A Burden of Exploitation for Kol Women
Blossoms in the Dust
Chitrakoot : The mighty forest department here has a formidable enemy. Confronted by the barefoot, ill-clad Kol women carrying head-loads of freshly cut wood, the forest officials have thrown up their hands. These "headloaders" often carrying a burden more than their body weight, have also vanquished the railway staff. The tribal women (although Kols are listed as a scheduled caste in Uttar Pradesh) openly ferry their bundles of firewood in trains to the various local market to earn a living. Even the NGOs busy fighting a larger battle against poverty and social ills, have turned a blind eye to the rapid deforestation. Nearly 200 women and girls carry an average headload of about 40 kilos daily. Selling firewood is a question of survival for them.
There was a time when the women were harassed no end by the lower level forest department and railway staff. It was customary for the railway staff and the local police to take their share from the illiterate and vulnerable women. As one woman said, "The forest guards troubled us, confiscated our bundles, broke them and scattered them. They also said all kinds of things to us."
Such incidents are rarer now. The intervention made by some NGOs have led to a greater consciousness among women and some of them have retaliated in the past. A more important reason, however, for the decreasing harassment of headloaders is that the government has been unable to provide a viable alternative to this back-breaking income generating activity. Ironically, any move by the foresters to counter the headloaders often precipitates a political crisis. In December last, for instance, foresters snatched away 40 'kathas' (each katha weighs about 40 kg) of wood from the women. The Bahujan Samaj Party activists initiated a jail bharo abhiyan and forced the foresters to beat a retreat.
Some of the NGOs are making efforts to enhance the women's incomes through other activities. For instance, both the government initiated Mahila Samakhya programme and a local NGO, Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan have been mobilizing women to form informal co-operatives for collecting, weighing, loading and transporting mahuwa flowers from their villages to storehouses belonging to the NGOs. The flower is sold when prices rise and the profit is distributed among the village women. Formation of 'self help' women's savings and credit groups have also boosted their self confidence.
The women, however, continue to be exploited. Unable to stop the headloaders, the forest department and the railways have other ways to exploit the Kol women. Women said forest guards take Rs. 500 from every family which wants wood to make a house. These foresters also take fistfuls of chironji and five kilos of mahuwa flower as their 'fees' for allowing the tribal women into the forests. They charge a few rupees per animal 'allowed' to graze in the forest. No receipts are given for these transactions. Although the headloaders at least, have a respite from the foresters, the exploitation of the socio-economically weak kol women is bound to continue in the absence of major reforms in grassroots governance.
This is a part of the series of articles contributed by Aditi Kapoor based on her research project on 'Women and Environment'. The research is funded by a fellowship grant from Leadership and Environment and Development (LEAD) International, New York.
Aditi Kapoor, The Times of India, August 9, 1999