By Debika Goswami
On a cloudy September afternoon, our auto-rickshaws entered the lanes of a temporary housing settlement colony of adivasis (tribals), situated at 10km distance from Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, India. As Sehgal Foundation’s eleven-person governance team climbed out of the rickshaws, we found a group of tribal men and women welcoming us with red kumkum tikas (powder marks on the forehead), which they put to show respect. Their faces showed determination and expressions of solidarity.
Soon Kesar Devi, the woman leading the group started telling us the stories of their struggle to get land rights in their native village, Deli. These tribal families had been living in Deli for ages, before migrating to the temporary settlement colony. However, they did not have the legal rights to the land on which they were living. When they demanded the legal rights to their land, it led to fights with the panchayat (village council) members, local block officials, and district administration. As it became hard for them to live under constant threats, they migrated from their native place to a temporary settlement colony a few kilometers away from Deli. Kesar Devi told us stories about how hard it is to ask for your dues from people in power.
When the team visited two other villages in the vicinity, the adivasi residents of these villages narrated similar tales of landlessness and loss of identity.
Fortunately, these tribals found a friend in Ekta Parishad, a federation of community-based organizations, operating in 20,000 villages of eleven states of India. Ekta Parishad helps mobilize, empower, and unite tribal people, so they can demand their land rights.
The process of mobilizing tribals starts with biweekly meetings between small groups of men and women. The objective of these meetings is to initiate discussions on issues and points of action. An amount of Rs. 10 and small quantities of vegetables are collected from each tribal household to create the gram kosh (village fund) and the anaj kosh (grain bank) for those in dire need. The koshadhyaksha (cashier), preferably a woman, manages the resources.
People like Katori Devi, the koshadhyaksha of Lakhanpur village, situated near Jhansi, are giving recognition to this community-based model. She performs her responsibilities voluntarily as the manager (grain and money). Her illiteracy does not get in the way of performing her duties. She learns about maintaining records from the village youth. “Aapne jameen aur haq ke liye hum bahut door taak jane ke liye raazi hain (We will fight for our land and our rights),” said Katori Devi.
During the week-long trip, the Sehgal Foundation team also visited the historically famous Chanderi town, situated in Ashoknagar district of Madhya Pradesh. The natural beauty of the place – its hills, lakes, forests, and rivers – fascinated all of us.
In Chanderi, the team interacted with the managers and the weavers of Chanderiyaan initiative– an e-commerce portal highlighting the richness of weaving and design patterns of the region. The Chanderi weavers operate and manage the initiative to spread information among their community. Its main objective is to promote online marketing of products to benefit weavers by cutting down the intermediaries’ margins.
Moving ahead, the team reached Chanderi Ki Awaaz, a community radio station. It aims to reach out to every village and panchayat (village council) members of Chanderi with the information on their legal rights and entitlements, as well as health and sanitation. The preservation of folk culture and local talent is a major focus area of Chanderi Ki Awaaz.
Overall, the trip was an opportunity for the Sehgal Foundation team to learn from other community initiatives. We realized that the passion behind these small initiatives drives them to success.