The vulnerable lives of Bengal's Birhor tribals

Last Updated: Sun, Feb 06, 2011 06:50 hrs

Kolkata: The world knows little about them and development too has passed them by. The endangered Birhor primitive tribals find themselves a vulnerable lot in West Bengal even though they have fared marginally better in other pockets of eastern and central India.

An estimated 10,000 Birhors are found in West Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh. They are said to be an offshoot of the Mundas of Chhotonagpur plateau.

However, the condition of Birhors in West Bengal is worse than their counterparts in other states, reveals a study conducted by the West Bengal Tribal Development Cooperative Corporation Limited (WBTDCCL).

'They are still vulnerable despite the state government undertaking programmes for their uplift,' a member of the study team professor Sreerupa Roy said.

'Government initiatives were able to sensitise Birhors living in Jharkhand about the benefits of development, but the section living in West Bengal was reluctant to give up its nomadic life and avail itself of schemes,' said Roy.

According to the West Bengal Scheduled Tribe census data of 1991, there were 855 Birhors, 271 of them residing in Purulia, while the rest were scattered in forest areas of Bankura, West Midnapore and in northern parts of the state.

'The study was conducted in Purulia to foster social and economic empowerment of the tribals by ensuring and promoting food security, health, education, employment and income.'

Roy said it was found that the population of Birhors in Purulia has increased to only 327 - or 80 families - after two decades. They are spread across three blocks - Baghmundi, Balarampur and Jhalda-I - in the district.

Until recently, the Birhors used to live a nomadic life depending exclusively on the forest for food, livelihood and shelter. The Birhors are looked down upon by other tribal sects because of their living standards, said Roy.

'The forest formed an integral part of their culture and tradition. The ministry of home affairs identified these people as 'Scheduled Primitive Tribe' during the Fifth Plan and thereafter, from time to time, the government took development initiatives for the community,' the study said.

They were relocated to concrete hut-shaped structures by government agencies for setting up the Purulia Pump Storage Project after deforesting a portion of the Ayodhya hills in 2008, but the Birhors were still found to prefer jungle life.

The life expectancy of Birhors is significantly low because of their food habits, nutritional status and disease burden. Consuming alcohol on a regular basis is an integral part of their culture and tradition.

'Earlier, the drink they used to prepare from the chihor lata (a plant) was much less alcoholic than what they now purchase from the local markets. What has been more harmful is that often they stay without food for days but consume alcohol every night without a break,' the study said.

Besides, they have been robbed of their main source of livelihood due to deforestation.

The Birhors are experts in preparing a kind of rope from the chihor lata, but now it is no more available in the forest. However, they government continues to sensitise them.

Through regular interactions, the Birhors living in Bhupati Pally, Bareria, Bersa and Dekai-Khamar of Purulia are being made aware of planning, thrift, banking, investment, health and education for their economic uplift.

'But still we need to do a lot for the survival of Birhors,' the study said.

WBTDCC director Sudhir Dutta said: 'Among the primitive tribes living in the state, Birhors were the most underdeveloped. So we initiated the project to make them aware about development.'

'A lot has been done. Several NGOs are working for them, but still they are lagging behind. All the development schemes taken up for them by the government and the NGOs need to be synchronised so that they can get the benefits,' said Dutta.

In view of the short life span of the Birhors, a team of doctors was taken to them for a thorough examination. 'We are thinking of finding some novel means to uplift their standard of living and extend their life span.'