dense forest to concrete jungle

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A photo essay on the Bhil Adivasis of Alirajpur district in Madhya Pradesh that depicts their current lifestyle and environment.

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Bhil AdivasisFrom Dense Forests to Concrete Jungles

NATURE'S CHILDRENThe Bhil Adivasis (tribals) are the third most populous Adivasi group in India, after the Gonds and the Santhals. The Bhils inhabit a large area spread over the Indian States of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra. Traditionally, the Bhils lived by practising shifting cultivation, hunting and gathering in dense forest. Subsistence-level survival and extensive dependence on physical labour encouraged them to weave tightly knit communities marked by shared labour in most aspects of their material and cultural life. The egalitarianism of the Bhils was further ensured by customs that decreed that surpluses accumulated beyond a certain limit must be spent on communal merrymaking and feasting. This also did away with the possibility of these surpluses being used to develop agricultural and artisanal production and for engaging in trade and further accumulation. Thus, these customs also served to protect the environment from over exploitation. Moreover, this aversion to trade meant that the Bhils avoided the abstractions of literacy and arithmetic and remained firmly down to earth. They developed a rich oral animistic culture with nature at its centre. Even if very rudimentary and harsh in modern terms it was a paradise for these children of nature.

A PARADISE LOSTWhen, in 2010, I visited Alirajpur District in the State of Madhya Pradesh, in the Central Indian region for the first time, I could feel the winds of change sweeping through the Bhil Adivasis' lives. However, these changes were not for the good of the Adivasis. I learnt that these changes had been happening for many years. It all began when the British came to power in the Central Indian region. The British, following their own agenda, began extracting timber from the dense forests and also embarked on a policy of displacing the Adivasis from their land and making it difficult for them to follow their natural subsistence practices. Independence in 1947 only worsened the condition of the Adivasis as the Indian rulers intensified the process of extraction initiated by the British and also failed to provide the Adivasis with the fruits of modern development in terms of education, health and economic skills. Today, the Bhils are almost completely in deprivation, unable to live in harmony with nature as they did in the past, lost in a modern economy fighting for their daily survival. They are helpless and have to resort to going to the cities in order to find work as unskilled labour to eke out a meager livelihood. The paradise has been lost. This photo essay is a depiction of the Bhils' present lives.

A view of Chhota Amba village. As the people of the village say, once, this village used to be lush green. An Adivasi elder states, We have lived with nature and have always fulfilled our needs from it, but the forest became barren after the modern humans came here and we have become dependent on the market.

Panoramic view of the dense forest in Pujara ki Chowki village, one of the few which still have lush greenery. In the foreground is the farm of a Bhil farmer. The Bhils have traditionally cultivated forest land but most of them have been dispossessed by the Forest Department.

A tribal family separating the Sorghum or Jowar from the chaff. Sorghum, Millets and Maize are the main cereal crops, that the Adivasis cultivate in this region. These crops are only enough for their own consumption for a year and not for sale.

An Adivasi farmer in Attha village standing amidst his resplendent crop of Bajra or Pearl Millet. The productivity of the Kharif crop is quite high as it is grown with cattle manure only. The problem is that the landholding is so small that the total produce is not enough to feed all.

These sacks on a tree store seeds for next year's sowing. The Adivasis save the seeds from the current crop to sow it the following year. Thus, they dont have to buy seeds from the market. This is one of the Adivasi community s traditional ways of conserving seeds.

Livestock are a major provider of liquid capital support to the Adivasis. All members of the household take part in tending to them. However, due to lack of fodder not much milk is produced

A woman feeding grains to chicken. These too provide considerable nutrition and income support to the Adivasis and they are well cared for.

The Bhil Adivasis have a custom of pooling labour to work on each other's farms to save on money wages called "Dhas". Here the women of Attha village are working together to repair a farm bund made of stones.

Thin stems of Bhindi or Saan plants (Jute) are soaked in water for 10 -15 days and the fibers are used to make ropes, in the village of Khodamba. An Adivasi elder states, Nature gives you the material to make a rope it is your fault if you use it to hang yourself as the Bajarias ( Adivasi term for non-tribals who live in the bazaars or towns) are doing.

An Adivasi segregating the Bhindi or Saan fibre from the stem for making ropes in the village of Pujara ki Chowki .

Villagers in Pujara ki Chowki village making mud roof tiles which they will bake in an improvised kiln before roofing their huts. Even today the Bhils are largely self sufficient for most of their domestic and agricultural needs.

A woman fetching water from a small well, downhill, in the village of Badi Gendra

Adivasi girls going to the mill to grind flour. They are carrying Sorghum or Jowar . However, many Adivasi families still continue to use home made hand-operated grinding wheels.

Women selling sweet potatoes grown on their farms in the "haat" or weekly market in Valpur village. A considerable amount of local produce is sold in these haats by Adivasis. They also buy their household and farm inputs from here.

A kitchen in an adivasi home, with the utensils on the stands made of logs in a traditional way to keep them from being accessed by dogs and cats. An Adivasi elder states, We have always conserved the forest and used only as much as we needed. We have never exploited the forests as they are our only habitat and life.

A woman making rotis of maize flour, in village Aakadiya. Maize and Sorghum are the staple diet as opposed to wheat which is commonly used to make rotis elsewhere in India. People here can not afford to buy other grains from the market.

Amashiya and his sister, having rotis, in the village of Attha. Rotis from previous day are eaten by the children and elders the next morning with grounnd red chilly and edible oil sometimes poured over it.

An Adivasi family in the morning making tea, in the village of Vakner . In this region, people have to forego milk in their tea, as the shortage of fodder makes the livestock too weak to produce milk.

An Adivasi man on a Palm tree - they call it Taad. The man is peeling off some of the branches of the tree. A liquid or juice called taadi flows from the branch. He will hang the pitchers around the branches and the juice flowing through will collect in the pitchers. This is done in the evening and overnight the pitchers become full of Taadi. If you consume this Taadi early in morning, it tastes like sweet juice, but if exposed to sunlight, it ferments and becomes an alcoholic beverage consumed locally, in the village of Chilagda.

Women selling fermented Taadi ( Palm tree juice, in the market village of Umrali. The sale of Taadi has become a major income source these days.

A man having Taadi ( Palm tree juice ) from a Tumri, in the village of Vaigalgaon Chhoti. Tumri is the holllowed out dried skin of the fruit of the gourd plant.

Flowers of the Mahua tree are used to brew liquor. The Adivasis traditionally brew their own liquor. However, since the Adivasis now have to migrate to cities for work, they have taken to consuming market brewed liquor also.

Mahua liquor in the making. The round pot contains the fermented Mahua flowers, it is put to boil on a fire and the alcohol vapours released from it travel through the pipe and fall condensed in a pot which is submerged in water.

An Adivasi family returning from the city of Rajkot. They went to Rajkot to work on a Cotton farm. They stayed there for three months and were paid rupees 125 ( $ 2) per day. Many Adivasis migrate seasonally to seek work on farms, construction sites etc., as the crop they cultivate in their farm land is only enough for consumption and does not yield any extra money.

Bhil men and women working as construction labourers in Gujarat. The lack of adequate livelihoods in Alirajpur has forced 85% of tribal families to migrate seasonally to the cities of Gujarat to work as construction laboureres - an unhappy transition from their erstwhile dense forests to the forbidding modern concrete jungles.

This young woman is suffering from Silicosis due to inhaling dust after having worked in quartz crushing units in Gujarat without any protective masks. Over 500 Adivasis from Alirajpur have died due to this disease.

An Adivasi using a mobile phone, which is hung from a post. Mobile networks are scarce in the village of Khodamba along with many other villages. Mobiles are essential to keep in touch with family members who have migrated to Gujarat for work.

A view of river Narmada in the village of Anjanwara, after Sardar Sarovar Dam was built on the river at Navagam in Gujarat. An Adivasi said to me, The Narmada used to be a beautiful flowing river once and In its silt deposits we used to grow high yielding crops. But after the Sardar Sarovar Dam was built on it , many villages were submerged and we had to shift our farms and huts higher up the hills.

A farm in the village of Jalsindhi that was shifted uphill, as the land in the fertile valley of the River Narmada was subme

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