Person of the Week: Abhijit Mohanty

Dear Readers,

In this interview series we ask questions to people who are making a difference in our society, it can be big, it can be small, it doesn’t matter, what matters is their contribution. It can be anyone from any walk of life and from any country. Please, do send us suggestions of people whom you think we should interview for this series.

Abhijit Mohanty is a Delhi based development professional. He has studied Sociology Honours from Utkal University and holds a MBA Rural Management degree from Amity University. He has worked with the indigenous communities in India, Nepal and Cameroon especially on the issues of land, forest and water.

  1. Tell us something about yourself?

As someone who has worked with several indigenous communities in India, Nepal, and Cameroon I write about human rights abuses, food insecurity, ecological and climate crises. My stories and photo essays attempt to debunk stereotypes and shift the victimization women face in the indigenous communities. It also entails how they are building their resilience in the face of changing climate; how women are fighting against gender-based violence by negotiating peace and advocating for their invisible work. My clients include community based organisations, non-profits, international progress philanthropic groups, researchers and other change-makers. At present, I am working with a Delhi based not-for-profit organisation and my work primarily focuses on empowering migrant workers in the Indo-Gulf migration corridor.

  1. Why did you choose to work with indigenous and other impoverished communities?

I started my professional career with Agragamee a Odisha based grassroot civil society organisation working with the indigenous communities for over three decades. My initial exposure to the indigenous communities in Kashipur block of Rayagada district had a profound impact on me. The traditional knowledge of indigenous communities can contribute to the worlds’ modern vision on technology, science and medicine. Indigenous communities also provide outstanding examples of sustainable living, their low-carbon footprint life style is indeed a perfect example especially in the scenario of increasing global climate change.

But due to the impact of industrialisation, and apathetic attitude by the government, the indigenous communities in India are becoming more marginalised, deprived and their voice often ignored and suppressed. I appreciate the pride, strength, vigour, honour and resilience of the indigenous people I asked to share their stories or pose for my lens. This provides me with an unending inspiration to continue my work with the indigenous communities across India and beyond.  In India, I have worked with several indigenous communities, for instance in Odisha they are the Paraja, Gond, Bonda, Soura, Dongria Kondh and Kutia Kondh. In Himachal Pradesh they are the Kinnauri, Gaddi, and Gujjair. The Munda, Ho, Santhal and Kharia in Jharkhand and the Tea-tribes in Assam.

  1. What are the challenges these people face in their day to day lives?

India’s indigenous communities are under extreme pressure, right from big dams and mines to violent insurgencies and militarisation engulfing their lands. The habitats of indigenous communities are blessed with abundance of natural resources. It is also best described as Rich Land: Poor People. Nevertheless, these resources are garnered by the corporates, causing more harm than good to indigenous communities. The overdrive for imposing development from the top has resulted in tremendous discontent among the indigenous communities. There has been a real shrinkage of democratic space, as a consequence of which the indigenous communities are no longer able to resolve their own issues of self-governance.

Currently due to deforestation and loss of traditional means of food security, indigenous communities in India suffer in abject poverty, malnutrition and lack of access to basic amenities. Once self-sufficient, the indigenous communities now a day struggles to ensure food security at their household. Traditional crops which are rich in nutrition and multivitamins and resilient to the local climatic adversaries are vanishing due to the aggressive promotion of commercial and hybrid seeds in the hinterlands. Most villages and settlements inhabited by the indigenous communities have no access to schools and medical care. Very few have all-weather road access.

  1. Do you think government and public in general are fully aware of the impact industrialization has on these communities?

In the past two decades it has been seen that corporates are splitting indigenous communities by bribes and coercion, such that a division emerges between “accepters” and “refusers”. There is an extensive collusion, between politicians and bureaucrats and the private companies, which displaced scores of indigenous communities from the land they inhabited for generations. The autonomous and non-violent resistance of indigenous communities to destructive mining has often been misinterpreted by the state, corporate interests, and even by the media at times to label it as a “Maoist threat”. Then this label is cunningly used “to crush all kinds of spontaneous opposition by indigenous communities to be displaced”, leaving the displaced at the mercy of fate.

In the name of the development, the government of India is hijacking lands from the innocent indigenous communities for industrialisations and various developmental projects. Around 40 per cent of the 60 million people displaced following development projects in India belong to indigenous communities, which is not a surprise given that 90 per cent of our coal and more than 50 per cent of most minerals and dam sites are mainly in tribal regions. The state brands every ‘indigenous   assertion’ as instigation. In the name of law and order, such assertion has been brutally suppressed. The numbers of cases, the number of prisoners in jail from indigenous areas are indicative of the state’s apathy. The Indian government takes pride in being one of the largest democratic countries in the world but it has miserably failed in understanding the relationship that indigenous   communities have with land, water and forest.

  1. Please explain some of your efforts in promoting agroecology and women empowerment among the indigenous communities in India?

Over the years, I have promoted the model of ‘Agroecology’ among the women indigenous farmers in South-western districts of Odisha. The model has enabled indigenous communities to develop a model of reversal of ecological tradition of their lands and commons by combining traditional knowledge systems with agroecological farming. Major focus was given on revival of traditional crops, addressing nutritional and food securities and ensuring crop diversification for better climatic adaptability. Besides, I have also worked on addressing and prevention of violence against women by promoting gender equity in the hinterlands of Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Assam and Himachal Pradesh in India. This has been done by endorsing a social transformation towards gender-equitable attitudes, promoting legal literacy, and active resistance of violence against women.

  1. When it comes to subject of migrant labours, particularly in states like Kerala and Uttar Pradesh, do you think we can provide them better opportunities here or they simply don’t have any other option than migration?

India is a major player in international migration and has a high number of individuals in the 16-34 age groups that are most likely to migrate.  The International Labour Organisation (ILO) projects the labour force to account for 42 percent of the total population in India by 2030, while the Government of India projects this proportion to be closer to 48 percent. As per the current trend, it will be a challenging task for India to provide employment for all this labour supply. Labour migration across state and national boundaries for better economic opportunities is a reality which is of paramount importance to the economic growth of not individuals alone but that of sending and host communities as well. Ensuring safe migration of communities is now one of the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 that has been signed off by the Indian Government. However, irregular labour mobility entails specific vulnerabilities of the migrant workforce which leads to exploitation and abuse. In recent times, labour migration across different sectors of work has posed serious challenges for government, non-government bodies as well as employers to ensure the safety of those that are aspiring to migrate.

  1. How do we ensure that these laborers don’t get abused in the countries they go for work?

There is a pressing need to sensitise the migrant communities on safe and legal process of migration. Training and capacity building programmes should be organised for the aspiring migrants; sensitising them on their rights and entitlements in the destination countries are indispensable considering the fact that many of them are the first generation international migrants in their families.

Similarly, ensuring transparency and accountability in the labour supply channels, promoting fair recruitment and appropriate skill matching are also critical. Holistic bilateral agreements should be developed by the sending and receiving countries to regulate and streamline the process of safe migration. Technology can also play a vital role to empower migrant workers. Take for the instance of ‘MigCall’ a mobile based application which is meant to connect migrants in distress to official authorities and NGOs through smartphones offline.

  1. What would you advise students and general public alike, who want to serve and aid these communities?

In order to develop your own perspective it is very important to spend time with the indigenous communities, involve in their day today activities, participates in their festive occasions. A participatory approach is highly essential to ensure meaningful contribution for the welfare of indigenous communities. One has to respect their traditional wisdom, low carbon footprint life style, community feeling and solidarity. And most importantly one has to understand the deep bonding and relationship the indigenous communities have with their land, forest and water.

  1. What are your plans for the future? 

My dream has always been to create awareness about our world’s indigenous cultures through articles, stories and photographs. I have been continuously witnessing the speed with which the indigenous communities are embracing the future. I do not claim to have the knowledge to address the questions we have about indigenous cultures. I simply want to create beautiful and positive images of strong and proud people, write untold stories of unsung heroes and heroines. I know that this approach is unquestionably romantic yet there will be hurdles.

  1. Your message to our readers?

I often face certain questions, ‘Is it essential to assimilate the indigenous communities into mainstream society?’. And my response to the above question would be: Do you think it is essential? I think there is a pressing need to redefine the meaning of ‘mainstream society’ for the indigenous communities. I would like to begin with the words of Verrier Elwin, one of the eminent scholars of tribal studies in India, “Let us teach them that their (indigenous) own culture, their own arts are the precious things that we respect and need. When they feel that they can make a contribution to their country, they will feel part of it. It is therefore, an important aspect of their integration”.

It is also equally important to increase the ecological well being of the indigenous communities, and the entire village resources system, thus leading to a positive self-image as self-reliance, and quality of life improve. Science has a very crucial role to ensure holistic development in the hinterlands of indigenous communities. Training and capacity building should be provided to tribal youth, leaders and women on how to revive and sustain traditional wisdom while making improvements through modern science.

The tribal are part of the Indian society, at the same time they are unique. Special policies and programmes are required to address and redress these differences especially in the context of globalisation. When we plan for tribal development, we have to regard these differences, take a special note of their situations and capabilities and provide them facilities to develop on the line they want to take. If indigenous communities have to unfold from within, they must have active participation in the development agenda and decision. Their felt needs should be aptly transformed in development programmes. They can participate in their development programmes only if they are considered to be equals and unique identities are respected.

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