the implementation is at a poor stage. Such Acts were brought in to compensate for the historic injustice caused to the tribals, PVTGs and other forest dwelling communities. The Forest Rights Act encompasses Rights of Self-cultivation and Habitation which are usually regarded as Individual rights; and Community Rights such as grazing, fishing and access to water bodies in forests, Habitat Rights for PVTGs, Traditional Seasonal Resource access of Nomadic and Pastoral community, access to biodiversity, community right to intellectual property and traditional knowledge, recognition of traditional customary rights and right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage any community forest resource for sustainable use. But the implementation of the policies remains slow. Madhya Pradesh, which has the largest forest territory and one of the largest tribal populations in the country, is at 7th place in terms of the implementation status of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Baigas have won back their forest rights only in a few areas like Baiga Chak, under the Forest Rights Act. (Chakravartty 2016)
Contemporary problems and way forward:
The Baigas have been fully dependent upon the forest for livelihood and identity. Their culture, attitude, and their belief system have been formed around that. After British imperialism, they have been forced to settle in one place and adopt ploughing practices which had been forbidden by their belief system. Anthropologist Elwin Verrier had mentioned in his book (the Baiga. 1939) how the Baigas had expressed that those who adopted ploughing practices had faced the wrath of nature. Today, many Baigas are trying to settle down in one place and adopt farming and tilling of land. But Baigas have converted to settled farming very late and many of them are landless. Most of the Baigas live in Baihar, Bilaspur, Bicchiya and Dindori which are near the Kanha National Park and Achanakmar Sanctuary. They are not allowed to access the core areas of forest for NTFP collection but are only allowed to enter into the peripheries. However, the contractors and powerful people also access such areas and use it in an unsustainable manner. The Baigas bear losses due to that. The earlier free tribe is now dependent on the mercy of the government and the capitalists for their livelihood.
The author is a field practitioner in the district of Balaghat, Madhya Pradesh. Based on the field notes and observation, the researcher pens down the following points:
1. Most of the Baigas are landless and lack agricultural techniques and interests.
2. They have less access to forest and they have to face competition from other people and commercial NTFP collectors within the range of limited access of forest areas
3. The production of NTFP has reduced over the years due to degradation of forest, rise in invasive species and climate change impact
4. The Baigas are unable to get fair price for their forest produce (For example: The Baigas still sell 1 kg raw honey from the forest at Rupees 160/- without any adulteration. Market price of certified organic honey is found around Rs. 900/- to 1000/- per kg)
5. They are very hard to be included in the government schemes and benefits. These schemes have been framed considering other communities unlike the Baigas who have been living far from civilization, market economy and formal institutions like banking services, offices etc.
6. The Baigas are very shy and avoid outsiders. They are often fooled and manipulated by landlords, money lenders, and labor contractors.
7. I have experienced that even the Gond leaders in a mixed village find it hard to recollect the names of the Baiga households in their own village. The other non-Baigas are uncertain about the number of Baigas currently living in the village. The Baigas seem to be invisible to others. The Baigas are thus hardly included in beneficiary lists of government programs and policies unless conscious attempts are made.
It is evident that the heart of the Baigas live in the forests. Their Bada Dev, Nanga Baiga (their god) also live in their forest only. Their days of hunting, fishing and bewar in the jungle are gone. The Baigas have been tamed to such an extent that their pride, self-confidence, emotional and mental strength have faced a setback. It is only the forests that they have been constitutionally permitted to access, conserve and manage that can bring dignity into their lives.
Bramhayya, Dr. Chakali. “The Status of Human Rights of Baiga Tribes in.” Journal of Advances and Scholarly Researches in Allied Education 13, no. 2 (2017): 13-24.
Bureau, Press Information. Welfare of particularly vulnerable Tribal groups. New Delhi: Press Information Bureau, 2019.
Chakravartty, Anupam. Baiga tribals become India’s first community to get habitat rights. 16 January 2016.
Elwin, Verrier. The Baiga. London: Wyman & Sons, Ltd., London, Fakeham and Reading, 1939.
McEldowney, Philip Fredric. COLONIAL ADMINISTRATION AND SOOIAL DEVELOPMENTS IN MIDDLE I:NDIA,. Thesis, Department of History, University of Virginia, Virginia: University of Virginia, 1980.
Thomson, W.B. Report on the land revenue settlement of the Seonee District, on the Central Provinces, 1867 . Bombay: Education Society's Press, 1867.
About the Author: Simanta Mazumdar is a field practitioner working in the thematic areas of sustainable livelihoods, conservation of biodiversity, commons and natural resources. His interest areas are Gender and commons, community organizing and adaptation of climate change.