Backbone of Banda
Former teacher stands up to land sharks and mindless govt. machinery
"I felt strongly about the Kols' plight," says Gopal. "I saw how their lands were being taken away by force and fraud by cunning non-tribals. I was also struck by the resignation of the Kols to their fate."
On a winding track in a remote jungle near Rampuria, a village in Banda district of Uttar Pradesh, a group of Kol tribal women were carrying away firewood when they were stopped by forest officials who demanded money. The women offered a paltry sum, not satisfied the officials set fire to the wood. Worse followed; the officials turned up armed and drunk and molested some of the women. When the Kols protested by stoning and snatching the gun of the officials leader Uday Raj, the forest department filed an FIR claiming that the tribals had attacked its officers stopping them from taking forest produce away. Promptly, 40 tribals were arrested.
With no one else to turn to, the Kols approached the Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan (ABSSS), a non-governmental organisation headed by Gaya Prasad Gopal. The ABSSS first tried to tell the police what had really happened. When that failed, it organised the residents of Rampuria and the surrounding villages and held a dharna at Karvi, the nearest taluka headquarters. The district administration officials were forced to take note and Uday Raj was arrested and the tribals released.
Had it not been for Gopal and the ABSSS, the government would never have opened its eyes to the plight of the Kols. In fact, for many decades the Kols (who have not produced a graduate so far) had had no respite from the machinations of government officials and influential politicians until they found a saviour in Gopal. His organisation has been instrumental in setting up schools, drilling wells and helping the Kols regain lands which had been illegally taken away from them. Thanks to Gopal's efforts, the Kols are now independent and united to fight the injustice.
Born into a peasant family in Bighainia village, which lies in the area occupied by the Kols, Gopal had witnessed the deprivation of the Kols since childhood. "I felt strongly about their plights", says he. "I saw how their lands were being taken away by force and fraud by cunning non-tribals. I was also struck by the resignation of the Kols to their fate." The fact that his family's holdings were reduced from 40 bighas (not a large one considering the arid grid) to less than 15 bighas because of their growing indebtedness also struck a chord of sympathy in him for the Kols.
Gopal had come up the hard way. "My father could not afford to pay the fees for my education which at the primary level was 25 paise per month," he recalls. "But from a young age I was a decent singer. The principal of the village school, also a singer, liked me, and waived my fees. Later, a wealthy classmate and friend Chhotelal Tripathi supported me financially."
After graduating in 1961 from the nearby town of Atarah, Gopal worked in a rice mill in the same town for four years. Disgusted with the corrupt practices of the owner, he quit and started a school in Atarah-his first foray into social work. He left the school after working for 10 years as its principal to join the Sadguru Seva Sangh Trust (SSST) started by the Mafatlal group of industries.
Mafatlal's sudden interest in social work was flagged off by the government's decision to allow tax rebates to industrial houses if they funded rural development. Thus, like many groups funded by industrial houses, the SSST started schools and donated plots in select villages to grow trees.
"But in 1982 it all came to an abrupt end," says Gopal. "Indira Gandhi's government withdrew the tax deduction facility and promptly most industrialists, including the Mafatlals, ended their short foray into rural development, Twenty-two of us, who had worked for the Sadguru trust, felt that we should continue our efforts for the poor. I felt finally I had discovered my vocation in life. I had registered the ABSSS some years earlier but it had remained non-functional. We then decided to carry on under the ABSSS banner."
Using whatever little money it could raise from donations, the ABSSS started three non-formal schools for the Kols. A grant from the District Rural Development Agency helped it to function till 1989. Subsequently, Oxfam, Norad, CRY and Action Aid pumped in more money. "We are running 30 primary schools now," says Gopal. "In the schools the accent is not only to make the children literate but also to create an awareness of the world around them."
Whenever possible the schools conduct meetings for the adult Kols too. This has greatly boosted their confidence in facing the world. "Earlier, we would all run away if a jeep arrived in our village," says Nathu Prasad of Chooli village. "Today we have the confidence to face any official."
Indeed, the ABSSS is also behind the start of the Patta Kol Vikas Samiti (PKVS), an all-Kols set-up which operates 10 schools. "We provide the funds, but it is the Kols who take all the decisions," says Gopal. "We wanted them to take charge of their own future. The ultimate success will show when they are no longer dependent on agencies like us."
Economic uplift - to protect the Kols from exploitation is another key feature of the ABSSS's activities. Under one such scheme, the women, who used to cut prohibited forest wood and sold them in the towns of Banda and Karvi, have been employed to collect mahua flowers (from which intoxicants and herbal medicines are made). The flowers fetch Rs. 3 a kilo. "Most of the mahua brokers pay the same," says Rohini Gupta, in charge of the programme. "They store the mahua for three months till it dries, and then sell it at Rs. 5.50 a kilo, making a huge profit. We collected about 110 quintals of mahua last year, stored it and sold it at the same high price. We paid back half our profit to the women and put another 25 percent in their accounts which we opened for them. The remaining 25 percent went to the ABSSS's funds for emergency purposes."
Such initiatives against oppression and injustice are a regular feature of the ABSSS activities in Southern Uttar Pradesh. Says Vidyasagar Vajpai, ABSSS's assistant project director : "There are only two kinds of people here- a small section which is very rich, ruthless and influential (locally called the dadoos) and the majority of underdeveloped Harijans and Kols."
The dadoos, whose land holdings cover 300 to 500 acres, are usually members of political parties who terrorise villagers with their hired musclemen. Says Hariyali Singh Pankaj, an ABSSS worker: "They have managed to retain such huge holdings by benami transfers and fake agricultural cooperatives. Many Kols, on paper, are members of these cooperatives, and thus landowners. They are not even aware that land is being held in their names. Around 11,000 acres have been captured this way."
The few Kols who own land also face a peculiar situation created by the revenue department's archaic method of registration. It is characteristic of the area that each revenue plot number covers a large area of arable land, so that each plot is subdivided among several owners. But the precise area belonging to each owner is demarcated neither on the records nor on the ground. Says Vajpai: "Thus very often a poor peasant may develop a part of a plot, and may even sow seeds, only to be told later by some unscrupulous co-owner that his plot actually lies in another corner. The peasant is then driven away using muscle power and his crop is harvested."
"The most important problem in every village is the ownership of land," says Gopal. "We try to ensure that the land belongs to the person in whose name it is registered."
The ABSSS has now started marking out the plots with the help of revenue officials. It has also been building chowdas (shallow wells to hold water flowing down streams) and wells which are a boon in the poorly irrigated region. The Sansthan has even put up a check dam at Tikuri village.
Perhaps ABSSS's most important role, called gramin haqdari by its activists, is to ensure that the villagers are not cheated of their rights. "The most important problem in every village is the ownership of land," says Gopal. "We try to ensure that the land belongs to the person in whose name it is registered."
Thanks to the efforts of the ABSSS, a major scandal was uncovered in Neehi village. Influential dadoos has usurped 123 bighas by declaring their actual Kol owners dead and passing their henchmen off as the progeny of the Kols. "A central CID inquiry has been ordered," says Pankaj.
The ABSSS has also unearthed many instances of influential people, with the connivance of government and bank officials, taking loans in the names of Kols from various schemes meant for the uplift of the poor. "The Kols concerned don't got to know about it until a bank officer arrives to recover the loan," says Pankaj. "Often the Kol loses his land which is auctioned to pay off his debts".
The ABSSS has also brought cases of bonded labour to the attention of the authorities but action has rarely been taken to free the.
A bhoomi sudhar aur bhoomi awantan (land reform and land allotment) drive had been started in the Manikpur area during the BJP rule, but since many of the dadoos were connected with the party, it made little progress. However, with the programme continuing under the present government too, officials have become receptive. The ABSSS has helped restore 1,878 bighas to about 300 families in 20 villages.
Some Kols are now faced with the threat of eviction from the very land allotted to them in the mid-sixties, when Sucheta Kriplani was the chief minister. But subsequently, when the Ranipur reserve forest was notified in 1977, it encompassed the area given to the tribals - effectively turning the Kols into encroachers. "The revenue department admits that it was a mistake, but it can do nothing about it now because presidential sanction is necessary to deserve an area," says Pankaj.
The piquant situation is slowly turning into a nightmare for the Kols. The forest department has sent eviction notices to over 50 Kol villages falling under the notified area and has not been accepting revenue from these villages for the past four years. About half a dozen villages have already been cleared and the fate of the rest is sealed. Turned away from their only source of livelihood, the Kols are relying on Gopal to make the authorities see reason.
The ABSSS's good work has won it much acclaim and many powerful enemies. Despite the bureaucratic hurdles, corrupt politicians and unscrupulous businessmen, Gaya Prasad Gopal carries on the service doggedly.
Debashish Mukerji, The Week, May 26, 1995