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A Long Way To A Life Of Dignity

(Die deutsche Version des Artikels findest du hier.) In December 2013 a team of documentary filmmakers and Shoba Tivari an Ekta Parishad activist visited Ranjara, a secluded village, in rural Dindori District of Madhya Pradesh.

We drive through forests and valleys, pass Adivasi villages, shepherds with their cows and goats, cross rivers and get across country to reach the village. Mobile connection was lost about one hour before the driver suddenly stopped the car. In front of us appeared a deep hole in the dirt road. It was late afternoon before the driver found the courage to conquer the hole and move on and we decided to walk the last kilometres to Ranjara.

The Baiga (see info box below) village lies in the hills of Dindori District in Madhya Pradesh, the heart of India. The only motorized vehicles which make their way to this secluded place are 4x4 and motorbikes. Both of them are rarely seen. During our stay we once saw an employee of the Forest Department, who drove his motorbike through the village, another time we met a businessman who visits the village with his vehicle. Those few Baigas who can afford it buy a bicycle, but most of them have to walk all the way on foot.

baigaman

On the way to the village, we meet a lot of Adivasi heavily loaded with bags of rice and salt. In the neighboring village the authorities are distributing food rations. The food program of the government of Madhya Pradesh supplies essentials to those who are lucky enough to have a ration card. These rations are a supplement to the Baigas’ predominantly self-sufficient agriculture. Sometimes they are able to sell their products in regional markets, yet a good many times there are middlemen involved who earn their part of the deal.

Alongside agriculture, the forest is the main base of livelihood for the tribe. The Baigas collect firewood, herbs or other forest products like honey or bamboo. In the past, their activities led to a lot of conflict with the authorities of the Forest Department:

“They were asking for money, mahua* and other things”, explains Lalla Singh,  Ekta Parishad-activist and member of the gram panchayat (village government).  If they were not able to pay, they forced them to work.

“On the 25th of September 2004 the authorities burned our crops”, the activist tells me. After this incident, the community started to fight (in a non-violent way) the injustice done to them by the authorities, with the support of Ekta Parishad. The struggle spread from district to state level. According to Lalla Singh, they also went to court, whereupon the Forest Department promised to pay them compensation. They have never kept this promise.

meeting

We remember the famous Janadesh march of 2007, where 25,000 landless Adivasi walking from Gwalior to Delhi. This led to the passing of the Forest Rights Act in January 2008. But in spite of this provision the authorities still stopped the Baigas from collecting minor forest products and firewood, the activist told us. Nonetheless the march brought an improvement of the villagers’ situation. Between 2008 and 2013, 54 families got their land titles. According to Shoba Tiwari, who has spent 12 years in the area as an Ekta Parishad activist, they got about 4 million square meters of land. The land titles were issued in both husband’s and wife’s names, so called joint pattas. This is an attempt to empower women, who were faced with disadvantage and discrimination by former land titles issued solely in the man’s name.

It was as a result of Jan Satyagraha that the village was allowed to collect from the forest. The authorities began to show respect for the concerns of the Baigas. The march of 100,000 landless Adivasis, which was covered by media reports all over the world, showed its impact on that level as well.

“Is there electricity in the village?”, I doubtfully ask one villager after discovering an electrical tower. He explained to me that the village had light for 3 months when the government built these towers. Then the connection broke down. So far, no one has ever repaired it. When I ask him how long ago this happened, he pondered for a moment before pointing to a young boy standing next to him: “I was the same age as he is when that happened. That was 17 years ago.”

According to Lalla Singh, today Ranjara is self-sufficient to a large extent. This fact led to a decrease in migration to the cities: “Only few people are moving to the cities, most of them go there to study.” This is a pleasant development. Nevertheless, Lalla Singh is not satisfied by all these improvements and the current circumstances: “I am happy about the land we got but a majority of the villagers are still struggling. It is a long way to go until every villager has his own piece of land.” The struggle of the Baigas for a life in dignity continues.

** Mahua is a spirit, which is locally distilled by the tribe.

children

The Baigas

The Baigas are indigenous people of India, a so called Adivasi tribe. They are recognized as a “scheduled tribe” in the Constitution of India and their status is acknowledged to some formal degree by national legislation. The Baigas have their own unique culture and animistic beliefs. They used to live mostly unaffected by external influences in the hilly forest areas of the Indian states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand and in many places they still do.

Baigas generate their livelihood through agriculture and the collection of forest products like wood, fruits, herbs and roots. Other food resources are hunting and fishing. For a long time, the Baigas practiced bewar cultivation, a unique form of slash & burn agriculture. They slash the trees of a certain area with an axe to cultivate the newly-created crop area. Today, bewar is banned by law.

The majority of the Baigas are using wooden ploughs to cultivate their land. Tattooing is an integral part of the Baigas’ lifestyle. Baiga women decorate different parts of their bodies like hands, legs and forehead. Most Baiga women are not covering their heads and do not use a bindi. A majority of men have long hair, rolled into a small knot.

The Baigas participate in various dances and songs often colorfully decked. The tribe is known for their in-depth knowledge of herbal medicine.