Monday, April 22, 2013


By Kalyani Menon- Sen

The Kaimur region encompasses four districts of the State of Uttar Pradesh in India. Situated on the eastern border of the State, this area is defined by the thickly forested Kaimur hill range, which spreads over nearly 7000 square kilometers and extends into the neighboring States. The area is rich in mineral resources – primarily coal and iron ore – and is dotted with mines and power plants.
 On paper, almost half of this region is classified as forest land and is under the control of the Forest Department. In reality, as much as 40 percent of the area classified as forest does not have a single tree and has been under cultivation for at least a century. Despite the enactment of land ceiling legislation and a stated policy of distributing ceiling-surplus land to landless cultivators,  the dominant castes continue to control huge holdings. The Dalits and Adivasis of the Kaimur region are primarily wage workers, scratching out a precarious existence on tiny plots of degraded land while living in perpetual fear of eviction by the Forest Department which has proclaimed them illegal occupants of forest land. 

The situation of Dalits and Adivasis in Kaimur today must be understood in its historical context. Many of these communities were forest-dwellers in the past, living in tiny hamlets and carrying out subsistence agriculture in natural clearings. Although technically subjects of the zamindars, their way of life was largely allowed to continue until the forests themselves came under attack and large-scale felling began, fueled by the demand for timber generated by the expanding railway network. The landowners now incorporated the cleared forest land into their agricultural holdings, and the erstwhile forest-dwelling communities became bonded cultivators. With the passage of the Forest Act in 1933, the government assumed ownership of  private forests but no compensation was paid to the forest-dwelling communities, who were forced to abandon their hamlets and move from village to village as more and more forest land came under the control of the Forest Department.

The land reform legislation enacted at Independence, while intended to benefit the landless, actually worked against their interests. The landowners adopted every tactic they could to subvert the “land to the tiller” policy – huge holdings were parcelled out on paper to various members of the extended family, some unproductive or non-agricultural land was surrendered to the government with great fanfare, and communities who had been living and working on the same tiny farms for generations were evicted to neutralise the possibility that they would press their legitimate claims as tillers.

These are the communities who in 2000 organised themselves under the banner of the Kaimur Kshetra Mahila Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Samiti (Struggle Committee of Women, Farmers and Workers of the Kaimur region). They are among the poorest of the poor in this State which is home to the largest segment of India's poor. The region which they inhabit ranks among the lowest on all indicators of human development. The dominant castes exercise near-absolute power and control both the administration and public services. Dalit and Adivasi children seldom complete even primary school, and Dalit families have little or no access to health and social services. There are a few NGOs who function mainly as subcontractors for government programmes and whose interventions do not cover so-called forest villages.

Forest-dwelling  communities are also exploited by the Forest Department. Although the land they cultivate is unforested and severely degraded – and has been so for generations – they do not have legal title to it and are constantly threatened with eviction or legal action and forced to pay protection money to petty officials to deflect the false cases of illegal felling and timber theft that are filed against them. The caste and economic solidarity between the landlords, forest officials and police – who constitute the core of the powerful 'timber mafia' in the state - renders Dalit and Adivasi communities even more vulnerable to extortion and brutal violence. The fact that the Kaimur forests spill over into the neighbouring State of Jharkhand, much of which is under the control of Maoist insurgent groups waging war against the Indian State, increases the vulnerability of these communities – any young man or boy who oversteps the caste line can be picked up by the police and held in jail indefinitely under charges of being a Maoist rebel. Custodial deaths are common and are overlooked if not condoned even by the judicial system and the media.  

The first organised action by the women of the Kaimur region was a spontaneous protest in Basoli village, where two children and a woman were killed as Forest Department officials tried to demolish the Adivasi hamlet and plant trees in its place.  The women of Basoli reacted with rage, blocked the road and prevented the demolition by physically chasing away the officials. This was the first time the Adivasis had resisted eviction. The news spread fast and women from surrounding villages, all of which were under attack by the Forest Department, collected at Basoli and decided to organise and start reclaiming their traditional lands which the Forest Department was trying to prevent them from cultivating. Almost overnight, about 1500 acres of land in these six villages was ploughed and planted with lentils and oilseeds. The women took turns living in huts in the fields to protect the crops. As many as 200 cases were filed against them under the Forest Act, but the women refused to back down and successfully harvested the crop.

This success galvanised women across the region, who began emulating the same tactics in other villages. In the next season, the women managed to plough and plant more than 20 square kilometres of land, and refused to budge even when confronted by the Forest Department and armed police, resisting  physical attacks with the sheer force of numbers. Several women and children were injured in one incident of unprovoked firing by the police in 2003. Efforts to file a case against the assailants and move the courts for protection proved useless – the police, landlords and Forest Department officials formed a united front against the women who stuck stubbornly to their slogan: “We have only taken back what was always ours – we will never give up this land”.

The movement to reclaim land was growing in scope and scale, and was gaining support from other people's organisations and rights groups (although local NGOs preferred to keep a safe distance!).  The  women cultivated the land collectively, with the men being involved only in ploughing. The women handled the rest of the work and guarded the crop with their lives. Despite the fact that the region has experienced severe drought for the last five years, this degraded and neglected land has shown good yields of traditional varieties of dryland crops such as pulses and oilseeds. The income is equally shared among all the women involved, after setting aside a certain percentage for the organisation. In most cases, this fund is used to meet the expenses of fighting the hundreds of court cases that have been filed against the organisation by the Forest Department and the District Administration.

The passage of a landmark legislation in December 2006 - the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (popularly known as the Forest Rights Act) – was a watershed event in the history of this region. The result of a decade-long campaign and sustained advocacy by a coalition of activist groups under the banner of the National Forum of Forest Peoples and Forest Workers (NFFPFW), this legislation is an attempt to redress the injustices perpetrated on Adivasis and other forest dwellers across the country while  recognising their traditional rights and  roles as ethical custodians and efficient managers of forest resources.      

The declaration in August 2007 by the newly-elected Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh – herself a Dalit woman heading the largest Dalit political formation in the history of the country - that forest-dwellers would be given formal titles to their lands – brought matters to a head. The women decided that they would immediately occupy all the lands that they could establish as having been wrongfully claimed by the Forest Department. As the movement intensified, with more than 20,000 acres of degraded land being ploughed and planted, reprisals became more brutal. Hundreds of young Adivasi boys were arrested as suspected Maoists, and there were several instances of police violence against women. The wave of state violence was fiercely resisted by the women and culminated in the arrest of three of the frontline leaders of the movement. These three women were accused of inciting communities to overthrow the state by grabbing government land. One woman was charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and held without bail – the first time this law had been used against a woman.

The arrests sparked wide outrage and sparked a national protest led by the Forest People's and Workers Forum and joined by many other people's movements. An appeal to the Chief Minister resulted in the women's release and an order to the district administration to legalise land occupied and farmed by tribal communities and distribute land titles to the tillers. The movement still faces opposition and reprisals by the police and district administration, but is pushing ahead regardless with the women determined to take full advantage of a supportive and sympathetic government at the State level. While the leaders have been released, many of the cases filed against them under the Forest Act have not yet been withdrawn.

Although the district administration is now offering to register land titles in the joint names of husband and wives, it is striking that the women continue to oppose this and are demanding collective titles in the name of the organisation. They insist that land is a collective common resource. They strongly oppose the idea of private ownership, seeing it as the root of the destructive cycle of greed, appropriation and exploitation that has destroyed the forests and their traditional way of life. “Our survival depends on the forest, and the forest depends on us” they say.

Interestingly, this is a view not always shared by the men of these communities, who have proved highly susceptible to bribery and persuasion by the Forest Department and landlords and have often tried to persuade their wives into accepting individual titles.

With a membership of more than 10,000, the Kaimur women's organisation has now become powerful enough to negotiate directly with the district administration and is now demanding access to public services and enforcement of the minimum wage legislation. They have confronted caste oppression, filing cases against landowners and officials from the dominant caste. These dominant communities, including the politically powerful Yadavs, now generally steer clear of angering them.  The organisation has taken a conscious decision to provide support and protection to destitute, elderly and single women in their villages.  Individual women are also renegotiating gender relations within the family and are no longer willing to take violence from their husbands. Their children, particularly their daughters, are their allies and are involved at all levels in the activities of the organisation. The trajectory of the movement reflects the way in which the women have used their kin networks and relationships with their natal families to garner support. Despite occasional disagreements, men have fallen into line and by and large accept that the women are the leaders. The women have decided to marry their daughters only into villages where a branch of their organisation is functioning – they describe this as a decision that will not only provide the girls with protection should they need it, but will also strengthen the struggle. Yet, some things have not changed. For instance, when asked if they will bequeath a share in their collective lands to their daughters, they shake their heads. “She will go to another village, how can she have a share in our land?” is the answer.

Sorces : Interviews with Roma and other women leaders of the KKMMKSS, personal documentation and newspaper articles.