Development Debates, Disaster & Assam: Chapter I “In Search of the Mis’s’ing”

In my previous blog, I discussed the debates around development from the lived experiences of Mr Girin Chetia. The challenges around developing ‘organic leadership’ and ‘ego’ of development actors were part of the issues in the conclusion. To delve into this further, I would like to explore the characteristics of the ‘field’, ‘field workers’ and the ‘client’ in coming blogs. I attempt this in order to look at the different actors in the social work practice from the perspective of developing ‘organic leadership’ and role of ‘ego’ of development actors. As this informs my project, it will help to understand the context of my work better.

Introduction

As we traverse the floodplain of Brahmaputra, Dhansiri and Gallebel rivers of Assam, a common tribe is our host. The Mising (sometimes also called ‘Mishing’) are living along the flood plains of Brahmaputra and its tributaries. The people welcome us into the dilapidated homes due to the recent floods. The immediate inquisitiveness of their whereabouts strikes like a lightning to my mind. In order to understand the people, I need to understand the place as well. Social work practice refers to the people as the ‘client’, the place as the ‘field’ and those working in the field as ‘field workers’. To enable praxis, it is important to relate my experiences on the field with my education and how it shapes up as I work on the field. The role of the education that we have is to develop a preliminary understanding of the different constituents of the practice but it is field exposure and experience that adds ‘life’ to knowledge. ‘Life’ here would refer to the close relations that practice and theory share. The relations that determine and define the output and change that we as practitioners attempt to bring in the client. The attempt to look at the Mising as ‘client’ offers the opportunity to understand the relationship of work. It hereby helps us understand the community we work for with a set of underlying principles for objectivity. Most importantly, this would also fuel the need to reflect on our own pre-held notions and knowledge.

The Client

So who are the Mising? To quote, “The Mising Tribe (formerly known as Miris) belong to Tibeto Burmese group and has agriculture as their main occupation.” [Doley an Pegu 2015] They came along from Arunachal Pradesh to Assam moving along with banks of Brahmaputra and settled  alongside the river.

Girls and Boys from Mising Tribe performing a cultural program [Picture Courtesy: Prashant Anand]

As John M’Cosh found in 1837, the Mising have historically occupied “that strip of alluvial land along the northern bank of the Brahmaputra from large island Mujali to the river Dihong the northern branch of the Brahmaputra and bounded on the north by hilly country of the Abors.” [Page 141]

As I read the literature and academic writings on the tribe, an interesting contrast seems to emerge. The tradition of drawing from the early work of the colonial explorers in the 19th century catches my eye. The interpretations seem to be directing the discussion to a ‘developed versus underdeveloped’ debate. Do these hold true even today? I believe to a certain extent the ‘urban vs rural vs tribal’ debate is on similar lines. The literature further exonerates the tribal people from being like us. In the following example, they are described as uncivilised and peculiar, as was common in literature of the time:

“The manners and habits of the Miris are wild and barbarous, and their persons filthy and squalid; they use a language different from the Assamese, and make use of bows and poisoned arrows, as a defence against their enemies. They are expert marksmen; and the poison used is so fatal, that even a scratch of their arrow is followed with certain death. They eat all sorts of wild animals, not excepting those killed by their own poisonous arrows. The Miris are an industrious race, and partial to living in the skirts of the forests, clearing new ground, which they cultivate for a year or two, and then moving off to another place, when the soil is exhausted. A great deal of opium is grown by the Miris, which they barter for grain with the Assamese.” [John M’Cosh 1837. Page 142]

As seen in the example, the manners and habits of the tribals were considered ‘wild’ and the means to sustain are all against the ‘industrial’ approach to life as India was under colonization. The ideas shared in those times have a relationship to the existing state of relations between ‘ruler’ and ‘ruled’. This understanding is to be questioned and looked upon from a new perspective. It is important to add that in no way such assertions from an earlier time period with a colonial mind are acceptable as we get to learn and live with the community today, but it helps us understand the history of how they were marginalised and looked down upon. The debate about ‘Orientalism’ helps us understand the ideological orientation in literature. As post-colonial scholar Edward W. Said famously remarked: Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’).” [1994]

Traditional Mising house [Picture Courtesy: Prashant Anand]
Traditional set up of Mising to catch fish [Picture Courtesy: Prashant Anand]
The ideas of these viewpoints is to look at tribal societies from a perspective which promotes the difference in ‘development status’. It is this difference that then promotes a ‘development actor’ approach. The rising conflict over the ability to survive in today’s world brings into question the sustainable lifestyles of tribal people. The proneness to hazard due to rise in the number of attempts to tinker with natural ecosystems and resources under the guise of development has brought the lives of Mising people under threat. The era of sustainable life seems to be coming to an end.

The attempt to understand Mising people from historical research seemed lost as it alienated me from the lived experiences of the community at first. The Mising people are so welcoming that the hospitality itself is worthy of research. It is interesting to observe that they are very much comfortable with the people from different regions of India as well, and thus welcomed me quickly into their community. Slowly but surely, I had to distance myself of my research a bit and instead open myself to the realities and insights of living here.

As social workers, as we move around the ‘client’ and attempt at doing work which leads to socio-economic empowerment of the community,  it is essential as to what we share. To quote Alcoff: “Though the speaker might be trying to materially improve the situation of some lesser privileged group, the effects of her discourse is to reinforce racist, imperialist conceptions and perhaps also to further silence the lesser privileged group’s own ability to speak and be heard.” [Alcoff, 1991, p. 26] The reinforcing of economic subjugations at the hands of the economically powerful and reaffirming established discriminatory practices must be understood. As a social worker, it is important for me understand the nuances of every step that I take with the Mising in my project.

Conclusion

In order to develop an understanding of the social work as a practice which is committed to the client, we need to look at alternate definitions of the same. A client-oriented outcome definition would go something like this: Social work practice consists of helping clients achieve outcomes they value via provision of effective, efficient, and ethical services. It makes “conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about clients,” involving clients as informed participants. [Sackett et al. 1996, 2000]

The involvement of the client as the key stakeholder while working with the marginalised communities is important. We as practitioners need to reflect on our existing education and learnings as we learn and understand about the client. The need to constantly evaluate our attempt at giving precedence to the client as a stakeholder, participant and leader in devising the solution is of essence. We have to take into account that elements of self-determination and assessment by the client should be valued. As a practitioner, I have learnt this over my interaction with the Mising and the grassroots workers in Assam.


References:

1. Doley Ch. Likhan and Pegu Raju. Causes And Problems Of Population Displacement Of The Mishings Of Dhemaji Due To Flood Vulnerability. International Journal of Scientific Research and Management (IJSRM). Volume 3. Issue 5. Pages 2727-2734. 2015.
2. M’Cosh John. Topography of Assam. G. H. Huttmann. Bengal Military Orphan Press. Calcutta. Page 141,142. 1837.
3. Said W. Edward. Orientalism. 25th Anniversary edition. Random House, New York. 1994.
4. Singh Amardeep. An Introduction to Edward Said, Orientalism, and Postcolonial Literary Studies. 2004. http://www.lehigh.edu/~amsp/2004/09/introduction-to-edward-said.html
5. Alcoff L. “The problem of speaking for others”. Cultural Critique. 20, pp. 5-32. 1991.
6. Sackett, D. L., Rosenberg, W. M. C., Gray, J. A. M., Haynes, R. B., & Richardson, W. S.. Evidence-based medicine: What it is and what it isn’t [Editorial]. British Medical Journal, 312, 71-21. 1996
7. Sackett, D. L., Straus, S. E., Richardson, W., Rosenberg, W. S., & Haynes, R. B.. Evidence-based medicine: How to practice and teach EBM (2nd ed.). New York: Churchill Livingstone. 2000.

prashantanand

prashantanand

Prashant has a Master’s of Social Work from the University of Delhi. It is one of Prashant's goals to enable and capacitate people for a sustainable livelihood in accordance with the local ecology. He feels that the current systems in place have not been able to provide the marginal sections of the society their rights. Instead, there has been a sense of exploitation of the people and the ecological systems. This need inspires Prashant to work towards human development in order to build a just and equitable society. Prashant's Fellowship is made possible by The Hans Foundation.

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