Saturday, August 13, 2011

Coping with DDT

The dreaded three words DDT, an acronym for Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane, has not only been synonymous with the malaria eradication in different parts of the world, but has also been linked with the environmental degradation and cause of diseases which maraud more than malaria. The pesticide has been banned all over the world seeing its negative impacts in the environment and people’s health.

The damage is done
In Nepal and many different places in the world, when DDT was sprayed in the dense jungles, it was welcomed wholeheartedly by the communities. In the 1950s, with the help of WHO/USAID, the Government of Nepal sprayed the DDT all over the dense jungles of Terai, once home to indigenous peoples like Meche, Koche, Jhangar, Darai, Bote, Majhi, Tharus and other tribal groups. Tharus had settled in the malaria infested lands from east to west of Terai and no other people from other parts of Nepal dared to settle in that area.

After the malaria eradication, the ethnic extermination started. The new settlers both from the north and south started flocking in the new land, felling the trees and turning the forests to arable lands. The agrarian Tharus who are known for their honesty and humbleness could not fit in the new process of assimilation.

Assimilation gone wrong
As the migrants from hills and south started pouring in the fertile land, the first and foremost thing they did was to make friends with the old settlers, the Tharus, who had been in that land for thousands of years. Then started the buying, snatching, looting, plundering and marauding of land, whichever synonym you use, it turned the owners of land into slaves at the hands of new settlers. Once rich and prosperous Tharus were turned into bonded labourers in their own land, especially in the far-western region.

The settlement of newcomers could not take the form of “melting pot” model but instead turned into ethnic extermination and cultural destruction. One simplest fact, the current population ratio of the Tharus in Chitwan shows the mass extermination. Prior to the DDT spray, the population of Tharus in the Chitwan was 90 per cent in comparison to other inhabitants. However, today the situation is just the reverse – the Tharu population is less than 10 per cent of the total population. This clearly shows how once a dominant voice turned to a whimper.

Then took place the cultural destruction – the language saw influence of invading languages, the food habits changed, original Tharu traditional dances started disappearing, the folk songs were replaced by Nepali and Hindi songs and the celebrations during festivals saw a huge leap of modernisation for wrong reasons. It was not a leap towards modernisation but towards destruction in true sense. Now the same new settlers claim that Tharus don’t have their own language and culture, they have borrowed and followed their (new settlers’) languages and cultures. How can one tribe sustain and survive without language and culture for thousands of years?

Dangerous Dose to Tharus
Once in a seminar, I heard the famous activist and researcher Dr. Krishna Bhattachan saying, “DDT is not the Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane but a Dangerous Dose to Tharus.” He says only mosquitoes and Tharus lived in the dense Terai jungles before the DDT spraying. As a result of DDT spraying, the mosquitoes were gone and so were the Tharus. Tharu activists love this connotation and many are seen using it in their speeches.

The lack of awareness towards their rights and lack of unity among themselves have costed the Tharus their homeland. The malaria immune Tharus now have realised how they have turned foreigners in their own land and how people are claiming their (Tharus’) land as their (new settlers’) own. DDT is just one of the perpetrators of the Tharu exodus.

State monopoly and ILO 169
The state is to blame to a large extent. The planned resettlement of hill farmers went awry in many places leading to misbehaviour, nepotism and patronage. The settlement was just a socio-political strategy to relocate the discontented elements. A Burmese of Nepali origin who is settled in Nawalparasi district says, “People migrate due to mainly three reasons – when they face difficulties, when they are displaced by natural calamities and when they are termed as anti-social elements.” The state wanted to mainly address the three categories of people as described by the Burmese man. It was not meant for easing the population in the hills, creating a regional balance in distribution of population and resources and promoting the agragrian development strategy as mentioned in the documents. It was a one-sided, state sponsored looting of the natural resources from the hands of original inhabitants. The local people were never asked before implementing any of the relocation plans and so-called development strategies.

It is against the spirit of the Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (No. 169) that was ratified by the Nepalese Parliament on 22 August 2007. The Convention No. 169 supports the principle of self-management and guarantees the right of the indigenous people to consultation and participation in issues relating to their own development. It guarantees their right to equal treatment and access to services and also includes land specific provisions for protecting and promoting indigenous and tribal peoples’ culture and communities. Among other aspects, it protects the right to practice traditional economies, to traditional land and resources and to use indigenous language in education.

The way forward
Nepal is notorious in signing the international treaties and shying away from abiding by them. Nepal became the first South Asian country to ratify the ILO convention No. 169 and the second country in whole of Asia to do so. However, in practice, still the state holds the monopoly. Now the time has come to plan meticulously and involve all local inhabitants in the process for the long term sustainable development of the communities and the country. The times have changed and now the local people won’t just look as mere spectators while the state is doing all sorts of unequal treatments.

It is high time to realise the “melting pot” modality where all the communities shall leave in peace and harmony with each other. However, the state should be conscious that while providing certain community with rights and privilege, it should not encroach upon the rights of other communities.

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