From a CRPF constable deployed in terrorism-infested Jammu and Kashmir to becoming a member of the Odisha state Assembly, Dambaru Sisa, 34, has come a long way. Sisa is the first MLA from the Bonda tribe of the state, a tribe untouched by civilisation. He won from the Chitrakonda Assembly constituency in the backward Malkangiri district as a Biju Janata Dal (BJD) candidate in the last elections.
A beneficiary of a 1977 government programme designed to end the isolation of Bondas, Sisa left his family when he was four and grew up in a boarding run by the Sarvodaya Samiti. His mother was an upper Bonda who married a lower Bonda.
Sisa’s entry into politics happened by chance. His resignation from CRPF was not cleared in time for him to join National Thermal Power Corporation. “There was a job offer from NTPC in 2007, but I could not join,” he says. After five years in the CRPF, Sisa returned to Khairput, the home of Bonda tribals. “Though I went away in search of greener pastures, there was always a desire in me to do something for my fellow tribals,” he says.
Khuriguda village in Khairput block of Malkangiri district, where Sisa was born, lacks the basic amenities of clean drinking water, health and education facilities. The tiny village is composed of a handful of huts where the tribals live a reclusive life.
Sisa was the first postgraduate among the Bondas and has a master’s degree in mathematics and law from Berhampur University. After quitting the CRPF, Sisa formed a non-government organisation ‘Bonda Samaj’ along with some youths from his tribe to make the Bondas aware of their rights. “The government has launched many schemes for tribals, but they are not aware of them,” he says.
Sisa went from village to village and interacted with the tribals to educate them about these programmes. Despite several development programmes launched by the state, only six per cent Bondas are literates and life expectancy among them is so low that they face the threat of extinction. “As a priority, I want to focus on their education, health and communication,” says Sisa.
The Bonda tribe is classified into—upper Bondas living in the inaccessible forests and lower Bondas, who have been interacting with people in the plains after moving out of the hills. The upper Bondas have a population of 6,700 while the lower Bondas 17,000. The numbers have remained constant for several decades now.
While Sisa is all for protecting the unique culture of his tribe, he wants them to have access to education and modernity. “I don’t want photographs of members of my tribe to be sold to rich people for their drawing rooms,” he says, adding that pilferage of funds from programmes meant for Bondas should be stopped.
Sisa believes the state Assembly is the best platform to work for his tribe. Besides lack of education, people in the remote hilly area do not have access to basic healthcare. “There are no doctors here and people die due to diarrhoea every year,” he says. Sisa has raised all these issues in the assembly during the budget session. He has asked 90 questions and got replies for 70 so far.
Sisa says Maoism can’t solve the problems of the tribals. Unemployment among them should be ended to prevent them from joining the Maoists, he says. Asked whether he had lobbied for a BJD ticket, Sisa said he didn’t know anybody in BJD. He applied with his bio-data and got the ticket.