From Pune we took a long drive to our next region Khandesh. We drove about 300 km before we reached Nandurbar. Pratibha Shinde was our host and she had put together an interesting program for us through Khandesh. Nandurbar is bordering Gujarath and Madhya Pradesh and this is a belt of Bhils and Bhilalas. Bhil and Bhilala adivasis are divided into Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Now there is a growing movement demanding a ‘Bhilkhand.’ Compared to many other adivasi groups Bhils and Bhilalas are very militant and they have a history of fighting for their dignity and their land. At this point, the leaders of the movements are lying low. It is difficult to say when the movement will become vibrant again.
We were part of a rally in Jalgaon. In a place called Yaval, we walked a kilometer with the adivasis to the campus of the tribal development officer. This was a very interesting experience. All the tehsil level officials and the adivasis sat together and had a long interaction on the issue of implementation of the Forest Rights Act. Adivasis were agitated about the rejection of their application for land under the FRA and the notices that were issued to evict them from their lands. In the beginning the officials were trying to justify their position but towards the end of the day the officials were yielding to the argument and pressure from the people and they agreed to correct the records and withdraw the notices. This was a real good example of people’s power over state power. Some time back in Madhya Pradesh Ekta Parishad was able to organize similar programs in villages like Lahroni where the entire government system acted according to the directions given by the local people and as a result 950 bhigas of land was returned to the adivasis with standing crops and tube wells. The more we are able to make this happen, the better the situation will be for the people.
In Jogde village of Malegaon taluk of Nasik district the farmers were agitated because of the land acquisition for the Mumbai-Delhi industrial corridor. Land acquisition is a big problem in Maharashtra. We saw the same thing happening in Raigarh and Thane. There are hundreds of projects and each one of them demands land of the farmers. There are ways and ways to evict the farmers from their land and acquire it for some project. Very often this is done by MIDC (Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation). They purchase the land from farmers for a cheap price but then sell it to companies for a higher price. This is how the government is making huge amount of revenue. In Andhra Pradesh we have examples where the land was taken for 15000-18000 per acre from the farmers and the same was sold off to companies for 6-10L per acre. In Jhogde the government did not give ‘Section 4’ notice to the farmers which is a usual practice for acquiring land. Instead they stamped a seal on the land-record of every farmer, preventing them from selling their land or applying for a loan from banks. The farmers are resisting the non-consultative process of the government in acquiring land for infrastructural development. This high-handed behaviour government is being criticized but the government is going ahead without any consideration. Only through a large people’s organization, can such a trend can be averted. We were witnessing similar situation across Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Goa. This is a trend and unless we are able to stop this trend, it will difficult to protect the farmers and villages of India.
We entered into the region called Marathwada through Aurangabad. Aurangabad is an international destination as it is the closest city to Ajanta and Elora caves. Whether they are a national city or an international city, all cities looked nearly the same. They are overcrowded, they are dirty, and you can see plastic and waste littered all around, people do not follow traffic rules, pedestrians and cyclists will have to struggle in order to get back to their homes safely. Women, children and physically-challenged people will find the cities unbearable. Other than meeting a large number of women who are generally classified as urban poor and understanding their problems, we were also taken to a place where houses were demolished by the municipality. Poor people with their hard earned money somehow managed to make a small shelter for themselves which they called their house. Among poor people, there is a strange notion of a house. Even a hall without windows and toilets will be called a house. People are desperate to have a house of their own so you can have a house without a piece of land. Land is so expensive that poor people cannot even dream of buying it. About 119 families had constructed their so-called houses along the gutter and they were shocked when they saw huge bull-dozers and machines coming to destroy their houses. People could not resist as the machines came with a large number of policemen. Those who resisted were beaten up, their belongings were thrown out. Even women were abused. As I kept hearing their story one after another, I felt deeply ashamed. In a country where the state cannot provide anything, how can they destroy what the people have created through their sweat and labour ? I understood that some political leaders were trying to help a powerful builder by demolishing all their houses. This is nothing new in India. Almost everyday such a thing is happening in different parts of the country. Demolishing a slum is a big project, especially in big cities. Once the slums are demolished, the builders can move in and when the building is ready, middle class and upper middle class can move in too. If you look at a city like Mumbai, you will see that this is a battle field between the slums and the high-rise buildings. Though we had a very good time in Aurangabad, when we moved out the next day afternoon, we were deeply saddened by our visit to the site where the demolition took place and also with our meeting with the urban poor. Of course there are many interesting social workers in Aurangabad who are involved in these struggles and it is important to back them up in order to strengthen their work.
One issue that is cutting across Marathwada is the issue of Gairan or ‘grazing’ lands. In almost every district there is a particular type of land called Gairan land. Marathwada was part of the Nizam state of Hyderabad. The Nizam had set-aside large areas of land for the use of marginalized people but in the course of time, this land was also occupied by powerful lobbies or the government took it for infrastructural development activity. If the rulers of the modern state were sincere about their commitment to give land to the poor they would have redistributed this land to the poor people. Unfortunately all the land earmarked for the poor is being used by the powerful lobbies by further depriving them what is legitimately theirs. We saw the same thing with Panchami land in Tamil Nadu, assigned land in Andhra Pradesh and now with Gairan land in Maharashtra. The time wasted by the government in explaining that there is no land for redistribution because of popular explosion could have been used to settle the claims of those who are living on Gairan lands and have submitted all their documents in proper format with the government for consideration. The entire journey from Kanyakumari to Marathwada has convinced me that the problem is not lack of land for redistribution but lack of political will.
We were very pleased by a mass organization called Manav Haq Abhiyaan who are concentrating on the issue of Gairan land. They are systematically approaching this issue by documenting all the cases, by giving protection to those who occupied the land, by organizing rallies, dharnas and campaigns to draw the attention of the government on the issue of land distribution. They are also setting up women’s savings bank to provide them with loans for developing their lands, constructing houses etc. This is a very vibrant organization that cuts across the entire Marathwada region and also into some districts of Vidharbha. Marathwada can be a good show case for resolving Gairan land issue. Government is only responsible to give the land. The organization is taking the other part of the responsibility: to develop and make the land useful. This is where the government imagination is lacking. If they have partners like Manavi Haq Abiyaan who are willing to go door to door, spend time and resources to put together all supporting documents and also to work with the banking system once the land is given to create credit facilities to the farmers to develop their land, then it is the most ideal situation for land-reforms. Every government in this country should learn to work with social movements in solving people’s problems so that confrontation can be avoided. There is nothing wrong in accepting that voluntary bodies have greater enthusiasm and commitment when it comes to reaching out to the poor. Unfortunately the government officials lack motivation to reach out to and are held captive by people with money and power. Part of Vidharbha is also facing the problem of Gairan land and Gairan related struggles. As a result Manav Haq Abhiyaan has extended their field of work to Amaravati and other districts of Vidarbh as well.
Vidarbha is a challenging place. My experience with Vidarbha is very old. As a student, I stayed in Wardha during 1976-68. That was the first time I was introduced to Vidarbha. Entering into Vidarbha was like entering into a known territory. But the Vidarbha I knew and the Vidarbha of today are very different. Now Vidarbha is known for farmer’s suicide. The region has been in the media for the wrong reasons for too long. Part of Vidarbha is also affected by Naxalism. In the early years we always thought that places like Sevagram and Paunar where Gandhiji and Vinobha ji lived and worked will shape the future of Vidarbha. But after so many years if Vidarbha is only know for violence and suicide there is something deeply wrong in our approach as civil society as well as in our governance. As I was travelling through Akola, Amaravathi, Wardha, Yavatmal and Chandrapur, I was constantly reflecting on this tragedy. Today’s life is totally disconnected from history. The concept of self-governed and self-sufficient villages, the concept of rural economy or the idea of bottom-up approach are all discourses of the past. Today’s reality is just the opposite. BT cotton has come in a big way. The companies are competing to market their seeds. Soya bean is occupying large areas of land. Sugarcane is major portion of the agricultural production of this region. These are all cash crops. People are no longer growing what they eat but are growing for the market. I was reminded of the old slogan where we used to say that agriculture is for our stomach and not for the businessman. Now everything is for business and nothing is for the stomach. Farmers do not have control over their seeds. The companies are dictating terms in terms of the fertilizers, seeds and produce. And the same market is dictating the price of the product. This is an uneven playing field and farmers are defeated again and again. Ultimately many of them decide to end this game by ending their life.
In Yavatmal I spoke with a group of social workers in a discussion to understand how to address the question of farmer suicides. According to them only through a process of awareness building, will people understand the trap in which they are, work to get out of the trap, produce food-crops and protect their soil for the next generation. The Adivasi belt in India is revolting because they think all their resources are being grabbed by powerful lobbies. A visit to Chandrapur will confirm this analysis. This mounting dissatisfaction among the adivasis is being used by armed groups to establish themselves. As I am writing this piece, I am travelling through the mining belt of Chandrapur. My colleague Ravi said that these people are digging one mountain in order to create another mountain. Everything is black all around. Huge trucks are speeding on the road, transporting iron ore and coal. In this completely polluted environment, you can see small villages of adivasis. One will wonder, how can people live in this pollution? What will be their health condition? How many of them will be affected by Tuberculosis? How many women will be pushed into prostitution? A rough estimate shows that about 92,000 villages have disappeared in India. They have gone into the belly of huge mining projects, highways, dams, urbanization. Any sensible person will revolt against this process. Initially people will revolt non-violently, then they will take shelter with the armed groups. This is our own creation. Is there anyone listening among the planners and decision makers who can take some time to rethink the model we have adopted? Just like the farmer needs to go back to traditional agricultural practices in order to protect her land and agriculture ,the corporate houses also need to go back to the drawing board and rethink their principles, processes and develop newer principles in order to protect the environment and the people of this country. I am told that a cement factory is coming up somewhere near Gandhi ji’s ashram in Sevagram. The ashram is a point of inspiration for many. There is a stream of people coming from India and abroad to draw inspiration from this small hut. This place is also treated as a heritage place. The pollution from this factory can destroy the ashram and its environment. Anyway a country that is committed to destroy Gandhi and his philosophy can of course destroy this small memorial. But by destroying, where are we heading to ? Maybe this is a path towards self-destruction. My American friend Leo Ellison once told me that the human race is suffering from suicidal tendancies. All that you see around, are basically a preparation in this direction. I think Leo is correct otherwise why should human beings be destroying all the mountains, all the water sources, all the soil and the entire environment? I can only wish that the people of our planet will become wiser and behave differently in their own interest.