Laldeo Asur passes his days basking in the mellow winter sun, his 70-year-old body now too frail for the rigours of village life.
But it is not his advancing age he is too concerned about but the advance of modernity on his tribe, the Asurs.
Laldeo knows that after him there will be none to practice a traditional technology for iron smelting, a craft perfected by his forefathers but grown obsolete and economically unviable in an age of modern steel plants.
Laldeo Asur is one of the last custodians of the traditional technique of iron smelting by Asurs. (Abhishek Saha/HT Photo)
As a matter of fact, Laldeo is among the 22,000-odd left of the Asurs, one of the eight particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs) in Jharkhand. The Unesco has listed the Asur language as “definitely endangered” with only 7,000 speakers left.
“Our hunting, our economy and even our festivities were interlinked to iron smelting. Today, everything is gone,” Laldeo said, his weather-beaten face contorting in anguish.
More than half of the tribe is now settled down in several hamlets in the Pat region of the mineral-rich Chota Nagpur plateau, on the border of Maoist-hit Latehar and Gumla districts. Polpol Path is around 200 km west of capital Ranchi.
The Asurs were once hunter-gatherers whose life was closely linked to the forests they lived in. However, when the British enacted the Indian Forest Act in 1865, several tribes like the Asurs were cut off from their roots as the legislation restricted the use of forest-based products.
After independence, the Indian government too virtually forced these nomadic tribes to settle down and adopt an agrarian lifestyle.
Asur children play with a puppy in Polpol Path. (Abhishek Saha/HT Photo)
“We needed forest wood to produce the charcoal we used in smelting iron. Once access to the forest was restricted, our forefathers began searching for different means of sustenance and we Asurs began moving towards an agrarian society,” said Yogeshwar Asur, another resident of Polpol Path.
Laldeo explained that their smelting method included putting crushed stones rich in iron ore and charcoal in a cylindrical furnace which is then fanned by deer-skin bellows. The iron was then used to make farming tools and household items and sold in nearby rural markets.
But today none of the tribesmen earn a living by making iron products and the younger Asurs have started working in the numerous bauxite mines in the hills of the Pat region. Some have even turned cultivators and agricultural labourers.
But even decades after independence, half-baked initiatives of successive governments to uplift their lot have failed.
The Asurs still live in mud houses with roofs made of paddy straw and baked, curved mud tiles known as khapras. Power supply is restricted to a few hours in the day but there is no mobile phone network.
The nearest community health centre is 50km away while villagers have to trudge for more than four km up and down a steep, narrow route to get potable water.
Asur men outside their house in Polpol Path. (Abhishek Saha/HT Photo)
According to the Asurs – who worship the forests as a life-giving force – the big mining companies have been exploiting resources from their land but never bothered to give anything back.
“It is the business of only taking and not giving back anything. If only a few small-scale industries employing more tribals would have come up, we Asurs could have developed our skills and got better opportunities,” said Subhash Asur, a young man who works in a bauxite mine.