Voices from the tribal heartlands of India: Sombati Bai

Before the creation of Kanha National Park there were dozens of tribal villages in the forest, inhabited by communities who sustained themselves by collected food from the jungle and cultivating small fields. Today, all villages have been evicted from the National Park to make way for tourists, anxious to catch a glimpse of the legendary tiger as they rush through the jungle in open top jeeps, spitting out diesel fumes and leaving a trail of plastic water bottles. Few, if any, of them are aware that peoples’ lives, livelihoods and lifestyle have been altered beyond recognition in order for this pristine, untouched environment to be marketed as a tourist attraction.

In absence of an adequate resettlement and rehabilitation program the villagers have scattered across the region in their search for land. In one village on the border of Kanha national park there are approximately 12 families of the 104 who lived in Jholar, one of the last villages to be evicted from Kanha. A young woman called Sombati Bai sat cross legged on the floor, her gentle face framed by her green cotton sari as she told us the story of a village, of a community evicted with nowhere to go.Adivasi woman 1.jpg

“People from the government came into our village, again and again they told us to leave, that the village will be evicted. They threatened to bring elephants to destroy our homes and our fields if we resisted. By the end everybody was so sick of the constant harassment that they wanted to leave. We were telling them, ‘don’t go, if we leave the jungle, where can we go?!’ Now, everybody has left and scattered across the region, and we are so sad.”

“We got the money that the government promised us, but 10 lakhs (approximately £14,000. 1 acre of land, which is not even adequate to sustain one family, costs between 5 and 10 lakh in the region) is nothing in today’s world. We can’t buy land or build a house. So, we are lost, wandering.”

Once adivasis have been displaced they are extremely vulnerable to exploitation, as Sombati explained from her encounter with corrupt landlords, “The landlords betrayed us, they sell the same piece of land to two people, they take the money off both and then give the land to neither. What can I say? We have been betrayed too many times, by so many people.”

Sombati held my gaze intently as she spoke, and asked repeatedly if we had understood what she was telling me. I assured her that yes, we understood, and urged her to tell us something about her life in the jungle before the eviction.

“The jungle gave us everything we needed! We had fresh, pure air and so much fresh food that we thrived. Here there is nothing, not even fresh running water. It is empty land. Where can we find land to sustain us like that we left behind in Jholar? We used to be the kings of the jungle, but here they treat us like dogs. We can’t even collect wood to cook our food, here we are living like dogs!”

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