Itís back to the roots for hungry Bhils

Amit Sengupta
Khampawti (Udaipur), June 27

FAST FOOD critics dabbling with the nuances of post-globalisation eating habits should visit this Bhil village in the Kotda block of southern Rajasthan. The 160 families here are experimenting with bizarre concoctions to fight hunger: leaves, roots, stems, wild flowers, the bark and gum inside trees, dead animals, touristy leftovers. Three years of drought have pushed the tribals back to their past.

Not long ago, the fiercely proud Bhils were kings of the forests. Not even the Rajput kings would enter their dominion. Indeed, the Bhils protected the Rajput rulers against the Mughals with their sharp shooting bows and arrows and a reputation for quick, violent retaliations. Now they seem a caricature of the past.

For the food gatherers, the tragic patches of a depleted forest cover do not hide honey or wild fruits anymore, nor the animals and birds they could earlier hunt.

Clearly, this back to nature syndrome is scarcity driven. Over the years food habits have changed. "If the rains come, we would still grow maize, bake it and eat it with potatoes or onions," says Dule Ram. But now they are experimenting with emergency food recipes, something even their emaciated cattle refuse to touch.

The district administration thinks otherwise. "What you call boiled leaves is their delicacy," says Udaipur District Collector P.S. Mehra. "Besides, we have distributed 25,000 tonnes of wheat."

Says Police Superintendent M.M. Atre, "Where is the drought? These tribals simply refuse to leave their backward habits."

The Collector and SP should try this special drought delicacy. Green leaves of the Puar are boiled for several hours, rolled into balls and eaten with salt. The flowers of the Banyan tree, which has survived the timber mafia, and roots are boiled into a thin gruel called Rabri, certainly different from what the urban halwai offers.

For months now the people are surviving on half-a-meal, sometimes not even that. Malnutrition is rampant.

Children with bloated stomachs and jaundiced eyes do not ask for food anymore. Their intestines have clogged. There is no fodder for the dying cattle. So they are abandoned with an emotional Bhil farewell: with a garland and a 'tilak' on the forehead.

Hunger stalks the thirsty homes of 37 lakh Bhils in Udaipur district. In the Kotda block of 20 lakh people, only one lakh have been covered by the food for work programme - Rs 37 and 5 kg of wheat for a day's hard labour. But both food and work are rare. So it is back to roots.

If the rains don't arrive, will it lead to suicides, as in Andhra? "No, the Bhils are different," says Dr Pradeep Bhargava of the Institute of Development Studies, Jaipur. "If pushed to the brink, the Bhil can kill."

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Referred by: Mukandan CM
Published on: June 29, 2001
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