Saturday, August 29, 2009

Will the Chakmas survive in Mizoram? - Section II

By Paritosh Chakma

The socio-economic conditions of Chakmas in Mizoram

The Chakmas of Mizoram are considered to be well off in comparison to their counterparts in other states of India on the basis that they have their own Autonomous District Council. This is not true. (Please see the myth I have broken about the CADC in Mizoram. Particularly note that more Chakmas are living outside the CADC than in the CADC) Look at the socio-economic development made by the Chakmas in Tripura. Today, they proudly occupy the posts of Sub Divisional Officers, Block Development Officers and high posts in the Education Department and various other departments in the state government. In Mizoram, there are none among the Chakmas who have occupied those high posts. Only one – late Nagendra Chakma, Mizoram Civil Service (MCS), was appointed as Deputy Commission of Saiha district for a short period of time on the basis of seniority. Unfortunately he had to step down because of his ill health. In Tripura there are several Chakmas who are serving as doctors in government hospitals. In Mizoram, we have none. And engineers? Chakma engineers in Mizoram simply have not got any jobs to use their engineering abilities for social good. There are few among Chakmas in Mizoram who are studying medicine or engineering, a yardstick to measure social development achieved by the Chakmas of Tripura.

While the pathetic socio-economic conditions of the Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh have rightly been highlighted (see for example, Frontline article “State of denial”), no journalist has ever ventured into the Chakma hinterland in Mizoram to tell the world about their plights.

Pathetic living conditions

First, let me tell you that the Chakmas in Mizoram live nearest to the border with Bangladesh (Mamit and Lunglei districts) and with Myanmar (in CADC). As one Chakma villager once told me, “The border people around the world are the unluckiest and most deprived souls on this earth. They always lived amid conflicts and problems of all sorts associated with the border and yet, no one cares for them”. How true he was. Whether it is Koreas, the West Bank, Indo-Pakistan and Indo-China borders, or Afghanistan-Pakistan borders, people living at the borders are the regular casualties to the war associated with the border conflicts or hostilities between countries. This apart, there are cross-border smugglings, illegal trade, and cross-border terrorism, and the border inhabitants are always the first casualties. This situation is made more miserable by denial of development and access to basic services such as health care and educational needs in the border areas.

Recently, the Chakmas of Mizoram have been facing the brunt of the border fencing. The India-Bangladesh border fencing has introduced new problems and challenges to the Chakmas – the challenges they will have to live with for ever.

The border areas inhabited by the Chakmas are undeveloped being the remotest parts of the state. Since Mizoram is a relatively peaceful state and Chakmas do not pose any threat to security, no one cares how the Chakmas are actually living their lives. The development of the border areas was never in the agenda of the Mizoram government and hence, although the government of India has pumped in millions of rupees every year under the Border Area Development Programme, the border areas in Mizoram have been left undeveloped.

The poor living conditions of the Chakmas are clearly visible by their dilapidated houses in the villages. The Chakmas live in their own communities and majority of their villages are separated from the Mizo habitations. Even in habitations where the Chakmas, Brus and Mizos live together, the houses of the Chakmas and the Brus are easily identifiable from their poor living standards.

Once we had to stop in a village in Lunglei district where we did not know any Chakma family. But we knew that the village was inhabited by Brus, Chakmas and Mizos together. So, we thought to find out a Chakma house to spend our night. Guess how did we do it? It is already dusk, and my friend suggested that we enter a house which had a broken wooden varanda. He contended that there was maximum possibility that any good house would most likely belong to Mizos. And we chose the house with broken varanda to many good houses. And lo, indeed the family belonged to a Bru, and he guided us to a Chakma family living nearby. Not surprisingly, his house too was broken and poorly roofed like many of other Chakmas. The next morning, however, we also saw that there also stood a few good and beautiful houses which belonged to the Chakmas alongside the beautiful wooden houses of the Mizos.

That is not to say all the Chakmas are poor. But my experiences tell me that most of the Chakmas have poor quality housing and living standards which are no match to the Mizos and it is also sometimes possible to identify which houses belonged to the Chakmas on the basis of looking at the houses (in cases where more than one community lived).

Majority Chakma people live impoverished lives. They are traditionally dependent on Jhum cultivation for livelihood. But now a days, the jhum produce is rapidly diminishing due to lack of virgin forests. Still the Chakma cultivators are forced to stick to Jhum cultivation and toil to make a Jhum field after borrowing money from money lenders on high interest rate. Under the terms and conditions, which is generally orally executed, the borrower has to pay double or more in the form of money or paddy. The hapless cultivator is forced to take loan to grow his Jhum field. His entire family toils in the scorching sun and incessant rain and, yet yield harvest that is hardly enough to feed the family for the entire year. He has to repay so as to keep the faith on him intact as he will again need the help of the money-lender the next year. After repayment, the farmer family is virtually left with little food. Hence, at the half of the year, they start their life in misery. They start to feed themselves by collection of vegetables in the forests and selling them in the local market to earn for the day’s bread. At hardest times, the family members are forced to live on wild but eatable potatoes available in the jungles or eating only one meal a day, saving something for the next day. The next year, the cultivator will have to again borrow to sow his Jhum field, the entire family toil in the burnt hill but end up with little produce. They again repay the money lender along with interests and they themselves live in penury. This is a vicious cycle in which the Chakma villagers have been caught. No one knows if there is an escape from that.

But recently, the Chakmas whose houses and properties have been destroyed/acquired to make way for the border fencing have received compensation, some in a few lakhs. That took off the burden for a while. But now I begin to hear that the same people who received compensation have grown poorer than they earlier were, as they spent lavishly and saved nothing. Now, they have become poorer as the price of the rice and vegetables are no longer the same as were in the pre-compensation days.

I am of the firm opinion that money cannot alone make a community rich. Give Rs 1 Lakh to each Chakma family every year, yet they will remain poor because they have no habit to save something for the future. Hence, what the government of Mizoram should do is to implement the pro-poor schemes by developing the rural areas in terms of infrastructure and facilities and provide them a source of income, alternative to Jhum cultivation. I am happy that the Central government is likely to grant Rs 2500 crore to the congress government in Mizoram for implementation of New Land Use Policy to gradually wipe out the Jhum practices by the farmers. The Congress party during their election campaigns has promised the voters to give Rs 1 lakh per family under NLUP. But I do not think that would change the future of the rural people. I do not know about the other communities, but certainly Chakmas won’t be able to develop this way. The government of Mizoram must implement the NLUP-2 by providing the seeds for alternative farming or livelihood but should not end up giving money in the hope that the villagers would themselves take care of their farming activities. This is one primary reason as to why NLUP-1 during the previous Congress regime in Mizoram failed. The Mizoram government used up the money but very few farmers were benefited in the long term: the farmers ate up the money and resorted to Jhum again!

Even the Chakma Autonomous District Council (CADC) after 37 years has failed to bring much necessary development and change in the living standards of the common people within the CADC area. Unfortunately, the privileges are enjoyed by a few and the Chakma society in the CADC is rapidly turning into a capitalist model, where the poor are becoming poorer and the rich are getting richer. Yet, the CADC is making slow progress but that is even lacking in Chakma areas outside the CADC. The development is really stagnant. As a result, there is despair in the heart of each and every Chakma.

If the government of Mizoram does not change its policies vis-à-vis the Chakmas (e.g. the BADP implementation), there is no scope for the Chakmas to develop in areas outside the CADC. It is a fact that impoverished, backward and uneducated citizens contribute little to the progress of the nation. Their future becomes threatened.

To be continued.......>>>>

Read Section I here:

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