When I first met them in 1985 they had no land of their own and were cultivating the side of a hill owned by the Forest Department in violation of the provisions of the Indian Forest Act 1927. This is one of the many colonial statutes that have been retained after independence. It makes the Adivasis who are mostly forest dwellers thieves in their own backyard. In Alirajpur during the 1950s, when the forests of the area were being assimilated into the Forest Department after the accession of the princely states into the Indian Union, the Adivasis were deprived of title to most of the land they were cultivating and left with only small parcels of land. The problem was compounded by the fact that the Adivasis practiced shifting agriculture at the time, had no recorded title to land and were not only illiterate but totally ignorant about the complexities of a modern centralised State system. The little bit of land that the Adivasis did get soon lost its fertility and they had to continue tilling that land as they could not shift to a new piece of land anymore. This combined with the loss of access to the forest for other uses and the penetration of the market economy and its frontmen, moneylending traders, soon pushed the Adivasis to the edge. So the Adivasis had no option but to illegally cultivate forest land by bribing thie Forest Department officials.
This is what Guthia and Chagdibai were also doing when I first met them. Initially the people in Attha and nearby villages used to pay bribes and also bear physical chastisement from the Department staff and there was no record that they were cultivating the land. Then they got organised under the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath from 1983 onwards and began fighting for their rights. However, once the Adivasis refused to pay the bribes, the Forest Department increased its legal and illegal opposition. On one occasion the Forest Department staff raided Guthia and Chagdibai while they were sowing the seed on their farm. Guthia and Chagdi somehow managed to free his bullocks and flee with them but they had to leave behind the plough and seeds which were confiscated by the Forest Staff and kept in another Adivasi's house as they went further inside the village to raid someone else. Guthia came running to the KMCS office and told me what had happened. I immediately told him to take me to the Adivasi's house where the confiscated plough and seeds had been kept and we recovered them and put them back in Guthia's house. Then Guthia, Chagdi, another Adivasi and I went off to the police station in Bakhatgarh all of thirteen kilometers away by foot and lodged a complaint against the Forest Department staff for harassing Guthia and Chagdi. To cut a long story short over the past thirty years this couple has been at the forefront of the Adivasis' fight for justice in Alirajpur. However, the point of this post is not this tenacity in battle on their part but their exemplary work as natural resource conservationists.
Guthia and Chagdi along with other families in Attha have been building gully plugs and farm bunds to conserve the soil that gets eroded from the hillside and also planting trees, bamboos to improve the biomass availability. They pool their labour and are thus able to do a considerable amount of such hard conservation work. The picture below is of the new farm that Guthia and Chagdi have filled out in the gully next to their original farm that is even more productive.