The Shadow of Hunger Lifts from Tribals
Kols help to resist land grabbers
Even when speaking to visitors, Ramesh cannot take his eyes away from his lush green field. If for a short while he has to pay full attention to a visitor's question his vision soon wonders to the paddy crop swaying gently with the wind.
There are sound reason for Ramesh's happiness and pride. Belonging to the traditional caste of scavengers and treated as the lowest of the low for a long time, Ramesh and his family had never imagined that they will have agricultural land of their own. But thanks to the effort of a voluntary organisation Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan (ABSSS- an all India social service organisation), he not only got land but also the benefits of irrigation - provided by the check dam constructed by ABSSS. This enabled him to get a bountiful harvest of wheat and he is now looking forward to another good crops of paddy, plus some pulses and oil seeds. His hut which had never been free from the shadow of hunger is now well stocked with grains.
Opponents to land reform in India have argued at times that the traditional landless communities are unlikely to take good care of their land and crops. They should see Ramesh. He is very keen farmer who is anxious to further improve the productivity of his land. He has repeatedly requested ABSSS activists to work on land bunding on his land.
Ramesh's pride is shared by several other peasants of Tikariya Panchayat who has received similar benefits in recent year. Ramkali Kol, a tribal women of Jamunihai hamlets says, "Most of the kol households here now have land of their own., and in addition they have got the benefit of bunding as well as irrigation. This has really changed the life of our village. We not only eat well, almost all our children also go to school. This could not have been imagined a decade back."
These examples of Tikariya Panchayat area are repeated in several other villages of Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh. ABSSS work is concentrated in Manikpur and Mau blocks of this district. During the last 15 years it has worked relentlessly against feudal landlords and even dacoits to obtain land for the poor, particularly kol tribes. Wherever possible ABSSS has tried to improve this land by land-bunding and related work, and provide minor irrigation sources in the form of check dams and by the repair/construction of tanks. According to records kept by ABSSS, its efforts have led to the distribution of between 6,000 to 10,000 acres of land among the poor, land-bunding work is 2,000 acres of land and provision of irrigation for about 1,000 acres of land.
Gopal Bhai, Director of ABSSS says, "When we started working in the region, it become clear that the biggest issue was the land. Until about 100 to 150 years ago most of this area consisted of small settlement of kol tribals. They have enough land to cultivate. Then outsiders started moving in. Kols were literate and not conversant with the way official records are kept. Outsiders took advantage of this weakness and colluded with lower-level officials to grab the land. The officials also took land in the name of their relatives.
Bhagvat Prasad, another activists of ABSSS adds, "After independence when the government announced a program of distribution land to the poor, landlords took this land in the name of their bonded labourers but contained to own it practically as their own. The poor beneficiaries did not even know that the land has been given to them. When the poor got some barren land and made it fit for cultivation with their hard labour, sometimes the landlords exchanged it with land which was unproductive."
The initial task before ABSSS was formidable. They got official land records of various villages with great difficulty, then verified which workers has land titles but had not been able to occupy the land. In many cases the land was under the illegal occupation of feudal landlords called dadus. So ABSSS had to challenge for the distribution of land., then ensure it was actually occupied and cultivated.
When ABSSS collected information of land grabs, it made this available to senior officials as well as to media. When the government hesitate to take action, ABSSS organised protest demonstration and dharnas (sit-ins). At some protest some 10,000 people collected mostly from the poorest families, including a large number of women.
Progress was seldom smooth. There was the risk of feudal lords grabbing the land again under one guise or other. In addition a new threat emerged in the form of the forest department asserting its authority over some of the land distributed to the poor. So the ABSSS had to fight not just the feudals but also one of the government's own departments.
Yet another threat emerged in the form of loan recoveries. As Rajan Kol, a tribal activists and village pradhan explains, "Some big land owners had taken loan in the name of the poor, often their bonded labourers. The illiterate worker has been duped into putting their thumb impressions without getting any money being sent to the poor and when they fail to pay the heavy loans and interest, they face the risk of their newly acquired land being auctioned.
Despite all these problems, ABSSS has managed to ensure the distribution of nearly 8,000 acres of land around 3000 families, mostly of kol tribals. Gopal Bhai allows himself a broad smile when he says, "We had some guests from China recently and they were really impressed by our use of peaceful methods to distribute so much land to the poor".
ABSSS had also been fighting (and helping victim to fight) a significant number of cases relating to their land rights in the lower courts as well as in the High Court. One of its significant interventions in the court has been to obtain stay orders to prevent land from being taken back from several beneficiaries of the land distribution effort as the forest department now claims rights over the land.
This land distribution effort by itself would not have brought so much cheer to many villages if it had not been accompanied by land improvement, water conservation and minor irrigation works. Some land given to the poor is of such poor quality. The irrigation and land improvement work undertaken by ABSSS enabled many poor families to cultivate the land allotted to them. In villages like Jamunahai, Mangava & Kol settlement of Tikariya land allottees says that they are now able to take two crops in a year where only one crop grown earlier. Where land-improvement has been taken up, productivity has doubled, where this has been combined with irrigation as well yield has even tripled.
In Tikariya area ABSSS has undertake a watershed project under the DRDA, the Districts Rural Development Authority. Sitaram Mavaiya, a tribal peasant describes the result, "Earlier all the rain was washed down he slopes without giving us any benefit. Now most of this water is retained by a series of four check dams and earthen dams. The benefits from this has reached mostly poor peasant like me. The tanks, which exists earlier, were badly damaged so the most of the water lost to sewage. Now these have also been repaired adding to irrigation water as well as quenching the first to cattle.
Bharat Dogra, Grassroots, Vol. I No. 8, December 1999