Chinese consumer products popular in Jharkhand

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Ranchi, Feb 20 (ANI): Political issues or the trade imbalance with China notwithstanding, there is a serious 'Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai' bonhomie happening in Jharkhand, a region which falls under the V Schedule of the Constitution as having a large tribal (ST) community.

Politics makes strange bedfellows but trade and commercial interests also are great levelers of intellectual, ideological, regional or cultural differences. Often it is based on treaties and agreements signed between governments and heads of state. Sometimes it is in response to a demand of goods on the other side of the border, a need which finds its way through other channels.

Rather than sermonize about it, rather than condemn or alternately condone it, it may be useful to examine the underlying factors, which make the goods of one country find a bustling market in another.

The study becomes even more interesting when this reflects the needs and aspirations of rural communities living lives cut off from the world of consumer goods. This is exactly what is happening in Jharkhand where the adivasi or tribal communities are joyfully buying up goods which traditionally they had no use for, or perhaps had no access to. Suddenly the sale of mobile phones, batteries, torch, radio, TV, LCD, DVD, camera and electronic toys has picked up and doing brisk business.

Of course Jharkhand is not the sole state to be bitten by the Chinese bug. Over the last few years Chinese products and goods first made their presence felt in India, when customers mostly from the middle class woke up to the plethora of 'Made in China' goods ranging from watches to garments to crockery.

They were cheap, useful and readily available meeting a variety of household needs. That these were lapped up by a burgeoning middle-class, largely urban is not difficult to understand. Driven by a need to acquire all the items of a good life has been an aspiration for this class particularly the lower middle-class. The catch was that their income was not commensurate with their needs and this is a gap, which was amply, and indeed cleverly filled by Chinese products, a perfect fit.

What is more difficult to understand is how this fit works in the tribal areas of Jharkhand, The adivasis who inhabit these lands are known to be 'forest dwellers' living off the produce of the forest like lac, tendu leaves, tamarind combined with some agriculture for their needs. Their way of life and socio-cultural patterns are entwined with the forest, worshipping nature and in a deeper sense protecting the natural resources.

Yet it is curiously amongst this community, which has carried these traditions from time immemorial, preserved the unique culture and dialects, that indeed Chinese goods have created a niche. It is perplexing, this coming together of opposite poles of lifestyle, one based on an intuitive and symbiotic bond with nature in its pristine form and the other based on acquisition of large numbers of cheap utility items; 'utility' as defined by a popular consumerist culture. A clash of civilizations it would seem but in Jharkhand, it is apparently not so, with both co-existing and even dovetailing into a composite whole.

Suddenly the dark huts of the forest, abode to thousands of Adivasis are starting to shine with white light of Chinese torches. Mobile phones, say a decade ago were out of reach for these people, yet obviously the yearning was there.

Especially amongst those who migrated in search of livelihoods and were unable to buy a mobile phone to be in touch with their family. This gap was filled after 2000 by cheap Chinese electronic goods including mobile sets and spread literally like bush-fire lapped up by the local population.

This was not all. Labourers in agriculture or industry across the region were attracted to the new gadgets, which opened up a new world for them. It was inconceivable for an adivasi to buy a branded colour TV or any electronic item produced in India by an established company. It was simply beyond their means.

Yet these items represented a world of aspirations, entirely different from what their culture and tradition bestowed on them. The lure of material goods, of a life-style that boasted of these and brought modern facilities into their life was something they consciously reached out to. It was not inherited along with the socio-cultural patterns sanctified by their symbiotic link with the forest.

This latent, unexpressed need has now found an outlet. 'Gizmos' and 'Adivasis' represent two opposite ends of the pole, yet Chinese products have brought them together! This too is an aspect of an adivasis aspiration and not necessarily what the intelligentsia and 'culture-vultures' of our age have categorised them into.

Indeed it can be an eye-opener for policy makers and activists alike. That an adivasi can also make a conscious choice and aspire towards acquiring consumer goods reflects changing socio-economic priorities. It may sound simplistic and perhaps too premature to arrive at any conclusion but at the same time, it should not be ignored.

There is a view that it is imperative for the world at large to 'preserve' the old way of life of the tribals in its pristine glory. The popularity of the Chinese products makes a hole in the theory.

'Safdar' an organization working in the region made a study into usage of battery run TV, mobile, emergency light, torch charger, and pen. Their findings confirmed the fact that all these had become necessities in the lives of rural population. There is also another aspect of this proliferation of goods and that is the livelihood opportunities for those who stock and sell these products. In sum, everybody is happy.

There has been much talk about the lack of development in tribal areas and government's plans to allocate resources towards regions, which since India's independence have remained on the fringes. Perhaps this is one way that the tribal communities living here have spoken, in an unpretentious way about their aspirations and priorities in their journey towards this larger development.

Writing for the Charkha Development Communications, the author feels it would be wise to factor in this aspect while planning for the development of tribal areas, and the move to mainstream adivasis inhabiting these into the rest of society. By Aloka Kujur (ANI)

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