Green report

Adivasis in the Bastar conflict zone are spearheading a massive conservation effort

Residents are collecting seeds of native species to grow in nurseries. Lakhs of these saplings are then transported for reforestation drives in other states.

Even a couple of decades ago, Bastar attracted anthropologists, botanists, linguists, and people who wanted to get far away from so-called happening places. Undivided Bastar was the largest of districts, equal in size to Kerala, with a scant population, rich with all kinds of natural resources, and some of the most dignified human cultures.

However, Bastar is a region in the news today for all the wrong reasons. Ridden with conflict that seems to have no end in sight – it definitely must be good for somebody’s business – the Adivasi peoples of the entire central Indian region have been pushed by both the Maoists as well as the security forces into taking sides, whether they like it or not.

Green fingers

Yet, unknown to most people in the country, a small group of adivasi people from some of the forested villages in central Bastar have been busy doing work conservationists would be proud of. People from Sandh Karmari, Kakalgur, Kangoli and several nearby villages have been gathering the seeds of native plant species and raising them in their nurseries in fairly large numbers. There is much expertise among these adivasi people about the seeding times of various plants, seed drying and storing methods, germination techniques, soil-mixing, and root pruning – all necessary ingredients for running a good nursery.

Over the last four years these nurseries have contributed to afforestation programmes in the Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh, the number of plants transported being over 2 lakh of more than 40 species. And this year too, a selection of 50,000 plants was sent off to northern Telengana as part of a larger plan to reforest the degraded patches there.

Adivasis at work in the nurseries. Photo credit: Madhu Ramnath.
Adivasis at work in the nurseries. Photo credit: Madhu Ramnath.

The species had been carefully chosen to suit the dry terrain, raised in nursery beds and transferred to plastic bags and transported across the district by mid April. They will acclimatise in Telengana conditions for some weeks before being planted when the monsoon makes its appearance.

Conservation in the time of conflict

Travelling through undivided Bastar, from Jagdalpur to Konta, may be described as real or surreal, depending on how much one gets used to such situations – as one adapts, surreal becomes increasing real. In this less than a 200-km stretch of road and rut, there are about 30 camps of CRPF paramilitary battalions, usually occupying strategic places along the road, often conspicuous by their patrolling in groups along the road, as well as in the nearby forests. Their movements in the forests are noticeable by the trail of plastic and aluminium foil litter they leave behind in their wake – they too must be given packed lunches and breakfasts when they go on their rounds.

Trucks loaded with saplings from nurseries in Bastar are ready to depart. Photo credit: Madhu Ramnath.
Trucks loaded with saplings from nurseries in Bastar are ready to depart. Photo credit: Madhu Ramnath.

In this two-decade-old reality, many of the earlier preoccupations that brought outsiders here – research and a different aspiration than that afflicts modern India – has become anachronistic. One doesn’t talk about aesthetics and research when there is an imminent and all-consuming violence looming over a people, whether or not the media or the State reports it. More so with all the activities that go into forest conservation.

This is why the work of the tribals is all the more remarkable. For instance, seed collection, apart from having to be done at a precise time, also entails that small groups of boys and girls wander in the forests, often far away from their homes. This simple activity has now become fraught with fear and apprehension with the possibility of encountering armed men in uniform – I can assure you that it’s quite unsettling to have the barrel of a few AK-47’s pointed at one’s stomach. Similar fears threaten all other activities that Adivasi people undertake to protect their forests – from fire, from intruders who come for timber, and so on. These latter observations are especially crucial as in many of the interior areas – indeed even in the outskirts – as the forest department has abandoned its posts, citing the now convenient Maoist threat.

High survival rate

That tribals can carry out successful conservation work in such an atmosphere is extraordinary. And successful it is. The forest department in Telangana were rightly surprised that the mortality rate of plants after such a large transaction – planting, transplanting and transporting – was almost nil. The authorities have asked whether the adivasi people from Bastar can come and teach the department staff about nursery techniques in the coming months.

Apart from nursery work these villages, all coming together as the Legal Environmental Action Foundation, or LEAF, have also been working over the past decade to protect their sacred groves, prevent forest fires, and patrol their forests to dissuade illegal felling of timber. LEAF is an Adivasi group working at the village level that was established to preserve their culture of using and simultaneously protecting their forest. At a time when strife has become synonymous with the region it is heartening to learn that the Adivasi people of the region have continued to care not only for their own forests but are helping other states improve and enrich their resources. When, finally, hoping against hope, the conflict ends, we will all need the forests just as much as we need them now.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.