Twenty years old and single, Kesarbehn is the youngest member of a unique grassroots organisation in Bundelkhand: the Patha Kol Adhikar Manch.

She starts her working day at 6 a m when she leaves her house in the small town of Manikpur (Chitrakoot district, Uttar Pradesh) and walks to the railway station. She catches a passenger train, gets off at one of the nearby stations and walks several kilometres to reach remote villages in the Patha.

The Patha is a rocky plateau in the south-east corner of UP, spread across the districts of Chitrakoot, Allahabad and Banda. The region is largely inhabited by Kols, a tribal group that claims lineage from a character called Shabari in the great Indian epic, the Ramayan. According to legend, Shabari tasted wild berries to check if they were poisonous before feeding them to a hungry Ram exiled in the forest.

As the legend suggests, the Kols have a close relationship with the forest. This relationship was disrupted in the 19th century by the British East India Company, which appointed agents to extract revenue from the Kols’ forest lands. The Kols protested violently. The Kol rebellion (1831-32) is one of the most important tribal revolts recorded in India since the 18th century.

The revolt was unsuccessful and over the years the Kols were reduced to the status of bonded labourers. Powerful landlords and contractors easily dispossessed them of their lands since the Kols had no notion of private ownership and held no legal titles. Many Kols retreated deeper into the forest, but as state ownership and control over forest lands increased, this mode of survival also became difficult.

The Kols, however, found no voice or representation of their interests even 30 years after Independence. In Uttar Pradesh, they do not even enjoy the status of a scheduled tribe (ST).

In the mid-1970s, Gaya Prasad Gopal (Gopalbhai), a young school teacher of Atarra in Banda district, who had worked as a journalist, toured the Patha and found horrifying patterns of exploitation – economic, political, social and sexual. The tour was a turning point for Gopalbhai as well as the Kols. He started the Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan (ABSSS), which has done tremendous work to enable the Kols to live a life of dignity.

Thanks to the ABSSS’ efforts, over 3,000 Kol families have to date received possession of land that had been allotted to them under government land reform and welfare schemes but remained occupied by powerful interests.

The ABSSS also started several schools for Kols, which led to the creation of a cadre of teachers from amongst the Kols themselves. It also led in 1987 to the formation of the Patha Kol Adhikar Manch, a grassroots organisation of educated Kols working under the guidance of the ABSSS.

The organisation initially continued the ABSSS’ work in education and land rights, and then expanded to issues of health and natural resource management. Under the PACS Programme, the Patha Kol Adhikar Manch has formed women’s self-help groups, held public hearings and launched agitations to highlight problems of drinking water and double entry of land titles in forest and revenue department records. It has also taken up issues connected to the Kols’ daily struggle for survival.

Reveals Santosh Kumar, one of the office-bearers of the Manch: “There are several cases of people not getting full payment for collection of tendu leaves. Each person gets just Rs 49 per 100 bunches of 50 leaves each. After so much labour, one family can earn about Rs 150-200 a day for about 25 days in the month of May. However, even this amount is not paid fully till September. We have made detailed records of all such cases and ensured that people get all their dues.”

Members of the Manch have frequently been threatened or assaulted. During the last Lok Sabha election, Santosh publicly promised Kol votes to a candidate who said he would take up the issue of giving them ST status. Musclemen of a rival candidate beat him up severely. “They told me they would kill me if I tried to get medical help, or contacted the police. For three days I lay in my house.”

Kesarbehn works fearlessly in such an atmosphere. After her mother’s death, she has been living in Manikpur with her sister, a teacher in one of the schools started by the Manch. Kesarbehn herself became the first girl among the Kols to study in a college, but she could not study beyond the intermediate level. At the age of 16, she chose to become a full-time worker of the Manch.

Santosh Kumar says, “For the last four years she has been going to villages deep in the forest, covering distances of 15 km by bicycle or on foot, through areas frequented by dacoits. She returns home at around 9 p.m. every day.”

Keserbehn’s commitment epitomises the unique and invaluable strength of genuine grassroots organisations.

As we leave the office of the Patha Kol Adhikar Manch, Ramvachhan, the treasurer of the organisation, tells us, “You should do a case study on her.” Keserbehn picks up a heap of papers with details of cases of illegal land acquisition and unpaid wages and retorts impatiently, “There are so many more important case studies here.”