India’s most populous tribal group, the Bhil, has been exploited for centuries – be it under the British Raj or the government of Independent India. And it is not getting better: Uprooted from their ancestral lands and pushed to oil the machine of modern civilization, the Bhils live torn lives today.
Inhabiting a large area spread across the Indian states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharahstra, the Adivasis (tribals) have a minimal lifestyle and extensive dependence on manual labour. Members pool labour in building and producing things, weaving together a tight community.
Traditionally, they lived off the practice of shifting cultivation, hunting and gathering in dense forests. Away from the facets of modern civilisation, Bhils developed a rich, oral animistic culture with nature at its center. They aimed for self-subsistence, while also protecting the environment. They lacked any commercial interests. For example, they implemented a limit on storing production surpluses, beyond which all supplies would be used to hold feasts in the community. They didn’t use the surpluses to develop agricultural and artisanal production, engage in trade or accumulate further.
Things first changed when the British reached the Bhils’ forests and began extracting timber. They also had a policy of displacing the tribals from their lands, making it difficult for them to follow their natural practice of subsistence.
Yet when India gained independence in 1947, the Bhils’ condition worsened. Indian rulers intensified the process of extraction initiated by the British and refrained from providing the tribals with tools to survive the modern world, like education, medicine and economic skills.
Then, in 1957, the group was displaced from their ancestral lands by Madhya Pradesh’s forest department, which declared their land “reserved forests.” Though the Indian Forest Act (1927) made provisions to help farmers settle their claims, the forest department exploited the tribals’ lack of knowledge about these laws and took away their lands, and effectively their food source.
Only in 1987, did the tribe’s union, the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath begin a battle to reclaim tribal land, resulting as the Forest Rights Act, 2006. It gave forest dwelling tribes, “the right to hold and live in the forest land under their individual or common occupation for habitation or for self-cultivation for livelihood,” helping tribals get their ancestral forest land back.
But the rising tide of modernization wasn’t yet done with the Bhils. In September 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the controversial Sardar Sarovar Dam on River Narmada. The second largest dam in the world, touted by the PM as an “engineering miracle,” it was expected to provide water to 9,000 villages, and generate power for three states. But it has also displaced thousands of people since the 1980s. In fact, in the after-effect of the dam’s gates being closed, around 200 villages are estimated to have faced submergence. At least 57% of the affected were tribal groups, living in the Narmada valley.
An Adivasi said, “The Narmada used to be a beautiful flowing river once and we used to grow high yielding crops in its silt deposits. 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 resident of Aakadiya village laments that connectivity among surviving villages have become worse. Before the dam was built, the villagers could easily walk from one village to the other. “Now, we have to walk up and down through hills,” the villager said.
Today, the Bhils suffer from intense deprivation—unable to live in harmony with nature as they did in the past, yet ill-equipped for daily survival in a modern economy.
They are now forced to migrate to cities to find work as unskilled labour and earn meagre incomes. The natural paradise is lost to these erstwhile children of the forest.