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'Rahul Gandhi's heart is in the right place'

By Sheela Bhatt
August 31, 2010 18:38 IST
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Sam Pitroda says Rahul Gandhi's support for the tribals is correct and while he backs development he says it must be done by preserving the rights and culture of the tribals.

Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi's visit to Lanjigarh in the neighbourhood of the Kalahnadi district of Orissa to address tribals living the Niyamgiri hills has provoked a debate. While speaking from the podium surrounded by abject poverty, he celebrated the withdrawal of permission to Vedanta to mine bauxite. He also told tribals that he is their soldier in New Delhi.

"Two years ago, I had told a gathering here that for the tribals of Kalahandi, there is a soldier in Delhi named Rahul Gandhi. My work is not finished, it has just begun. Whenever you need me, wherever, I am ready to stand with you," he said.

Rahul's visit which indirectly targeted development and supported preserving the environment has many dimensions that have evoked different feelings in different people. The most important question that emerges from the current debate is about developmental approval of tribal areas, what should be its terms and conditions and at same time how do governments preserve tribal culture and their fundamental rights over their land.  

Here Sam Pitroda, one of Rahul Gandhi's close aides and advisor to prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh on public information and infrastructure and innovations, shares memories of his birthplace in the nearby village from where Rahul addressed tribals on August 26. He thinks the right approach is to balance the attempt of preserving the environment but at same time development must get the green signal.   

"In 1942, I was born and raised in a small village Titlagarh in Bolangir district which is very close to Kalahandi. Even after independence, there was no radio, no television, no water, no electricity, no roads, no connectivity, no schools, no hospitals, no dispensaries for many, many years. My mother delivered eight children without trained medical staff.

Luckily, we turned out be healthy and we managed to get a good education.

What I remember about my birthplace is that it was a rich tribal belt. Rich in terms of dense forests, rich in terms of tradition and culture. However, the tribals were poor then and even now they are poor. Our area was one of the poorest regions of India. On the mountains surrounding our homes we knew lots of tribes who had lived there since centuries.

Some of them would leave hills to work in homes of the non-tribals. I distinctly remember that two great tribal women Badhwari and Tara raised all of us. They were like our mother and inseparable part of our life. I have a strong bond with tribals of Kalahandi because I was born their and raised by their women.

My father moved from Gujarat in search of work and settled in the village of Titlagarh near Kalahandi. There was a famine in Gujarat in the 1930s. He had arrived in Orissa because his relative was working with a local contractor who had migrated from Kutch. In childhood, obviously, I was not knowledgeable about tribals and their issues. I look at them differently, now. Then, tribal people were just part of our lives and we lived together. I left Orissa when I was ten years old to study in Baroda, Gujarat.

My parents were under great influence of Mahatma Gandhiji and Sardar Patel. I still remember, then, in those deep forests of Orissa when news came that Gandhi has died, our entire family bathed. As if somebody from the family has died. It's a Gujarati ritual that on hearing the news of someone's death, you take a bath. I left Titalgarh only because there was no school. My father's great dream, even while living in village of Orissa, was that his all children must study.

In those days, we knew that tribal land have got of minerals and stones of all kinds. In the back of our home in Titlagarh, we used to dig six inches and would find mica. We would find layers and layers of it. We used to call it abarakh in Gujarati. We used to play with it.     

Then, I had different idea of tribals. But, now I know tribals all over world are struggling and how. Their situation has not changed so much even in the US. There they are called 'Red Indians'. In the US also, the government is criticised for their plight. The issue of tribal land rights exist all over world.  It's an international debate about how to go about their development.

Some of the countries have tried to modernise them as against preserving their distinct roots and culture. I think tribals are very important part of human civilisation. It's up to the country to decide what it wants. There is an old debate amongst nations about it. The country can opt to preserve the tribal heritage and abandon the idea of massive development or it can go for whole hog development and bring tribals into the mainstream.

I, personally, think that there should be a balance. We should develop some areas while we should also preserve whatever is worth preserving.  

I am in no position to speak on validity of the Vedanta project in tribal areas because I have not studied it but due to 9 percent growth we want to monetise these assets in tribal areas. Earlier, these minerals and stones were just lying there but we did not have the wherewithal to monetise them. This is a new phenomenon (where growth is sustained by export of minerals and use of it in producing goods.) When India was growing at 3 to 4 percent the question of exploiting tribal land did not arise.

I think Rahul Gandhi's heart is in the right place. I think his visit to the tribal areas and giving them support was the right thing to do. I am not qualified to speak on the issue of co-relation of the environment and development. I would just say that even now there is poverty and deprivation in our tribal areas.

If the tribals are getting more while their area is being developed we should support those efforts."

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Sheela Bhatt