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The Economics of Satpuras

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    Posted: 18 Aug 2017 at 1:16pm

The Economics of Satpuras

This blog post is translation of an article published in marathi daily 'Loksatta' under column 'Ghatmathyavarun' on 12th April, 2017.

Last year I had the opportunity to go through the HSC 12th std. Sociology textbook, which had information about the economics of the adivasis. As I was trekking through Nandurbar district in the Satpuras and the plains below, I almost read the chapter again!

The Adivasis practise subsistence farming. Cultivation is not profit oriented in any sense. Whatever is cultivated is used for the family, the surplus stored for difficult times like droughts. “We don’t sell the surplus grain, rather store it for later” said an old wrinkled man, who probably had been through such calamities. Droughts create a scarcity of food and a surge in the moneylending business. Moneylenders lend grain and retrieve it doubled in the form of interest. 

Payli (Measurement of grain)
If the hungry families borrow a payli of grain, they have to pay twice the amount, ifthey pay back within six months. An annual repayment would be 4 paylis of grain! This exorbitant interest rate plunges the poor into a self-perpetuating spiral of indebtedness and poverty. However in the recent years moneylending has been on the decline. Food grains are available at ration shops at a cheap price. Government schemes have made rice, wheat available at 3 to 4 Rs a kg. As a city person and seeing through the cocoon of luxurious city life I always thought -such schemes tend to make these people lazy. But the experiences here were a real eye opener. These schemes have helped alleviate the food scarcity to a large extent.

Apart from subsistence farming the adivasis here are hugely dependent on the jungle for most of their other needs. Building material, firewood, mahua flowers, everything is procured from the jungle. The simple architecture of the huts requires bamboo, wood and mud – all jungle produce. Houses are built with the help of other village members. They are paid for their help in kind- either a meal or mahua alcohol. Cash is hardly used here. It is neither required for the materials nor for the labour. Therefore the demonetisation was of really no consequence to these people. Except to the labourers, who went out to earn their daily wages.

I started my journey just after Holi. The Mahua tree was in full blossom. Almost in every house I saw Mahua flowers laid out on the roofs to dry. They are then stored in bamboo baskets. Seeing these flowers in such huge quantities, I was pretty sure that alcoholism would be a major problem here. In fact throughout my stay in this region, I hardly saw anybody drunk. Mahua alcohol is used only on auspicious occasions or for celebrations. Then what do they need these flowers in such large quantities for? Actually these flowers are used as currency here. Barter system is still prevalent in this region. As I was sitting in Malsing Patil’s verandah one day, I saw a man buying two bunches of spring onions for a payli of mahua flowers.  These flowers are sold at 60 Rs a kg at the market place.

Mahua flowers laid out on the roofs to dry

The adivasis are self -sufficient. However with changing times they are now trying to cope with the new economics. People like Dr. Narendra Padvi are helping, educating these people, creating work opportunities for them (he has started a factory where dried raw mango is produced). Dr. Narendra Padvi completed his MBBS in Mumbai 40 years back and returned home to his native village, Bhagadari, immediately. Since then he has been working tirelessly for the people here. Although an ex MLA he leads an extremely simple life and is well respected throughout Nandurbar district. I met him first on my way to Bharad and since then have been treated as his guest by the locals here.

As I left the mountains and came near to the smaller cities, I realized the difference in the lifestyles of the adivasis here and the mountain people. The tribals there are relatively self -sufficient and lead a peaceful and satisfied existence. However the adivasi settlements near the smaller cities have turned into slums, with alcoholism, gambling rampant.
Comparing the two I am faced with the eternal question – Do better work opportunities, more facilities, better transport really enhance our quality of life or deteriorate it?

Prasad Nikte

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