A 1100 km Solo Cycling Expedition to Odisha’s Most Vulnerable Tribes

“After 68 years of Independence, where is our Development?”

“I want to become a doctor and come back to serve our villagers,” said Arjun Kirsangi, who is studying at Kalinga Institute of Social Science, Bhubaneswar. I’m sitting with the 15-year-old at the rock altar cum community centre in this remote Upper Bonda village. All around me is a dense forest full of fragrant sal, the temperature a good five degrees lower than Khairput, searing at 40 degrees, where I have just arrived from. The village’s women are gathered to collect water at the only hand pump in this village of 51 houses, but everyone else is home, relaxing on this quiet afternoon.

It’s a quiet that I don’t quite feel. I’m at the end of my 1,100-km solo cycling expedition around Odisha that I undertook to better understand the land and forest rights issues of our indigenous populations. I should be relieved that my arduous journey has finally come to an end, but this young boy’s pointed questions have left me restless. Arjun is showing me the bamboo bow and arrow with which he’d hunt as a child, earning him accolades in school archery competitions, in the same nonchalant way he’s telling me that he laments the lives lost in his village due to unavailability of timely medical services. The public health centre is two kilometres away from their remote hamlet, but good doctors and the nearest hospital is more than 15 kms away. There is no public transport to the village, so everyone has to rely on jeeps. But by the time the vehicles arrive from Khairput, it is often too late.

Arjun Kirsangi shows his indigenously made bow and arrow, as his aunts look over. Arjun belongs to the Upper Bonda tribe of Malkangiri.

“Why is it that even after 68 years of independence, development has still not reached us?” Arjun asks, his piercing eyes and stoic demeanour boring holes into my conscience. This youngster had not articulated it in as many words, but he was asking me why urban-educated, thinking individuals who shape opinions over social media, elected governments who are supposed to look after their own people, and corporates who rake in billions of rupees in profits have consistently ignored the development of one of Odisha’s remotest tribes, the Bondas living in Malkangiri district. I obviously had no answers, so I just offered him a weak, helpless smile.

At the end of my 20-day sojourn, I have seen, experienced, and absorbed a lot. Yet, I don’t feel any wiser. I have no answers to justify what the collective apathy of companies and governments has resulted in. Nor can I comprehend the myopia of the urban middle class and rich class, people like us, who have no inkling of the price that the tribals pay for our greedy, energy-guzzling lifestyles.

The Ward Member of this village explained me how the single water point is insufficient for the 51 families that reside there.

Globally, we have seen how native populations have always been pushed back by invaders: Either through the use of superior firepower, through systematised ignorance in policymaking, through the failure to recognise the rights of the indigenous communities. We need look no further than America, but India’s history of dealing with its indigenous populations isn’t any better. Through the systematic feudalism promoted by British Raj, and successively carried on by the elected governments of free India, the voice of the people who were once the original inhabitants of the lands that we call India, have been decimated.

The birth of #CyclingActivist

It was a month ago, when I was in Austin, Texas with my wife that I came upon a video by Survival International. The report was about the Dongria Kondh tribes of Niyamgiri and their almost David-Goliath stand-off with the corporate might of Vedanta, the UK-based mining conglomerate. The hills of Niyamgiri in Kalahandi district of Odisha contain about 72 million tons of bauxite and Vedanta had set up a one-mtpa aluminium processing plant in Lanjigarh town, with an investment of close to Rs 5000 crores, only to be denied permission to operate in the area by the tribal residents. This got me interested in knowing what drove the people’s struggle in Niyamgiri and further sparked a curiosity to know more about this state with 62 tribes, the highest concentration in any Indian state.

Guided by my mentor Khilesh Chaturvedi, who has travelled extensively throughout the country while training NGOs, who also rode 10,000 kms across India 29 years ago and Rameshbhai, who’s the national coordinator of Ekta Parishad — a parliament of the landless people — I set out on my toughest and longest solo cycling expedition yet, through the treacherous terrain of Odisha, India’s eastern jewel.

The road from Barbil to Rourkela has been reddened by trucks which ply non stop, carrying Iron Ore from the belly of these hills, giving the route an apocalyptic feel.

While I was aware that the expedition would be a physical and mental trial, I was not prepared for the emotional tests I would have to undergo. My physical challenges were rising day temperatures, lack of tree cover on highways, and a fully rice-based diet that I was unused to. I went past several districts which have the highest tribal population in the state, including Primitive Vulnerable Tribal Groups. These included the displaced communities who fought for R&R with companies such as Tata Steel in Kalinganagar, the Juang tribe of Banspal, Keonjhar, the Monda tribes of Serenda, Barbil, Dongria Kondh tribals of Niyamgiri hills, Kalahandi and Kui & Upper and Lower Bonda tribe of Malkangiri.

On several occasions I was overwhelmed with the generosity of the locals who ensured that my trip went as smoothly as possible. It only contributed to my distress to see how little they had –and how little the country that they’re supposed to identify as theirs has done for them. And then there were occasions when the plight that I saw was so acute that it made my own pain seem negligible.

At Adivasi Ekta Samiti, Serenda — Barbil, i would share meals with some of the 800 plus tribal students who reside and study here.

“How can you re-imburse the cost of taking away someone’s home?”

One such situation that highlighted my own privileges starkly was when I chanced upon an unending stream of locals ferrying heavy loads of coal in plastic gunny bags, strung by old tyre tubes on their bicycles. It was only about 8 am, but tiny rivulets of sweat trickled down their brows, which were already blackened by the soot absorbed from the Khinda coal mine.

One of the villagers was frantic because he had been majorly delayed by his unwell daughter. I got talking to him about the frenzy of coal-carrying bicycles around me. He told me that he and his peers had been pushed off their own lands by Odisha Mining Corporation and Hindalco, when they took over the hills for mining. As some measure of compensation, the villagers are allowed to come and collect coal, free of cost, each morning from 4–5 am. I asked him if they had been reimbursed for the lands. “Some of us have been given quarters, while some have been reimbursed, but not all of us. After all, can they reimburse us fully for dislocating us from our homes,” he asked resignedly. By now I was really curious and wanted to know how much coal did each person collect, how much they made from it, who was it sold to. “We take about 125 kilos in one go,” he answered. I shuddered at that number. I was cycling with as little as 10–12 kilos and could sense the weight during inclines.

Villagers who have been ousted from their coal-rich lands, are reduced to collecting free coal from Odisha Mining Corporation operated mines at Khinda in Sambalpur district.

Villagers who have been ousted from their coal-rich lands, are reduced to collecting free coal from Odisha Mining Corporation operated mines at Khinda in Sambalpur district.

Their multiple journeys helped them earn about Rs 150–200 by selling coal to hotels or brick makers. “Some traders buy this from us and sell it for Rs 350–400,” he said. That’s when a stinging realisation hit me: That the brightly lit malls and offices of our cities glow with the blood and sweat of these locals. They’ve been pushed out of their villages, rendered practically homeless, and are now forced to come and collect dole from the companies who shoved them out — who in turn can comfortably keep up the pretence of benevolence in letting the villagers collect free coal.

Villagers from Khinda line up at 4 am and carry over 120 kilos of coal on their bicycles daily, to be sold to hotels and brick makers.

“I want to travel, but I need to earn and support my family”

How much is your bicycle for, he asked, immediately following up with other questions. Does it have gears, is it tubeless, is it a racer? For all the questions that I had been asking over the last few days, I was now being quizzed for a change. I was in Panimunda village of Niyamgiri hills in Kalahandi district, hanging out with Gajendra, a tall, lanky young boy. Two streams ran in the backdrop, while his uncles and cousins rested under a tall, old mango tree.

I was amused at Gajendra’s knowledge and asked him where the other people of the village were. They’d gone to the forest to collect wood or other materials to be sold in the market, he said. He took me to the check dam that was built over a perennial stream of the village, helping them harvest two paddy crops a year. As we sat, dipping our feet in the cool water under the shade of 60-year-old mango trees, he asked me nonchalantly — How much do you earn, bhaiya? I dismissed the question as one of curiosity towards an urban person.

Gajendra, a resident of Panimunda village at Niyamgiri migrates to Kerala for 8–9 months each year and works in a mineral water bottling plant to earn and support his family.
Do you go to school, I asked, noting that he had just about started getting a full moustache. Gajendra didn’t, because the school was six kms from their village. Instead, the 19-year-old had struck a lot of distance at an age when most of us are just about beginning to exasperate our parents. Gajendra works for 8–9 months in a year at a mineral-water manufacturing company in Kerala, where he earns about Rs 12,000 a month. “I come here in the summer because it’s too hot there,” he offered by way of explanation. “My parents are old now, and cannot farm.” Two of Gajendra’s sisters are married; the elder one is suffering from paralysis and he must provide for her treatment.

But Gajendra was more interested in my life and my vacation. “Bhaiya, you’ll miss your salary for all these days, right? I would also love to go around the country someday, but right now I have to earn for my family,” he said. I couldn’t help but be overcome by guilt at the acute realisation of my privileged lifestyle. My camera cost as much as his annual income, while my bicycle cost as much as his sister’s medical bills. The sheer irony of my “search for the truth” held up a mirror to the opportunities that I’ve had and how easily we take them for granted.

The Niyamgiri hills are resplendent with rivers, fertile lands, tropical forests and fruits, the Dongria Kondh tribes worship these hills as their god.

12 days | 1100 kilometres — Mining my beliefs amidst Mines

These 20 days, 12 of which I spent on my bicycle covering 1,100 kms — and the others spent on multiple forms of transport to go to tribal villages and communities totalling 2,000 kms — made me question some fundamental beliefs. What is development, after all? Does being focussed on our myopic careers, salaries, and designations count as development? By living lives dependent on energy, consuming resources that we don’t produce, having home loan EMIs and material possessions and living a credit-based lifestyle the definition of development? Are we “forward” because we cannot live without the internet and smartphones and social media? And by corollary, are the tribals “backward” because they can live without dependence on all of this? Are they regressive because they produce the food they eat, do barter trade for the materials that they need but don’t produce, live in harmony with nature, worship the elements of nature and sacrifice their lives to protect these elements? Are they backward because they have large hearts to welcome strangers and offer them whatever little they have, or because their children are so mature and socially driven at a young age that they want to service their community rather than build personally gainful careers?

A mother belonging to Kui tribe heads to work, even as she wraps her infant child around herself. Collection of forest produce and its sale is a major livelihood activity among the tribes.
I ruminated over these thoughts most over the course of these 20 days, the most meaningful trip of my life yet. And then I arrived upon some fundamental decisions. I vowed that I won’t actively participate in the capitalistic consumerism that is leading to the terrible exploitation of our indigenous people. I resolved that, as far as possible, I will not purchase any new commodity, barring food. I won’t replace something unless it’s broken or irreparable. I will not indulge monetarily in leisure travel, partying, shopping, and eating out.

With each of these acts, I am contributing to the mindless mining of resources which is displacing our countrymen from their land, and I cannot remain ignorant of these factors anymore after having experienced them first-hand. And I also hope to find the strength to stick to my resolutions. My effort may only be a small step in the right direction, to right the wrongs that have been inflicted upon our peers over the decades. But I will do my part, and continue to trigger conversations on these subjects among our privileged elite circles, who are ignorant of the impact of their choices.

The open pit coal mines at Barbil blew my mind, with the inevitability of imminent exhaustion of resources staring right in my face.

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