Puttamma, a 60-year-old Kadukuruba tribal from the Bandipur forests of Karnataka was excited. She had just completed a fascinating 2-day journey to reach distant Jamshedpur in Jharkhand. This was not only the first time that she was traveling anywhere outside the district of Mysuru but was also her first time on a train. She along with 18 other indigenous tribals belonging to the Kadukuruba and Jenukuruba tribes had come here to Jamshedpur to participate in ‘Samvaad’ – a conclave of indigenous tribals from all over India. 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 a crossroads and had little to hold on to. All she had was the fading identity of being an indigenous Kadukuruba and this did not give her much solace. But all this changed with her experience at the Samvaad. Here she came to realize 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 had come together to celebrate. It was an extraordinary 4-day event, where her identity was respected, her culture celebrated and for once, she felt important and visible.
She was beaming with joy as she beat the traditional tribal drums to which her fellow tribals danced and performed on stage watched by thousands. She was not just showcasing her tribal dance, but re-living her traditional past with a new found pride.
And watching her fellow tribals from different parts of India dance and sing was to her a live expression of a culture that needed to be preserved.
This was the second edition of Samvaad organized by Tata Steel as its effort to revive, preserve and promote tribal culture. More than a thousand indigenous tribals from 20 states of India had converged here between November 15 and 19th. The event was inaugurated on the 15th evening and saw three days of intense discussions and dialogue from the 16th to the 18th. The closing session of the tribal conclave was truly inspirational and was presided over by Mr. Cyrus Mistry, the Chairman of Tata Sons. All the senior management of Tata Steel led by its Managing Director, Mr. Narendran were present.
What impressed me was the passion and commitment that one could see from the entire team of Tata Steel and the team of Tata Steel Rural Development Society led by its chief, Mr Biren Bhuta. Just a few days ago, I had read newspaper reports of Mr Mistry showing Mr Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister around the factory of Land Rover-Jaguar in the UK. And here he was, immersing himself in the joy that one can only get in the company of indigenous tribals. Watching him beat the drums and honoring tribal chieftains in a spirit of partnership and equality was an activists delight. So much can be achieved if this spirit of togetherness and camaraderie is shared by Corporate leaders with indigenous tribals.
What has begun has a cultural event lasting a few days, is now metamorphosing into a process that can bring in a new paradigm of sustainable development. The discussions and dialogue that happened both formally and informally is something to be cherished and built upon. This is possibly the first time that such large numbers of indigenous tribals from so many distinct anthropological groups had come together to share and explore what development meant to them. This is also the first time that I repeatedly heard conversations of how it was time for tribals to stop receiving aid, charity and development ‘inputs’ from either Government agencies or NGOs but to start exploring what they could offer the world in terms of their knowledge, expertise, lifestyle and traditional wisdom. If this momentum is carried forward and translated into concrete action, the world will surely be a better place.