Mohammad Asif Siddiqui
Mohammad Asif Siddiqui
Asif Siddiqui has worked in various national newspapers like Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran and Patrika over the last 20 years. He has written extensively about malnutrition, food security, displacement, water, forest and land issues from Madhya Pradesh. He has been awarded Vikas Samvad Media Award
Stories by Mohammad Asif Siddiqui
 13 Dec, 2023

Devlikala learns the ropes, powers panchayat’s progress through PESA Act

The committees formed under the Act turn a pond into a better revenue generator, remove encroachments, ensure peace through quick and effective resolution of disputes and fast-track distribution of forestland leasesKhandwa, Madhya Pradesh: Tribal-dominated Devlikala panchayat in Khalwa block of Khandwa district has a five-acre pond that serves the drinking water needs of both humans and livestock and the agricultural needs. For the last 10 years, the pond has also been under fish farming by a Kharkala-based private party. The panchayat had leased out the pond for Rs 30,000 annually. But things were set to change with the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, coming into force in Madhya Pradesh on November 15 last year. Exactly a month later, Devlikala held its first meeting to discuss names for inclusion in committees to be formed in compliance with the Act. Though the committee members had only vague answers when asked about their role at that time, they have come a long way in evaluating the village resources and taking measures to make the most out of them over the last one-year period.(Above) A picture of the encroachment (below) Panchayat Bhavan in the village (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)In one such instance, the committees managed to relieve the pond, constructed almost 50 years ago, from the clutches of a private party as its members assessed that the lessee was earning much after getting the pond year-after-year at comparatively meagre rentals. The land committee estimated that fish worth about Rs 2 lakh was reared every year without giving any fish feed.As the land committee is responsible for changes in the use of government or community land, and deals with matters of transfer, lease, contract, agriculture, sale and mortgage of land, it decided to take action. After discussions with experts, the committee took its own decision that the pond will not be given for contract fish farming. Instead, the village panchayat itself will do fish farming to generate more income that can be invested back into the development works of the village.“When other means became available, the reliance on the pond for irrigation reduced. Later, the panchayat gave it for contract fish farming. Everything went well until the contractor started to wield monopoly over the pond. The situation became such that even cattle could not access the pond in summers. When villagers complained, the panchayat did not heed to them. After the implementation of the PESA Act, we unanimously banned the leasing of the pond,” land committee member Bisu Ghisia explained. Devlikala’s PESA Act mobiliser Rohit Gautam told 101Reporters that the leaseholder prevented villagers from entering the pond. “On July 27, the sarpanch and secretary announced the pond auction. However, Dayaram Patil, the chairman of the water committee formed under the PESA Act, decided with everyone's consent that the auction should be stopped. Patil said the pond produced 20 quintals of fish. Neither fish seeds are put in nor feed given to them. The committee believes that the sarpanch and secretary are in collusion with the lessees, due to which they had been continuously making benefits,” Gautam said.(Clockwise from top left) Punaibai Shobharam, Champalal Palvi, Indrakala Kajle, Suraj Kasde, Hiralal Patil (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)The committees formed under the PESA Act also have their eyes on other resources in the village. Land committee member Hiralal Patil said they have been looking into cases of encroachment. “Eight months after the implementation of PESA Act, an individual from Malhargarh occupied a 20x40 sq ft land near the main market of the village and started construction. When the matter reached the committee, we passed a resolution against it on August 10. Subsequently, the building was demolished,” he detailed.After dealing with the encroachment, the committee members also informed Khalwa Police Station, where a case was registered against the encroacher.Ever since the PESA Act came into existence, village disputes are being resolved locally. Peace committee president Champalal Palvi told 101Reporters that the villagers were assured that all disputes would be resolved at the panchayat level ever since the committee started functioning. “This has increased their confidence. Now, village disputes are not reaching the police station. Earlier, about two to three cases used to reach the police station every month. Now, every dispute is being resolved at the local level among its own people,” Palvi claimed.Suraj Kasde, chairman, forest resource and control committee of Chikatlai in Devlikala panchayat, said the village atmosphere is better than before. “Patronage of the panchayat has also reduced. Earlier, we had to make rounds of the panchayat and go to Devlikala for even the minutest of things. Special meetings also used to be held in Devlikala only. But under the PESA Act, meetings have started to take place in our village itself.”Kasde said the sarpanch and secretary used to scold when someone asked for the accounts of work done. “In the general meeting held before the implementation of the PESA Act, when we asked for information about the gravel road built in our village, the sarpanch ended the meeting abruptly. There was an uproar, but it had no effect on the sarpanch and secretary,” he alleged. After the implementation of the PESA Act, people's work is being done at a faster pace. Kasde claimed about 50 villagers have been demanding land leases for the last 15 years. “The forest dwellers have been farming for many generations, but till now they have not received the leases for those lands. After the formation of the committees under the PESA Act, the work gained momentum. So far, leases have been approved to eight villagers,” he said.Punaibai Shobharam(64), a beneficiary, said her husband had demanded for lease until his death. But even after his death, she did not get it. After the committee came into existence, she started to get her widow pension, Moreover, she is all set to receive her lease document. “It seems as if our government has come, a government that thinks seriously about us,” she said elatedly.Devlikala has its 50% seats in panchayat elections reserved for women. Hence, the sarpanch is Indrakala Kajle, who hails from Kharkala. Like in most panchayats of Madhya Pradesh, her husband Pyarelal Kajle manages all the work. Earlier, for all panchayat-related works, the villagers had to go to Kharkala. However, after the formation of committees under the PESA Act, the villagers now have a better system in place.  101Reporters tried to contact Indrakala about the allegations raised against her, but her mobile phone was either out of network coverage or switched off. When panchayat secretary Ranjit Tanwar was contacted, he refused to reply to the allegations saying he was busy with family-related work.   Read our earlier report from Devlikala hereEdited by Rekha PulinnoliCover Photo - PESA meeting of Devlikala panchayat in Khalwa block (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)

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Devlikala learns the ropes, powers panchayat’s progress through PESA Act

 23 Nov, 2023

Pandemic-stricken villagers revive bamboo art with NGO help in Madhya Pradesh

Bamboo crafts bring down migration, improve access to nutrition and education, and raise morale of residents from Korku community in Gulaimal village of Khandwa Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh: Living in the remote forest village of Gulaimal in Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh, Prakash Barole (41) crafts decorative items from bamboo to earn a living. He acquired this relatively new skill after making up his mind to stop working as a migrant sugarcane cutter and find employment in his own village.Prakash and his wife Sangeeta Barole (34) used to migrate to Beed district of Maharashtra for four months annually to work as farm labourers. Despite working for over 18 hours a day, they could barely make ends meet. During the COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent lockdown of 2020, they found themselves stranded in Maharashtra with their employer denying them full wages. They were forced to return to Khandwa on foot — a journey of over 100 km — along with 10 others from their village. They had no money, not even to buy food.“We both used to get Rs 10,000 per month, but we did not even have a day off. Most of what we earned was spent on lodging and food,” he recalls. “Just 10 days into the lockdown, our employer told us that he could not pay us anymore.”Prakash then decided to fend for himself in his own village, even if it meant learning a new skill in his late 30s. His determination paid off as both earn around the same amount every month by making bamboo items for Gulaimal-based non-government organisation (NGO) Manmohan Kala Samiti (MKS). “We work for eight hours daily and get a good price for our work,” says Prakash, who saves a large part of his income and manages to send his children to school.Bamboo collected outside the centres (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)Seeds of changeThe NGO was established under the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) and operates under SFURTI (Scheme of Fund for Regeneration of Traditional Industries) of the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, which assists traditional industries such as khadi, coir, handloom and handicrafts by providing grants of up to Rs 5 crore. The NGO set up operations in the district in 2020 under the nodal agency Council for Handicrafts Development Corporations. A Bamboo Craft Centre was established, with a 90% Central grant under SFURTI and the remaining investment from MKS.Of the 150 families employed by the NGO in Gulaimal, about 60 work directly at the bamboo centre. The rest make the products at their homes. Most of them are Korku tribals. The centre purchases the bamboo planted by village farmers at a price equal to the minimum support price. Until the establishment of the centre, around 40% (1,100 people) of the village population used to migrate for work.Pradeep Awase (27), a resident managing the bamboo art work under MKS, used to go to Pune. “I worked at a local furniture firm. Most of what I earned was spent there and despite having worked with the employer for a long time, I was deserted when the pandemic struck. I was forced to walk back home. The employer did not even bother to arrange a transport facility for me,” he says.  Pradeep joined MKS and honed his management skills in the last three years. He now imparts training to new artisans and organises local craft exhibitions with the help of MKS.According to a survey conducted by the NGO, migration has reduced by half since its inception, as the locals earn a monthly salary of Rs 6,000 to 8,000 at the centre. However, not all villagers are into bamboo crafts. Due to the surge in bamboo-related work, other trades and businesses have  increased in the village, thereby providing a source of employment to many .To increase their income further, locals have started planting native bamboo varieties such as Katanga (Bambusa Arundinacea) and Deshi (Dendrocalamus Strictus) on the margins of their fields under the guidance of MKS. This will reduce the need to get bamboo from other villages. When needed, the MKS also provides them with bamboo seedlings.Furniture, toys, home decor, reception, office and coffee house items are produced at the centre and sent to NRLM sales centres. They are also exported. MKS director Mohan Rokade tells 101Reporters that the NGO expanded to accommodate more artisans in 2021 and that its annual income has soared to above Rs 50 lakh. “Bamboo craft has been a part of the village culture for generations. But people were making only specific items such as mats and baskets that were useful to the village community. When the availability of bamboo reduced, people migrated in search of employment. After the NGO formation, we distributed bamboo seedlings to the locals at a minimal cost, leading to a surge in bamboo production,” Rokade says. Earlier, farmers sold their bamboo to the forest department or in the market. Raju Vaskale, a farmer from Dhimaria, located four km from Gulaimal, says he now gets money immediately after selling bamboo unlike in the case of the forest department. "We do not have to bear transportation costs as the centre collects bamboo from our fields. Katanga bamboo is priced at Rs 80 in the market, Deshi at Rs 100 and Assamese bamboo at Rs 220. We get the same price from the centre," he says.Prakash has also planted bamboo saplings on his two-and-a-half acre plot. He plans to sell it to MKS. Apart from Gulaimal, bamboo clusters are functional under SFURTI at Hoshangabad, Betul, Chhindwara, Balaghat, Seoni, Ratlam and Burhanpur. Last year, Harda district was included in the cluster. Bamboo craft serving as a livelihood opportunity for the community (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)Life gets betterWhen she migrated to Beed, Sangeeta used to leave her five children in the custody of their grandmother Lalitabai. This affected their studies as the older children would often be occupied with taking care of their younger siblings and miss out on school.“I at least had my mother-in-law to help out, but the mothers with newborns and those with children under five years of age had to take them along when they migrated. Life as a farm labourer is difficult. Sometimes, we have to survive on just one meal. So, even the babies could not be fed since the lactating mothers barely ate,” highlights Sangeeta.New mothers who were forced to quit work due to these challenges are now joining the NGO as it has a secure campus for children with proper facilities and caretakers. The centre is spread over five acres of land, where a factory has been built on an acre.“Since new and expectant mothers can stay in the village and make bamboo crafts, they have also registered at local anganwadis, thus bringing them under the government's nutritional programmes. They get fortified milk powder and nutrition-rich food from anganwadis,” she adds.  Young women who used to be either married off right after school or were forced to join their parents as farm labourers are now enrolling in colleges to find well-paying jobs. “Working on the field with my parents was tiresome. We did not even have enough to fulfil our basic needs, so college was a distant dream. But now I work with the NGO, while pursuing my post graduation in commerce from an open university,” says Usha Barole.Madhuri Awase and Aarti Barme earn Rs 7,000 each and are able to keep some money aside for their children’s education. Even specially-abled people have got a chance to earn through the NGO.The products such as table lamps, clocks and showpieces produced by the company were showcased in the Parliament House, New Delhi, and exhibited at the Dubai Expo alongside products from 190 countries last year. Artisans add that they were not skilled at anything and were looked down upon, but they enjoy a newfound respect in their communities and feel proud of the work they do when their handcrafted products are admired at both local markets and international exhibitions."Once awareness about the sustainability of bamboo products versus plastic pollution increases, and the new electricity grid comes into operation, I think we will be able to expand operations and hire more people," says Rokade.  Edited by Shuchita JhaCover Photo - Women weaving bamboo articles (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)

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Pandemic-stricken villagers revive bamboo art with NGO help in Madhya Pradesh

 01 Sep, 2023

How a 77-km bus service revived the age-old Harbola tradition in Madhya Pradesh

A bus that runs once daily has transformed lives by enabling job opportunities, education access and strengthening community tiesKhandwa: An overcrowded bus winding through a narrow road is among the first images that pops up when one thinks of a rural landscape. Such buses not only serve as the lifelines bridging the gap between remote regions and urban centres, but also do much more, as in the case of the Harbola community of Madhya Pradesh.  Living in the remote villages of Nimar region, especially in Khandwa district, the Harbola people have been traditionally into singing. Thanks to Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s famous poem Khoob Ladi Mardani, depicting the valour of ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ Rani Laxmibai as narrated by the Harbolas, the word about the community had spread before Independence itself.Poornima says the bus is why she has continued her further studies (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters) However, despite their talent, most of the community members had to take up agricultural jobs to make ends meet. A new ray of hope emerged when a private bus started plying from Baldua Dongri in Khandwa district to Jhirniya in neighbouring Khargone district, covering a total of 77 km via Sawkheda, Mundwada, Sihada, Khandwa and Pandhana (NP). “Earlier, my wife and I used to work as farm labourers to make ends meet. At times, in the rainy season, we faced starvation too. Ever since the bus started plying, I have not done anything but sing, accompanied by tumdi-kartal [both folk instruments],” Atmaram Nainsingh (58) of Baldua Dongri village in Khandwa district tells 101Reporters, while waiting at the bus station in the city.Over 200 people from seven nearby villages benefit from the service. At 8 am every day, the bus starts from Harbola Bahul Basti (a Harbola-dominated residential area) in Dongri-Kurwada. It reaches back to the starting point by 6 pm. One trip on the bus costs Rs 120 end-to-end. There is no government-run public transport between cities in Madhya Pradesh.With bus plying, the Harbolas leave the village for two to three weeks at a stretch and earn money by performing at tourist spots. “We start to move out after Deepavali (October-November) and travel from place to place, singing in open areas to attract locals… We continue to do so until Holi (March),” says Dharamlal Sunderlal, another villager who was returning home after touring the state for a week along with Nainsingh.When the bus wasn't operational Atmaram's family was starving (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)“Not every day is a good day, sometimes we do not earn enough or not at all… When it gets tough, we step out at 5 am and beg on the city streets. We sleep at the bus station or near the overbridge,” he adds.“This is because their folk music has not received the respect it deserves. The government encourages other art forms and provides them a platform abroad and in the country. Tumdi- kartal artistes should also be respected,” says Rajan Ranhe, another village resident.The roots of tumdi-kartal music run deep “Earlier, the Harbolas used their art to communicate messages between kings and inspired the locals to take part in the freedom movement by narrating stories of prominent freedom fighters,” he adds.Rajan Ranhe says government should encourage art forms (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)The Harbolas fall under the category of Other Backward Classes and live in clusters in Bundelkhand area as well as Khandwa district. Baldua Dongri sarpanch Pancham Manidhar tells 101Reporters that around 8 lakh Harbolas are present across the country. Of them, about 5,000 live in Khandwa district. In addition to singing, they also work at farms and construction sites.“Our community moved here from Bundelkhand about five generations ago. Since then, we have been earning income by singing paeans to kings. Due to economic disparity, we are forced to beg to make ends meet. Whatever they manage to earn is only because of the availability of bus to Khandwa,” Rahne says.“There are periods during which travelling for 20 days a month can earn us enough to rest at home for the next 20 days,” says Nainsingh, who supports his family of seven with tumdi-kartal singing. His elder son works as a farm labourer to supplement the family income.Antar Singh Parihar of Khargone says the bus has reduced the distance between people (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)Social glue“The 8 am bus is the only mode of transport that connects Goradiya, Sawkheda and Mundwada villages with the rest of the state,” Antarsingh Parihar (75) of Khargone district tells 101Reporters. He was on his way to visit his daughter in Goradiya. “My daughter Santoshi’s mother-in-law met with an accident. I am going there to enquire about her health. When my daughter got married in 2016, reaching Goradiya located 27 km away was a big task. Now, there is no such problem. I would say the bus service has strengthened the relationship between the two families,” Parihar says.Purnima (21), who boarded the bus from Khandwa to reach Sawkheda located 15 km away, says she was able to continue her studies because of the bus. Purnima is in the final semester of her BA programme at the Government Girls Degree College in Khandwa. “The bus provides a safe environment for girls to travel. The villagers have faith in the bus drivers and conductor. They take care of us like family,” she says.The bus service has also enabled jobseekers. Sumaila Bano (23) from Mundwada now works as a teacher in a private school in Khandwa, located 11 km away. She earns an honorarium of around Rs 3,000 per month. With this income, Bano plans to continue her education, which will eventually lead to a higher salary at a higher teaching position. “It would not have been possible without the bus,” she says.Dharamaraj Bansor from Baldua Dongri shares that before the bus service, villagers were confined to their place due to a lack of transport facilities. Many owned land and earned through farming, while others found work as labourers in nearby villages. “Bus service has enabled people to travel to Khandwa for employment opportunities, improving their quality of life,” he says.According to Manidhar, the largest chunk of the population of the community lives in Benpura Kurwada, totalling around 1,200 residents. Additionally, 200 people live in Madni panchayat, 350 in Badgavmal, 400 in Baldua Dongri within Mathani panchayat and 2,000 in Bainpura-Dongri. Among these, only Baldua Dongri has a bus service connecting to Khandwa.  Edited by Tanya ShrivastavaCover Photo - Dongri bus that transformed lives (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)

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How a 77-km bus service revived the age-old Harbola tradition in Madhya Pradesh

 04 Jun, 2023

Once a worker, now an intruder: How tribals lost the ‘plot’ in Burhanpur

Brought here generations ago by the British to clear forests, local tribals are looked at with suspicion and accused of abetting encroachments in the recent yearsBurhanpur, Madhya Pradesh: Khandwa forest circle encompassing the districts of Khandwa, Khargone, Barwani and Burhanpur has always been a hotspot of encroachment. According to May 2005 data from the forest circle, 58,000 hectares were totally encroached upon in these four districts. However, the volume of encroachment in Burhanpur alone soared to 55,000 hectares by 2017. Originally, the district had an expansive forest cover of 1,90,100 hectares.Burhanpur forest division has seven ranges, of which maximum destruction happened in Nepanagar, Navra and Asirgarh. The forests in Ghagharla, Siwal, Bakdi, Pankheda, which fall under Nepanagar and Navra ranges, took the most beating. According to state forest department, 1,623 hectares coming under Navra range went to encroachers since 2018. Of the total 21,716 hectares in Nepanagar range, 6,806 hectares were occupied. Notably, encroachment has intensified in the last few years, which set the context for disputes between the old settlers and the new encroachers. In the process, Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS), which works for tribal welfare, threw its weight behind the old settlers and nudged the district administration and forest department to take action against the new encroachers.However, the administration got its act together only after the Nepanagar Police Station attack in April. But when it did, it acted against all the parties concerned. On May 1, the JADS also faced the heat when a case under Section 66A of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, was registered against eight activists, including its leader Madhuri Ben.The history of tribals in Nimar (now Khandwa) circle dates back to the time of the British rule. In 1878, the British passed a forest Act, which was designed not to nurture the green cover but to chop it down. Nimar Gazetteer has details of how Bhil tribals from Barwani district were brought to Mandwa (now it falls in Nepanagar tehsil) to cut the forest. There was no human presence here until the tribals made it their home, which showed tribals were not the original inhabitants of the place. Nepanagar town was also established on the forest land, and so was a newsprint paper mill in 1956.  Divided they standRight now, those occupying the forests are divided into two groups — the local tribals who have been living here for many years and those who have been here since a few years ago. The second group allegedly cut down several acres of forests in a single night, thus fostering a hostile environment in the region.Local tribal Umakant Patil said the new settlers entered the forest in groups, fell trees and set them afire. “Sometimes, this fire reaches our fields . We want to save our forest, but the department staff do not cooperate.”Chhayabai, another local tribal, said the encroachers were often seen on the forest edge. “They cut trees standing next to our fields, which essentially prevents us from nurturing our crops. My gram crop on five acres got damaged and could not be harvested in time,” she lamented.Ram Jamra of Bakdi was not ready to speak at first. When prodded, he narrated how hundreds of people swarmed the forest in the dark of the night and how the locals immediately passed on the information to the department, but no action followed. "Forest department staff are scared of these attacks. They do not have the right to use weapons. Police and Army personnel are seen accompanying them during anti-encroachment drives," he said. (Above) Ram Jamra of Bakdi; (Below, from left) Bishan Vaskale and Gendalal Sisodia (Photos - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)Gendalal Sisodia (70) settled in Chainpura village under Badnapur panchayat in 1977. Until 1980, the forest department registered eight cases against him. Though the court acquitted him in all cases, the department did not consider his application for the grant of patta. He claimed his name was dragged into last year’s Mandwa incident, which threw him in jail for seven months straight.“All this because I have been fighting not only for my rights, but also for my fellow tribals in my capacity as a JADS worker… I have not lost my courage; as long as there is life in this body, I am not going to leave this forest,” he stated, adding that only one out of the 130 people who applied for lease got approval. Ranchhad Richu's application was okayed eight months ago, and he had submitted only the same documents that others did. Bannu Vaskale of the same village applied online in 2020 as his earlier claim got rejected. “I have not heard about it till date,” he exclaimed. Showing his lease application, Dhansingh Richhu added, “We have been living here for generations, but the department staff look at us with suspicion.”In the absence of Badnapur panchayat sarpanch Rukmabai Vaskale, her representative Bishan Vaskale told 101Reporters that the claims were rejected citing errors. “The revenue and forest officials do not cooperate for the proposal and verification of claims. The panchayat will continue to support the tribals fully. We are with them in this fight.” The panchayat has a population of over 1,200, including 823 voters. People have settled here before 2000, and are eligible for pattas promised by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan in the run-up to the 2016 Nepanagar bypoll and 2018 state Assembly elections. With the next Assembly elections set for this year-end, villagers expect more hollow assurances sans necessary action.On the boilOver the last three years, the forest department and villagers have been at the receiving end of attacks, allegedly perpetrated by the encroachers. On July 5, 2020, an incident of stone pelting was reported in Ghagharla, followed by unruly incidents on July 19 and August 7. Subsequently, an anti-encroachment campaign involving 350 administrative staff was launched in Ghagharla on November 7. Seventeen of them suffered injuries in the violence that ensued, which included snatching of weapons. On July 2, 2021, forest staff in Dahinala north under Asirgarh zone faced the wrath of encroachers. A few months later, on November 21, a police team that went to arrest an accused in the dead of the night was attacked at Chidiyapani, an encroachment site in Nepanagar. In the most recent incident on April 7, over 60 tribals attacked the Nepanagar Police Station and freed three arrested men from detention.(Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)“This (police station attack) is a well-planned conspiracy. Even after the incident, the administration did not act swiftly. First, they said the accused have ventured deep into the jungle, so we cannot reach them. Then they launched action against the villagers, arguing that they colluded with the encroachers,” JADS leader Madhuri Ben told 101Reporters.Reiterating that all tribal settlers in the forests have been staying here for many generations, she claimed indiscriminate felling has intensified in the recent years. “According to a survey we did to draw attention of the administration, about 15,000 hectares of forest were found to have been destroyed since October 2022, which cannot be termed practical at all. The forest department has a role to play in this,” she alleged.Refuting the allegations, Anupam Sharma, who was the divisional forest officer when the police station attack happened, told 101Reporters he had asked the JADS members to name those they believed were part of the conspiracy and also provide evidence. "However, they provided us neither any name nor proof. It is clear that the allegations are baseless." On the alleged loss of 15,000 hectares, he said "the forest has not been cut as much as they are telling, but there is no denying that it has been cut." Elaborating on the JADS stand on the matter, Ben said, “We oppose the new encroachers who not only destroy the forest but also trouble local tribals and unleash attacks on forest staff. Our organisation is taking along those who have settled here before 2000. I would say they have strong evidence to show, as even the cases filed against them by the department in the earlier days can prove the timeline of their stay here.” Madan Vaskale (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)Madan Vaskale, a member of the Bhil Samaj, is among those claiming the right to land. “The forest is our temple, our means of livelihood. Mahua, charoli and tendu patta from the forest earn us a living. Our cattle feed on forest resources. Thousands of acres of forest would have been thriving with life, had the department acted on our complaints. There are people who clear the green cover and attack forest staff. But, we protect it by staying within the ambit of the law. In return, we are demanding our rightful land from the government,” Vaskale appealed. Edited by Rekha PulinnoliBurhanpur's deforestation crisis boils over. Read our report from April about how things came to a headRead about the Administration's seemingly arbitrary and disproportionate response to the violence and protests  Cover photo - (From left) Bannu Vaskale, Dhansingh Richhu and another resident with their applications for land pattas under the Forest Rights Act (Photos - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)

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Once a worker, now an intruder: How tribals lost the ‘plot’ in Burhanpur

 04 Jun, 2023

Loggers have a field day in Burhanpur, but police, forest departments have an axe to grind

After the violence in Nepanagar in April, authorities cut power, water and ration supplies to Bakdi as they think tribals are lending support to encroachers    Khandwa/Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh: For 10 days in the month of April, 101Reporters travelled through Khandwa and Burhanpur districts to check the forest health in the region. Our mission was shaped by the unfortunate incidents that unfolded in Nepanagar, where clashes between old settlers and new entrants over encroachment of forestlands snowballed into a police station attack, eventually paving the way for a demolition drive. Instead of touching Nepanagar, we decided to enter the forest from Piplod in Khandwa district to understand the intensity of tree felling and the truth in allegations of rampant logging. On reaching Dehariya, about 15 km from Piplod, we diverted from the main road and embarked on our journey through the forest on a two-wheeler. We had just crossed Old Dehariya, when the shockingly ugly images of deforestation unfurled before us.   A footpath here divided Dehariya beat in Khandwa and Bakdi beat in Burhanpur. The forest cover on either side stood denuded. Definitely, thousands of trees have been axed here.Moving forward to Bakdi village, we spotted a police convoy, about 20 vehicles in them, going in the direction of Patel Dhana. Riot control vehicles (Vajra) and JCB loaders were part of the fleet. When the dust settled, we could clearly see the scene of devastation. More than 35 houses have been razed to the ground in Talab Dhana, just opposite to the forest outpost. As we tried to make sense of the police action by stopping a pedestrian and engaging in a conversation, he simply raced ahead without giving a reply. Later, we learnt that the demolition drive has been going on here for the last three days. Looking at the debris of about three dozen houses, we inferred that they were all built 30 to 40 years ago. It took us about an hour to capture the entire devastation on our camera, but not a single soul could be spotted during that time. Peeping into a house that stood somewhat safe in the debris, we saw a sick old man lying on the cot and a middle-aged man seated nearby. When this reporter assured that he would not be harmed, the man mustered the courage to come out.Lease documents that never came Vikram Gutram had settled in Bakdi, the village to which his wife Raah Bai belonged, five years after his marriage. “I hail from Bhutiyakhedi. When finding work became an issue, we decided to settle here almost 25 years ago. I applied many times for land lease of the plot that I have been cultivating for the last 20 years, but in vain.”Three years ago, Gutram was told to apply online and that too was done. “There is no land, now the roof above our heads is also gone. They even took away some documents. No questions were asked. Anybody who came in the middle was caught and put in the police van. Like all others, I too escaped into the forest,” he lamented.As we departed, with a steely resolve, he said, “I will not go anywhere. I will rebuild this house.”Standing in front of his gutted home, Vikram Gutram promises to rebuild. The mango tree behind him was planted and nurtured by him from seed (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters) (Left) Surlibai, wife of kotwar (a village authority), lost her home, her tractor [in the background] and a calf in the police action; (Right) her daughter Santu is distraught while narrating the incident; (Below) Sushma Anil More fled into the forest as the police arrived. When she returned her flour mill and general store were damaged in the demolition drive (Photos - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui) The village has a flour mill and a general store. Police did not spare the shops. Barela tribal Sushma Anil More, who ran them, said she came here after her marriage a decade ago. “We both have no time to cut the forest or encroach upon it. We are in the shop all day long. Our flour mill and general store are doing very well… We also ran away during the police drive. Our house and shops were in a partially damaged state when we returned.”Asked if they had applied for a lease document, More said, “Yes, we did, but it has not been processed to date.”Surlibai, the wife of kotwar (a village authority) Jhanjhar, is visibly upset. Her house in Patel Dhana and tractor were mangled in police action before we entered Bakdi village. Not just that, she lost a calf to the sudden action. Surlibai and her daughter Santu had desperately called out for help, but no one came. The JCB did not spare her tractor, which was kept near a school in the vicinity.  “Three JCBs reduced my house into rubble in a matter of five minutes. Our cow was tied inside when the house was being pulled down. The calf got buried in the debris,” she bemoaned, adding that foodgrains were also ruined. For 15 years, Sajna Pitha Nanla has been living in Bakdi and sharecropping on two-and-a-half acres of land. “My mother stays with me. She has gone out today to attend the 10th day ritual of a deceased relative. And now, the house has been torn down. There is destruction in the entire village. Where should we go? We are not allowed to stay even in the fields.” Nanla said.Nanu Bai, Dongar Singh, Guman Singh and Khajan Singh reiterated that they do not have land, but even the houses they possessed were not liveable now. All the people that 101Reporters spoke to claimed that they have been living in Bakdi for over 25 years. Ask why they did not oppose the move if they were innocent, Nalna's daughter Sajna Bai said, "No one has the courage to protest when we see so many policemen around."Complaints rejected, supply cutA postgraduate student in commerce, Vishnu Solanki belongs to the Barela community. His house in Bakdi’s Talab Dhana has been demolished. He claimed the affected people have nothing to do with the encroachers.He tried to prove his point by informing that most of them have Voter IDs and Aadhaar cards, and they exercise their franchise without outside interference. In fact, most of the old settlers and some of the new encroachers have got these key documents based on the panchayat's recommendation.“Bhil, Bhilala and Barela tribals reside here. My house has a government tap water connection. There is a middle school, health sub-centre and a ration shop. Power supply is also available,” Solanki said, adding that his complaint was not registered when he called up the CM helpline. “Subsequently, we went to the district Collector's office to make us heard, but were denied that chance too.” (Above) The ration shop at Bakdi's was emptied out and shuttered before the demolitions; (Below) The forest outpost in Bakdi (Photos - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)Radheshyam Ahire, another Barela youth who spent his childhood in Bakdi and is now pursuing postgraduation in mass communication in Khandwa, asserted that tribals are not part of forest or wood mafia. “They cut down the forest, burn the wood there and use some to make huts. They do not sell wood because they know the forest department could take action.”Meanwhile, Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) leader Madhuri Ben told 101Reporters that the tribals have “greed for land alone”. “If they had sold wood, they would have lived in palaces and not huts today. The forest department claims to have seized teakwood worth Rs 3 crore in the last few months. The reality is they have failed in preventing tribals from cutting trees. So, they made a deal that allowed tribals to stay in the forest and axe trees. However, the tribals have to hand over the cut wood to the department. Now, the same department calls them the teak mafia to hide their own failure.”  “You cannot harass ordinary citizens to catch criminals. How cruel is it to stop electricity and water supply to the entire village and withhold ration to catch a few accused,” she asked. According to the 2011 Census, Bakdi has 5,882 residents and 998 houses. Of them, 3,700 are voters. The villagers got benefits of all government schemes until the April 7 flare-up. Village panchayat mobiliser Sunil Nigalwal said over 100 people were working under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act scheme in the village, but the incident halted everything. “Works related to a housing scheme and Amrit Sarovar mission were on. All that stopped abruptly from the day the police and forest department swung into action. Most villagers have fled. Once the situation becomes normal, we will restart the work,” he informed.(Above) Timber stored for personal use by the tribal residents of Bakdi; (Below) The shocking scale of deforestation during the past few months form the backdrop of the escalating violence and public protests in Burhanpur (Photos - Mohammad Asid Siddiqui, 101Reporters)Third DFO in two monthsAnupam Sharma had just assumed office as Burhanpur divisional forest officer two months ago, when he was transferred to Bhopal in the aftermath of the police station attack in Nepanagar. When contacted, he was not ready to comment on the matter due to his transfer.“The way the forest has been cut in this area, it is a loss to the entire nation,” Vijay Singh, the incumbent, told 101Reporters, while citing the sheer volume of deforestation. On stopping power, water and ration supply, he said, “It is difficult to restore them until the encroachers are caught. The local tribals [read old settlers] support encroachers, which is why we are not able to reach the latter. We will maintain strict vigil until the situation becomes normal.” Repeated attempts to contact Bakdi sarpanch Shankar Sikdar Mehta and panchayat secretary Eknath Patil proved futile as their mobile phones remained switched off in the last several days.Edited by Rekha PulinnoliBurhanpur's deforestation crisis boils over. Read about the events that unfolded in AprilRead more about the thin and shifting line between 'tribals' and 'encroachers' Cover photo - The aftermath of a visit by riot control vehicles (Vajra) and JCBs in Bakdi (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)

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Loggers have a field day in Burhanpur, but police, forest departments have an axe to grind

 13 Apr, 2023

Trouble brews in Nepanagar as encroachers incur ire of locals and native tribals over forest cover, law and order

Years of unchecked encroachment and tree felling in Burhanpur is pitting tribals against tribals, with the situation now devolving into a law and order problem    Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh: Tension gripped Nepanagar in Burhanpur district over the weekend, when amidst intensifying protests against them, tribal encroachers used force to free their comrades from police detention and the police retaliated by demolishing their makeshift houses.Community encroachments (nawads) form the crux of the rift between the tribals of Nepanagar. The Barela, Bhil and Bhilala tribals had migrated and settled here many generations ago. In the last four decades, more tribals from Khargone, Barwani and Khandwa started clearing and occupying forest land as is their traditional practice, though the pace of encroachment has kicked up since the turn of the millennium.Though the encroachers (nawadis) belonged to the same communities, their acts of rampant tree felling to make way for agriculture and settlements angered original settlers. “The locals have been protecting the forests from the beginning and using only as much land as was required for sustenance. The new encroachers, on the other hand, cleared large tracts of forestland with the blessings of officials in the forest and police departments. Some even have 50 to 100 acres in their possession!” Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) leader Madhuri Ben told 101Reporters.Madhuri Ben alleges that deforestation at this scale is not possible without collusion between encroachers and the forest department  (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)Ben, who has been working for tribal rights and forest conservation for almost 30 years, alleged that many officials encouraged encroachment and deforestation by taking bribes. “If the administration had been strict, the present situation would not have arisen.”But the problem is that encroachments continued, thus stripping the forest cover in nearly 57,000 of the total 1,90,000 hectares. According to the forest department, Asir, Dhulkot, Nepanagar, Navra, Burhanpur, Khaknar, Shahpur and Bodarli ranges under Burhanpur forest division have lost 55,000 hectares between 2005 and 2017.   Though locals have been opposing the encroachers from the beginning, the protests were unorganised and hence ineffective, says Ben. But last week about 1,000 tribals started an indefinite sit-in protest in front of the Collectorate in Burhanpur on April 5, seeking action against the tainted forest officials. They alleged that the officials took Rs 25 lakh each from the encroachers and allowed them to fell trees on as much as 15,000 acres. Meanwhile, denying the forest-for-bribe charge, Divisional Forest Officer Anupam Sharma said he was ready to take immediate action if the agitators could provide evidence. The agitators withdrew from the protest by noon on April 7, but Ben claimed that they had not backed down and would resume the protest after three days.Drama unfoldsOn the same day, a brazen jailbreak incident brought matters to a head between encroachers and the administration. Around 4 am on Friday, over 60 tribals attacked the Nepanagar station and freed three of their comrades who were arrested recently near Mandwa for allegedly plotting a robbery. The men were suspected to be behind a similar robbery in November last year when a group of unidentified men attacked a forest output in Nepanagar and stole 17 service rifles. The detainees, including Hema Meghwal and Magan Patel, were part of the group of encroachers on Ghagharla and Sewal forests.The Nepanagar police station where over 60 tribals attacked and injured four police personnel in a bid to free alleged encroachers and dacoits under custody (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)“Meghwal was arrested a few days ago. Only four policemen were on duty when the police station was attacked, while the number of tribals was more than 60. We are trying to identify the attackers by checking CCTV footage,” said Superintendent of Police Rahul Kumar Lodha. All four policemen were badly injured in the attack. In the last three years, eight incidents of attack on forest staff and police have been reported. In March, there was a mob attack on a forest range office where four people detained for alleged tree felling were freed. Within a few days of that, forest department personnel and locals on an anti-encroachment drive were injured by bow and arrow and slingshot-wielding tribals. Alarmed by such aggressive behaviour, even local panchayats have shied away from passing a resolution against the encroachers.The latest incident rattled people to such an extent that all political parties, social organisations and local traders staged a sit-in outside the police station after giving a bandh call in Nepanagar on April 8. Municipality president Bharti Patil then said they would intensify the protest if the accused were not arrested soon.  Political parties, social organisations and local traders staged a sit-in outside the police station after giving a bandh call in Nepanagar on April 8 (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)In the face of these escalations, the police and administration swung into action. Indore Divisional Commissioner Dr Pawan Kumar Sharma and Inspector General Rakesh Gupta reached Nepanagar on April 7 itself. In retaliation, the police evicted the encroachers from Ghagharla and Sewal on the afternoon of April 8, mere hours after the jailbreak incident, and demolished over 10 houses. Section 144 was imposed in the entire area and 1,000 police and Rapid Action Force personnel were deployed to deal with the encroachers. The crackdown continued through the week. People in Sewal see the latest police drive as an act of revenge. “How can the police justify this? How is justice served when people living here have been rendered homeless? Those who lost their homes have nothing to do with the violence,” claimed Chitabai, a resident of Sewal. Incidentally, the house of a mentally challenged and differently-abled teenager was also demolished in the drive. People claim that his wheelchair was buried in debris during the drive. His sister was arrested on charges of encroachment while the brother was shifted to the anganwadi and is being looked after by the villagers. The wheelchair belonging to a differently-abled and mentally-challenged teenager buried in debris during the demolition drive by police (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)“The encroachers are posing a risk to our lives. However, vote-bank politics dissuades the government from taking drastic steps. Local tribals are the backbone of business activities in the area. Their safety is now under threat,” Sohan Saini, former municipal chairman of Nepanagar, told 101Reporters.   The forest department has distributed land titles to many older settlers, after Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan promised pattas to the tribals who settled here before 2005 in the run-up to the 2016 Nepanagar bypoll and 2018 state Assembly elections. Meanwhile, with Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections around the corner, local tribals have been exerting pressure for the award of forest rights leases to them. They claim over 10,000 applications have been pending with the government. Cover photo - Members of the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan gheraoed the collector's office in Burhanpur for two days (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui, 101Reporters)

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Trouble brews in Nepanagar as encroachers incur ire of locals and native tribals over forest cover, law and order

 05 Jan, 2023

Devlikala gram sabha prepares for PESA, but no one quite knows the deal

Ask any committee member about what PESA Act is or what his/her role is, the answer is “no information about it has reached us so far”Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh: As the afternoon sun shone in all its glory, the people of Devlikala in the tribal-dominated Khalwa block huddled in groups on the neat floor of Mata Chowk. They were discussing names for inclusion in committees under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, just before the first gram sabha (village council) meeting under the Act. The PESA Act came into force in Madhya Pradesh on November 15, exactly a month before the meeting in Devlikala, a village in Khandwa district with around 500 households. As the proceedings began, the panchayat assistant secretary called out the names of those assigned the roles of president, vice-president, secretary and treasurer of the gram sabha. The chosen ones slowly gathered in the middle.  At the PESA’s core are the tribal-dominated areas in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, all designated as Scheduled Areas under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. When panchayats across the country got the status of institutions of self-governance following the enactment of the 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendment Acts of 1992, the Scheduled Areas did not come under their ambit. However, the realisation that tribal people were facing exploitation made the Union government form a committee led by then Ratlam MP Dileep Singh Bhuria to probe into their living conditions. Based on the panel recommendations, the PESA Act was enacted on December 24, 1996, giving extensive powers to gram sabhas to self-govern.     Under the PESA, the powers of a village council are absolute. Its approval is necessary for land acquisition and other development plans. The tribal communities own and manage natural resources (water, land and forest resources, including minor produce) in the area, and the council monitors and implements laws in this regard. The gram sabha has a say in the grant of prospecting licences or mining leases for minor minerals and in the grant of concessions for the exploitation of minor minerals by auction in the Scheduled Areas.A gram sabha has the mandate to uphold the unique tribal cultural identity. Hence, they also have the power to scuttle any development programme that affects their vibrant tradition. Besides, the Act highlights the collective resolution of disputes based on traditional laws or common practices. The village council’s influence in the social sphere gives it the power to select beneficiaries of government schemes, act against moneylenders, protect the rights of workers, monitor and grant permission for migration/arrival of labourers, and manage village markets.Punia Bai (right), who had not received her widow pension even five years after her husband Shobharam’s death, finally got the chance to air her grievance at the gram sabha. Sarpanch Indrakala Pyarelal (left) approved her pension on the spot and handed over the certificate. (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui/101Reporters) Other functions include inspection of health centres, anganwadis, ashrams, schools and hostels; right to plan for agriculture, including measures to prevent soil erosion, regulating cattle grazing, rainwater harvesting and distribution, ensuring seed-manure availability and promoting organic fertilisers and pesticides, to name a few. How it worksAll registered voters in the panchayat’s electoral rolls are gram sabha members. In Madhya Pradesh, a gram sabha should meet trimonthly. This way, four meetings should be held yearly. The quorum of the meeting shall not be less than one-tenth of the total number of members or 500 members of the gram sabha, whichever is less. Special meetings can also be convened, as and when required. Certain committees are formed to exercise gram sabha’s powers, such as enforcing prohibition or restricting the sale and consumption of any intoxicant, maintaining peace and order, and managing waterbodies, to name a few. If need be, the committee’s duties can be modified by passing a resolution in the gram sabha. It is possible to hold a joint meeting of two or more village councils if their opinions are required for taking a decision on a project or proposal affecting all of them equally.  The panchayat secretary, who is a government servant, also serves as the gram sabha secretary and convenes the meetings. Panchayat employment assistant can also attend the meeting, but no elected representative can participate. The sarpanch, deputy sarpanch or panches of the village cannot become the president of a gram sabha. The post is reserved for a person belonging to a Scheduled Tribe. The powers of the sarpanches will remain the same, but they will have to follow the gram sabha recommendations. Gram panchayat secretary Ranjit Tanwar (seated right) and employment assistant Kewal Yadav (standing) were the only two persons with some knowledge about the PESA Act and helped complete the organisation of the committees (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui/101Reporters) According to Khalwa block Chief Executive Officer Kishore Kumar Uke, the PESA Act has been a lifesaver for the tribal community, giving them full rights over water, forest, land and mineral wealth. “If three villages are included in a panchayat, then all three will have their own separate gram sabhas. There will be no representation of the general class in the gram sabha of villages under PESA,” Uke told 101Reporters.Though the decisions made are mostly unanimous, a majority opinion can be taken if there is no consensus. If any person or department disagrees with the decision, objections can be raised within 15 days and another gram sabha meeting will look into it within 30 days. If not reconsidered, a committee comprising the district panchayat president and member, and sub-divisional magistrate can be appealed.Late arrivalThe PESA Act is applicable to 11,757 villages in 5,254 panchayats of 89 development blocks in 20 districts of Madhya Pradesh. Earlier, gram sabhas used to be convened in 5,254 panchayats, but now the numbers have increased to 11,757.  Before the PESA Act was implemented, all three villages coming under Devlikala panchayat used to participate in the gram sabha, where people from the village with the most representation in the panchayat would have an upper hand.However, there was equal representation of all in the gram sabha then, unlike the present condition that allows participation of only Scheduled Tribe members. They can take opinions from other caste members of the society, but the final decision taken by the gram sabha will predominantly be that of the Adivasis only. They can take opinions from other caste members of the society, but the final decision taken by the gram sabha will predominantly be that of the Adivasis only (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui/101Reporters) Madhya Pradesh is the seventh State in the country to implement the Act, nearly 26 years after it was enacted by the Union government. Congress MLA Hiralal Alava and Teer Foundation had raised several objections when the State government published the PESA draft. Milind Thatte of Teer Foundation told 101Reporters that the government system has been the biggest obstacle in the implementation of the PESA Act in Madhya Pradesh. Within a year, the State government had held 50 meetings to understand the flaws and clear hurdles.State of affairsDuring its first meeting under the PESA Act, Devlikala gram sabha formed several committees to manage its affairs. Motiram Kasde was nominated as the chairman of the land conservation committee, while Chhote Lal Omkar became its vice-chairman. Asked about the committee’s mandate, Kasde said he has not been informed about it. “We will be told later how this committee will function and what its powers are,” he said. Omkar was also not in a position to tell anything. Peace committee chairman Champalal Palvi admitted that he was not fully aware of his role, but would become familiar with it if there were repeated meetings. Nevertheless, he had gathered a great deal of information about the panel’s objectives.(Clockwise from top left) New committee members: Motiram Kasde, chairman of the land conservation committee; Peace committee chairman Champalal Palvi; Vice-chairman Dayaram Motiram; and, Chhote Lal Omkar, vice-chairman of the land conservation committee (Photos - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui/101Reporters)  “Minor disputes should not be taken to the police station. The peace committee would like to settle them at the gram sabha level itself. If major cases crop up, police intervention will be sought,” Palvi said. Vice-chairman Dayaram Motiram said he was yet to understand the functioning of the peace committee.Strangely, none of the committees had a woman president or vice-president. Speaking to 101Reporters, sarpanch Indrakala Pyarelal said they had handed over all the responsibilities to the gram sabha. “Because we have to work in these committees in future also, we did whatever we thought was appropriate in forming the committee,” she detailed.   On the other hand, women members were clueless about in which committee they had been included. Janaki Bai said being a village senior, she was an office-bearer of some committee. Sunita Phoolchand, Mithiyabai Daduram and Gopibai Rajesh said they have to first find on which committee they have been included and then learn about its functions.Asked about this, sarpanch Indrakala Pyarelal said she had informed everyone about the PESA Act and the formation of committees a day before the first meeting. Ironically, she also could not provide satisfactory replies about the provisions of the Act either.Strangely, none of the committees had a woman president or vice-president, though some were made members. Also missing was the participation of 33% of women in these committees (Photos - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui/101Reporters) Gram panchayat secretary Ranjit Tanwar and employment assistant Kewal Yadav were the only two persons with some knowledge about the PESA Act. Tanwar said the shanti samiti (peace committee), dispute committee, swasthya tadarth samiti (health ad hoc committee), forest resource and control committee, matri committee in anganwadis and groundwater management committee have been formed in the village. The committees constitute of five men and three women members each, following the mandatory 33% representation of the latter. As the gram sabha proceeded, there was some drama too. Punia Bai, who has not received her widow pension even five years after her husband Shobharam’s death, alleged that the panchayat had approved the cases of even women whose husbands had died just a year ago. Her anger knew no bounds, and had an immediate effect as the sarpanch and panchayat secretary consulted among themselves and approved her pension on the spot. A certificate in this regard was handed over too!  Cover photo: The third gram sabha under PESA convenes at Devlikala (Photo - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui)Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli

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Devlikala gram sabha prepares for PESA, but no one quite knows the deal

 30 Dec, 2022

Minor millets improve soil health, bring major gains for farmers in Khandwa

As part of the SABAL project for land remediation, farmers in five Madhya Pradesh villages work on their fallow lands for daily ration; cultivate millets that enhance soil nutrients to get better yields and more money  Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh: With the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopting an India-sponsored resolution making 2023 the International Year of Millets, the world is all set to welcome the next year with a dash of this superfood. For the Korku tribal farmers in five villages of Madhya Pradesh’s Khandwa district, millet has indeed been a super grain that has increased their earnings and has turned their fallow lands into cultivable fields.All that involved slogging away for 45 days each in 2020 and 2021 (March-April) on a total of 85 acres of fallow land spread across Gadriyakheda, Indirakheda, Devlikala, Devlikhurd and Ghutighat villages. It was conceived as a part of the SABAL project run by NGO Caritas India in collaboration with Khandwa Diocesan Social Services.Once big stones in the lands were dug out and bunds made out of them to harvest rainwater during the southwest monsoon (mid-June to September), minor millets were sown once every year to make the soil fertile. As such, Khandwa has low-fertile medium black soil, which is ideal for crops such as millets, wheat and soybean.  Shyam Pita Sikdar of Gadarikheda had a land of 15 acres, but could never harvest on five acres due to so many stones. He never thought the land could be irrigated (Photo- Mohammad Asif Siddiqui)Mukund Deshmukh of Caritas India, who has done extensive research on minor millets, told 101Reporters that tribal farmers in the district had given up on paddy, ragi (finger millet) and small grains kutki (little millet), sawa (barnyard millet), rala (foxtail millet), kodo (Kodo millet) and oil seed jigani nearly two decades ago, in favour of wheat, soybean and corn. As cash crops were water-intensive, they tried to cultivate only those plots where rainwater could be harvested efficiently.    Eventually, the plots that failed to give yield were neglected as villagers here are not financially capable of digging wells or tubewells. Noticing that land disuse in villages was on the rise, Caritas India came up with a unique idea of giving grains as wages to farmers for working in their own fields and helping them set up bunds for irrigation. The results were amazing.  “This experiment panned out quite well. Under the project, two kg of rice, half a kg of pulses, half a litre of oil and tea leaves were given daily to individual farmers working in their plots. We also gave them small grains to cultivate. A part of the yield that came out of those seeds was used for the next crop cycle. We also taught them how to use seeds efficiently,” SABAL project coordinator Rakesh Karole told 101Reporters. A picture of contrastBeing kharif (May-June) crops, minor millets can grow well even if the area gets only around 350 mm rainfall. Major millets ragi, jowar (sorghum) and bajra (pearl millet) need up to 500 mm. However, wheat being a rabi crop (mid-October to mid-November) requires watering at least six times during various stages of growth. If we were to calculate in terms of rainfall, a maximum of 750 mm is enough for a decent harvest.Millets have a short growing season of 70 to 100 days against wheat’s 120 to 157 days (depending on seed variety). Moreover, millets are more resilient to heat stress and drought conditions than wheat.(Above) The fields being improved collectively in 2021; (Below) Guddi Sukhram and Benabai are harvesting gram after rala, sawa in the treated field (Photo- Mohammad Asif Siddiqui)Right now, only major millets have MSP support like wheat. According to farmers, bajra is still not bought at the price that the government fixed. However, as market demand has been increasing, they manage to sell millets in the open market for good prices. Farmers also set aside a good portion to meet the nutritional needs of their families. The grain is less prone to spoilage and can be stowed away for years together. After sowing small grains, they also cultivate corn, gram and soybean in the rainy season.What makes millet more appealing to farmers is its ability to enhance soil nutrients. The plant has a fibrous root system that prevents soil erosion and maintains soil integrity. As an organic matter, millet composts slowly and helps retain water.Dr Yogendra Shukla, a scientist at the Krishi Vigyan Kendra associated with Bhagwatrao Mandloi Government Agricultural College, Khandwa, told 101Reporters that when land remained fallow for a long time, its capacity to absorb fertilisers decreased. “Cultivating small grains there for two to three years after land treatment is a good option. Minor millets require less water, which reduces the amount of salt reaching the soil. The roots and leaves of the plants are left in the soil to decompose. Both these practices improve soil health.”  The two and a half acres of land belonging to Bena Bai Champalal's family in Devikala was made cultivable. By using the stones earlier on the field, they made a bund to control the water flow. (Photo- Mohammad Asif Siddiqui)Once millets are harvested, farmers can cultivate other crops on their land. With increased soil moisture, they even go for a second cash crop during the rabi season, provided they have enough water storage for irrigation.      Case studiesNeelabai Ratna of Devlikhurd was apprehensive when the SABAL project members approached her with the idea of turning her two-acre fallow land into a minor millet field. First, her stony land was prepared for sowing sawa and kodo. What followed was a surprise for her. Despite scanty rains, both millets thrived and gave bountiful yields.  Continuous cultivation has increased land productivity to such an extent that she even experimented with tur dal (pigeon pea), paddy and maize last year. All three gave rich dividends, which motivated others in the locality to follow suit.Guddibai Sukhram of Devlikala admits that on her three-acre land, the yield has increased three times ever since she replaced seasonal crops with Ragi, Rala and Sawa (Photo- Mohammad Asif Siddiqui)“Initially, I got two quintals of yield, which later clocked nearly five quintals,” said Neelabai. Sevanti Pita Tumba of the same village also got good results by sowing minor millets in her 2.5 acres of fallow land for the last three years. Weeds and waist-high plants covered the three acres belonging to Guddi Bai of Devlikala once, but ragi, rala and sawa adorn it now. “I used to cultivate only seasonally before. Minor millets have increased the yield by three times. If I sow one kg of kodo, I will get two sacks of the produce. A sack of kodo sells for around Rs 6,000. This has taken away all my troubles,” Guddi told 101Reporters. Bena Bai Champalal’s family possessed 15 acres, of which they could cultivate only seven. The rest of the land had heavy stones in it. When other farmers of Devlikala started utilising the SABAL project, she also contacted the resource persons to learn about ways to improve soil quality. Her two-and-a-half acres of fallow land was selected for the purpose.As a first step, big stones were removed manually from the land. Then broad bed furrows were made to channel water between the rams where millets were sown. The method reduced water use and prevented both waterlogging and wastage. Additionally, it helped the crop’s roots to develop fast, thus increasing productivity. Devlikhurd's Sevantibai says that minor millets have changed her life (Photo- Mohammad Asif Siddiqui)Anita Buda of Indira Kheda explained to 101Reporters the tough grind behind treating her 1.2 acres of fallow field. The removed stones were used to build a bund-like structure in the sloping area of the field to stop soil erosion. The embankment was fortified with the remaining stones. Due to this, around two feet of soil got deposited in the field. “This soil can give yield without watering till winter as its water retention capacity has increased,” she claimed.Buda's family has two-and-a-half acres, of which they could cultivate only half the land. In a year, her family earned just around Rs 15,000. But after she started growing kodo, sawa and savariya (Indian backyard millet) in the treated land without a break, the land became so fertile that now maize, pigeon pea, gram and lentils easily grow here. In winter, Buda grows green peas, too. As soon as the land texture changed, the family’s fortunes also saw a reversal. They presently earn around Rs 1.5 lakh annually. “Small grains do not require much fertiliser or water. This trick is very useful to get our lands fit for cultivation,” said Shyama Pita Sikdar of Gadriyakheda. An elderly with 15 acres of land, he had worked on two acres of his total five acres of fallow land for four months to make it crop-ready.He had started work on the rest of the land when his health deteriorated. After a six-month-long bed rest, Sikdar is able to walk again. “I will soon get the remaining land functional,” he said, with the vigour of a youngster. Kalibai Shyama, who has started cultivating minor millets in her two acres in the same village, said efforts were being made to get another three acres ready for cash crops. “Embankments have proved to be a game changer as there is no soil erosion during rains. We are totally dependent on the moisture content present in the land to take up rabi crops.”Right now, 30 villages are part of the SABAL project. Rakesh Karole said 50% of the fallow land in Khandwa district would be ready for cultivation soon if the land remediation continued at the present pace. Around 200 more acres are to be reclaimed in the five villages that have registered speedy progress.He also expressed concern that farmers were turning to cash crops after the land retrieval, when the project idea was to encourage farmers to cultivate more millets. Either way, farmers are more than happy to exert themselves, experiment and earn. Cover image is of Guddibai and Benabai showing Rala and Sava harvests of their field. Photo clicked by Mohammad Asif Siddiqui.Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli

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Minor millets improve soil health, bring major gains for farmers in Khandwa

 07 Dec, 2022

Sheopur narrow gauge train chugs into history, derails tribal lives in its wake

The Sheopur-Gwalior light rail served as a lifeline for the Sahariyas, who transported forest produce and livestock to Gwalior to earn a better price Sheopur, Madhya Pradesh: If you pass through Tarrakala village, 88 km from Sheopur district headquarters, the most conspicuous sight is of a collapsing railway bridge. A major portion of the track has been swept away in river Doni, while the rest hangs in the balance.This bridge constitutes the country’s longest narrow gauge line, which has been lying defunct since the nationwide lockdown of 2020. Every day, a train would run from Sheopur to Gwalior and vice versa, covering 210 km and touching 26 stations at a speed of 18 kmph. It takes around 11 hours to reach Gwalior, which a diesel or electric locomotive would in about four hours.The Sahariya tribal community relied on the narrow gauge train for transporting their produce and livestock to mandis (markets), hospital visits and for accessing schools and colleges in Gwalior district, among other things. When the train stopped service, the lives of people inhabiting 28 villages along the track also came to a standstill.A century-old service The Gwalior Light Railway was built by Madho Rao Scindia, the then Maharaja of Gwalior. The work on Gwalior-Bhind section started in 1895, and Gwalior-Shivpuri in 1899. It was later extended to Sheopur in 1904, Birpur in 1908, and to Sheopur in 1909.   (Above) Keshav Ram says there are no schools, hospitals and other facilities in their village. "We used to reach wherever we wanted by this train"; (Below) Kala Bai Devi Lal says children used to run with the train as soon as it arrived. If someone had to send any goods from the nearby village, it would be handed over to the loco pilot. (Photos clicked by Asif Siddiqui)The light train running on the 199-km Gwalior-Sheopur track stopped operations on March 22, 2020, the day the country observed Janata Curfew in the wake of COVID-19 spread. The next year, the Indian Railways announced track closure.A resident of Panch Pura in Occhapura gram panchayat, Ramswaroop Nohariya (70) remembers boarding the narrow gauge train with his father. “We would take with us the forest produce, fruits and vegetables he (father) had harvested. Our whole family relied on income from the sale of these items in Gwalior.”Nohariya says he sold his goats in Gwalior the same way around 40 years ago. “If I sold in the local market, a goat would fetch Rs 150 maximum. But in Gwalior, you can get hold of Rs 300 to 400.”Tarrakala’s Hariom Nathuram used to take a goat to Gwalior market every two months to sell it for Rs 7,000 to 10,000. “Even if I stayed there overnight, I would return with a profit. Now, we are forced to sell livestock in Sheopur market. To reach Sheopur itself, we have to take small trucks and tractors. Since the market is not very big, traders quote half the price that I get in Gwalior. When there are not many buyers, we have to sell at a loss.”“When the train was running, we had the option to sell our produce in Bhind, Shivpuri and Gwalior. I was able to transport all my goods to the markets on one person’s fare. It was so economical; we would earn a good profit easily,” says Phoolmati Ramji Lal of Sheopur.Munni Bai says she met this train for the first time as a bride. "I reached my in-laws' place for by riding in it. The relationship between this train and the village has been like home." (Photo clicked by Asif Siddiqui)“The last I remember a train ticket to Gwalior cost Rs 45. However, it takes Rs 300 to travel the same distance by bus. Hence, many people have resorted to selling their goods locally,” says Keshav Ram.‘It was our ambulance, school bus’  There are no good schools, colleges, hospitals and other facilities in villages abutting the narrow gauge line. To access these amenities, people have to travel to the city, for which they earlier depended on the train. “It served as an ambulance, school bus and goods carrier for us. As it was always crowded, villagers would sit on the roof of the train too. It seemed less dangerous because the light train moved slowly,” says Keshav Ram.Tarrakala’s Kusum Rukhdu had a boil on her neck, which got worse despite treatment at the local sub-health centre. “I had to be taken to Birpur Primary Health Centre located 30 km away on a bike. After the initial treatment, I was referred to Sheopur. When the train was running, we used to go to Birpur or Sheopur for treatment even in case of minor illnesses.”Ramswaroop Nohariya, 70, says he was familiar with the narrow gauge train from his childhood itself. "My father used to take me to Gwalior. We took with us the forest produce and other items for sale in Gwalior" (Photo clicked by Asif Siddiqui)According to Kala Bai Devi Lal of the same village, if someone had to send a parcel to a nearby village, they would send it through the loco pilot or guards. “They were very friendly.”Munnibai (60) came to Sheopur on the train as a newlywed when she was 16 years old. “Probably, there is no villager who has not travelled on this train. We would finish chores like vegetable chopping on the train itself. Such was our comfort level. People say a big train will start service to connect us to bigger cities, but I do not know if we will feel familiar as we did with the narrow gauge train.”Manoj Singh, Public Relations Officer, North Central Railway, Jhansi Division, tells 101Reporters that the work on a new rail line has begun at an outlay of Rs 4,870 crore. “The construction of the 45-km broad gauge line from Gwalior to Jaura is presently on. It is likely to be over by April next year. Ultimately, the line will reach Kota via Sheopur.”Noting that a century-old light train was bound to stop functioning one day, Singh says the new line would reduce travel time from 11 hours to four.This track was washed away after the river flooded Turrakala. The track remains unattended to even now (Photo clicked by Asif Siddiqui) Cover image clicked by Mohammad Asif Siddiqui is of social worker Harimohan, who says villagers have been deprived of cheap and accessible transport due to the closure of narrow gauge line.Edited by Tanya Shrivastava

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Sheopur narrow gauge train chugs into history, derails tribal lives in its wake

 30 Nov, 2022

For these Sahariya women, forest conservation and business go hand in hand

Tribals living around Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh have been selling minor produce from the forest they nurtured to a company, in which most of them are shareholders, for the last five yearsSheopur, Madhya Pradesh: The Sahariya tribal people in Occhapura village of Sheopur district live by the motto ‘jungle hamara, uska nuksan bhi hamara (forest is ours, its loss too is ours)’. They depend on the buffer zone of the 748 sq km forest around River Kuno, formally known as Kuno National Park, to earn a living by harvesting gum, honey, shatavari (asparagus), gudmar leaves, nagarmotha (nut grass) and similar produce. However, this May, their homes came under the newly-demarcated eco-sensitive zone. “After the cheetah introduction programme, a few restrictions have been imposed on entry into the buffer zone. We are not sure how it will affect us in future. We are worried,” says Parvati Sukhcharan, whose family harvest gum from 500 pine trees allotted to them. At stake is the hard work put in by the community members over the last five years by setting up an agriculture and allied activities business — Sahariya Mahila Laghu Vanopaj Producer Company Limited — with the assistance of the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM).A first-of-its-kind company operating in the tribal-dominated Vijaypur and Karahal blocks, it has an annual turnover of Rs 1.5 crore with over 1,200 Sahariya women forming its part, either as sellers or shareholders.In 2017, most families in the area were in debt. They were forced to sell minor produce at very low prices to agents/money lenders in exchange for short-term loans. As expected, they never earned enough to come out of debts. “After the company was formed, we started getting competitive prices for our labour,” Basantibai Reechha, the president of Jai Bhoomiya Baba Village Collective, tells 101Reporters. The collective has 16 SHGs functioning under it.A lesson in people’s participation, the Vanopaj Producer Company offers a higher than market price to the minor forest produce collectors and helps funnel the benefits back to the members of the community.(Above) A collection centre; The Vanopaj Producer Company offers a higher than market price to the collectors of minor forest produces and helps funnel the benefits back to the members of the community (Photo - Asif Siddiqui)Humble beginningsInitially, the NRLM team led by Vijaypur coordinator Brajesh Sharma and Karahal coordinator Anuj Vijayvargiya studied the area and made a proposal to launch a company. The district panchayat later hired Bhopal-based NGO Access Development to help set up the company in 2017.The tribal people were hesitant at first, despite the NRLM members educating them on the benefits. But when they saw how kakora (spiny gourd) and amla (gooseberry) were being sold at a higher price by the SHGs, many women voluntarily came forward.The women who joined the initiative were sold a company share worth Rs 100. Five of them later became part of the board of directors, which meets twice every month to decide the best course of action for the company.The anecdotes that Sahariya women Dwarka Kamlesh, Draupadi Gulab and Jamna Ramdas Adivasi shared with 101Reporters reveal the transformation they underwent in the last five years — in terms of family incomes, confidence levels and general awareness.Kamlesh, the company director, says every tribal family now earns Rs 6,000 to 8,000 per month. Her house acts as a collection centre for forest produce, and she pays for them using the advance amount that the company provides her.  Gulab, an active member of Jai Hanuman SHG, now enjoys a say in the family’s matters — a position she never had earlier. Jamna, the company chairman, says her village Nichli Khori, though small in size, sees an annual business of Rs 60,000 to 70,000.Kamla Ramotar of Kheri village in Karahal block is a company director and collection centre in-charge. She actively collects medicinal herbs from the forest. “I earn around Rs 1.5 lakh annually... Everyone calls me ‘madam’ now.”(Above) Basantibai Reechha, President of Jai Bhoomiya Baba Village Collective, under which 16 SHGs function; (Below) Dwarka Kamlesh, company director, says now every tribal family now earns Rs 6,000 to 8,000 per month (Photos - Asif Siddiqui)Vanopaj Producer Company CEO Sapna Tiwari says the firm used to buy forest produce and sell it to different villages at first. Two years ago, it launched a processing unit to make shatavari powder — an adaptogenic herb used to regulate hormones. "Now, we await a licence from the Ministry of Ayush to enter the market with our shatavari capsules."Resource sharingThe tribal community with its vast bank of traditional knowledge can tell exactly where to look for a medicinal herb based on weather pattern and forest undergrowth. “But we were not aware of the trade practices, which is why the traders took advantage of us. Ever since the company became active, there have been strict quality checks,” Reechha says.According to Dammo Narottam, a member of Jai Hanuman SHG, every family has been assigned an area rich in medicinal herbs. Only those from that particular family can harvest the produce. As this is a well-defined system, there has been no fights between families over resource sharing. “For the last 23 years, my family has taken care of 300 trees and harvested resources from them. I can say for sure that we have not lost a single tree in as many years.”“The forest is our source of livelihood. We go to great lengths to conserve it. We have learnt all our conservation techniques from our ancestors,” adds Reechha.The villagers have devised a system to inform each other if they suspect any illegal activity in the forest. They immediately alert the forest department also. A rule bars cutting down green young trees. Those who dare to make such a mistake are barred from entering the forest. Two months ago, the tribal people had seized a truck moving suspiciously in Vijaypur block. Their vigil paid off as the truck was carrying illegally felled trees.Pappulal Sanaiyalal (left) and his daughter who has inherited her mother's shares in the company harvest medical herbs and make a decent living; (Right) Parvati Sukhcharan and her family harvest gum from 500 pine trees demarcated for them, but she worries about the new restrictions on entry into the buffer zone around Kuno National Park (Photos - Asif Siddiqui)Occhapura’s Pappulal Sanaiyalal and his daughter, who is part of the Jai Hanuman SHG, harvest medicinal herbs and earn decently. “After my wife died, the company shares (worth Rs 2,500 now) were transferred to our daughter. Whatever we have is because of the forest, which is why we want to protect it.”Though cheetahs pose a risk to the livelihood of tribals, Kuno National Park Divisional Forest Officer Prakash Kumar Verma claims that may not be the case as the department has been equipping the Sahariya youth. “So far, we have trained four Sahariya boys to work as drivers and 15 (of a total 30) as guides. Tribal youth are directly connected to the forest. They know every tree present there. We will refine their skills, so that the tourists coming here get on-ground information about the area.”Cover Image: Asif Siddiqui Edited by Tanya ShrivastavaThis article is a part of 101Reporters' series The Promise Of Commons. In this series, we explore how judicious management of shared public resources can help the ecosystem as well as the communities inhabiting it.

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 6min Read
  
For these Sahariya women, forest conservation and business go hand in hand

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