Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan

Tribals Defend Their Newly Acquired Land

Land is the single most important issue in most rural areas, both in economic and emotional terms. Dominant sections will go to any length to perpetuates their ownership and control of excess land, while the deprived section yearns for at least a small piece of farmland more than anything else. Stakes are high on both sides but the dominant sections have more money, muscle power and political access to perpetuate the status quo. In these conditions, it is a big achievement if voluntary organisations, social activists and people's movements succeed in achieving a significant redistribution of land in favour of weaker sections.

In Mau and Manikpur blocks of Chitrakoot district, a voluntary organisation, Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan (ABSSS), has succeeded during the last 15 years in achieving significant breakthroughs in providing land to the kol tribals. As a result of a sustained campaign by this voluntary organisation for the land rights to the most deprived kol tribals, the government initiated several special drives and during the last 10 to 15 years most of the kol families identified as landless could get land. Although some landlords with the help of local dacoits have tried to beat up several activists on some occasions, by and large this has been a peaceful transition.

While this has been an impressive success story, several problems are also emerging which need to be tackled for protecting the gains of the weaker sections on a long-term basis. In the case of a large number of kols, who received land from the revenue department, the forest department has now taken the stand that this land actually belongs to the forest department. In fact some tribals have been evicted already. If this continues, then the kols will suffer massive distress and lose faith in the government's land reform programmes as well as in the process of democratic peaceful transition. If one department of the government has clearly given badly needed land to them, how can another department snatch it back? For ABSSS also it is a big challenge to protect this gain of the kols won after so much effort.

In the case of most of these lands, no trees were growing here before the kols took up cultivation. As they have made this land productive with their hard labour, they should be allowed to retain control of this land. So much land of the forest department is vacant that can be used for afforestation work. However, if in some cases, it is important to bring this land under tree cover, then kols who have been given this land can be given the rights to this land subject to the condition that they grow only trees on it. All the economic gains from the trees will be theirs, in the form of minor forest produce harvested every year.

While trees are still growing, some food crops can also planted side by side to meet the food needs of the land allottees. The forest department has several schemes for helping villagers who raise and protect trees. From their funds some help can be extended to these families till the trees mature and start giving marketable non-timber forest produce (such as amla, mahuwa and chiraunji, etc.)

If such an effort can succeed and the land gets green cover (as per requirements of the forest department) and the poorest people get sustainable livelihood, then this will be a very good example also for other areas that face similar problems. Both, the Central Government (Ministry of Environment and Forests) and the State Government should consider such a scheme. Voluntary organisations like ABSSS can make a valuable contribution to making such a scheme successful.

Women can play an important role in tree planting and protection work on this land. Some families, particularly those engaged in basket weaving and similar bamboo based artisan work, can also be given land for growing bamboos.

Another problem that arises from big landowners is that they frequently go to courts to get back their control of large areas of land. Sometimes, using their enormous financial resources they manage to use the legal process in such a way as to hinder the land distribution work among the poor. To protect the land rights of kols, ABSSS has initiated several legal efforts that have been quite successful, but still the ability of big landlords to use the legal process to their own advantage cannot be denied. So there is a constant need to protect the land rights of the poor by providing legal aid to them.

Several big landowners still have land much in excess of the land ceiling limit. Some land has been grabbed by influential men in the name of cooperative farming. Now, for all practical purposes the land being shown in the name of the cooperative is actually being used for personal gain by one or more powerful landlords. So there is a lot of scope for getting more land for the poor. There is also obvious need for more land for the landless, as sons start a new family soon after their marriage. so, while the gains already achieved need to be protected, there is also adequate scope for more land redistribution under the existing laws. In fact, the ceiling laws have been violated by big landowners, and it is still possible to get considerable land for the poor if these laws are implemented properly.

While the ABSSS and its sister organisations like Patha Kol Adhikar Manch and Patha Kol Vikas Samiti have been trying to get more and more land for the poor, thoughtless policies are threatening to make several kols landless. This area has the Ranipur Wildlife Sanctuary and there has been some talk that this can later become a national park. Perhaps this is the reason why thousands of people living in this sanctuary area feel that they may be evicted from here.

In the case of a glass factory planned to be set up at Bargarh, the land of several kols was taken for a pittance and they were not provided alternative land. The compensation was low and later, some of it was even taken back. Those who could not pay back had their remaining land auctioned. In other areas, the land of even former bonded labourers has been threatened with auction due to their inability to pay back government loans. Several of these were fraudulent loans in which the poor families never got any benefits and it was the landlords in collusion with officials who got the money. Hence, the threats of several kol small farmers being turned into landless workers certainly exists and it will be very important for ABSSS and its sister organisations to confront this challenge.

Yet another problem is that big landowners in collusion with corrupt land officials can bring about an arbitrary transfer of land. The ABSSS has implemented several irrigation and land development projects aimed mainly at improving the land productivity of poor, small and marginal peasants. They have also worked hard to improve their land. However, as soon as this land starts yielding good results, some landlords bribe officials to show the improved land as theirs and some less productive land belonging to them (or occupied illegally) as the land belonging to the hard working kol family. There is a clear need to check such arbitrary transfers so that the kols can retain control of the fertile and productive land particularly after they have worked hard to improve the productivity of this land.

This will be important also for increasing the capacity of the kols to withstand frequent drought periods. If they have at least some irrigated land, then some food security for them can be assured. Water harvesting is crucial for food security in this region. While ABSSS has done some admirable water harvesting work in the past, this should be stepped up further, particularly by involving the weakest sections, including women workers of the families. Without water harvesting and at least some protective irrigation, land distribution will not go very far.

Animal husbandry will also be helped by water harvesting work. This area has big pastures, which also attract grazing animals from outside the region. But during the droughts, there is a great shortage of fodder and water. So if water harvesting can help to increase the availability of water and fodder during the summer months, then the potential of animal husbandry will grow significantly in this area.

Women and self help groups of women can benefit in particular from animal husbandry related activity and this can release them from the drudgery of carrying fire wood for sale. Poultry and bee keeping have a good potential in this area, particularly for women. ABSSS has already organised several self-help groups of women in this region.

Contracts for fisheries are generally given to outsiders. These should be given to cooperatives of youths from the poorest families.

Women should have a significant voice in the selection of cropping patterns, particularly from the point of view of maintaining a close link with feed security. Generally, a view that gets acceptance here is that small peasants should devote most of their land for growing staple food crops, while a small part can be kept for experimenting with high value crops such as medicinal plants.

In fact, several plants of medicinal value also grow in the wild, not only in forests but also in and around agricultural fields. They should not be dismissed as weeds. The ABSSS is increasing awareness about the utility of these plants for local medicinal use as well as for increasing income. Some of this produce of medicinal value can be collected and, if necessary, a small part of land can also be devoted to growing some of the medicinal plants. Use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers should be avoided, at this will destroy the useful medicinal plants apart from impeding the natural fertility of the land, which is conductive to growing several species of medicinal plants.

Further value addition can be achieved by processing the harvest of medicinal plants to make various powders and pastes that can be marketed directly as medicines as well as health products. The small-scale efforts ABSSS has already made in this direction have fetched a good response. This home based processing work can be taken up by women and their self-help groups in a big way during the next few years. Amla trees and other useful plants grown in kitchen gardens can also contribute to this effort. Some land can also be used to prepare nurseries of such plants. The ABSSS has already started a very useful garden of medicinal plants near Tikariya panchayat area. Thus, land rights, water harvesting and better use of land can add significantly to the food security and income of the poorest families while also releasing kol tribal women from the drudgery and risk of firewood selling. Agro-processing (such as cottage industry of extracting oil from oil-seeds) can also provide useful employment as well as meet local needs.

Bharat Dogra, August 25-31, 2002

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