With
few exceptions, the majority of the tribals are forest dwellers. In spite of
many competing demands and pressures on forests, tribals continue to depend on
forests for their livelihood. Historically, in India, tribal perspectives on
forests and government policies affecting forests have followed very different
trajectories. In the novella as famine increases, Mato’s mother becomes more
prominent in ensuring the survival of households by assuming greater
responsibility to provide resources from forests and common lands.

Degradation
of women and degradation of nature is typical in today’s capitalist world;
Human beings have reached a stage where Mother Nature Herself is in need of a
Mother who could fortify her. The lower classes or the tribal people are like
environment, are helpless somehow or other way oppressed by elite classes. In
order to escape from the shackles of society they adopt survival strategies for
survival. To safeguard lively interest, they are coerced to adept malicious
activity. Even though they are aware of misdoing, which is wrong both
spiritually and legally, they are left with no other option. Mato’s mother knew
all about it. “But with 10 mouths to feed, and a meager six bighas of land, how
can one support a family without dacoity?” (Devi 6). Mato’s brother finds no
other alternative way to feed a large family and selects dacoity as the fittest
way to survive. In truth, the oppressors exploit them indiscriminately and
force them to do unlawful activities for their survival. The Famine stricken
tribes turned out to be dacoits in order to fulfill their basic needs. Mato’s
elder brother indulged himself in dacoity for his survival despite his mother’s
disapproval of the illegal practice.

Salt, the third
story in the collection, depicts how the oppressed are denied access to basic
necessities for human survival. Purti Munda the protagonists of Salt suffer from caste discrimination.
The adivasi village of Jhujhar, where he lives is bound in the shackles of
‘begar’ or wage less labor to Uttamchand the Mahajan, to repay the unrecorded
debts of their fore fathers. The bond master Uttamchand’s forefather had bought
up the fertile jungle land of the adivasis. Like them Uttamchand has
appropriated the labour of the entire village eventhough bonded labour has been
outlawed in India since 1976. However, the tribal do not know that the land is
theirs and wage less labor is illegal. They cannot do anything about it even if
they know it is illegal because:

“they know it was impossible for them to take Uttamchand, who
extracted betbegari, to court…. The Adivasi Welfare Office is beyond their
reach too. The office is in town they are in the village. This is not a large
village situated on the rail or bus routes…Until the third election after
independence, the government did not even know of their existence (Devi Bitter
Soil 1998:125-126).

Some youths from a social organization come to the village and set up
purti and his group against Uttamchand promising them legal redress. Uttamchand
is forced to oblige to their demand for better remuneration. He accepts defeat
but decides to hit back, to ‘Kill them by salt’. Uttamchand hatches the devious
plan of not selling salt in the market. Ultimately, the people of Jhujhar
village have to suffer deterioration in health due to the lack of salt- the
most important mineral constituent of the human body. It is well known today
that mineral deficiency has near-fatal effect on the human body. If an
expectant mother has deficiency of any essential mineral it affects the brain
development of the fetus causing irreversible damage. In childhood it leads to stunned
growth, mental and physical lethargy and sluggishness. In adolescence sexual
maturation is delayed or is defective. In adulthood it results in premature
heart disease. Mahaswetha Devi also lists out the important functions salt
performs within all living bodies. She points out how ‘Salt’- a basic life
giving substance is denied to the poor of Jhujpur village because they do not give
into the ruthless demands of a feudal landlord. Days of saltlessness nearly
drives the village back to Uttamchand: “They mentally weigh the losses and
gains. Dark, dirty lumps of salt prove much heavier in the balance; while an
end to wage less labor, and the right to a share of the crop, come out lighter.”
(Devi Bitter Soil 1998:129