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October 16, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Dilip D'Souza

40 Paise Worth of Respect, Please

The school building in Akkarbaid is a startling contrast to the clean, tidy and decorated mud huts in this little hamlet. A squat grey concrete structure, it stands some distance from them. Surrounding it are a few trees and newly planted shrubs, wilting in the harsh sunlight the morning I visited. Inexplicably, a bundle of long PVC pipes lay among the branches of one of the trees.

When I entered, two men were asleep on tarpaulins along one wall of the large, airy hall. Both are members of a band that plays at weddings and such like. They had an engagement that evening and were clearly conserving their energies for the show. The hall is sometimes used for weddings, as it would be today. Off to one side, a smaller room was filled with thousands of little potatoes. "For next year's crop," Prasanta Rakshit told me. "We're waiting for the prices to go up before selling them. No, they won't go bad," he said, anticipating my next question.

Tiny potatoes and sleeping musicians. School was clearly not in session.

The entrance to the school building is framed by two yellow panels painted on the walls. The one on the left has a list of contributions that were made to build the school. A short list. The film star Mithun Chakraborty gave the school Rs 100,000, nearly half the total. Gayatri Chakravarti Spivak, the eminent literary critic who has translated Jacques Derrida and Mahasweta Devi, was responsible for another substantial chunk. In gratitude, the school has been named for her -- another yellow sign over the entrance tells you so. Meanwhile, the list on the right shows how the contributions were spent: on cement, labour, wood, and so forth. It is, naturally, a much longer list.

"The panchayats in this area didn't like us putting up these lists," Prasanta told me, "because then their people began demanding the same kind of accounting for their panchayat projects. But we wanted to make it clear to everyone who enters this building how every rupee was spent." As he said this, my eagle eye noted that the list on the right summed to 40 paise less than the one on the left. "And that 40 paise, where is it?" I challenged Prasanta. "In the bank," he shot back with a smile.

Could I have been the only visitor to the Gayatri Chakravarti Spivak school to whom the thought occurred that there was a double caution here? First, against the dreary charges of embezzlement that so many organizations -- governmental and otherwise -- succumb to. Second, less obvious and perhaps unconsciously, against the consequences of the stigma that the residents of this little village carry around.

For Akkarbaid, in West Bengal's Purulia District, is a settlement of Kheria Sabars, a tribe we once called "criminal." And after all, every Sabar move -- every Sabar -- is often viewed with suspicion. In his "Kharia: The Victim of Social Stigma", Chandidas Mukhopadhyay tells us: "villagers in general believe that [Sabars] do not have human feelings like a normal man", that they are "born criminals [who] commit all sorts of crime." And over a cup of tea one Purulia morning, a schoolteacher said solemnly to me, as if it was the morning news: "Irregularity, thy name is Sabar."

Given views like that, the builders of the school did well to make it quite clear that all the money was accounted for. Right down to those last 40 paise lying in a bank account. Why offer anyone any more reason to scorn Sabars than is already out there?

Prasanta Rakshit is the project coordinator of the Paschim Banga Kheria Sabar Kalyan Samiti in nearby Rajnowagarh. The Samiti has been working with the Sabars for about 30 years. It owes its existence to the vision and energy of Gopi Ballava Singha Deo, from a once royal family in this area. The results of the Samiti's efforts are noticeable among the Sabars. Compared to the other ex-criminal tribe I have spent time with, Pardhis in Maharashtra, Sabars are clearly a rung or two higher on the ladder of hope.

I got that impression from spending some time, seeing some quite ordinary things, in three Sabar hamlets. Here's a flavour of what I saw.

In Kuda, the Sabar village where the Samiti has worked the longest, it has installed a lift irrigation scheme that makes water from the nearby stream available for cultivation. Fields of wheat and of cool green paddy are the result, waving gently in the breeze as I stood above the stream bed one evening. Kuda is home to 40 year old Jaladhar Sabar, the Samiti's secretary. Unusual for a Sabar of his age, Jaladhar has graduated from the 10th standard in high school.

Later, the Samiti arranged to train him in aquaculture for prawns and the delicious ruhi fish, a skill he and other Sabars in Kuda put to use in the ponds near the irrigation dams. He has two children, Hemant and Moushumi; a contrast to most other Sabars, who have a minimum of 3 or 4 children. (Jaladhar's own brother has 5 girls and 2 boys). As this articulate man and I talk, I look around at the 15 or 20 Sabars of all ages who surround us. They look poor, yes, but everyone seems healthy and is dressed in something reasonable.

In Bengthupi, the first building in the hamlet is the Samiti school. The teacher is 30 year old Nandlal Rajwar, a scheduled-caste from the nearby village. "I felt sad at the condition of the Sabars," Nandlal tells me, "and that's why I came to work here." He began as a volunteer, then joined the Samiti 8 years ago. They pay him Rs 700 a month. Nandlal tells me he has 34 students from Bengthupi's 15 or so houses. School is not in session here either, but two children are in the building, doing some extra work under Nandlal's eagle eye. Outside, the Sabar men are digging a couple of wells for themselves, the water already turning their bare brown land into a series of vegetable patches. The villagers gather to chat with Prasanta and me. Once again, the same appearance of health; the same clean huts.

Akkarbaid is larger than either of these two hamlets. Here, the Samiti school is beyond the Sabar huts, at the end of the village. As we walk through, I cannot help noticing the courtyards of the huts. They are spotless. Each has a small square protrusion: a "baghdurthan" or "tulsithan", used for pujas. The walls of several of the huts have intriguing paintings on them. Women sit here and there, turning long strands of dried grass into baskets and other items for the Samiti to market. One man shows me an intricate fishing net he has just finished weaving. Beyond, a few Sabars tend to their fields. The crop is noticeably worse than in the adjoining fields, cultivated by non-Sabars. Prasanta tells me: "The Sabars are still learning how to work the fields. But they are learning fast." And yet again, most of the Sabars seem healthy, the men slim and wiry, the women quietly confident.

In all three villages, I remember clearly the Pardhi hamlets I have visited in Maharashtra's Satara district. Dirt surrounds their huts. Little lumps of discarded meat litter the area; thus flies are thick in the air. Most of the children are snot-nosed, skinny and grubby. Some are in school uniforms and show me their books. One claims to be able to read, but cannot identify words. A letter at a time, he does better, though he gets every second one wrong. More than a few of the men seem drunk. Nearly every woman is either nursing a newborn or is pregnant. Everyone seems to sit around with a strangely hopeless air. In fact, that's it: there is very little sense of hope here.

But among the Sabars in Purulia District, there is. The Samiti has shown them that they can find their feet and improve their lives. It has done so via a number of thoughtful measures: Schools in each hamlet. Simple health care in several villages. Schemes to bring in a little money, like weaving handicrafts from grass and jute, like breeding roosters for the regular cockfights in the area, like lift-irrigation in Kuda, like encouraging Sabars to raise fish and crops. Like a wedding band, too. It has helped Sabars fight for their rights, in courts and in police stations. The Samiti has even drawn the attention of the Sports Authority of India to the athletic abilities of Sabar youths: 26 are now in residence, in training, at the SAI complex in Calcutta.

Simple things, nothing fancy. Where once they would have been treated with suspicion and hostility, Sabars now walk through the villages in the area on more equal terms. They use the bank in Rajnowagarh. They participate in the weekly market. Simple things, yes, nothing fancy. But they have very clearly succeeded in giving a measure of dignity to Sabar lives.

That is a big achievement.

To me, the Samiti's experience with Purulia's Sabars tells an ordinary truth. It is not vast amounts of money, or promises of jobs, that you need to lift yourself from the dismal pit of poverty and discrimination. Or, it is not just those things. They help, but a serving of respect can serve up wonders: a few people -- even one -- to believe in you, to say they will stand by you, to treat you as an equal. In and around Rajnowagarh, Gopi-babu and the PBKSKS were willing to give Sabars that respect. In one generation, the change it has wrought is remarkable.

How many of us would be as willing?

This article is part of the project Dilip D'Souza is pursuing to study India's Denotified and Nomadic Tribes as a National Foundation for India Fellow for 1998-99.

Dilip D'Souza

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