Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan

Tribals Peaceful Struggle against Poverty

A Report from Chitrakoot

Egalitarian distribution of land resources is increasingly regarded as highly significant, in many cases even essential, for eliminating poverty and deprivation in rural areas. The Government of India as well as most state governments have enacted several laws and formulated several policies in keeping with this reality. However most rural areas continue to have high levels of inequality. One reason is that the laws and policies which have been enacted to promote equality are not strong enough, partly reflecting the influence of powerful dominant interests in rural areas. At a level of implementation, the influence of these vested interests is much more visible. They can buy the collusion of officials and politicians, or they can simply prevent the weaker sections from asserting their rights. The poor certainly want more land for cultivation, more access to irrigation water, fishing rights in ponds, better rights over minor forest produce and mining/quarrying leases for their cooperatives but the dominant families manage successfully to deny these benefits to them.

One of the most significant challenges of Indian democracy indeed for the democracies of most developing countries - is how to move from this unequal and unjust distribution and utilization pattern of natural resources to one based on justice and equality in a peaceful and democratic way. It is all the more significant to examine this in the context of rural situation where initially the levels of inequality were very high. The area of this case study - Mau and Manikpur blocks of Chitrakoot district (Uttar Pradesh) is one such area. A voluntary organization Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan (ABSSS) challenged inequality, exploitation and domination of some landlords in these villages and managed to achieve some very significant gains during last 15 years or so.

Chitrakoot District is a part of Bundelkhand region. A part of this district is also called Patha. This district is divided into five administrative blocks. The work of ABSSS is concentrated mainly in two blocks - Manikpur and Mau. These two blocks have the biggest concentration of kol tribals in the district. The population of Manikpur and Mau blocks is around 2400000 - out of this the population of schedule castes and tribes is about 73000. Some well informed local people say that the population of kol tribals particularly those who live in remote small hamlets, has been underestimate. Most of the schedule castes and tribes consist of kol or Mavaiya tribals. They have been classified as a schedule tribe in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, but due to administrative lapse and lack of understanding they got classified as a schedule caste in Uttar Pradesh. The ABSSS has initiated a strong effort for the rectification of this lapse.

The situation about two decades back in this region was that the kols simply existed for the prosperity of the big landlords who owned hundreds of bighas of land, some even owned over 500 bighas of land. (One acre - 2.5 bighas). Land distributed to the kols could not be occupied and cultivated by them in most cases. Hence in effect the overwhelming majority of the kols and schedule castes worked as landless labourers in farms, forests and mines. The forest and mine contractors/traders also generally belonged to big landowners families. The kols and other scheduled castes who toiled for them for low wages were quite often indebted to them and worked conditions similar to bonded labour.

The kols (and other scheduled castes) worked or big landowners at subsistence wages, generally about one kg. of coarse grain for a day's hard work plus sometimes a small piece of land. Even kols who had some land could not give it priority attention as attending to the landlord's needs was made their first priority. Thus for all practical purposes most of them ceased to be farmers and were reduced to working for big landowners (who were also forest contractors) at very low wages in conditions of near bondage. While they collected several kinds of forest produce such as tendu leaves, mahuwa and chiraunji, in almost all cases the pattern was such that they got minimal returns while the contractors/ traders cornered all the grains.

The ABSSS has worked relentlessly and with dedication for the land rights and forest rights (mainly the rights for non-timber forest produce) of kols and other weaker sections and very significant gains have been achieved in the past few years. Although this is the result of the combined efforts of several people, including some honest and dedicated officials, on the whole the ABSSS was the single most important force behind this change. The role of the ABSSS has been praised by several senior officials.

A lot of community land has been distributed among the kols, and in addition, the land grabbed or occupied illegally by the landlords has been vacated and provided to kols and other weaker sections. The ABSSS played a very important role in maintaining the pressure for this work and identifying the land grab cases. The detailed studies and surveys made by the ABSSS about the field-level reality made the task of senior officials who wanted to initiate action, much easier. The ABSSS took up several land cases of kols successfully in law courts including the High Court. The ABSSS has taken up the construction of over 60 wells, construction and repair of over 20 tanks and construction of 17 water conservation bunds and checkdams, most of these aimed at meeting the irrigation needs of small peasants. Many of their irrigation beneficiaries are those kols who have got land only recently as result of the efforts of ABSSS.

The ABSSS activists say that most of the kols and other scheduled castes identified as landless in recent years have been provided at least some land. However, as a son is married and starts living separately after his marriage, as it quite common among kols, new landless families emerge. What is more, the forest department is refusing to accept some of the land distributed to kols by the revenue department, claiming that the land belongs to forest department. Some villagers having land within Ranipur sanctuary are being asked to leave without providing alternative land to them. Some big landlords are fighting court cases to get back the land released from their control recently. So the problems continue and sometimes appear to be too many for a voluntary organisation with limited means. Despite this the achievement made in obtaining thousands of acres of land for weaker sections is commendable. In the case of new registration, this newly distributed land is being registered in the name of women as well.

In the case of non timber forest produce, the ABSSS has struggled successfully for protecting the rights of the kols to sell amla collected by them at a place of their choice. When they sold to a pre-decided contractor, they could get only 20 to 30 paisa per kg. about a decade back. Now they are able to get between Rs. 6 to 10 per kg. To make this possible, the ABSSS carried out a campaign and later also went to the High Court to get a favourable decision protecting the rights of kols. This has also benefited kol women in particular.

In the case of Mahuwa, another important forest produce of this area, the ABSSS intervened directly in the market to purchase a lot of mahuwa collected by women. The women forest produce gatherers were involved in the management of this effort. Finally this mahuwa was sold at a significant gain, the women gatherers were very happy to get a bonus payment over and above the fair price they has already received. In later years the market conditions were not so favourable, but even then the intervention of the ABSSS forced other buyers to raise the price offered by them and ultimately this benefited kol mahuwa gatherers, particularly the women.

In the case of tendu leaf collection, the ABSSS successfully mobilized kols several times for the payments of the dues which had been withheld on one pretext of the other.

The kols have been able to make use of this opportunity largely because of their successful release in most villages from ties of near bondage. Earlier even if better opportunities were available, they could not avail them as they first had to do the landlord's work. The bonded labourer's wife also had to do a lot of domestic work particularly the work considered dirty such as carrying cow dung, in the landlord's home. It was the release from bondage type of conditions that enabled the kols to take advantage of new opportunities provided by land distribution, irrigation, free sale of forest produce and various types of wage work.

The ABSSS has encouraged many families to plant fruit bearing tree (particularly amla trees) and other useful trees around their huts, apart from taking up large scale afforestation work in some areas. The fruits of these trees will bring some income directly to women. Some medicinal gardens have been raised. Kols are encouraged to recognize medicinal plants which grow in the wild and also to cultivate some of them in their fields or kitchen gardens.

Some cottage industries based on forest produce have been started. Boiled/ dried amla and amla powder are able to get much higher returns than raw amla. Health products such as chyawanprash have also been prepared. A lot of potential exists for women to get employment in these cottage scale units near their homes so that they can be released from the difficult and ecologically harmful work of collecting/ selling fire wood in nearby towns. Many self help groups have already been started for women in several villages and the savings are growing. The education of girls in many villages is growing fast. Whereas till about 20 years back their literacy rate was only 5 to 10 percent, now in some villages the literacy rate among kol girls can be over 70 percent. Several young women are conscious of their rights and are emerging to play leadership role and contest panchayat elections. Many kol women have been handle crisis situations in their hamlets with a confidence that was unknown about 15 years back. They do not hesitate to go to nearby towns to meet officials and place their demands before them. In villages where landlords did not even allow kols to sit on a cot besides them, now kol youths are emerging sarpanches (or elected village head persons) to whom even landlord come to get some of their work done. Educational programmes run by ABSSS are providing orientation to kol children and youth to be aware of their democratic rights. At present about 2200 students are receiving education in schools run by ABSSS, Over 900 of them are girls. Social awareness and solidarity are emphasised in their educational programmes. All this augurs well for creating a future of equality and dignity for the kols.

More specifically, in terms of egalitarian distribution and utilization of natural resources, it is interesting that although many landlords of this region still maintain very large farms yet an organisation of the weakest section could get back a lot of land illegally grabbed by the big landlords. This is not a small achievement. This was done entirely by peaceful methods - the ABSSS has been able to mobilize over 10000 people for its protest and solidarity demonstrations. But this strength is always harnessed only for the peaceful process of social change to create a more just society.

Although protecting the weakest section is the major concern of ABSSS, its efforts have also led to substantial increase in the production of food grains and other forest produce. A local resident who has been carefully observing the changing scene in these villages during the last 10 to 15 years says, "In some cases earlier just 30 percent of the potentially cultivable land was being cultivated". Thus food production has increased significantly and what is even more important, it has been increased mainly on the fields of the poor, small farmers.

In the case of forest produce, the share of benefits going to the weakest sections has increased significantly while the share cornered by the contractors, traders and corrupt officials has declined. In the case of minor minerals such as various kinds of stone and silica sand which are found in plenty in this region, the ABSSS has been able to draw attention to the exploitative practices that exist today, creating conductive conditions for more benefits to reach exploited workers in the next phase.

Bharat Dogra, May 2002

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