Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan

Land for the Poorest

A Unique Chitrakoot Story

Amidst long-surviving stories of landlord oppression and the progressive degradation of the poor farmer, the activities of a little-known social organisation in two districts of Chitrakoot district offer a glimmer of hope.

All those who are committed to the food security of the poorest sections of people in India's villages have two dreams :

  1. Turn landless workers into small farmers - provide land to the poorest section of landless people in such a way that they are able to confidently cultivate this land. This should be accompanied or followed quickly by attempts to provide small-scale irrigation to as much of this land as possible.
  2. Increase farm production but increase it on the fields of the poor.

Both these dreams have been realised to a certain extent during the last 15 years in Manikpur and Mau blocks of Chitrakoot district (Uttar Pradesh). The cultivation area has almost doubled in several villages - fields of rice and wheat, mustard and gram smile where barren land existed earlier. And this change has taken place in the fields of the poorest Kol tribals, small farmers today although till just a decade back many of them worked as bonded labourers.

In rural situation where a small number of big landowners own most of the land end exploit most of the other households for their own prosperity, a large share of rural population is likely to suffer from hunger and malnutrition even though more than adequate food for all is produced on the farms of the big landowners. This is the situation that certainly exists in a large share of villages in Patha region of Uttar Pradesh, which is spread over parts of Chitrakoot and Allahabad districts. Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan (ABSSS) has succeeded in reducing hunger and malnutrition to a substantial extent in several of these villages during the last decade. In Manikpur and Mau blocks of Chitrakoot district where ABSSS works intensively, this voluntary organisation created conductive conditions for large-scale distribution of land among the poor, ending the practice of bonded labour, rise in wages and income from non-timber forest produce.

Till about 15 years back most of the Kol tribals either did not have any land, or else they were not able to cultivate it properly as they were mostly at the beck and call of the 'dadus'. It is to the credit of the ABSSS that today the majority of them are small farmers cultivating their own land with full confidence.

ABSSS could achieve this transfer from workers to small farmers by - (i) ensuring that most of the landless Kols receive land; (ii) taking several steps which resulted in loosening the bondage like conditions due to which Kols could not give priority attention to cultivating their own land; and (iii) creating irrigation facilities at as many places as possible to provide water to the fields of small and poor resource base farmers.

The land distribution effort has been mainly concerned with two types of lands. First there was the distribution of village community land to the poor. Quite a lot of village community land for this purpose was actually available, and ABSSS by constantly drawing attention to these possibilities motivated the administration to speed up this distribution. The second category of land raised more difficult issues. This land actually already belonged to Kols even in government records but this had been concerned by the dadus. Some of this had been distributed to Kols under the government's land reform programme, but the dadus who lorded over the Kols did not even allow the Kols to know much details about this. They asked them to cultivate even this land as their workers. It was not an easy task to get the proper government records of this land. It took ABSSS activists a lot of time and effort to approach various officials and then obtain the records from time to time. It was gradually able to identify in the case of many villages which land of the Kols had been grabbed. Then ABSSS approached the administration again and again to initiate action so that this land can return to its rightful owner.

Concerted Efforts

It was a long, complicated and frequently very frustrating process. However it picked up during those times when the government of the day happened to take a political decision to speed up the land distribution effort. At such times officials where themselves eager to seek the help of ABSSS to fulfil their target. There where other times when DMs, ADMs and other officials sympathetic to the aspirations of the poorest people were posted here and they were also keen to distribute as much land as possible. The ABSSS try to take full advantage of whatever favourable opportunities become available from time to time in the middle of all the difficulties.

It was the land distribution effort which fetched ABSSS many enemies among the big landowners some of whom tried actively to harm ABSSS activists including Gopalji. Several Kol youths were beaten up, implicated in false cases and jailed. But ABSSS took steps to protect and help these victims and continued its untiring campaign for land distribution. When the administration launched special drives to speed up land distribution work, ABSSS activists were asked to assist the work several times at the field level.

The details about the reality of land distribution which ABSSS activists collected painstakingly from remote villages made the task of official who wanted to initiate action for land distribution easier. Frequently the collusion of some lower level officials with big landlords led to the failure of land distribution campaign. As the lower level officials after taking bribes from big landlords frequently fudge the records in such a way that any action against big landlords become difficult. But thanks to the details collected by ABSSS activists about the field level realities, it became more difficult for this collusion of corrupt officials and big landlords to operate successfully.

If any injustice was done to a beneficiary or if he was prevented from occupying the land which had been allotted to him then news of such injustice immediately reached ABSSS activists as a result of their reach in remote villages. The Kols also knew that they could expect justice here, so they frequently took the trouble of coming all the way to the ABSSS office to tell its activists about their grievances. ABSSS immediately took their complaint to officials. It become difficult for officials to ignore such complain when these were forwarded By ABSSS and its associate organisations. When action was initiated against the against those landlord who were trying to prevent the beneficiaries of land distribution effort from cultivating their land, cases of such victimisation were gradually reduced.

Any success of land distribution effort is of course the result of the good work done by the number of persons including honest the sincere officials, social activists and ordinary villagers from weak sections themselves who gather the courage to face the landlords wrath. However, in this case the contribution by ABSSS need to be specially emphasised as earlier when the government had made effort to distribute land in this area, such was the dominance of the dadus that these efforts could not succeed. It is only when an organisation like the ABSSS steadfastly and courageously pursued this issue for a decade that good results could be achieved. It is likely that nearly 12,000 acres have been distributed in this region benefiting over 3,000 families during that last 15 years, when the ABSSS has been action on this front. This is a very significant achievement particularly keeping in view the terror of dadus and dacoits which social activists have to face in this region.

However it is a fact that many big landlords continue to flourish in this area and cultivate land well in excess of the ceiling limit. They have farms even to the extent of 100 to 200 acres. It is well known that India's land ceiling laws suffer from many loopholes. Taking advantage of these shortcomings in the laws, big landlords are able to retain a lot of land in the name of several family members and relatives as well as adopt several other tactics to save this land. Even today several files relating to land above rightful ceiling limits are languishing in government offices. These landlords are welling to pay heavy bribes to ensure that the cases against hem are not pursued. They also get stay order from courts and try to claim back land which has been taken from them.

In such a situation a voluntary organisation like ABSSS can only go up to a certain limit as for as challenging land inequalities is concerned. Despite these limits what ABSSS has achieved is significant. Although big landlords have continue to flourish but around 3,000 new farmers have been created within the span of just 15 years. These farmers either did not cultivate any land earlier, or else this cultivation was at such a low level as a give negligible result. As a result thousand of quintals more grain are being produced and what is more, it is being produced on the land of small farmers to the food security of weaker sections.

In India it is common to hear propaganda against the poor landless section that they are not used to cultivate their own land and even if land is given to them, they will not cultivate it properly and lose it because of bad habits like drinking liquor. But here in Chitrakoot we see them working very hard on their newly acquired land. They clear the shrubs, they dig out stones, they work very hard to make that land fit for cultivation which had been considered useless by the feudal lords.

Basant Mavaiya (maviayas are quite similar to kols) now has 30 bighas of land. It was not easy to bring this land under cultivation. So for his family worked hard to bring a few more bighas of land under cultivation. So for his family has been able to bring 16 bighas of land under cultivation. He says in another three years his family well be able to cultivate this entire land. Even though the land allotted to him is in an extreme corner and so he is unable to benefit from irrigation sources, his family (in Daandi Kol hamlet of Tikariya Panchayat) is still working hard to cultivate kodo (a millet), til (an oilseed) and arhar (a pulse) on land which was once considered barren.

Bharat Dogra, Economic and Political Weekly, December 8, 2001

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