Bhil traditions wither away with their trees

  • 30/08/1992

Bhil traditions wither away with their trees DURING the dissemination of an improved, smoke-removing chulha (called nada chulha to honour the women of Nada, a harijan village, who developed it), I visited hundreds of rural kitchens in seven northern states to train local women as chulha mistris (stove repairers).

In talking with the Nada housewives using the chulhas, it became clear that the energy-wallahs' obsession with saving cooking energy so as to save forests, was rather misplaced. Excepting in some pockets of extreme fuel scarcity, the women rarely mentioned fuel saving, talking instead of how they no longer had to scour blackened utensils, of how cooking took less time and effort and how their health had improved and their eyes were safe from smoky kitchens.

All this made it clear that design parameters for improved cooking stoves must be based on the specific priorities of the women using them if they are to be popular -- and energy-saving could be only one of these priorities.

This was so even in areas hit by acute fuel scarcity, such as the semiarid Dungarpur district in south Rajasthan. Among the Bhils, the predominant local community, collecting firewood is traditionally women's work and with the forests receding, the women have to walk farther and farther in the search for fuel. Here discussions on the new stove brought out the distance women have to travel in search of fuel, how difficult it is to gather a full headload of firewood and that they make fewer trips now because of the new stove.

Our obsession with dissemination of the improved stove tended to make us blind to other aspects of deforestation. During our 1986 evaluation survey of the chulhas -- in the middle of the 1985-87 drought -- we realised the futility of working on only one aspect of the larger problem of natural resource management. In house after house in Dungarpur district, we found the new stoves in a neglected state as most of the able-bodied, household members had migrated temporarily to neighbouring Gujarat in search of work. Only infants and elders had been left behind and they found the new chulha somewhat extravagant and irrelevant for cooking the one or two rotis a day that they needed. In such a context, we were forced to question our focus on improved cooking stoves, when people had little food to cook.

We then decided to study sustainable management of local natural resources as a means of securing the livelihood of local communities and realised improved stoves had to be approached from this context for they made little sense considered entirely on their own.

For the Bhils, so dependent on their trees, deforestation was destroying the very roots of their culture. With the males forced to undertake seasonal or long-term migration in search of work, the women left behind had to shoulder the burden of even the men's work. The women also were exposed to increasing social abuse by other men. And, because their migrant husbands would often establish relationships with other women while away from home, the wife ran the risk of finding herself suddenly homeless if her husband returned with his new partner -- an unpalatable reward for having slaved single-handedly in caring for her family during her husband's absence. Suddenly the wife is made aware of the reality that the "family" resources are owned by her husband and she cannot demand any rights to them.

Once while inspecting a village's common land that had become degraded to explore the possibility of organising the villagers to rehabilitate it, we were told that firewood had become so scarce the dead were being buried instead of cremated. A tree-barren landscape seen from atop an equally barren hill brought home the stark reality of the trauma for Bhils, struggling to maintain their cultural identity, not being able to bid a traditional farewell to their dead.

Yet another consequence of the rapid deforestation in the area has been its impact on housing. Although most Bhils possess few material possessions, their traditional houses are large and spacious, made of rammed earth walls with timber roofing topped by handmade and locally baked clay tiles. As all the material was abundantly available locally, even the poorest family could afford a dignified, spacious house. Today, with most of the trees gone, especially the older and larger trees that would provide the main beams, housing has become an acute problem. The government's response, if any, is with schemes like the Indira Awaas Yojana, which only add insult to injury because they do not provide enough space for a family's livestock, let alone the family.

The scarcity of traditional building materials -- and few Bhils can afford cement and steel -- is resulting in many families having to abandon yet another of their strong cultural traditions. Bhils do not have a tradition of joint families and so when a son is to be married, the parents traditionally build him an independent house for the newly-weds. This is a social obligation and the status of the parents and their prestige depends on their fulfilling it. Only the youngest son continues to live with the parents and he inherits the parental house.

During a recent resource-mapping exercise in Khajuria village, it became evident that even this tradition is breaking down because of deforestation. Unable to build separate houses for married sons, Bhil families are now forced to live as joint families -- yet another drastic change in the lifestyle of the Bhils and their family relationships.

---Madhu Sarin is an urban planner, who is now a social activist and a consultant to voluntary groups working to involve women in forestry.