Kratika Vajpayee | Sep 5, 2019 | 6 min read
“Need Help! We were attacked last time and [are] now being threatened by people who want to illegally mine murram (a form of clayey material) and boulders from [the] area around Maniyar stream. The authorities don't take calls on Sunday. Sunday is 'Mine'day!” tweeted Abhay Jain, 24, on August 11. Abhay, a legal practitioner, and his accomplices often receive death threats for upholding the rights of tribal people in Shivpuri district of Madhya Pradesh, but it doesn’t deter them from working for the cause they believe in.
In 2016, Abhay founded Zenith-Legal Aid Clinic to not only create awareness and change the mindset of tribal people, but also provide them with legal assistance.
The group conducts ‘backpack lawyering’ in the remote areas of Shivpuri district where they stay with members of the Sahariya community (tribal people from Shivpuri), listen to their problems, make them aware about their rights and give them legal assistance.
Abhay stated that tribal people in the area are unaware of their rights and don’t even know how to file a case. After the kind of work that Abhay and his team have carried out in the area, they are often approached by the villagers to solve issues in their villages.
In Chitori Khurd village, Abhay was asked to visit the village when they would get supplies from the Fair Price Shop. The distributors were allegedly using stones as weights. When Abhay visited the establishment, he found out that the claim was true.
Ramavtar Adivasi, a resident of the village, stated that he has been working with Abhay for two years and with their support, he visits other villages to mobilise the Adivasi (tribal) youth to fight for their rights. He added that they are forming Samiti (committee) to address the governance issues. He informed that after Abhay intervened, they get rations using proper weights.
The group doesn’t rely on permanent members and hires interns, young lawyers and social workers. Many law students come and join them for internships before joining them on a permanent basis.
Swapnil Shukla, 26, had started working with a firm in New Delhi after completing his bachelor’s degree, but he quit his job and moved to Shivpuri to work with Abhay. The human-rights activist and lawyer practices at the Gwalior High Court Bench now.
In 2000, the residents of Balapur, situated 10 kilometres inside Madhav National Park, were relocated. Around 100 families including 90 tribal families were shifted with the promise that they would be provided with lands and houses. Out of the total, 61 families were given non-arable lands and the rest were asked to adjust with the others.
The remaining families had to work at the nearby stone mine for their livelihood. Since then, around 30 people, below the age of 50, have died of silicosis or tuberculosis.
In 2016, Abhay approached the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and the HRC gave its final set of recommendations in their favour in 2017.
Chaualal Pal, a resident of Naya Balapur, claimed that they were fooled by the government’s promises of land and compensation and have been waiting for almost 20 years to receive the benefits. He added that they won the case at the state HRC with Abhay’s help and are now engaging with local authorities to implement the recommendations.
Fighting against the powerful
In Vinega village, a godman Swami Pattharanand Baba was illegally expanding his ashram on community-based land. Vinega’s gram sabha had already given individual rights to the villagers to construct their houses on the land. In 2016, the Swami claimed that he got the land under his name and started expanding his ashram to the colony of tribal people. The land was already allotted to the Vinega gram sabha and when dispute arose, he (Swami) went to the high court, but the court refused to listen to him and asked him to go to the Divisional Forest Officer. A committee was formed by the district collector and it came to the conclusion that the land is allotted to tribal people and not for encroachment. The Swami then approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and got an order against the construction of the houses by the villagers.
In April 2018, Abhay approached the Supreme Court and got a stay order to prevent the villagers from losing their houses. The case is still under trial.
The lawyers of the tribal department don’t have deep knowledge of the rules, Abhay alleged. He highlighted that even though a number of documents showed that Swami Pattharanand had encroached upon 11 hectares in the reserved forest, NGT overlooked it. He revealed that the NGT had even instructed to demolish 63 houses of the tribal people.
Sugrabai Adivasi, a resident of Vinega, revealed that they didn’t have any basic facilities, like water and electricity, in the village and were being harassed by the Swami. He said that only after Abhay intervened, the situations have improved and now they even have streetlights. Even the Swami doesn’t harass them anymore.
Abhay claimed that after HRC ruled in their favour, he received a call from the Swami who threatened him of destroying his family. He added that two people had threatened him two weeks ago to get him to withdraw the case at the Supreme Court.
Shivpuri, which once had numerous lakes, ponds and wells, was declared drought-affected in 2015, 2016 and 2017. In 2015, the group started their waterbody conservation initiative to remove the encroachments of water sources.
The group approached concerned officials in 2015, but no action was taken. Finally, in December 2015, they filed a petition with NGT and in 2016, over 200 houses on encroached areas, owned by businesspersons and politicians, were demolished.
Caught under red tape
In 2013, he enrolled in the National Law University in Odisha. Abhay and his friends skipped their internships in their second year and came back to Shivpuri for two to three months. “While studying in Odisha, I realised that like me [there are] other students of Shivpuri who face problems in selecting a career owing to the lack of knowledge,” Abhay said.
To counter that, he decided to construct a library and they met administrative officials and municipal council officials to provide the space.
Once they realised the struggles of being trapped under red-tapism and apathy, they wondered if law students face so many problems for such basic things, the common people would certainly be worse, Abhay stated.
The group then came across people who were running around in circles for various issues such as pensions and rations and similar at municipal council’s office.
That is when they decided to work for the people of the community, he revealed.
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