Ancient tribe, modern manners'

There exists a canon of empirical literature on Indian tribes. But there has been no adequate explanation of the present status and the process of change of these societies.

This well-written and well-researched book by Bikram Nanda has "tried to clear the ground for the search for a perspective with which to approach the social reality of tribal formations". It is a narrative about the relatively unknown Bonda highlanders in the hills of Koraput in South Orissa.

Till the '70s, Bonda highlanders led a self-sustained life. They grew food for local consumption and their agriculture was a testimony to optimal biodiversity. The surrounding rough terrain ensured their insulation from the outside world. All this is almost lost today, infiltrated into by gross mayhem of "national" interest. This book seeks to reveal the forces that uneasily propel the process of change.

Nanda takes a close look at the social organisation of self-sufficiency, where household production is guided by household consumption. The division of labour and the changing roles of men and women are beautifully explained by the relative differences in axe (shifting and slope cultivation) and plough (wetland) cultivation which go side by side. The emerging wage economy has resulted in the demise of a convivial domestic community in the highlands. The author argues that development efforts have been hampered due to rampant corruption among the police and even development agencies.

The book presents 2 instances of institutionalised processes of change: the schooling system; and medical facilities. The school education provided to tribals shows a distinct urban bias; at the baseline, the author disagrees with the family planning programmes and Western medicine for the Bonda highlanders. The merit of the book lies in its semiotic approach towards analysing the meaning of social transformation in the Bonda tribe.

---Anil Yadav is a research scholar in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.