The invisible tribe: The Madiyas of Abhujhmargh battle geographic, administrative isolation

Spread across the Bilaspur, Dantewada and Narayanpur districts of Chhattisgarh, Abhujhmargh is a dense and daunting hill-forest, home to the indigenous tribe of Marias. And like the tale of many other tribal communities, the lives of the Marias, or Madiyas as they are known colloquially, have been marred by decades of isolation, turmoil and disasters. As the name suggests, the region is situated among hills (‘Madi’) and largely unknown (‘Abhujh’) to the rest of the world.

The hilly terrain and wild forests, prone to relentless flooding during the monsoons and severe draughts during the summers, have remained out of the reach of modern civilisation. The harsh and unforgiving climate has resulted in almost total seclusion of the region, including the community that call it home. Largely inaccessible by road, civil administration has no reach or sway in Abhujhmargh — unable to plan or deliver any development scheme or support — leading to an great degree of deterioration. Geographically isolated, the region is a part of the ‘liberated zone’ of the Naxal-Maoist movement. In fact, it was only in 2009, almost 30 years after it was first imposed, that the Government of Chhattisgarh lifted the restriction on entry by common people into the forests.

Narayanpur is an arduous 6-hour drive, on kuchha roads and national highways, from the state capital of Naya Raipur. All photos courtesy the writer

Narayanpur is an arduous 6-hour drive, on kuchha roads and national highways, from the state capital of Naya Raipur. All photos courtesy the writer

The remoteness of the region along with political turmoil and absence of governance have resulted in an acute lack of healthcare, education, infrastructure and developmental facilities. Numerous good Samaritans and NGOs spend time, money and efforts throughout the year lobbying for the welfare of the Madiyas.

The Ashrama in Narayanpur, a safe haven for the Madiyas of Abhujhmargh

The Ashrama in Narayanpur, a safe haven for the Madiyas of Abhujhmargh

Established in 1985, the Narayanpur (RKM) Ashrama has provided essential support to the tribal populace for over 30 years now. Acting as the nerve centre of all welfare activities in the region, the Ashrama is located over 230 km away from the state capital of Naya Raipur — a six-hour drive on forest pathways and kuchha roads flanked by army cantonments and Maoist signage on either side. Despite the sensitive situation outside, within the Ashrama premises, there is a constant buzz of robust activity throughout the year. Open to the tribal population at all times, the lush green campus, with its internal medical centre, training centre, prayer hall, sports complex, auditorium and residential school (with a student body of approximately 1000 pupils — 600 boys and 400 girls) is well guarded, almost a safe haven for a community that is constantly in search of peace.

Spirituality and sports are the two main devices through which the gurujis assemble, inform and empower the community. The daily evening prayers are attended by students, gurujis as well as members of the tribal community. Open to all, irrespective of their caste, creed or religion, the prayer hall fills to brim every evening. Come mornings, the vast open grounds and sports complexes are filled with the chatter of children playing hockey, basketball, kho-kho, badminton and football. Special complexes have been built to encourage and train students in yoga and gymnastics. Daily physical activity is almost mandatory, as the gurujis believe that only a child sound of body is also sound of mind. This constant encouragement is a rarity even in the most renowned schools across urban India, and it is this encouragement that sees numerous children from Narayanpur represent their school in district, state and even national sporting competitions.

Madiya students who represent their school in district level, state level and national level sporting competitions

Madiya students who represent their school in district level, state level and national level sporting competitions

To ensure all children, especially those who cannot be enrolled at the residential school, have access to education, five local educational centres have been set up in the depths of the hills. Similarly, fair price ration shops, medical stores, basic health care facilities, agricultural equipment and training etc. is made available based on the community’s needs and accessibility. Every year, prior to the onset of monsoons, ration and other necessary provisions are sent to the tribal community before floods cut of all access to Abhujhmargh. Bus facilities for students, skill development training for youths, empowerment programmes for the women are among the initiatives launched by the organisation.

Beautiful evenings, as seen from the Ashrama rooftops – a regular occurrence

A sunset, as seen from the Ashrama rooftops – a regular occurrence

RKM is only one of the many organisations devoted to improving the lives of the Madiyas. Every year countless philanthropists, missionaries, journalists, researchers and government officials risk their lives and work for the betterment of the people. The Abhujhmargh region, spread across 3,700 sq km, with a population of about 37,000 inhabitants, is rich in natural resources and minerals, making its populace one of the most sensitive and vulnerable in the country. Having been administratively excluded since the British colonial rule and well after Indian independence, exploitation and isolation have become a norm. The community works as it can with bamboo, lac, tamarind and other natural produce while it still depends on the outside world for basic necessities such as salt, chillies and clothes. However, ignorance and lack of information, within the community as well as in the outside world, remains a major roadblock to progress.

The new home of a Madiya family, migrating away from their dwellings in the hilly forest of Abhujhmargh to Narayanpur in search of a better life.

The new home of a Madiya family, migrating away from their dwellings in the hilly forest of Abhujhmargh to Narayanpur in search of a better life.

Yet the community is hopeful and dreams of peace and progress. Parents have great faith in the power of education, ensuring every child — including girls — go to school. As youths step out looking for work, humanitarians are reaching into the community to provide help. Large charitable organisations such as Infosys Foundation and Steel Authority of India continue to aid such initiatives, offering funds, resources and guidance as necessary. The government now acknowledges the sensitive nature of the region and is steadily working to implement suitable policy reforms to raise connectivity, opportunity and prosperity in Abhujhmargh. It is hence, a cherished hope that with the continuity of such help, and with more pouring in over time, the veil of ignorance will lift, giving the community the visibility and support required in its march towards prosperity.

A Madiya woman looking as us newcomers from the faraway safety of her home

Seen from a distance, a Madiya woman at her home


Published Date: Oct 22, 2017 02:12 pm | Updated Date: Oct 22, 2017 02:13 pm



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