Who Are The Bonda, Dongria Kondh Tribes of Odisha?

India’s rich culture and legacy as a land playing host to a set of multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic people have a lot to attribute to its diverse tribes and native populations. Amidst a rapidly changing world, where the pangs of globalisation and economic liberalisation have penetrated most societies, these tribal groups have been left in the lurch. A lot of these tribal groups have now been bracketed under the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG). Odisha harbours many such tribes and is in fact home to the largest diverse tribal population in India. We shall take a close look at two such tribes – the Bonda tribe and the Dongria Kondh tribe – who have been in the news recently as Covid-19 started spreading in rural areas.

The Bonda tribe is an approximately 12,000 strong group that resides in the isolated hill regions of Malkangiri district in southwestern Odisha. However, even within the tribe, there are two different sects: the Upper Bondas and the Lower Bondas. The upper Bondas have almost no connection with the modern world. The tribe has a literacy rate of 6%, and life expectancy figures are equally underwhelming.

Bonda people are unique in the way that they belong to the Austroasiatic tribes, believed to be part of the first wave of migration out of Africa about 60,000 years ago. They are also believed to be the first forest settlers in India. They have also been able to retain their identity and culture despite several attempts of external intervention over the years. It is also a distinctly matriarchal society, where the women generally hold a greater influence over important matters. Generally, Bonda women marry men who are at least 5-10 years younger than them, so that the males can provide for them when they grow old. They are also highly skilled in combat and lethal weapons.

Bonda Dongria Kondh Tribes of Odisha

The Dongria Kondh or Dangaria Kandha tribe is another tribe that primarily dwells in Odisha’s Niyamgiri forests, and is estimated to be about 8000 people. Like the Bonda tribe, it also sustains itself by practising horticulture and shifting agriculture. The tribe worships the Niyam Raja, the supreme God of the Niyamgiri hills. Their way of life is modelled to appropriately reflect such reverence for their God, hills and streams. Here also, the women of the society are extremely valued and given an equal preference and status in day-to-day life.

A popularly known incident wherein their reverence for the Niyam Raja was on public display was their protests against Vedanta’s proposed plant in 1997, which wanted to capitalise on the rich bauxite deposits. However, the tribe believed that the Niyamgiri was a sacred hill and any commercial exploitation would be contrary to their beliefs and faith. Their campaign gained international fame and also received support from eminent people, including outspoken author Arundhati Roy. Their family structure also depends on the clan they belong to, as clan exogamy is practised. These exogamous clan groups have resulted in the existence of dominant clan groups which was due to a process of marriage.

Despite their backwardness and relative isolation from the modern world, both the tribes today run the risk of mass deaths due to the spread of the coronavirus amidst the clans. This would endanger government plans to protect these vulnerable groups. As there exists no concept of privacy and isolation within these tribes, traditional containment measures have failed to minimise the risk. “Door to door surveys must be done by a team of trained local volunteers from villages for regular monitoring of symptoms, and reporting to quarantine centres for any suspected cases,” said Prafulla Samantara, recipient of Goldman Environmental Prize, who is known for his work with Dongria Kondhs.

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