From the diary of an Adivasi woman: In India, how top-down development excludes its biggest stakeholders

There are so few Adivasis working in a sector that envisions empowering of the Adivasi communities and other marginalised groups. The same is true as you move down organisational hierarchies, except in community cadres (for implementing agencies) or office help-boys and girls (in case of others). Poverty, low literacy rate and remoteness of our dwellings are certainly critical barriers. However, it is difficult to believe that there aren’t enough of us the criteria for making contributions, with a population much greater than that of the United Kingdom's.

Naomi Hembrom November 26, 2019 09:03:06 IST
From the diary of an Adivasi woman: In India, how top-down development excludes its biggest stakeholders
  • The school dropout rate for Adivasi children is highest in India.

  • There are barely any Dalits or Adivasis in the managing boards of firms working in the development sector.

  • There is something seriously amiss in processes where the major stakeholders or their representatives barely have a say in decision-making or ways of engagement.

Growing up in a Santal village in the Kokrajhar district of Assam came with its share of joys and pains. Most girls from my community dropped out of school early. In fact, the dropout rate for Adivasi children is highest in the country. The girls from my village would then find employment as domestic workers in more affluent households of the neighbouring urban and peri-urban areas. Some even worked as farm labourers.

But my father had other plans for me.

He is a forest guard who always wanted his children to speak in English, like some of his bosses did. As fate would have it, there indeed was an English school near our village, which my sister and I attended. It was run by a Santali woman and some of her friends who had returned to the village after spending many years working in a city. Eventually, English education would open up immense work opportunities for me, besides providing social mobility far greater than what most of my fellow villagers could afford.

Back then, my parents did feel the societal pressure of raising three daughters. Remarks about not having a boy were relentless from relatives and neighbours. Many were even surprised that my parents did not opt for more babies, assuming their pursuit for a boy. I think this persistent talk around having a boy child used to get to my father. He would tell people that he will marry me off after I completed my school (I am the eldest daughter). Fortunately, I fared decently in all my exams, to everyone’s surprise.

I also became the first Adivasi girl in my village (in fact, even among the neighbouring villages) to pursue graduation, and eventually enter a formal working space. Gradually, my father had a change of heart. At some level, he realised that I am an independent person. He has not mentioned marriage in the last several years.

I consider myself extremely fortunate on two counts: one is the obvious fact that I was sent to an English medium school. The second is not so straightforward. If my siblings were not girls, or had my parents opted for a fourth or fifth child, who happened to be a boy, life would have panned out differently for me. A major chunk of the limited resources in the household would have immediately shifted to being invested for his well-being. My mobility would have been relative to his, while always being doled out the lesser share in the equation. The education and freedom, integral to me now, would never have been a part of my life, or that of my sisters'.

From the diary of an Adivasi woman In India how topdown development excludes its biggest stakeholders

Illustration courtesy: Satwik Gade

While growing up, ethnic conflicts were not so uncommon in our area. I stayed in a hostel after Class Three to continue my studies. Consequently, from a very young age, I hopped from one hostel to the next, and from one town to another, always on the lookout for the cheapest possible options that my scholarships could afford. In each place, I would draw a parallel with my village and my region. There was always a strange yearning to go back.

In every town and academic institution that I went to, I had to explain my name, upbringing and ethnicity, in some detail. I am certain it's the same for every girl who looks a little different from the norm. Like many dark-skinned girls, even my complexion would become a matter of mild derision and discussion. But unsurprisingly, my being an Adivasi required the maximum explanation everywhere.

During this period of nomadic existence for education, I travelled to many places. And in every place I went to, I would be troubled by poor people on the streets, and old ones on railway platforms, begging for money. Not that I knew much about the development sector back then, but I wanted to become a social worker. My projection of a social worker was that of a woman (like me) going home to home, street to street, or railway platform to railway platform, listening to people in trouble and resolving their issues

Eventually after my Bachelor's, I applied to study at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Guwahati. My father had to lease out our tea garden to get me admitted. I have to be honest — I did feel a pang of guilt. Moreover, he was not terribly pleased with my decision to study social work. He felt that I should attend a 'regular course' in either science or the arts like most others. But I could tell that my parents were swelling with pride, because their daughter was enrolling into a Master's course. Even a generation ago, not many would have bet on this outcome.

At TISS, the courses and the general discourse — within classrooms and outside — about institutional inequalities and injustice left a profound impact on me. At times, during those two years, I thought about my childhood, and that of many Adivasi girls, who completely miss out on the joys of being a child. My old notion of a social worker was put on a back-burner, as I now wanted to work on the issues that had left an impact on me.

Being a village girl, I love the fresh air and the greenery that rural life has to offer. Houses made of clay and straw roofs, open courtyards, small vegetable gardens lining homestead lands, gatherings on various occasions and the strong community bonds, are what make life worth living. I am also an adherent of Mahatma Gandhi's words, who said, “The soul of India lives in its villages”. I strongly feel that only through sustainable development of our villages can many of India’s problems be solved. My two years at TISS helped me envision how I wanted to engage with issues of historical marginalisation, gender, and lack of opportunities in communities like the ones I grew up in.

Besides self-reflection, classes and learning, I also had a great time socialising and partying (despite being a teetotaller) at the institute.

After completing my Master’s, I joined Seven Sisters Development Assistance (SeSTA) in the year 2017. SeSTA works with marginalised women from poor rural families across Northeast India, in order to empower them socioeconomically. I was assigned to the Sidli Block of Chirang district, which houses a diverse group of Santalis, Boros, Rajbanshis, Nepalis, Muslims and Bengalis.

The experience of field work is different from that of regular office work. You are in a remote block or tehsil on your own, or with some colleagues. During the initial period, I was given a number of assignments involving understanding a village society, power dynamics that exist in them, and relationships between people and resources. I was very excited. I was looking at a village from a whole different perspective, and besides, it was also my first job!

After a while though, the sheen of the first job began to pale. While many of my colleagues and others from TISS, working in far-flung villages for the very first time, found the change and remoteness a challenge, I had to bear the brunt of archaic stereotypes.

Over the years, I lost count of the number of times I had to face casual racism because of complexion and ethnicity, and sexism because of my gender. I assumed that having been through all that, I had grown a thick skin. That notion, however, was soon shattered.

I have a habit of strolling around a new place to feel its landscape. On my third week at the block — after having stayed in a village for two weeks for my assignment — while doing recce for a rented accommodation, people would ask me if I was a maid and looking for work in someone’s house. The same was repeated at other places. It made me angry. I felt that despite my education, I could not shed certain socio-historical stigmas and typecasts. It also broke my confidence. I border on being an introvert, but during this phase, I almost lost my voice.

But don’t get me wrong — coming from a community that has served as maids and labourers to the more privileged classes in Assam and the rest of the country, I know the hardships that many from marginalised families face in these professions. In the marketplaces in Chirang and Kokrajhar, I see Santali women working in every other tea-stall, washing cups and lighting fire. I know girls who work as maids in affluent households. Many are just called 'Minny', whatever be their real name. I know young girls from villages working as maids even in catholic missions. I know from my travel and experience that systemic exploitation of girls and women from marginalised groups is rampant and all-pervasive. Yet, it broke my confidence, because I had to prove that I belonged there, like the rest of my colleagues, and my presence was not accidental.

Eventually, it was at Self Help Group (SHG) meetings of Santali women that I gradually became self-assured. While they were always used to interacting with outsiders in Assamese or Hindi, I spoke to them in Santali. I was one of them. SHGs in Santal villages that I facilitated, which barely followed norms or were regular, became vibrant. After a while, women started to bring their daughters to these SHG meets, and whispered shyly into their ears during sessions. My joy would know no bounds when the mothers would be in rapt attention as I checked with their daughters about their classes. One of the Santali girls has also bought a scooty after seeing me ride. This confidence also translated into my engagement in other communities and villages. It took me half a year to get my voice back.

At times, I am also reminded by old men — albeit protectively — in Santali villages that I am a girl and that I should not be working till late, or carrying paddy seeds on my bike like a boy. “You are of marriageable age and your earrings are too big”, are some of the other mild taunts that greet me once in a while.

Nonetheless, I have to say that it has been an incredible journey so far, working with communities and villages like my own, on SHGs, improved livelihoods, or diversion based irrigation. Everyday feels like the first day, where I learn something new and also contribute, with the best of my abilities, to the growth of communities. It gets to me, at times, that the progress is slow. But that is the nature of social change.

If I look at the development sector in its entirety, my feelings are a little mixed. While a lot of the engagement in the sector — particularly for many agencies working with Adivasi, Dalits and other marginalised groups — has been pivotal to improving their conditions, I feel that much of the approach is top driven. There is a glass ceiling based on gender and/or ethnicities in the very agencies that intend to bring about sustainable change in the poorest communities.

There are so few Adivasis working in a sector that envisions empowering the Adivasi communities and other marginalised groups. I went through the websites of some of the largest agencies in the sector working with marginalised groups at the grassroots, and did the same for some of the biggest players in corporate CSR, PSU CSR, philanthropy, feminist groups, and even publishing sites for development discourse. Not one had an Adivasi in their management/governing boards, and not many Dalits either. (To be honest, I cannot identify a Dalit surname, or tell them apart from other higher-caste surnames, so I had to cross-check with someone better acquainted with caste hierarchies.)

The same is true as you move down organisational hierarchies, except in community cadres (for implementing agencies) or office help-boys and girls (in case of others). Poverty, low literacy rate and remoteness of our dwellings are certainly critical barriers. However, it is difficult to believe that there aren’t enough of us (with a population much greater than that of the United Kingdom's) to fit your criteria. At the cost of sounding harsh, it seems that we deserve your benevolence, not your equality.

There is something seriously amiss in processes where the major stakeholders or their representatives barely have a say in decision-making or ways of engagement.

Having said that, I hope — given the reflective nature of the sector — that the 'development' narrative will also change. I am sure there are many in my community who, given the right opportunities, can contribute in their own small ways to development and other aspects of nation-building, and not just be recipients of largesse.

Naomi Hembrom works at SeSTA. She can be reached at naomi@sesta.org

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