Living in hope

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There are many small, vulnerable, forest communities in India, which are facing threat to their very existence because of depletion of forests and their livelihoods based on these natural resources. How can we help them?

In 1982, when three youngsters motivated with high ideals but having nil resources settled down in a village inhabited by the weakest and the most vulnerable community of their area, they could hardly have imagined that their small hesitant step would one day become the biggest hope for this community. But yes, this is exactly the reality after 33 years of dedicated work. Now ‘Sankalp’, the organisation founded by the three inexperienced youth – Mahesh Bindal, Motilal and Neelu – has become a source of strength for the badly exploited Sahariya tribe, the only officially recognised primitive tribe in Rajasthan, which is concentrated in Shahbad and Kishanganj tehsils of Baran district.

Till just a few decades back, when there was abundant vacant lands, the Sahariyas were masters of all that they surveyed, and practised shifting cultivation. But with changing times, they had to give it up and due to their lack of understanding of the formal/legal system (as well as the land-grab tactics pursued by influential persons and groups), the Sahariyas lost most of their land. Their forest rights were also curtailed, and in any case, with the depletion of forests, the prospects of livelihood based on collecting forest produce dwindled rapidly.

In this dismal situation, Sankalp is making efforts (including taking legal action), to ensure that Sahariyas’ land rights are better protected and they don’t have to face frequent eviction drives. In addition, Sankalp has played a leading role in the acceptance of a ‘forest enclosures’ scheme in which forest protection committees of Sahariyas get access to minor forest produce and grass of enclosed forest areas. They were paid legal wages for soil and water conservation work, digging trenches and constructing boundary wall, while at the same time they contributed voluntary work for planting and protecting trees. Sankalp’s campaign for livelihood rights of Sahariyas has been helped by a project supported by UNDP for natural resource management, which enabled the organisation to try several innovative ideas in organic farming, medicinal plants, afforestation and related issues.

An acute drought situation in the year 2002 accentuated hunger and malnutrition among the Sahariyas and other vulnerable groups to such an extent that many hunger deaths were reported. This was the time when Sankalp assembled all its reserves of strength, and all its human and material resources to campaign for the food rights of the most vulnerable people. The need for stepping up relief work, improving the public distribution system, making available concessional and free grain to the poorest families, improving the functioning of nutrition and health programmes like ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) were emphasised in this campaign.The government responded quite well and in the span of a few months, a discernible change could be seen in many hamlets of Sahariyas and other vulnerable groups which now had reasonable stocks of grain. Sankalp also started nutrition centres at about 40 places. These centres made an important contribution to meeting the nutrition needs of some of the most vulnerable families at a very difficult time.

This campaign also helped to widen the horizons of Sankalp activists and prepared them for the important supportive role they played later in the national campaigns for right to information and rural employment guarantee laws.This phase of Sankalp work also saw increasing mobilisation of Sahariya women and the formation of the Jagrat Mahila Sangathan. An activist of Sankalp, Charumitra, played a very important role in this. She worked day and night for the growing unity and strength of Sahariya women in overcoming many problems. This unity was badly needed when Sankalp took up its most difficult but successful task of release and rehabilitation of a large number of bonded labourers.

Recently, Sankalp suffered from two big tragedies. Motilal, the founder member and secretary of Sankalp, died suddenly on September 23. Earlier, Charumitra had died at a young age, creating a void which is hard to fill. It is time now for other activists to contribute more to continue this work which brought new hope to Sahariya tribals.


Bharat-Dogra-C

Bharat Dogra

Bharat Dogra is a Delhi-based freelance journalist who writes on social concerns.

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