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On an untrodden path

RANJEETA URS

The Right Livelihood award-winner H. Sudarshan has dedicated 25 years of his life to the upliftment of the Soligas

Photo: Bhagya Prakash K.

COMMITMENT Having set foot on the B.R. Hills in 1979 as a young doctor, H Sudarshan has come a long way

"Fifty percent of the income for their livelihood comes from the collection of the minor forest produce. But the Biodiversity and the Wildlife Act prohibits them from doing so. Some of these laws are draconian, only meant to harass the indigenous people," says Dr. Sudarshan, talking about the Soligas, a semi-nomadic tribe inhabiting the beautiful stretch of hills in Southern Karnataka, Biligiri Rangana Betta (B.R.Hills).

Having set foot on the B.R. Hills in 1979 as a young doctor providing cures to snakebites, Dr. Sudarshan has come a long way. Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra which was set up by him in 1981 has blossomed into a comprehensive tribal development programme, covering areas of health, education, sustainable agriculture and others. He considers the new forest bill to be positive and in favour of the tribals. This bill proposes to secure the rights of the Soligas over the minor forest produce and the lands they have been cultivating since times immemorial. And the landless Soligas would be given about 2.5 hectares of lands each.

"The tribals are an inseparable part of the biosphere. The biodiversity conservation of the forests and the livelihood of the tribals can go hand in hand. Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK) working for sustainable development of the tribal people is a testimony to this fact," says Dr.H. Sudarshan, who has worked indefatigably for the empowerment of the Soligas for nearly 25 years.

Self reliance

"Though the objective of VGKK is to empower the tribal people to realise their dream of a self reliant, united, and progressive Soliga community, much of the decision making is left to them. We play only a supportive role. I strongly believe that the Soligas are capable of creating their own destiny," he said.

Expressing his opinion on the assimilation of the Soligas into the mainstream society, Sudarshan said that the first school of thought is the one propounded by the Government. It vouches for the complete and absolute assimilation of the Soligas without respecting its unique identity and distinct way of life.

While the anthropologists who herald the second school of thought want the Soligas to be left on their own, without any forced attempts to draw them into the so called mainstream society, for, its diversity adds to the richness of the country. They have a choice and their discretion should be respected. However, in the present scenario, the Soligas cannot be left on their own. As their interaction with the outside world has already resulted in an exploitative situation, Dr. Sudarshan believes that their role is that of a catalyst.

The schools set up under VGKK boasts of having produced four Ph.D holders from the Soliga community, all of whom are serving their community in different capacities. In schools, the soligas are taught in their own dialect. They are encouraged to share their knowledge about forests, traditional practices and are taught to strengthen their roots. They are made to feel proud and appreciate their rich cultural heritage. They speak Soliganudi, which is a combination of proto-Dravidian words and Kannada. Padmashree awardee, a founding member of Vivekananda Foundation — a federation of voluntary organisations inspired and guided by the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, an active proponent of the Rejuvenate India Movement (RIM), Sudarshan is also the recipient of the International Distinguished Physician Award. In fact, he is the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, 2004, given by the Swedish Parliament. He donated the entire prize amount of $ 86,000 for the betterment of the Soligas.

Ask him what prompted him to dedicate his life to work among the Soliga communities, he recounts: "When I was a boy of 12 years I accompanied my father to a village, where he died without any medical help. That's when I decided to become a doctor."

After my 12th standard, though I did have good marks, I could not pursue my medical education because of a discrepancy in my date of birth. I joined the Krishna Flour Mills for a clerical post. There, a friend of mine took me to the Ramakrishna Ashram at Basavanagudi. It was a turning point in my life. The teachings of Swami Vivekananda made a big impact on me. After my studies, I went to Dr. Narasimha who was working with the tribals of the Nilgiris. My work experience with him completely changed my direction and I wanted to work with the Soligas.

Human interference

B.R. Hills has several biological hotspots and water is available in abundance. But of late, unauthorised coffee plantations have cropped up. These estates pump the pollutants to the nearby streams contaminating the water resources. The chemicals and the pesticides used by the coffee growers has affected the biodiversity of the region.

"Except for the 300 most essential drugs (generic) the eighty thousand and odd formulations available are unwanted. Some of these are also found to be hazardous to health. The situation is all the more grim for the poor and the tribal lot, as they can't avail of the medical facilities owing to its high expenses. And even if they do, they end up in debts to meet the medical fees. What with the medical fraternity descending to abysmal depths of corruption and insensitivity," said Dr.H. Sudarshan, Vigilance Director, Health and Social Welfare, Lokayukta.

Dr. Sudarshan believes that the strengthening of the Gram Panchayat system and the revival of grassroot set-ups alone can enable us to tread on the path of sustainable development. It sure is a daunting task, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Despite the dismal state of affairs, Sudarshan is not the kind to lose hope. He strongly feels that there exists a Gandhi in every human being and it needs to be nurtured.

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