The Kondh way of life: A tribute to Debjeet Sarangi

By Bindu MohantyonMay. 18, 2021inFood and Water
Written specially for Vikalp Sangam

I hurtled through the dusty streets of Bhubaneswar, in a tuk-tuk, bracing myself against impact or possible ejection as the vehicle swayed and swerved through traffic and careened dangerously through curves. Debjeet and I had agreed to meet at a non-descript coffee-shop, incongruously located behind a dilapidated petrol-bunk.

Debjeet Sarangi. Photo: Twitter

As he and I talked, at the back of my mind, I also registered the incongruity of sipping over-priced cappuccinos in a CCD, while discussing the possibility of including millets in the public distribution system to promote sustainable diets. Debjeet was a stranger to me. I had come across his work with the Kondh tribes in southern Odisha, when researching material for a movie on millets. A couple of emails, a couple of phone-calls, and now here we were trying to size each other up in terms of each other’s integrity as we debated alternate possibilities to mainstream development.

I have to admit that, as I sipped my coffee, at the back of my mind, I was also categorizing Debjeet’s ideas as impractical, unscalable, and categorizing him as a “romantic” for his strong defense of the tribal way of life. It was only later, much later, that I realized that Debjeet had far more integrity than me. While I espoused my alternative developmental philosophies from the fattened trappings of a largely mainstream life, Debjeet walked his talk.

We had both grown up in cities that were dominated by a steel industry. The forests and the forest tribes, were being constantly dehumanized into cheap resources to feed the industry. But unlike me, while growing up, Debjeet was aware of the injustices that the Adivasi communities had faced in India’s inexorable march towards “development.” And unlike me, as an adult, he chose to dedicate his life to understanding the trials and tribulations of their life, which included living and working side-by-side with them as a daily wage labourer for a year in an open-cast mine to gain first-hand knowledge of the hardships and humiliations they were subjected to. Many other such experiences moulded his views, leading him to question the status quo—capitalistic development— as the only way to progress, and to eventually settle in a Kondh village in Rayagada nestled under the Niyamgiri hills (which, later was a bitterly contested site between tribal rights and the interests of a billion-dollar multi-national corporation). 

In the course of our conversations, carried over a few years, Debjeet persistently refused to pare down the Kondh way of life, for me to academically study isolated aspects of it, such as their multi-cropping system of growing millets, or the practice ofpoduchaso(an indigenous cultivation practice).  For him, the Kondh way of life, born of their worldview, was a socially ethicaland environmentally responsible lifestyle. And all he wanted, and passionately sought to protect, was their right to economic self-determination of their tribe. “The Kondhs,” he explained to me, “live in self-contained units called kutumbs. Within the kutumbdecisions are collectively taken. They don’t have a rigid sense of private property. If someone in the kutumbfalls sick, they are cared for, and neighbours will till their allotted plot of land for them.  It is the community that decides on the allocation of plots of land for farming, basically dependent on the family’s ability to manage the plots. All produce, all seeds saved by a household,anyhow belongs to and is shared by the entire community and not just that one household. It is hard for us to comprehend their sense of “ownership,” for anything anyone owns, a nice shirt, a necklace, a motorcycle or a pair of bullocks, can be used by anyone who needs to use it.”

I stayed quiet, remembering the words of Felix Padel, who writes that decision-making among the Odisha Adivasis can be seen as “democracy as consensus politics rather than the Western model of liberal democracy that perpetuates division and corruption behind the scenes.” According to Padel, the ethos and economics of indigenous communities are regarded by the noted sociologist Noam Chomsky as the only hope for the future of our human species. But cynic that I am, I couldn’t help but wonder how long will such indigenous communism (based on non-monetised exchanges and sustainable use of natural resources) hold out against the inexorable march of capitalistic development that is predicated on the individual.

As if reading my thoughts, he added, “The government hinders more than it helps: The moment there is a Panchayat office in the village, these community traditions break down. For government aid hinges on establishing the identity of the individual. Why cannot the government accept the identity of the “kutumb,” the community rather than the individual? It is the same with the moronic idea of “individual forest rights” when the Adivasis see the natural resources to be an extension of themselves (their communities), not to be mindlessly used, but treated with respect. Most regard the earth, the forest as their mother, knowing that they cannot survive without its bounty.”

He invited me to come and visit some traditional villages in the isolated areas, where he worked. He was well aware of the onslaughts of modern civilisation, of the confusion of the younger generations that often went to boarding schools set up by well-meaning NGOs but then found themselves caught between two irreconcilable world views. But unlike me, with my pessimism if the Kondh way of life could be protected, Debjeet dedicated his time and efforts into doing just that. He had the utmost respect for the Kondh elders, especially the women, who enjoyed equal, if not more, power as men, and he organized inter-generational dialogues where the young and the old could discuss ideas and thereby build on their solidarity and common wisdom. I wonder if these dialogues will continue.

For, Debjeet is no more. Infected by the dreaded virus, he was rushed, already in a precarious condition from the remote hills of Odisha to its capital city, Bhubaneswar. He succumbed to the illness in a hospital. I will forever regret that I did not take up his invitation or spend more time with him. In my heart, I also know that if I compare myself to him, I fall short: If I evaluate myself against him on that essential human quality of empathy, I measure as grossly inadequate. And yet, it is precisely perhaps the quality that we all need—empathy with others, empathy with the planet, in order to survive.

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Watch an interview of Debjeet Sarangi, by Rosa Luxemberg Stiftung: Threats to the indigenous mode of living in India

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