Grass­roots so­ci­ety

Tribal lead­er­ship, nur­tured by grass­roots or­gan­i­sa­tions, is help­ing peo­ple ac­cess rights in Ch­hat­tis­garh


Ipass the tiny vil­lages dot­ting the high­way in the Bas­tar reF YOU gion of Ch­hat­tis­garh and meet its unas­sum­ing na­tives free from the trap­pings of city life, you might say to your­self, “Oh! They are not poor, they are just beau­ti­ful.” This first glimpse be­lies all your no­tions about the re­gion which has wit­nessed count­less bloody en­coun­ters be­tween paramil­i­tary forces and the Nax­als, or for that mat­ter, peo­ple de­fy­ing all at­tempts of the gov­ern­ment to bring them into the main­stream.

But it is only when you en­ter the in­te­rior road lead­ing to a vil­lage, the real story be­gins to un­fold.The grandeur of beau­ti­ful forests grad­u­ally fades into obliv­ion, as you see paramil­i­tary forces car­ry­ing out search oper­a­tions un­der Op­er­a­tion Green Hunt, a name given by the media to de­scribe the gov­ern­ment of­fen­sive against Nax­alites. The pleas­antries ex­changed in the state cap­i­tal, Raipur, sud­denly turn into dogged and gritty con­ver­sa­tions about rights,en- ti­tle­ments and ex­ploita­tion.

Dur­ing the past 10 years, the fight of trib­als for rights in Ch­hat­tis­garh has vir­tu­ally turned into a pot­boiler, chron­i­cling the strate­gised at­tempts by ngos and so­cial ac­tivists to cre­ate tribal lead­er­ship to spread aware­ness, help flaw­less im­ple­men­ta­tion of schemes such as the Ma­hatma Gandhi Na­tional Ru­ral Em­ploy­ment Guar­an­tee Act (mgnrega), Public Dis­tri­bu­tion Sys­tem (pds) and fight is­sues re­lated to the For­est Rights Act (fra).

The scale of cor­rup­tion in mgnrega and pds was so high that it was not pos­si­ble for these or­gan­i­sa­tions to look into in­di­vid­ual cases which re­lated to fake job cards un­der mgnrega, black mar­ket­ing of pds goods and ra­tion cards given to un­de­serv­ing peo­ple.The min­ing lobby was freely ac­quir­ing tribal land at throw­away prices flout­ing all norms. At the cen­tre of all is­sues is an un­holy nexus be­tween sarpanches, lo­cal politi­cians and block of­fi­cials.

In­ter­ven­tions for sus­tain­abil­ity

The civil so­ci­ety’s in­ter­ven­tion in the tribal re­gions be­gan in early 1980s on two is­sues—sus­tain­able liveli­hood, par­tic­u­larly in for­est ar­eas, and, lo­cal gov­er­nance. For sus­tain­able liveli­hood, they fo­cused on re­sources like land and how these could be mul­ti­plied in terms of in­creased pro­duc­tiv­ity, and in­te­grated with other re­sources. There was also the ques­tion of bet­ter ac­ces­si­bil­ity to these en­ti­tle­ments and ben­e­fits from the gov­ern­ment.

But these in­ter­ven­tions gained mo­men­tum af­ter states like Jhark­hand and Ch­hat­tis­garh be­came a re­al­ity. Now, the is­sue was not lim­ited to liveli­hood alone, but the ques­tion was to go be­yond it, where there is dig­nity and qual­ity of life. So, apart from their im­me­di­ate or ba­sic needs, they also fo­cused on build­ing ca­pac­i­ties in terms of lead­er­ship and par­tic­i­pa­tion in lo­cal gov­er­nance, mainly in pan­chay­ats and later at the dis­trict and state level. They iden­ti­fied core ar­eas and is­sues which could strengthen their right to live with dig­nity. They also cre­ated a sup­port struc­ture where they could get tech­ni­cal and non-tech­ni­cal in­for­ma­tion to sup­port their cause.

Jayant Ku­mar ,head of pro­grammes, casa, an or­gan­i­sa­tion work­ing among trib­als, says, “They brought them to­gether and made them un­der­stand the is­sues and chal­lenges. They pro­vided them in­for­ma­tion and op­por­tu­ni­ties to know, learn, in­ter­nalise and act as lead­ers. Through this they have been able to sys­tem­atize and build a sense of own­er­ship,” he said. Or­gan­i­sa­tions like casa work di­rectly with com­mu­ni­ties and also with other or­gan­i­sa­tions and ngos, whom they sup­port and fund. This strong re­la­tion­ship has helped the or­gan­i­sa­tion iden­tify the po­ten­tial of the peo­ple. It has also adopted a longterm strat­egy to build lead­er­ship with greater par­tic­i­pa­tion of wom- en and en­sur­ing their par­tic­i­pa­tion in lo­cal gov­er­nance. They have worked to en­sure that 50 per cent women be brought into the lead­er­ship hi­er­ar­chies.

These com­mu­nity lead­ers come from var­i­ous back­grounds. Some­times they are in­flu­enced by the cor­rupt sys­tem.But there are a large num­ber of them who have re­fused to be co-opted by the sys­tem. This is a big chal­lenge for civil so­ci­ety. For this, their strat­egy is sim­ple: if there are wrong peo­ple, they leave the is­sue to the com­mu­nity to take a call on them. They be­lieve that their job is to en­lighten and guide them.

Build­ing so­cial cap­i­tal

These ini­tia­tives have cre­ated a huge amount of so­cial cap­i­tal. The qual­ity of life has im­proved in a num­ber of ar­eas where they have been in­tensely in­volved in terms of bet­ter ac­ces­si­bil­ity to en­ti­tle­ments, greater say in the is­sues and, diver­si­fi­ca­tion of the liveli­hood bas­ket. Such in­ter­ven­tions have led to bet­ter in­ter­ac­tion with the pan­chay­ats. There have been many ex­am­ples when pan­chay­ats have adopted mi­cro plans de­vel­oped by these lead­ers. This has en­abled bet­ter func­tion­ing of gram sab­has with the in­volve­ment of lo­cal com­mu­nity in the lo­cal gov­er­nance. This com­bi­na­tion has led to so­cial eman­ci­pa­tion.

There are many Cen­tral and state-spon­sored pro­grammes.But the key pro­grammes which have im­pacted peo­ple’s lives are mgnrega, sub­sidised ra­tion un­der pds, land en­ti­tle­ment un­der fra and Na­tional Ru­ral Health Mis­sion (nrhm). These pro­grammes are crit­i­cal to the peo­ple, but ac­ces­si­bil­ity and ac­tu­al­i­sa­tion re­mains a chal­lenge. Take for in­stance, the mgnrega. The av­er­age em­ploy­ment that a per­son gets is 30-40 days, com­pared to the 100 days en­vis­aged in pro­gramme. Worse, peo­ple get pay­ment only af­ter six to seven months.The gov­ern­ment has also re­duced the cov­er­age of the pro­gramme. There is mass scale bungling in the pds at the lower level and dif­fi­cul­ties in ac­cess­ing land en­ti­tle­ments/rights. The sus­tained ef­forts by the lo­cal lead­er­ship, that civil so­ci­eties have nur­tured ,have ef­fec­tively coun­tered these chal­lenges. They have en­sured that peo­ple get the mgnrega pay­ment in time. They have ex­posed cor­rup­tion in the pds and have helped peo­ple claim land un­der the fra.

Like 45-year-old Benny Puri for en­rolling peo­ple in mgnrega, or 37-year-old Ashok Biswas for help­ing vil­lagers claim land en­ti­tle­ments ,or 26-year-old Anu­sia from ex­pos­ing cor­rup­tion in pds at the pan­chayat level, or Vishnu Sevta for fil­ing rti against a sarpanch for si­phon­ing off money meant for the con­struc­tion of a vil­lage road, or Bansi Thakur ,for help­ing peo­ple get 2 per kg rice with­out fac­ing hur­dles. The list is end­less. They are all strength­en­ing gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions with­out fear.

The is­sue was not lim­ited to liveli­hood. The ef­fort was to go be­yond, where there is dig­nity and qual­ity of life. So NGOs fo­cused on build­ing ca­pac­i­ties in terms of lead­er­ship

The writer is a se­nior jour­nal­ist

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