Jesuits protect indigenous community in eastern India
Unless the government makes a serious effort to protect their habitat, the Paharia tribe will become a thing of the past
A Paharia woman with her child comes back to their village after fetching water. (Photo by Saji Thomas)
The leaders of the Paharia tribe agreed that until they met Father Chacko Anthony they knew nothing about the world beyond the forest.
"Our world was only forest and we lived and died inside it and never thought of anything beyond that," said Gasi Paharia, head of the community in Satia village in the hills of Jharkhand state in eastern India.
Jesuit Father Anthony began to work among the tribal community three decades ago. "They are among the original inhabitants of Jharkhand and they now face gradual extinction because of the invasion of outsiders," said Father Anthony.
The priest said his aim was to connect them with the world outside and to prepare them so they are able to deal with the challenges brought about by the modern world.
When he first came to their hills in 1983 "they ran away further to the top of the hill, and hid in the forest," he said.
The Indian government census of 2011 registered about 31,000 Paharia tribal people in Jharkhand, down from over 100,000 in 1983, according to Father Anthony.
The highest concentration of them is in the Rajmahal Hills, a forested mountain range. When Father Anthony first arrived there they "hardly wore any clothes or had any knowledge about the world outside."
Jesuit Father Thomas Solomon, who also works with the tribal people, agrees that life was tough for the people in the forest. "Many of them died of malaria, cholera among other diseases as they never got any medical help," he said.
Father Anthony said that when they discussed the idea of starting a school, the tribal people objected, "We live and die here in the forest," they said. Even so, the priest selected seven children and began to teach them but after some time they refused to come.
"I was convinced that without education they could not be brought into the mainstream," Father Anthony said adding that he "made another attempt with 14 children and gradually the effort yielded results."
He used special occasions and community celebrations to showcase his pupil's skills and also created a cultural program with them. More children joined up but many still dropped out after attending classes for a couple of years.
Daud Malto, 40, was among the first in the community to get an education. He completed his tenth grade and wants his son "to do better in life with education."
Pahari children going to school in Satia village in Pakur district in Jharkhand state. (Photo by Saji Thomas)
Malto, wearing neat trousers and a shirt, was engaged in cutting bamboo to erect a fence for the herbal nursery where the tribe grows plants for their traditional medicine. He credited Father Anthony for introducing his community to clothes.
"Earlier we, including women, were not wearing any clothes," Malto said.
Father Anthony said the Paharia tribe live shorter lives, between 45 to 55 years with a maximum life span of 60. The short life span is believed to be the result of child marriage, disease and lack of nutrition, he said.
Even so, "Most of the community members still continue to live in the hill tops and are unable to cope with life outside the forest," the priest said.
Dharma Parhari, a tribal shaman, said that when people "from outside get close we go more inside the forest. Their experience with outsiders is not very good as outsiders exploited them, including exploiting their young girls."
Paharia tribal people are easy to befriend and have fallen victim to frauds and cheats from the outside, said Father Solomon.
Outsiders take their young boys and girls to work away from home and in many cases they end up being abused and exploited. Tribal people are gradually becoming more aware of this problem and have even begun to complain to the police.
Modern developments also threaten their lives and forest, according to Father Solomon.
The biggest threat "is the mining lobbies who focus on the area which is rich with coal, bauxite and other minerals. Unless the government makes a serious effort to protect their habitat, it is only a matter of time before the Paharia tribe becomes a thing of past," he said.
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