Medhi, a 50-year-old Bettakuruba tribal from the Bandipur
forests of Karnataka, was excited. She had just completed a fascinating 10-day
journey to visit Jamshedpur in Jharkhand. 
This was not only the first time that she was travelling anywhere
outside the district of Mysuru but was also her first time on a train. She,
along with 18 other indigenous people belonging to the Bettakuruba and
Jenukuruba tribes, had gone there to participate in “Samvaad”, a
conclave of indigenous tribals from all over India, organised by Tata Steel.

 Her world began and
ended in Elachikattehadi, a tribal hamlet abutting the Bandipur National Park.
She and thousands like her were ousted from their forests due to the formation
of the National Park and construction of large reservoirs in the area between
1960 and 1970. She belonged to a generation which was at the crossroads and had
little to hold on to. All she had was the fading identity of being an
indigenous Bettakuruba and this did not give her much solace.

 All this changed with
her experience at the Samvaad. Here, she came to realise that she was not alone
in this struggle for an identity and an existence.  She suddenly found herself in a context,
where being a tribal was not about being at the receiving end of either
exploitation or charity. She not only found a voice but also her esteem amidst
hundreds of people like her. Samvaad to her was not just a jamboree, where
thousands like her had come together to celebrate. It was an extraordinary
four-day event, where her identity was respected, her culture celebrated and,
for once, she felt important and visible.


Need to communicate

This was in November of 2015 and her only regret then was
that she could not participate as intensely as she wanted to. Though she
communicated with her fellow tribals from 20 other states of India with her
heart, she was constrained by the inadequacy of her not being able to speak and
understand other tribal languages. It was then that she felt that this event,
while being a major milestone for thousands like her, was still inadequate in
bringing out her inner thoughts and feelings. She wished that this event could
be smaller and she could talk and interact with people who could relate to her
and her language more intimately. And she was not disappointed.

 Responding to the
requests of many of these indigenous people, Tata Steel decided to have smaller
events at the regional levels in October. Three such events have been held in
Baroda (West), Mysuru (South) and in Shillong (North East). Representatives
from those who attended these regional events will now come together at the
Samvaad-2016 at Jamshedpur from 15-19 November.


The conclave

The theme of this year conclave will revolve around the
Traditional Health Systems of the Indigenous tribals of India. Ever since our
Independence, the state and several NGOs, who have been working with these
tribal communities, have spent millions of rupees on their development with not
much to show. The tribals continue to eke out a marginalised existence and have
become collateral damage to large development projects. More than six decades
of rapid acculturation and shoddy integration into the mainstream culture has
left these communities in confusion. Forest conservation laws that they can
neither understand, nor find relevance in, have left them at the crossroads
with neither a coping mechanism nor an alternate lifestyle. 

 Economic and social
demands of mainstream culture and life are forcing them to abandon their
traditional methods, which kept things simple and sustainable, and adopt more
expensive, government and NGO-driven coping strategies which are neither
culturally appropriate nor contextually relevant. But amid all this, what gives
hope is the fact that their knowledge and practice of traditional medicine
still continues to survive. This traditional wisdom now needs to be recaptured,
documented and made available to not only these indigenous communities but to
the world at large.


A way of life

Considering the unsustainable path that today’s world of
healthcare demands, there is a lot to learn and emulate from these indigenous
communities. We now need to explore and imitate lifestyles, consumption
patterns and health systems that these communities have been practicing from
centuries and see how one can effectively blend the benefits of both worlds.
The practice of healthcare amid tribals cannot be seen merely as the use of
traditional herbs and medicines. It encompassed a way of living and was
embedded in their intimate relationship with the forests. Apart from finding
herbs and honey that they used in their medicines, the forests forced these people
to be physically fit in order to find the food and minor forest produce to
sustain themselves and their livelihoods. Healthy foods and healing plants were
part of their everyday diet and they believed that all “food is
medicine” and all “medicine is food”.

The traditional
medicine-man had an in-depth knowledge of herbs that he used, but cultural
beliefs limited him from sharing it with others, especially the non-tribals.
One must also keep in mind the fact that these traditional health systems
operated and served the needs of these people in a particular context. Today,
their world has undergone huge changes and they are in a situation wherein
mainstream medical care is rapidly overrunning their fragile systems. It is now
that this Samvaad, with its focus on their traditional health systems holds
special meaning. Apart from making their practices and knowledge visible, it
will also serve to enhance their esteem and self-belief. More importantly, it
will let the rest of the world and our indigenous brethren know that they have
a rich and knowledgeable past and it would be in their best interests to
rediscover their strengths and traditional wisdom.


(The writer is a physician, development activist and the
founder of the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement. He has lived and worked with
indigenous tribal communities in Karnataka for nearly 30 years and can be
reached at [email protected])

By Dr R Balasubramaniam