Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan

Protecting Forest Tribals

It is by now widely recognised that forest based employment is of crucial importance in the livelihood of tribals. It is equally important that this employment should be based not on felling trees or on obtaining timber as this will lead to the destruction of remaining trees. This employment should be based on the collection of various minor forest produce such as useful leaves, wild fruits, etc. without felling dry trees. In addition an attempt should also be to plant more of these useful trees so that the possibilities of collecting minor forest produce increase in future.

It is with this respective that a voluntary organisation Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan (ABSSS - All India Social Service Organisation) has been working among the Kol tribals of Chitrakoot district (Manikpur and Mau blocks) of Uttar Pradesh during the last 15 years or so. As a result thousands of tribals have received a significant increase in their forest based income. Till about two decades ago, the tendu leaf puckers worked almost like bonded workers of rich and influential contractors who have them small advances and then made them work hard at exploitative wages. The system for the collection of amla involved the auctioning of a specific area to forest contractors. Then the amla collectors were obliged to sell legally to only this contractor and in his position as the monopolistic buyer, the contractor paid them very low rates.

The ABSSS struggled for ending this contractor system. Partly as a result of its lobbying and partly as a result of the wider forces at work at the national and state level, several changes were introduced in the forests of this region (Patha region). The tendu leaf work was taken up by the forest corporation and the wages of collectors increased significantly. However, corporation officials made some arbitrary deductions from the wages and the ABSSS organised a movement of collectors to help them get their legal dues.

In the case of amla also the monopoly contract system was removed and the collectors were free to sell their collection to anyone who could give a better price. ABSSS went a step further and to help the collectors get a proper price, it entered into marketing to buy amla and mahuwa, two important forest produce. In the case of mahuwa, the profit was distributed among the collectors as a bonus earning. This was a new experience for the collectors. They were encouraged to save a part of their earnings for community work in the villages. Women were particularly active in this effort and discharged their new responsibilities effectively.

The ABSSS also encouraged the tribals to ass value to these raw products, such as boiling and processing the amlas, so as to get a better price. Information about herbs with medicinal values is incorporated into the educational programmes run by ABSSS so that the tribals can make good use of herbs available in the forests. A well-known ayurvedic doctor was surprised while visiting a school run by ABSSS, over the students' awareness of the local herbs.

To increase the future availability of minor forest produce ABSSS encouraged its members and other villagers to plant as many trees as possible near the Sansthan offices and schools. The ABSSS has started a plant nursery on its campus at Ranipur and distributed free saplings from this nursery as well as from the forest department. Other incentives are also extended to villagers to plant trees and protect saplings. Fruit trees are given maximum encouragement, particularly amla trees and other citrus fruits as the land here is suitable for these plants. The ABSSS with the help of local villagers has planted nearly 5,000 such trees in Parariya village and nearly 1,000 trees near Shabri falls.

Firstly, the forest department has been claiming rights over a lot of land that has been distributed in recent years to landless and near landless peasants, mostly kol tribals. With great difficulty they have made this land fit for cultivation and now the forest department wants to evict them. This dispute extends to about 4,000 acres.

Thus ABSSS has tried to ensure that the benefits of changing government policies, such as the weakening of the contractor system, actually reach the collectors and also taken initiatives on its own to increase the opportunities of sustainable livelihood from forests. However, before this could mature into closer co-operation between ABSSS, its tribal members and forest officials, some government policies have alienated forest dwellers.

Firstly, the forest department has been claiming rights over a lot of land that has been distributed in recent years to landless and near landless peasants, mostly Kol tribals. With great difficulty they have made this land fit for cultivation and now the forest departments wants to evict them. This dispute extends to about 4,000 acres. A land distribution that was approved by one department of the government in now sought to be undone by another. The ABSSS is struggling to protect the land rights of the tribals and has got a stay order from the court.

Secondly, Ranipur sanctuary is being set up in this area and also a lot of restrictions are being placed on the right of tribals to meet their daily needs from these forests and to collect minor forest produce. This can cause a significant reduction in their livelihood possibilities. ABSSS wants to protect their traditional rights and livelihood based on these rights.

The ABSSS seeks to integrate livelihood protection of tribals with the regeneration of forests. But in the absence of wider efforts in the same direction, it is pushed into situations of confrontation. If anti-people forest policies are changed, the organisations like ABSSS will be able to realise their potential to the protection and regeneration of forests.

Education in Dacoit Land

The foremost challenge in taking education to all children exists in those areas where poverty and exploitation, remoteness and insecurity combine to make the task most difficult. Patha region (Mau and Manikpur blocks) of Chitrakoot district (Uttar Pradesh) is one such region where the Kol tribals living in remote hamlets have to face the repression of feudal landlords and the terror of dacoit gangs.

Until a decade ago most schools of this area were a dismal failure. Less than 20 percent of Kol children went to school. It was too much to except outside teachers to come regularly in an area living under terror of dacoit gangs. Kol children also faced discrimination at the hands of other children and even teachers. Several landlords ordered school children to clear up cow dung and carry out other dirty work for them. Thus education quite often turned out to be humiliation.

The Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan (ABSSS) started educational working in the area of education in 1989 with 576 students in 15 educational centres. At present 2,169 students (1,269 boys and 890 girls) are receiving education in 40 schools run by ABSSS. In the villages and hamlets covered by the educational programme, attendance has gone up significantly. Gopal Bhai, Director of ABSSS says, "Parents have willingly made adjustments in family life so that children can go to school. The work of looking after younger children and grazing cattle has been taken up place by elderly people. In some cases we have made adjustments by allowing children to bring their younger brothers and sisters with them to school."

Nandlal Kol who has a teacher himself says, "In the morning some children come early. We often form groups to walk around the school singing songs and shouting slogans. Their parents are very happy to see them walking in this prabhat feri. Some fathers feel a bit sheepish also when their children shout slogans against the hates of drinking and gambling. The best impact is on those lazy children who were somehow avoiding school or dilly-dallying. Hearing their friends sing in the prabhat feri they also get enthused and join the group. So the group has swelled to a large number."

ABSSS has made the educational work interesting by using stories, plays, role play and folk-songs. Discussion on poverty, its causes, social injustice is also encouraged. They are also taken to nearby post-office, railway station and police station to inform about their functioning. Children are also taken to nearby forest areas and given information about the various trees, plants and herbs. A visiting ayurvedic doctor found that children are well informed about the medicinal values of various herbs.

Almost every year ABSSS also organises a bal mela in which children come from far villages in large numbers, taking part in several sports, painting, music and other events.

Although ABSSS gives primary education to children it does not neglect adult education. So far about 1,000 adults have acquired literacy as a result of its efforts. Buti Kol was illiterate. Today after literacy at ABSSS she is a zila panchayat member.

Most of ABSSS schools are primary schools. About 300 students are being helped in further education. Nearly 30, including two graduate students are staying at the ABSSS campus in Ranipur Bhatt village. Achey Lal Kol says, "We don't want Kol children of the new generation to suffer what we have." There is a look of quiet determination on his face. Later inquiries revealed that his father had been murdered at the instance of feudal landlords because he had dared to assert the rights of Kol workers.

Gopal Bhai says, "Running an educational program in these remote, dacoit infested villages has never been easy, but all difficulties are compensated when I see the determination of students like Achey Lal Kol."

Bharat Dogra, Grassroots, December 1999

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