For the first time in the tribal areas! the flyer proclaimed, Gram Sabha as per the PESA Act! We were being offered front row seats to history and we weren’t going to miss it. Over two weeks in February, a series of Gram Sabhas were taking place in this tribal belt and we took the opportunity to attend the one on 16 February in Vanabarangipadu, G Madugula Mandal, Visakha District in the Eastern Ghats (తూర్పు కనుమలు) of Andhra Pradesh. We took two overnight trains, reached Anakapalle by 6 am and met senior journalist Tankashala Ashok who had travelled by the same train from Hyderabad. Together we went to the Sri S.R. Sankaran Sramika Vidya Sikshana Kendram in Achayyapeta on the outskirts of Anakapalle, where we met P. Ramalakshmi, who works with construction workers and Ajay Kumar who had trained the tribal villagers in understanding and implementing such laws as the Forest Rights Act and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, also known as PESA. Now they would put their training to the test by conducting a Gram Sabha, or village council meeting, passing and recording the resolutions, communicating the to the concerned departments and following through to see that the decisions were implemented. Topmost on the agenda was seeing that their land rights were recognized.
It was not so much them, but the government that would be put to the test. Would they at last grant their land rights and implement government schemes to which the villagers were entitled, including basic drinking water and anganwadi services?
After admiring the newly constructed Sikshana Kendram and freshening up (which is the most fun part as one gets a spectacular view from the ceiling-less bathrooms), we piled into the van for a three hour journey up the hills, culminating in a 45-minute walk at the end where the van could not go.
As my daughter wrote in her notes on the trip, “Whew! No car-sickness while walking.”
She wrote another line in her notebook: “It is kind of weird that someone from Anakapalle would go and help the villagers conduct a Gram Sabha. Shouldn’t they conduct it themselves?
[I am tempted to insert an aside on Anakapalle whose name often supplies the punch line of stories in lines such as “America ninchi vacchava, Anakapalle ninchi vacchava?” (Have you come from America or Anakapalle?), but shall refrain. Suffice it to say that as a town with a train station, namely the station where we woke up after laying ourselves down to sleep in Hyderabad, it counted in Khiyali’s estimation as on part with a city.]
The prosaic answer to her question was that while the villagers do have their own ways of meeting, deciding, planning and resolving disputes, the central and state governments have drafted, in consultation with village representatives, a set of rules for conducting Gram Sabhas. For their resolutions to carry weight outside of their village, at every level of government, they would need to abide by these rules. Ministry Rules | Government of Andhra Pradesh Rules.
The reason they needed to pass resolutions and delineate their land claims was to prevent them from being acquired and abused by outside forces, had these outside forces not been involved in violating their rights, then perhaps they would not be required to help safeguard them.
A more meaningful answer is that we have a lot to learn from the villagers and the decades long struggle that has led to this moment, not only in Andhra but in tribal areas throughout the India. I thought of the meetings in the Narmada Valley where we had joined the villagers in declaring “Hamare Goan mein Hamara Raj!” we were opposing the power of state and central governments to make decisions that deprived people in the village of their land and livelihoods without so much as consultation let alone consent. What gives some body in Mumbai or Delhi the right to approve a project to build a dam that would flood all of our villages and leave us homeless and without any means of survival? they asked. In the name of development we are losing land, forests, archeological heritage, many species of animals and ethnic communities with their own languages and lores. How can such a destructive project even be called development? Raising these questions from the local to the national and global level, natural resource-based communities had asserted time and time again, we should have the right to decide what kind of development we want and no one should take our land, water or forest without our consent.
Respecting this view, the World Commission on Dams recommended in its report that a project would require the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities whose lands or livelihoods it would affect. Without that consent, the project would not be considered approved.
Next question – how would tribal villagers claim their land rights? This has never been easy. How many miles had they walked from one office to another, individually and en masse, in an effort to have their rights to live on their land recognized by the state? Perhaps hundreds of miles per household. Even one such march to the Tehsildar’s office stretches over several hours on hilly terrain. And nothing gets done in one day or one march. I had marched up the Satpura hills with the adivasis of the Narmada Valley to Dhadgaon in September 2002, where they raised the issue of land rights for 73 villages, that had remained pending for decades in spite of surveys and applications being done.
The Forest Rights Act was meant to make this process straightforward, but the experiences of the people who tried to claim their rights shows that it was anything but. The Report of the Council for Social Development summarizes the opinion of several organizations concerned that the Forest Rights Act has not achieved its objective and that it is being “undermined by a combination of apathy and sabotage during the process of implementation.” In Andhra Pradesh, people in the tribal villages of Visakha District have been struggling for implementation of this Act and in a public hearing held at Andhra University in Visakhapatnam, raised some of the specific issues that they faced.
Adivasis March 25Km to Demand Land Titles Under FRA (July 2013)
Notes from Public Hearing on Forest Rights Act (November 2013)
Public Hearing on Forest Rights Act Press Clippings (November 2013)
Training Centre to Equip Workers with Knowledge (February 2014
Meet Held on Conduct of Gram Sabhas (February 2015)
An important piece of the puzzle in implementing the Forest Rights Act is the Gram Sabha, which is assigned a key role in determining land claims, distinguishing common land from private land and converting the documentation, including maps, kept at the village level into the formats prescribed by the state. The villagers had been trained in the law and procedures through the RDSS by Ajay Kumar, both in the field and at the newly constructed training center in Achayyapeta near Anakapalle.
When we reached the village we were most warmly and ceremonially welcomed with drums and blessings from the villagers. We were one hour late and one of the women who came started having contractions and went home. The women of her village went with her. We quickly reached the venue and Ajay Kumar introduced us as observers who could be called upon if needed, to confirm that the Gram Sabha had indeed taken place. We settled into place and listened to the village youth explain the agenda in the local language, Kui. They appointed members for the Forest Rights Committee and took care of other business. Some of this was:
They fed us a sumptuous lunch of locally harvested rajma. They showed us a distant hill on which, they said, was a temple for Matsya Devi. They grew samalu, or Little Millet in the fields and in front of their houses we could see turmeric laid out to dry. A woman was pounding rice on her porch.
Afterwards we strolled around the village where a steady stream of women were walking back and forth to the two main water sources, one a large well and another a trickle down the slope that was concentrated in a bamboo pipe for easy collection. Some took their washing along with them. It was a lovely walk, especially when we had neither laundry nor water to collect. Of course the girls and women collecting it were stronger and more practiced in balancing the pots, and even paused for conversation when they met others along the way.
Before leaving I was given a chance to speak and I appreciated the villagers for staying the course, long and arduous though it had proved to be, to claim their rights. I encouraged the women to participate and be part of the committees such as the Atavi Hakkula Committee that would work on implementing the Forest Rights Act. All the women I had seen all day collecting water in the forest, needed to have a say in protecting that forest.
And how would all the people including the elders benefit from interactions with the wider world, exposure to different ideas, modern facilities and also retain the values that have enabled them to sustain their natural resources and nourishing traditions over all these generations? Though they grow millets in their own fields and pound rice on their own porches, they had served us white rice, less nutritious (but more prestigious) than either of these. They don’t have to buy millets in the market, they grow and eat them. Everyone can afford them. But do they value them? Their shops sell packaged biscuits and I saw wrappers on the side of the road. While the anganwadi is meant to improve their food security, will it serve local whole grains or refined and packaged foods? Is it inevitable that they will leave their land, water and food traditions, adopt the refined-industrial food values and then, perhaps, only in later generations try to recover them, this time at high prices such as what we in the cities pay?
With many new questions to ponder, we started back down the hill to catch the van back to Anakapalle. A few days later the newly appointed members of the Atavi Hakkula Committee also travelled to Anakapalle to attend training at the SR Sankaran Workers’ Training Center. Tribal youth from the district attended a camp in Chintapalli to build solidarity and learn more about the constitution and their responsibilities and rights.
Will this herald a new chapter in the long struggle for democracy at the village level? Having invested so much sweat into bringing the process to this stage, I could sense that the people were strong enough to keep going, come what may.
For further reading
Campaign for Survival and Dignity: The Forest Rights Act
Government of India: Forest Rights Act: A Weapon for Democracy in the Forest
Survival International: India’s Forest Rights Act
International Rivers Network: Summary of World Commission on Dams Framework