In 1984 a Bhil tribal, Lalia, was bleeding from his anus after having been brutally beaten up by a forest guard for not paying him a bribe for cultivating forest land. In a subsequent emergency meeting held by the people when they were hesitating to act in a concerted manner to demand cultivation of forest land as a right and take on the forest department, Lalia stood up painfully and said that he would commit suicide if no decisive action was taken as without the land he could not survive. That prompted the people to act cohesively and decisively leading to the formation of the trade union Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS). However, it was decided that just fighting for the right to cultivation would not do and it must go with a campaign for communitarian natural resource conservation works so as to improve the quality of the environment to which access had been gained and so contribute to long term sustainability.The Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra (DGVK), which was created for the purpose of conducting a movement for natural resource conservation, and the people have together waged a long campaign for forest rights and natural resource conservation that has finally come to fruition through a conjunctive implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act 2006 and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. From the beginning this programme has had huge women's participation because land and forest conservation contribute immediately to the reduction of drudgery for women. This lengthy and sustained process of women's mobilisation has led to the reduction in patriarchal oppression among the Bhils.
Khemraj, Amit Bhatnagar, Shankar Tadavla, Rahul Banerjee and Khemla Aujnaharia went about formalising the two institutions - Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra and Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath. Later Chittaroopa Palit, Jayashree Bhalerao, Bernadette D'Souza, Vidya Shah, Ashwini Chhatre, Amita Baviskar, Narendra Patil, Deshdeep Sahadev, Kemat Gavle and Ravi Hemadri too have played important roles. The subsequent development of these organisations has been a collective effort of these initial activists and the people of the area with everyone having made important contributions to the way in which the work has evolved to the present. Thus it is a collective innovation without any sole individual innovator. The combined effect of this communitarian innovation has been to uniquely synthesise the traditional anarchistic and environmentalist cohesiveness and cooperation of the Bhil tribals with the centralised liberal democratic rights based framework of the modern Indian political system. This is in fact the biggest challenge confronting humanity.
Financial innovation is also a characteristic of the functioning of these organisations. Seeing that the contributions from the people themselves and from well wishers was not sufficient to efficiently conduct a mass based rights programme the practice of doing funded research projects on the work being done on the ground was introduced. This not only built up the research capacity of the organisations but also led to better performance on the ground due to continuous analytical critiquing and review of the work being done. There are few mass rights organisations that have produced so much in house research as the Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra and Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath.
To create a wider support base for the organisations a branch office has been set up in the city of Indore which is equipped with a library, computers and internet connectivity. This office is housed in a green building which treats and recharges all the waste water and storm water and also the solid wastes and uses them to grow creepers that provide a green covering for the building and keep it cool during the summer. This reduces the energy consumption of the building. The video on this exemplary urban conservation effort of the organisation can be viewed here -http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQhZsRb5VM8&feature=mfu_in_order&list=UL
Unique Modus Operandi
The Bhils of KMCS have not only fought in an organised manner, both locally and through networking at the provincial, national and international level to get access to and control over natural resources but have also cooperated to conserve these resources, improved the quality of their agriculture and enhanced their livelihood opportunities. Simultaneouly this conservation has contributed to mitigation of climate change through an increase in forests and availability of water which has then been tapped using traditional water harvesting systems leading to a lesser use of artificial energy for irrigation. All this has been achieved by adhering to the prevailing legal system and also by networking with other organisations to bring new legislation in the form of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act and the Scheduled Castes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights Act (Forest Rights Act) to formalise these communitarian and conservationist efforts on a larger nationwide scale. The uniqueness is increased by the whole hearted participation of women in these efforts thus doubling the social energy involved in them. Women have also succeeded in reducing the patriarchal oppression that was traditionally a part of the Bhil tribal society through their greater participation in social, economic and political activities. This mobilisation effort thus synthesises the traditional small community cooperation of the Bhils with the legal, political and economic systems of a modern democratic state to evolve a liberating framework of action and conservation that is both equitable and sustainable.
The uniqueness therefore lies in synthesising traditional tribal communitarian modes of action with modern political modes of action while simultaneously challenging the traditional patriarchal structures to bring about a new paradigm of development that is socially, economically and politically equitable and environmentally sustainable.
Women took a leading role in the organisation process from its inception because they were suffering the most due to lack of access to forests and their continuous degradation. The most inspiring story is that of Raijabai of Kakrana village on the banks of the Narmada River. The people of that village had begun protecting their forests but people of nearby villages would come at night to cut the trees. Thus it was necessary to have someone police the forests at night also. Then Raijabai took the brave decision to stay in the forest itself and she and her husband constructed a hut there and went to live in it with their children. Whenever they saw somebody trying to cut the trees at night they would raise the alarm and then all the people from the village would come rushing. Even then on a few occasions the timber thieves attacked and injured them. Nevertheless undaunted Raija has gone on living in the forest which has now become a resplendent one.
Another example is that of Retli Ajnaria. She gave up her job as an anganwadi worker under the Integrated Child Development Scheme of the Madhya Pradesh government to become a full-time activist with the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath. Earlier Retli had devoted her energies to organising women in self help groups of ten or twelve members. She tried to introduce them to the idea of micro-credit, but their extreme poverty meant that they could save very little. Things changed drastically with the introduction of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Retli organised the women to apply for work and then made sure that work was provided. Apart from the employment it generated, it also helped create water and soil conservation structures, which have in turn resulted in higher agricultural productivity. This has meant more agricultural work for both men and women. She says “This scheme allows women to apply for work in a group of their own and then the payments are made directly into their bank accounts. With one stroke women get the work they want and also
the money without the involvement of any intermediaries. This gives them a tremendous sense of power.”
Jashmabai of Darkali village who has got work under MGNREGS due to the organisational abilities of Retli and other KMCS activists candidly explains why she likes the present situation, "Our men are wastrels, spending their time drinking or looting someone. So we decided to do something about it and found work here.”
This woman from the Bhilala tribal community speaks for many other women like her living in extreme poverty in a drought-prone region. They had few livelihood options. The land cannot
support most families here, because the soil in these small, fragmented homestead plots is poor and unproductive. The mahua trees and toddy palms that dot the region only serve to provide the local men with ample sources of liquor. Poverty and alcohol form a lethal cocktail in Darkali, which manifests itself in crime and violence. Women, as always, emerge from such a situation as the worst sufferers.
That is why it is the women who have been most enthusiastic about the implementation of this programme. Gamtibai, also of Darkali village, comes straight to the point, "The biggest advantage
for us is that men have now got some work to occupy themselves and keep them from fighting and looting each other. Only last year there was a murderous fight between two groups in our village and many men got seriously injured and landed up in jail. Now they
are all working together happily on the same earthen dam."
The path to this relatively happy situation was by no means smooth. Initially, local officials like sarpanches and panchayat secretaries actively dissuaded people from making applications for work schemes. Recalls Jashmabai of Darkali, "The local sarpanch, Ugarsingh, refused to accept our application for work, as did the panchayat secretary, Chandarsingh. Then we went, along with Retli-bai, to the local office to file our application there."
Even after the work was officially sanctioned, the sarpanch refused to initiate it. That was when Retli decided to go to the work site with the women, and start the work herself by carrying the soil dug out from the site on her head, along with the other workers. After three days of working like this, the sarpanch had to concede to the demand of the women. Now the situation has settled down, and all the wage payments barring the final instalment for the last fortnight of work which has just been completed have been made into the bank accounts of the workers. They even succeeded in getting a creche to look after the children of the women workers, with two women being paid to look after them.
Development projects in rural India have long been a source of corruption, with funds being regularly siphoned off at various levels by bureaucrats and politicians. The MGNREGS has tried to address this by instituting checks like social audits and making it mandatory for wages to be paid directly into bank accounts. But corruption still seeps in, with those in charge sometimes devising ingenious ways to cheat poor workers of their dues, either through personal intimidation or by manipulating registers. Here the vigilance of the KMCS and its activists like Retli along with the villagers ensures that the benefits do accrue to the people.
The term gender bender applies to those who behave in a way that is different from the gender assigned to them at birth and generally applies to men who behave like women and women who behave like men in physical and sexual terms. However, the term could also be extended to include those who rebel against the social roles assigned to them by a patriarchal social system. Women like Retli are defying the restricted role given to them by society and taking advantage of new legal provisions under the Forest Rights Act, Panchayati Raj Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to ensure greater mobility and rights for women. Actualising Women's Resource Zones is the next step and requires higher skills. Such WRZs have to be implemented and from this experience I am sure a workable model will emerge.
While greater participation by women in the public sphere does improve their status in society and some women like, Retli, Vina and Daheli have indeed become quite powerful vis a vis their own husbands and the males as a whole they are still handicapped by the gender division of labour. Women still have to do the care work and also domestic work like cooking and wahsing. This takes up a considerable amount of time of the women and often they have to forego public work. This is in fact a problem that most women are faced with and in the case of poor Bhil women it is even more acute as they tend to have at least three or four children if not more. The solution of course is that men should take on equal responsibility for care and domestic work but given the patriarchal taboo against men doing such work this is very difficult. The Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath has tried to do something in this regard and the village leaders and tribal activists at least do put in some work at home in care and domestic work but there is still a long way to go.
Problems, Actions and Impact