|Wooden totem in a village in Bastar - where religion is creeping into their traditional Animism form of worship|
We were sipping tea at a small tea stall next to a small bus stand in one of the forest fringe villages of Bastar. A motley crowd of rather well informed and opinionated men had gathered around us. The discussion typically veered towards everybody’s favourite topic these days.
The chitchats ranged from Obama and America, Narendra Modi and Obama, life in a metro versus life in a village etc. In between all these talks, one rotund man proclaimed. Much to my chagrin.
“Vikas ka matlab jungle nahin. Jungle hoga toh vikas kaise hoga. Mumbai bhi toh jungle kaat ke bana hain na.” (Development means no forest. If there is forest, how can development happen? Mumbai was also built by cutting down forests.)
My vexation was due to the fact that he was right in his thinking, especially about the Mumbai or the current spate of urbanization part.
And therein lay my predicament. About the last standing virgin (supposedly) forests of Bastar. These forests are home to Naxals, and not animals. One can only find a few stray deer in a largely empty forest. Empty because animals serve as food for the people living inside. Same is the case in most forest regions affected by Naxalism. The forest of Simlipal has been almost stripped bare, something my mother can’t fathom because she remembers a dense jungle of long ago. Well, considering my affection for wildlife, I should have been raving mad but I am not. Mainly because for now these lovely forests are still standing.
I am not a big fan of the romantic opinions of Arundhati Roy about Naxalism. It was perhaps ideologically apt as well as romantic when the movement had started in the 70s. Not now. Now the ideology has disintegrated into some other unknown form. What I have seen is that village communities in the affected zones are squeezed in by both the Naxals and the government resulting in terrible conditions. The Naxals do not want any sort of interaction with the outside world and hence the villages are in extremely poor conditions. On the other hand, the government looks at these villages with suspicion and round up innocent people often. A case in point is Jharkhand, where a lack of stable government has resulted in a kind of ‘free for all’ situation. Here village people complain that Naxals take money from private companies to allow them to take land from the village people. Mind you, I have not used the word ‘acquire’ since there is no such implementable legal process here. Atleast not to my knowledge.
On the other hand, all governments - past or the development-at-any-cost current one – are eyeing these forests for the minerals and the other natural resources it contains. Infact, a part of the Bastar forests has already been ear-marked for providing water to an upcoming power plant in the region. In other words, damming of yet another pristine river. As one of my ex-colleague mentioned, the region is an anthropological goldmine and it could have been applied to better the region’s prospects. Yet successive governments choose to look at destructive ways. And it’s just the presence of the Naxals that is acting as the only deterrent for the government to sell it all off.
So, between all this and vikas and a dream of a Mumbai in the (erstwhile) forests of Bastar, I have only one choice.
An empty but a still standing forest.