Grow More Food, But Grow It On the Land of the Poorest

A Case Study of the Work of ABSSS in Chitrakut District, Uttar Pradesh

I. Introduction

All those who are committed to the food security of the poorest sections of people in India's villages have two dreams:

  1. Turn Landless Workers into Small Farmers - Provide land to the poorest section of landless people in such a way that they are able to confidently cultivate this land. This should be accompanied of followed quickly by attempts to provide small-scale to as much of this land as possible.
  2. Increase Farm Production But Increase it on the Fields of the Poor

Both these dreams have been realised to a certain extend during the last 15 years in Manikpur and Mau blocks of Chitrakut district (Uttar Pradesh). The cultivation area has almost doubled in several villages - fields of rice and wheat, mustard and gram smile where barren land existed earlier. And this change has taken place on the field of poorest kol tribals, small farmers today although till just a decade back many of them worked as bonded labourers.

In the rural situation where a small number of big landowners own most of the land and exploit most of the other households for their own prosperity, a large share of rural population is likely to suffer from hunger and malnutrition even through more than adequate food for all is produced on the form of the big landowners. This is the situation that certainly exists in a large share of villages in Patna region of Uttar Pradesh, which is spread over parts of Chitrakut and Allahabad districts. ABSSS work intensively , this voluntary organisation created conductive conditions for large scale distribution of the land among poor, ending the practice of bonded labour, rise in wages and income from non-timber forest produce. All these together contributed to a substentail improvement in food security for the poor. The mobilisation and education work done by ABSSS succeeded in bringing together several youths from poorest families who are likely to defend their gains with the determination. ABSSS also emphasizes several other aspects od sustainable development including raising mixed plantation of trees which meet local needs without using any chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

A local resident who has carefully observed the changing scene in these villages during the last 10 to 15 years says, "In some villages earlier just 30 percent of the potentially cultivable land was being cultivated. Today in these villages as much as 80% of the potentially cultivable land is being cultivated." Although most of additional land under cultivation is in the hands of poor, by an large the big landowners have managed to retain big farmhouses to the limits of 400 to 500 bighas (one acres = 2.5 bighas). They have been forced to surrender some land under the ceiling laws and their illegal occupations on the land of poor have also been vacated in most cases but big farms to the extend of 100 to 200 acres still in place. However their capacity to keep kol tribals in near bondage conditions has been successfully challenged. Thus freed and taking advantage of new opportunities, the overwhelming majority of the kols have been able to improve their food security in significant ways although several difficult and some uncertainties still remain.

II. Region and its People

Chitrakut district is located in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It is a part of Bundelkhand region. Earlier it was part of a bigger district Banda. A few years back this districts was divided into two parts and a separate Chitrakut district was created. Chitrakut also a famous pilgrimage place. The forest and forest-dwellers of Chitrakut are mentioned in the famous epic Ramayana. The district of Chitrakut is divided into five administrative blocks. The work of ABSSS is concentrated mainly in two blocks - Manikpur and Mau. These two block have the biggest concentration of kol population. However problems of weaker sections from a much wider area are also take up by ABSSS from time to time.

The nearest city known at a national level is Allahabad. Manikpur and Karvi Chitrakut towns of this area are accessible by district train from Delhi However several villages and particularly the habitations of kol are not connected by road.

The total population of Chitrakut district is about 600,000. Out of this about is about 160000 belong to scheduled castes and tribes. The population of Manikpur and Mau blocks is around 24,0000. Out of this the population of scheduled castes tribes is about 73000. Some knowledgeable people of the are sat that the population of kol tribals, particularly those who live in remote small hamlets, has been underestimated.

Most of the scheduled castes and tribes consist of kol and mayaiya tribals. They are recognized as a scheduled tribe in the neighborhood state of Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere. However due to some administrative mistakes they got classified as scheduled castes in Uttar Pradesh. Although the process of correcting this mistake is supposed to be underway, and ABSSS has also launched a strong campaign for this, yet at the time of writing officially kols of Chitrakut district have still not been classified as scheduled tribals. As their livelihood id also closely linked to forest, we mentioned them here as tribals, at the some time keeping in mind the fact that some benefit available to scheduled tribes are still denied to them. For example under existing law grabbing the land of kols would have been more difficult if they had been classified as scheduled tribe.

If we go into the oral history of several of these villages then what emerges is a sad story to how the land of kols was gradually grabbed by outsiders. Till about 100 to 150 years back, the ancestors of kols owned most of the land in this region. However several unscrupulous persons came from outside to settle here and taking advantage of the unfamiliarly of kols with the formal system of government and law, they were able to grab a lot of land. In the initial stage probably the kols did not even bother as there was plenty of vacant land available, but within few generations they lost most on the land cultivated by them. The kols were reduced to working for the new big landowners at subsistence wages, generally one kg. of coarse grain per day and in addition sometimes a small piece of land. Even kols who had some land could not give it priority attention as attending to the landlords needs was made their first priority. Thus for all working for big landlords, (who were also forest contactors) at very low wages in conditions of near bondage.

There were a few rays of hope in the immediate post independence period which proved deceptive and didn't last for long. The hope had come in the name of land-reform and land redistribution measured aimed at providing land of kols and other weaker sections. But the influential landowners colluded with corrupt officials to retain portion of even that land which had be allotted to the poor. Big landlords told officials to distribute the land to his bonded workers and in many cases didn't even tell the workers that any land had been allotted to them. In many cases the big landowners continued to cultivate the land as before, paying sustenance wages to workers and reaping huge profits for themselves. Any resistance was put down with a heavy hand. There are many tragic stories of how badly those kols who raised even murmurs of protest were beaten up.

Therefore the situation till just about 15 years back was that most of the kols had been unfairly deprived of their land and even if they had some, they had to work in condition of near bondage for a few big landowners called dadus. This servitude also extended to forest based work. They had to work at low wages for forest-contactors who come more or less from the same class, or else they had to sell the non-timber forest produce collected by them at a very cheap rate. There was no escape for them from this life of exploitation. Even if well paying work was available from distance away, they could not go this work if their services were needed by dadus at the same time. Women also had to toil in the fields as well as the homes of big landowners.

As a result of very low wages received by the male workers, female workers to pick up work which involved a lot of hard labour but yielded very low returns simply because nothing else was available. Kol women could be seen spending two days to collect and sell some fire wood, walking upto 20 km. with heavy load, just to earn Rs. 10. Even this earning was uncertain as forest officials could snatch their firewood from or force to pay a fine or bribe.

According to an official survey by Uttar Pradesh Development Systems Corporation about two decades back, out of an estimated total 7336 scheduled caste households in Manikpur block, about 2316 were bonded. 45 percent of bonded labourers were found to be bonded for over 10 years. Thus it is clear from this survey done by government's own researchers that the increase of bonded labour was very high in this region.

The conditions of harijan landless or near landless workers was also quite bad, although they were in a slightly better position to interact with the formal system of governance. Among the backward castes also there were some very poor families - landless or near landless. The ABSSS concentrated the most on kol families, but also worked with other weaker sections.

Another feature of this area is the existence of dacoit gangs. These dacoit gangs enjoy good links with resourceful local persons and powerful politicians. This is evident from the fact that at the time of a recent marriage in the family of dacoits king "Daduwa" even ministers and MLAs were present. The existence of these dacoits gangs make the work of social activists very difficult and hazardous. Any time social activists working in remote area can be beaten and threatened by dacoits. Several times dacoits act in collusion with influential and resourceful men of these villages.

III. Organisation and its Vision

It is in these difficult condition that started its work about 15 years back. Although its formal registration goes back to about two decades, its effective work started about 15 years back. The founder director of ABSSS, Gaya Prasad Gopal (or simply Gopal) had earlier acquainted himself with this region as a development officer of another organisation Sadguru Seva Trust. However his commitment to rights based approach could not fully flower there and it was only when the work of ABSSS picked up that he could implement his ideas based on social awakening and economic upliftment of Kols.

Gopal's childhood had been spent in conditions of extreme poverty and he had seen and experienced hunger from close quarters.

As a member of very backward caste, he had also experienced caste discrimination when a Sanskrit school dominated by high castes tried to expel him. These harsh experiences had given him a strong sense of solidarity with the 'weakest of the weak', whom the society considers to be the lowest of the low. When he came into close contact with the injustice and exploitation suffered by the Kols, he was determied to give them the hope and vision of a new life. Thus from the very beginning the social awakening and economic upliftment of the Kols ecame the core issues of ABSSS.

However ABSSS was clear from the outset that this upliftment is to be achieved not by a few benefits given here and there occasionally but by increasing the right of kols (and other weaker sections) over their natural resources, mainly land and forest. Thus land right and forest right became the most important mobilisation issues.

It was equally clear that is this drought prone area some protective irrigation at least has to be provided along with land. So continuing it's struggle with constructive work, ABSSS gave a lot of importance to small scale irrigation schemes in the form of check dams, tanks, well etc.

Thus ABSSS tried to combine struggle with constructive work. It was a balance which is not easy to maintain. While struggles brought ABSSS into confrontations with officials. a certain degree of cooperation with the administration was necessary for carrying out various irrigation works as well as other constructive activities. Despite many difficulties, it goes to the credit of ABSSS that it has been able to maintain this balance of struggles and constructive work in difficult circumstances.

Education has been given a lot of importance by ABSSS, as also mobilization of youth. While youth are already coming forward to take up important responsibilities, Gopal and others in ABSSS believe that several children receiving education in ABSSS schools (or in other schools with the support of ABSSS) will imbibe value of serving their community.

Inculcating those values which will constantly motivate to raise above narrow concerns for wider and longer-term social welfare is emphasised time and again by Gopal Ji.

In course of time the emergence of several new organisation has encouraged ABSSS and these organisations work in close cooperation with each other. Patna Kol Vikas Samiti and Patna Kol Adhikar Manch have high representation of Kol youths. The former takes up more welfare related issues while the later takes more struggles related issues. Mahila Jagriti Mandal works with women of nearby Shankargarh area. ABSSS activists have also started work in nearby districts of Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh) and Rewa, Satna (Madhya Pradesh) while also establishing close relationship with social activists working in other parts of Uttar Pradesh facing similar problems.

ABSSS vision of substance development includes giving stable and permanent rights to weaker section over land and forest, small-scale irrigation works and drinking water schemes which can be controlled and managed locally, increasing the green cover by planting many more trees and organic farming including three farming. ABSSS programmes and mobilisation such as self-help groups and better returns of mahuwa forest produce involve mainly the women.

IV. Land for the Poorest

ABSSS has accorded very high priority to land-distribution among the kol tribes and other weaker sections. Till about 15 years back most of the kol tribals either did not have nay land, or else they were not able to cultivate it properly as they were mostly at the beck and call of other dadus. It is to the credit of the ABSSS that today the majority of them are small formers cultivating their own land with full confidence.

ABSSS could achieve this transfer from workers to small farmers by

  1. ensuring that most of the landless kols receive land
  2. taking several steps which resulted in loosening the hold of dadus over kols and resisting the bondage like conditions due to which kols could not give priority attention to cultivating their own land, and
  3. creating irrigation facilities at as many places as possible to provide water to the fields of small and poor resource base farmers.

The land distribution effort has been mainly concerned with two types of lands. First there in the distribution of village community land to the poor. Quite a lot of village community land for this purpose was actually available, and ABSSS by constantly drawing attention to these possibilities motivated the administration to speed up this distribution. The second category of land raised more difficult issues. This land actually already belonged to kols even in government records but this had been cornered by the dadus. Some of this had been distributed to kols under the government's land reform programme, but the dadus who lorded over the kols didn't even allow the kols to know much details about this. They asked them to cultivate even this land as their workers. It was not an easy task to get the proper government records of this land. It took ABSSS activists a lot of time and effort to approach various officials and then obtain the records from time to time. It was gradually able to identify in the case of many villages which land of the kols had been grabbed. Then ABSSS approached the administration again and again to initiate action so that this land can return to its rightful owner.

It was a long, complicated and frequently very frustrating process. However it picked up during those times when the government of the day happened to take a political decision to speed up the land distribution effort. At such times officials were themselves eager to seek the help of ABSSS to fulfill their target. There were other times when DMs, ADMs and other officials sympathetic to the aspirations of the poorest people were posted here and they were also keen to distributed as much land as possible. The ABSSS tried to take full advantage of whatever favourable opportunities became available from time to time in the middle of all the difficulties.

It was the land distribution effort which fetched ABSSS many enemies among the big landowners some of whom tried actively to harm ABSSS activists including Gopal ji. Several kol youths were beaten up, implicated in false cases and jailed. But ABSSS took steps to protect and help these victims and continued its untiring campaign for land distribution. When the administration launched special drives to speed up land distribution work, ABSSS activists were asked to assist the work several times at the field level.

The details about the reality of land distribution which ABSSS activists collected painstakingly from remote villages made the task of officials who wanted to initiate action for land distribution easier. Frequently the collusion of some lower level officials after taking bribes from big landlords fudge the records in such a way that the any action against big landlords becomes difficult. But thanks to the details collected by ABSSS activists about the field level reality, it became more difficult for this collusion of corrupt officials and big landlords to operate successfully.

If any injustice was done to a beneficiary or if he was prevented from occupying the land which had been allotted to hem then news of such injustices immediately reached ABSSS activists as a result of their reach in remote villages. The kols also know that they can expect justice here, so they frequently took the trouble of coming all the way to the ABSSS office to tell its activists about the injustice done to them. ABSSS immediately took their complaints when these were forwarded by ABSSS and its companion organisations. When action was initiated against those landlords who were trying to prevent the beneficiaries of land distribution effort from cultivating their land, cases of such victimization were gradually reduced.

Any success of land distribution effort is of course the result of the good work done by a number of persons including honest and sincere officials, social activists and ordinary villagers from weak sections themselves who gather the courage to face the landlords' wrath. However, in this case the contribution by ABSSS needs to be specially emphasised as earlier when the government had made efforts to distribute land in this area, such was the dominance of the dadus that these efforts couldn't succeed. It is only when an organisation like the ABSSS steadfastly and courageously pursued this issue for a decade that good results could be achieved. It is likely that nearly 12000 acres have been distributed in this region benefiting over 3000 families during the last 15 years, when the ABSSS has been active on this front. This is very significant achievement particularly keeping on view the terror of dadus and dacoits which social activists have to face in this region.

However it is fact that many big landlords continue to flourish in this area and cultivate land well in excess of ceiling limit. They have farms even to the extend of 100 to 200 acres. It is well know that India's ceiling laws suffer from many loopholes. Taking advantage of these shortcoming in the laws, big landlords are able to retain a lot of land in the name of several family members and relative as well as adopt several other tactics to save the land. Even today several files relating to land above ceiling limits are languishing in government offices. These landlords are welling to pay heavy bribes to ensure that the ceiling cases against them are not pursued. They also get stay orders from courts and try to claim back the land which has been taken from them.

In such situation a voluntary organisation like ABSSS can only go up to a certain limit as for as challenging land inequalities is concerned. Despite these limits what ABSSS has achieved is significant. Although big landlords have continued to flourish but around three thousand new farmers have been created within the span of just 15 years. These farmers either did not cultivate any land earlier or else this cultivation was at such a low level as to give negligable result. As a result thousand of quintals more grain is being produced and what is more, it is produced on the land of small farmers, contributing directly to the food security of weaker sections.

In India it is common to hear propaganda against the poor section that they are not used to cultivate their own land and even if land is given to them, they will not cultivate it properly and lose it because of bad habits like drinking liquor. But here in Chitrakut we see them working very hard on their newly acquired land. They clear the shrubs, they dig out stones, they work very hard to make that land fir for cultivation which has been considered useless by the feudal lords.

Basant Mavaiya (Mavaiya are quite similar to kols) now has 30 bighas of land. It was not easy to bring this land under cultivation. So each year his family worked hard to bring a few more bighas of land under cultivation. So for his family has been able to bring 16 bighas of land under cultivation. He says in another 3 years his family will be able to cultivate this entire land. Even though the land attotted to him is in an extreme corner and so he is unable to benefit from irrigation sources, his family (in Daandi Kol hamlet of Tikariya Panchayat) I still working hard to cultivate kodo (a millet), til (an oilseed) and arhar ( a pulse) on land which was once considered barren.

V. Freedom from Bondage

As already stated, a detailed survey by the State Government supported Uttar Pradesh Development System Corporation (UPDSCO) confirmed the existence of large-scale bonded labour in the region. The number of kol households who could not ignore the dictates of big landlords and who simply had to carry out the work of either 'masters' even before taking up their own farming work was no doubt very high. Thus the impact of conditions of bandage was not confined just to low wages. These condition of bandage and servitude were an obstacle in any effort of kols to improve their social-economic condition including cultivation of their own land.

Unfortunately at least in the initial phase the local administration failed completely to realize the importance of this issue. Even after the UPDSCO survey had created conductive conditions for effective action to be take up against the practice of bonded labour, and despite the fact that strong legislation was already in place at the national level to support effective action, the local administration initially tried to diffuse and confuse the issue. A bonded rehabilitation office had been set up in Manikpur. It decided to make a new survey and found that only 252 bonded labourers existed in this block, just about 10% of the 2316 bonded households that had been identified earlier in the UPDSCO survey. Despite its better academic credentials the UPDSCO survey was now entirely ignored by the administration in favour of this new hurriedly conducted survey. What is more, so much pressures were exerted on the limited number of bonded labourers identified in the new survey that several of them later declared that they were non bonded. The administration did not bother to explore why persons who had identified themselves as bonded labourers just a few days ago had now suddenly changed their mind.

The budget meant for the rehabilitation of these bonded labourers was also spent in such a way that bonded labourers got very few benefits while a lot of money was shared by officials, middlemen and landlords. Then the work of release and rehabilitation of bonded labourers was declared to be over and the rehabilitation office opened in Manikpur was closed.

However efforts of ABSSS activists did not stop. When an honest officer keen to help the weaker sections wanted information about the extent to which bonded labourers had continued to remain here, it was the ABSSS which was able to provide reliable information about the real situation in several villages. Then this official raided the den of one of the biggest oppressor landlords in Bamihai village and secured the release of labourers who testified to having been kept there as bonded labourers and exploited, along with women members of their families, in several ways. But soon after this raid, so much pressure was exerted on some of these bonded labourers that they changed their statements.

Chandan kol has worked with ABSSS for several years. He is based in Kekramar village. He mobilized the poorest people of Kekramar village to fight against land grab and bonded labour. As a result of this struggle several kol tribals of this village got land and could escape from the system of bonded labour. The biggest exploiter of the area was waiting for a chance to strike back at Chandan. He got him and some of his relatives implicated in false cases. They were arrested and beaten up badly probably with a view to extract a false confession.

Despite such setbacks ABSSS continued its efforts against bonded labour. Finally things started moving and news spread that some big landlords will be arrested as they had been keeping several bonded labourers. Once this became known many big landowners themselves started taking steps to show that no one is bonded to them. They no longer forced the labourers to work only for them. Instead they tried to retain them by offering a higher wage. Then the wage which had been stagnant at roughly one kg. grain (plus a little land in some cases) for a long time now began to rise. While wage payment earlier amounted in cash terms to less than Rs. 10, today most kol workers are able to get between Rs. 30 to Rs. 50 for a day's work in this region.

What is no less important than the rise in wages is the freedom that kols now have. "If we want to work for the dadus we work, if we don't want to work then we don't work. If we get better work opportunities in Katni or Gwalior, or elsewhere we can also go there. Above all, we can give top priority to cultivating our own fields. We need not toil for the landlords till such time that the cultivation of our own fields is delayed. Thus the chances of getting a good crop on our own land have increased."

It is this freedom of workers which enabled them to devote more time to making their land fit for cultivation and then cultivating it regularly. In addition the rise in wage for both men and women workers has also contributed directly to the improvement of their food security.

VI. Water for Thirsty Land

While the small farmers after working very hard could make even rocky land fit for cultivation, they clearly needed some outside help for providing same protective irrigation. ABSSS tried its best to fulfil this requirement of small farmers (most of whom have become farmers only in recent times). Most of the small-scale irrigation works taken up by the ABSSS have been located and designed in such a way as to provide maximum benefits to weaker sections.

During the period 1986-87 to 2001 ABSSS has taken up the construction of 68 wells out of which as many as 61 have been completed while the remaining seven are under construction. Between 1982 and 1999 it has take up the construction and repair of 21 tanks. These include tanks meant for irrigation, drinking water of human beings, drinking water of animals and fisheries. Between 1991 and 2001 ABSSS has taken up the construction of 17 water conservation bunds and checkdams. The most concentrated effort of irrigation has been made in Tikariya Panchayat area where about 1000 bighas of land have been taken up on over 610 acres of land while benefiting about 300 families.

In most places the irrigation work taken up by ABSSS has proved highly cost effective and it has directly benefited farmers from weaker sections. This should be seen against the experience of some big and medium projects taken up by the government in this area which have yielded hardly any irrigation benefits. Large scale seepage has been reported from several of these structure. Some villagers say their advice about local conditions was not heeded leading to later day problems. In addition massive corruption in the construction works is also alleged. Even the small scale irrigation works such as checkdams by the government have given very disappointing results in many cases. In some cases these have been washed away or damaged badly by rains. In other cases benefits have accrued mainly to big landowners.

Against this previous experience of irrigation projects taken up by the government at many places in and around this region, the performance of the small-scale irrigation works taken up by the ABSSS looks all the more credible. At relative much lesser cost these have given much better result in most cases. Apart from the longer term benefit in the form of irrigation, people from some villages also got employment at legal wages. Thus the irrigation work done by the ABSSS made a contribution to food security both immediately and for future years.

The impact of better irrigation is particularly visible in Tikariya Panchayat where in some cases land which was more or less barren earlier has started yielding two crops and in some cases yield has gone up four times or even more. Under the Tikariya watershed programme during the years 1995-2000 two tanks were repaired, four checkdams as well as one stop-dam were constructed. After the repair of Pushkarni tank, the water collection capacity of this tank has increased considerably. 16 families have benefited from this increased irrigation and production has gone up by four times compared to the situation before the repair. In the case of the repair of Jamunihai tank control of seepage proved more difficult but even here farmers were able to double their production.

In the case of checkdam no. 1 earlier most of the land around it was barren or else gave very low yield of kodo, rice and mustard. Here production is likely to have gone up by five times. In the case of check dam 2, farmers taking advantage of new irrigation were able to produce 307 quintals wheat, 78 quintals of mustard, 20 quintals of arhar pulse and 4 quintals of chana (gram) pulse. This according to ABSSS estimates made on the basis of interaction with local farmers is about 10 times more than what these farmers got earlier. Check dam no. 3 has brought irrigation opportunity to about 12 families cultivating 55 bighas of land. Check dam no. 4 has brought irrigation opportunities to 7 farmer families cultivating about 78 bighas of land. The stop dam has made it possible for 4 other families to irrigate about 15 bighas of land which was completely barren earlier.

In such irrigation works the ABSSS tried to give maximum benefit to weaker sections but depending on location of the structure, of course, other sections whose land happens to be located here also benefit. There are also some small irrigation works which have been able to give all benefits to weaker sections because of the concentration of their population in that area. The rise in production after the advent of irrigation may appear to be too high in some cases, but this has to be seen against the fact that in the absence of irrigation and other adverse factors production was too little earlier. The work of ABSSS created several conductive conditions one after another for increasing production the newly - won freedom of kols to be able to give priority to their own land, the distribution of more land among the kols, the irrigation and bunding work related to this and neighbouring land.

The availability of clean drinking water is also an essential part of food security. This region has been known to experience extreme water scarcity. People have been forced to fetch water from long distances and that too from sources which cannot be considered clean. The work of ABSSS has also contributed to reducing the drinking water storages. In areas like Tikariya where several checkdams have been constructed and repaired, the ground water table has also gone up so that it is easier to obtain water from wells and hand pumps even in the months of scarcity. Several small irrigation works taken up by ABSSS also meet drinking water needs of people.

There are several springs or small rivulets around which a small structure is built to keep the water clean. These water sources are called chauhras. There is considerable scope for providing water to several families at a low cost with the help of chauhras. From 1987-88 to 1999 ABSSS has taken up the construction of 29 chauhras. Water collection centers at three other locations also help to quench the thirst of these villages and hamlets.

price by joint storage and sale. Later the profit made from the sale was distributed as a special bonus among the women collectors. This was their first experience of getting a bonus and the fact that after getting a reasonable rate they are also entitled to a part of profit brought a lot of enthusiasm among them.

Knowledge relating to medicinal hers which are found in these forests is incorporated into the educational programmes of ABSSS so that the new generation is conscious of their health benefits as well as economic potential. ABSSS has also encouraged kols to plant a medicinal garden in Tikariya Panchayat area. This consists of 566 trees and several medicinal plants. In addition about three thousand trees have been planted in smaller lots. Species are chosen in such a way that apart from their environmental benefits, they also add to the income and food security of people.

In all these plantations of mixed species of trees a careful decision has been taken not to use any chemical fertilizers. In the plantation at Ranipur when it was important to get some protection from pests, a mixture of cow urine and neem leaf water was used.

VII. Contribution of Women

Women have been equal partners in several mobilization efforts of ABSSS. At the time of several agitations, overcoming many difficulties they have come from remote villages to participate actively. They have been keen participants in the various land struggles. In recent years land titles have been issued jointly in the name of men and women at the time of distribution of land among weaker sections. Similarly he distribution of houses for weaker section is now being done using joint titles in the name of men and women.

Most ABSSS programmes such as relating to forest and irrigation have involved benefits as much to woman as to men. However some programmes have also been aimed mainly at women. For example the mahuwa collection effort in which better rates and also bonus were paid had involved mainly kol women ant they directly got the economic benefits. The programme of savings is based on the organisation of self-help groups and this again involves women only.

The reservation of one third seats at various levels in panchayati raj provided on opportunity to enhance the participation of women in public life. ABSSS encouraged several women to play a constructive role in panchayati raj institutions. Such a role was played by Chandrawati Singh of Gurhchapa Panchayat who belonged to a high caste family ant yet tried her best to help weaker sections. When she was victimized by dominant people, ABSSS extended support to her and helped her to survive some very difficult times. With the help and support of ABSSS despite many obstacles created by dominant people she was able to take up many constructive activities and distribute a lot of land among the weaker sections.

Booti Kol is another woman who was able to play an active leading role after getting elected as Zila panchayat member. She had been associated with ABSSS for a long time. After her tenure in Zila panchayat ended, she is again back with the ABSSS, helping out its self-help groups.

ABSSS has helped several women who had been badly victimized in their life to start a new life. Several such women have also worked with ABSSS. They got an opportunity here to mitigate the suffering of other women. Several women from kol community such as Urmila, Menka and Prema have been able to shoulder their responsibility in a very commendable way.

Nutrition and health benefits resulting from economic betterment have also reached women. As Rohini who looks after the health programme of ABSSS says, "Earlier there was a greater tendency to eat at the end after feeding all the members. Mow it is more common for a kol woman to eat whenever she feels hungry. Firstly, because more food is available in the house. Secondly, because needless restrictions and guilt feelings have been removed as a result of more education and interaction with the outside world".

Many kol women have been able to handle crises situation in their hamlets when male member have been away. For example they faced some loan recovery officials boldly when they wanted to harass people.

They do not hesitate to go to nearby towns to meet officials and place their demands before them. Shakhuntla of Dipu village, Shivkumari of Itwa village, Kanchan of Khudania hamlet are examples of women playing a more active role in public affairs.

As kol girls now have more access to school education, it is likely that social awakening will grow further in the next generation.

It is widely recognized that food security in also linked to the status of women. Where economic betterment is not accompanied by more equality and opportunities for women, nutrition and health do not necessarily improve for half of the population. On the other hand, improvement in the condition of women always brings better health and nutrition to children. This concern has not been neglected by ABSSS leading to better nutrition and health . In Jamunihai where economic betterment can be clearly seen, women made a special effort to keep away liquor and gambling so that the gains of better farm yield and irrigation are not squandered. Women now also have better protection from the lust of big landlords so that the opportunities for going out freely for work economic betterment have increased for them.

VIII. Education

Till about 15 years ago opportunities for education of kol children simply did not exist in the remote village and hamlets of this region. Firstly the condition of schools itself was not good, but whatever facilities were available did not also exist for kol children. Kol elders recall that it was a very common for dadus to order even children who had gone to school to carry cow-dung, do some cleaning work. They were so frequently ill-treated that they had little interest left in going to school.

However all this has changed with the educational work taken by ABSSS. The educational work of ABSSS started in 1989 with 576 students in 15 educational centers. At present about 2200 student are receiving education in 40 schools run by ABSSS. Over 900 of them are girls. This is quite impressive keeping in view the very low education of kol girls and infact women in this region. The attendance of students has gone up very significantly in the villages and hamlets covered by ABSSS. Most parents have willingly made arrangements in family life so that Children can go to school. Some elders have taken up grazing work in place of children. On the other hand ABSSS schools also allow students to bring their small brothers and sisters with them they can attend school while also fulfilling this responsibility (in the case of those families where there is no one also to look after small children on several days).

Social awakening and solidarity are emphasized in educational programs. ABSSS hopes that several of the students will contribute to the upliftment of their community in various ways. ABSSS also helps several kol students to continue future education after they pass out from the schools. Nearly 30 students had been staying at the Ranipur campus of ABSSS. When they were asked about their future plans, several of them expressed a desire to become teacher or social workers. One student Achey Lal Kol said, "We don't want kol children of the new generation to suffer what we have suffered." Later my inquiries revealed that his father had been murdered at the instance of feudal landlords because he had dared to assert the rights of kol workers.

Some kol teacher are very dedicated. A few years back dacoits raided Suaragarha village and almost all the kols fled to a safe shelter some distance away. I found on visiting this camp that the teacher Shiv Shanker had started the school in time even at this temporary shelter and the attendance of children was quite good.

IX. Food Security and Agro-Ecology

Most of the kols agree that there has been a significant improvement in their food and nutrition situation during the last 10 to 15 years. When asked about the situation nearly 15 years back they describe a situation which is very dismal compared to present times.

As some kols of Tikariya Panchayat said at a group meeting, "At that time we ate mainly coarse cereals like jowar, kutki or dried mahuwa gathered from forests. If wheat or rice was cooked on an exceptional day, then this was almost like a festival occasion when children used to go around saying today wheat roti is being made in our home or rice is being cooked in my home. We generally cooked one meal at night and next morning we ate the leftovers of the night meal. All the hard labour was done on just this diet. Consumption of vegetables and pulses was very rare."

What is the situation now? "Now consumption of wheat and rice, vegetables and pulses in quite common. Now we eat as we please - there is no shortage of essential food."

Of course the situation is not the same at all places, it is possible that even in some of most troubled hamlets (for example where the group of dadus is still quite strong or where the dacoit gangs have been creating more trouble) hunger still exists although to a lesser extend than before. Similarly some of the most vulnerable families of only elderly people or seriously ill and handicapped persons may still by suffering from hunger, although ABSSS activists make a special effort to arrange special help for them and try to get them pensions and other help from the government in time. However by and large there has been a very significant improvement in the food and nutrition situation in the last 10 to 15 years. Food production has increased significantly in the entire region and it has increased most significantly for the weaker sections. The food production has increased in such a way that it has made a direct contribution to reducing hunger and malnutrition.

Dadu Mavaiya of Jamunihai Village says "Most families in our village have got farming plots. Most of these plots have recently received the benefit of bunding and other soil conservation work. Where there were barren now you can see green fields of paddy. On some farm production has risen three fold. Where only one crop was being taken, two crops are being taken now."

Ramkali kol of the same hamlet says, "We only eat well, almost all our children go to school. This could not have been imagined a decade back".

What is the technology that the newly emerging small farmers prefer. Rajabua, an experienced member of ABSSS says, "As for as paddy, coarse cereals, millets, pulses and oilseeds are concerned, these farmers opt for traditional varieties and method, but they don't have previous experience of growing wheat. So for this they go to the bigger farmers or block people and from these they get green revolution varieties. It is for this crop that they may use some chemical fertilizers".

ABSSS believes in organic farming. One of its members ha the responsibility of popularizing preparation and use compost in villages. As for as tree plantations created by ABSSS are concerned, only organic manure is used and as Rajabua says, "Agri-chemicals are not even considered".

The improved food security for the poor has been achieved without any significant increase in the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But voluntary organisations such as ABSSS which help to achieve such success through land and forest based struggles do not get as much time as they for constructive work such as establishing seed banks of good quality seeds and promoting agro-ecology practices which can further increase production and food security for small formers. The reason is that they face a constant threat from vested interests who are trying t reverse some of the gains which have been achieved for weaker sections.

X. Several Problem Remain

ABSSS had worked hard to fight poverty and hunger in very difficult conditions and despite many obstacles, it has succeeded in improving food security for a clear majority of poor people. If the many sided work of ABSSS had not existed during the last 15 years, it is unlikely that much of this improvement of food security could have been achieved. However vested interests are trying all the time to reverse the gain that have been achieved for weaker sections.

  1. Big landlords keep trying to get back the some of the land that has been allotted to poor. They have enough resources to fight long drawn cases in courts, the poor don't have such resources.
  2. Several big landlords keep trying to harass and harm ABSSS activists in several ways. Some of them have been attacked, some have been implicated in false cases. Attempts to harm Gopal Ji have been made several times. Big landlords also lobby with powerful politicians to level false charges against ABSSS time and again.
  3. Dacoits keep terrorizing kols and ABSSS activists in remote villages. They sometimes act in collusion with big landlords to make things difficult for ABSSS.
  4. Forest department is trying to get back a lot of land from kol farmers, saying that the land actually belongs to the forest department and should not have been distributed among the kols.
  5. By implementing rules relating to sanctuaries strictly, forest officials are denying non-timber forest produce to several kols who live near Ranipur sanctuary. When they are denied legal earning from non timber forest produce, their dependence on the illegal sale of forest produce and firewood increases and actually this is more harmful to forests.

Due to these various adverse factors, actually for several years, ABSSS has been passing from once tense situation to another, and it is surprising that so much good work could be done despite all these problems. However the fact remains that due to all these tensions, ABSSS is not able to give as much time as it could otherwise give to issue like following the agro-ecology approach to increase and improve soil fertility and increase overall farm production.

XI. Future Prospects

The experience of ABSSS during the last 15 to 20 years reveals clearly how hunger and poverty can be reduced significantly by increasing the rights of the poorest, most deprived sections over their natural resources and by mobilizing them to defend their rights. Till about 20 years back the situation here was so dismal that the poor simply suffered in silence. They were exploited relentlessly and suffered injustice at every step, yet could not summon the courage to speak against it. The mobilization work done by ABSSS change the situation within a decade to such an extend that mobilization of 10000 or more kols could take place to protest against injustice and exploitation. There were many protests, marches, dharna and agitations to assert the land and forest rights of the tribals. Where land is exceedingly rocky, the right to carrying out quarrying work was also asserted. As a result of mobilization work of such magnitude, it was no longer possible to ignore the voice of kols and the administration started working for land distribution drives, better terms of non-timber forest produce and abolition of bonded labour.

ABSSS did not work only at the agitation level. It tried its best to obtain the sympathy and good will of several senior officials for the welfare of kols. It approached time and again the National Human Right Commission and National Women's Commission for obtaining justice for kols. The National Commission for Women organized a special jan sunwai for kol women while the National Human Right Commission prepared a special development plan for kols after sending a team to this region.

The ABSSS has time and again tried to secure justice for kols in various law courts. About 100 cases are pending in courts in which ABSSS has tried to demand justice for several kol families and other weaker sections of this region.

A big social change has taken place in some villages. In some villages dominated earlier by dadus, kol youths such as Rajan Kol and Santosh Kol were elected as village pradhan (despite the fact that dominant persons had the support of even a dreaded dacoit group). Till about 15 years back, Rajan Kol recalls we could not ride a bicycle in front of the dadus, we could not sit in a cot in front of them. Now the same dominant person had to come to kol youth to get their papers signed.

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