Masthi was a quiet, unassuming kind of person. Unless specifically told, one was not likely to know that he was the Yajamana (chieftain) of the Jenukuruba tribes living in Devanahadi. I had first met him at the Brahmagiri hospital where he had come to get himself checked for his chronic cough. He was diagnosed as having pulmonary tuberculosis and we had started him on treatment. Most tribal patients that we had started on anti-tubercular treatment were not as compliant as we wanted. I tried explaining this to Masthi who gave me a patient hearing and assured me that he would not default on his treatment. True to his word, he took his treatment very seriously and completed the 9-month course till he was declared cured. During these 9 months, I had met and interacted with him several times and would visit him regularly at his colony. He would always take me out on a borrowed Theppa (coracle) across the Kabini river and show me the elephants which were grazing on its banks.
Devanahadi was a tribal colony of around 20 houses and was named after Masthi’s father. Most of these Jenukuruba families had lived near Gundre in the forests and were forcibly relocated to this place by the forest department. Masthi had his 3 acres of land on the banks of the river and depended on the little agriculture that he could manage on it. Only five other families in Devanahadi had small bits of land and most of them depended on subsistence farming or farm labour for their survival.
In 1996, when the opportunity came along to introduce irrigation in the area, I wanted to include these people and their lands too. Masthi was a little hesitant and unsure of if a Government program would really work. His skepticism of the Government and their schemes was understandable. After all, he and his people were forcibly relocated from the forests with a lot or unkept promises. I persevered and convinced him that with our involvement, a similar situation would not occur.
We got the geologists and all other relevant personnel from the department to visit Devanahadi and map out the irrigation potential. The only tube-well that could be drilled with enough capacity to irrigate all the lands was in Masthi’s land. This would mean that he would have to give up a substantial portion of his land for the overall benefit of his people. My own experience of this kind of shared arrangement in other colonies was not very encouraging. I was also concerned that Masthi would become selfish and refuse to share the water with anyone else. All my suspicions were wholly misplaced. Masthi was indeed happy that the tube-well would now be in his land. On probing, he told me that as the Yajamana, he was indeed worried how to convince his fellow tribals on sharing water with other farmers if the tube-well was to be on their lands. Now the situation was indeed different. He did not have to worry about this as it was on his land and as the chieftain, he felt that it was his primary responsibility to take care of his people. Things could not be easier for him. I was indeed impressed with the casual way in which he saw the whole issue. His unselfish action was more of an everyday phenomenon. With a twinkle in his eye, he remarked that he would indeed be happy to see the Government actually complete the scheme.
Masthi is now no more. He passed away a few years ago, but his suspicion of the Government not completing the project remains in the colony. The half complete irrigation project at Devanahadi stands as a mute testimony to the Government’s insensitivity. It is now 14 years and despite our best efforts, we have not been able to get the project moving. Someday, this will be complete and only then will possibly Masthi’s soul rest in peace. Till then, the suspicion in the mind of the Jenukurubas regarding all such initiatives will live on…