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HomeIndiaGovernanceThis tribal belt in Maharashtra powered the Farmers Long March

This tribal belt in Maharashtra powered the Farmers Long March

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These farmers aren’t getting their land rights, or any basic amenities. They’re even threatened by displacement due to an ambitious river-linking project.

Surgana (Maharashtra): About 80 kilometres north of Nashik city, towards the Gujarat border, the terrain gets progressively steeper and wilder. No longer are there signs that one of Maharashtra’s major cities is nearby, and timid villagers are wary of giving information to strangers, fearing they could be government employees in disguise.

This is Surgana, the tribal taluka or sub-division that’s home to a majority of the farmers who marched to Mumbai recently, covering over 170 kilometres in six days.

In the lap of the Sahyadri range, Surgana consists of 190 villages and one census town. Of its total population of 1.76 lakh, 96.5 per cent are tribals. The taluka comprises nearly 26,000 hectares of forest land.

The fight for land rights

Thousands of tribal farmers, many of them pushing 60, marched to Mumbai with primarily one pressing issue on their minds – getting the forest land that they have been tilling for years transferred in their names under the Forest Rights Act. These are mostly small farmers who grow rice, wheat, cereals and pulses on plots ranging from an acre to five acres at most. They rely purely on rainwater and have small harvests. Most of it is kept aside for personal use.

While the recent farmers’ protest largely took the form of a movement for a complete loan waiver and minimum support prices, demands that ring true for farmers from the rest of Maharashtra, for the tribal farmers of Surgana and its neighbouring talukas, these are non-issues. Without their land in their names, they anyway don’t have access to institutional credit for farming.

As per data from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, as of 31 October 2017, Maharashtra had received 3.64 claims under the Forest Rights Act, and had distributed 1.12 lakh titles, clearing about 31 per cent of the total claims. Compare this to Tripura’s 63 per cent, Jharkhand’s 54.8 per cent, Andhra Pradesh’s 51.35 per cent and Telangana’s 50.4 per cent, to name a few states.

Paribai Gavit, who goes by the nickname ‘bai’ in her village of Karanjali, has been tilling a two-acre plot for more than 20 years, sowing just enough rice and wheat to feed her family through the year. She said, for years she would sow her field, forest officials would raze it, and, petrified, she would run away from the spot.

Then one day, the local MLA Jiva Pandu Gavit strongly told Paribai that she should not run away and stand her ground the next time that the forest department officials visit her land. Incidentally, Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA Gavit was one of the main organisers of the farmers’ march and mobilised large numbers from Surgana to join the rally.

“So, the next time, I mustered enough courage to stay put. I was made to pay a penalty for encroaching on government land and given a receipt,” Paribai said. She later applied for a land title after the Forest Rights Act came into existence in 2006, showing the penalty receipt as proof of the fact that she had indeed been farming on the land. “I got a certificate from the forest department, saying this land can be transferred in my name, but it still doesn’t reflect on the 7/12 extract of the land. Without that, the certificate holds no value.”

Even among the titles distributed, tribals say there are discrepancies in the quantum of land they actually till, as against what has been awarded to them. Besides, like in the case of Paribai, for most tribals in Surgana, these certificates do not reflect on the 7/12 extracts (extracts from the official land register of the state revenue department). One of the assurances that the Devendra Fadnavis-led state government gave protestors was to sort out all pending claims and discrepancies under the Forest Rights Act within six months.

Dadasaheb Gite, the tehsildar for Surgana, said a ground survey will resolve all the issues once and for all, but locals do not allow the government to take it up.

“The problem with getting names on a 7/12 extract is that the forest department has classified land in a different measure, while the revenue department goes by ‘gat number’ (block number). The records don’t match,” he said, adding that the government has sanctioned Rs 1.3 crore for a land survey measurement to finalise claims, but so far of the 190 villages and one town, the government machinery has been able to survey only one partially.

“Villagers are scared. Sometimes, there are four of five claimants on one piece of land that the family has been tilling, and they have internal differences. The whole problem will be solved if the tribals allow us to survey the land,” Gite said.

Struggle for basic amenities

While the lack of land in their names may be their most urgent grouse, beneath the surface lie a horde of issues that people have learnt to struggle and live with on a daily basis.

Along the winding roads of Surgana, every now and then one can see men and women carrying pots and water cans near running streams. As per the 2011 census, of the 37,012 households in Surgana, only 6.2 per cent have access to tap water from a treated source, while 51.1 per cent use water from uncovered wells, which often dry up during summer months.

A whopping 93.8 per cent of the population relies on firewood for cooking, and while residents say the availability of electricity has improved, most villages in Surgana do not get power beyond eight to ten hours a day. There is no cellular network in a majority of the region.

Tribal schools, called ashramshalas, are many in number, but most of them do not meet the norms specified by the state government. Amol Gavit, a tribal farmer from Vani in the Dindori taluka adjacent to Surgana, said: “We have been continuously highlighting the sorry plight of tribal schools. Every few days, there are protest rallies on the issue, but there has been no improvement.” Gavit works as a member of the Adivasi Bachao Abhiyan.

Recently, the ashramshala at Mani village in Surgana was in the news for six students contracting food poisoning after eating the khichdi served at the school. ThePrint visited the ashramshala to find two schools, with nearly 800 students on the rolls, operating from creaking structures originally meant to house one girls’ school and a hostel.

In the space-starved campus, a number of students had to attend classes sitting on the floor. The hostel is a comparatively new building, built in 2012, but has run into neglect with grimy flooring, broken doors and windows, and reeking toilets. The two dormitories were lined with rusty bunk beds with clothes, buckets, books and trunks dumped close at hand, in the absence of cupboards.

“The other school from nearby Borpada was shifted here because there was absolutely no infrastructure there. But the government is making alternate arrangements to find a permanent location for the schools,” said Kapil Gholap, headmaster of the Mani ashramshala.

The public health department finds it tough to look for good quality doctors willing to serve in the far-flung tribal taluka.

Manjula Mahale, a gram panchayat member, said: “There is one government rural hospital and several primary healthcare centres, but there are hardly any facilities. Even for childbirth, patients are advised to travel to Nashik.”

“For seemingly simple things, we have to resort to protests to make government officials act. Just last month, we staged a rasta roko (roadblock) to get authorities to take action against a senior government doctor who would constantly be inebriated at work, after written complaints on three occasions did not yield any result,” said 28-year-old Kashinath Bhoye, a tribal from Surgana’s Sarad village. Next, Bhoye and his friends plan to take to the streets to highlight inordinate delays in the construction of a tribal hostel near their village.

Fear of displacement

For some villages, the biggest fear is of displacement, due to the proposed Nar-Par, Damanganga, Wagh and Pinjal river-linking project looms large.

Murlidhar Govinda Dhule, a resident of Milanpada in Surgana, also walked to Mumbai as part of the long march. He said: “We did get a certificate from the forest department. The plot that we have since generations is about 4-5 acres. But while granting us land, how much did they give us? Half an acre. How will we survive on this?”

Without his land in his possession, Dhule has bigger worries, as Milanpada is said to be one of the hamlets that is likely to be displaced due to the ambitious river-linking project. “We don’t want to move. The government can build smaller dams, take the water to parched areas during the monsoon, and give it for use to the local adivasi during summer. But, if at all we are displaced tomorrow, without my land in my name, how will I be rehabilitated?” he said.

One of the promises that CM Fadnavis made to the protesting farmers last Monday was to complete the river-linking project on time, while ensuring minimum displacement of tribal villages, and ensuring Maharashtra’s share of water from the project goes to the Godavari and Girnar river basins. Villagers are, however, clueless about the exact plans and the extent of displacement.

“They have kept us hanging. Let’s see how many promises the government is able to keep,” said 60-year-old Hari Govinda Dhule, a tribal from Milanpada, who was also part of the farmers’ protests.

“For now, at least the blisters on my feet have begun to heal,” he said with a laugh.

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