Tribals of interior Madhya Pradesh are victims of distress migration throughout their lives
“Kol families never live long enough in one house to let the smoke from the hearth blacken the walls,” said 30-year-old Mamta Kol, in a deadpan voice, devoid of grief or anger. Distress migration is so frequent among people of Madhya Pradesh that it has become a way of life.
Born in Chamarahua village in Mau block of Banda district in Uttar Pradesh, Mamta is now living in Gonta hamlet in Jawa block of Rewa district. Her parents were also victims of distress migration. In spite of having a patta in his name, her father never got possession of the land. Reduced to the life of bonded labourers, the family fled to Katiya-Dandi, a village in U.P.'s Chitrakoot district. But similar circumstances there, too, forced them once again to migrate to Gonta where a few community elders had settled earlier to escape brutal exploitation by upper caste landlords.
This was in 1984. Today, the government is gearing up to acquire the land in Gonta for a proposed thermal power plant. Mamta wonders if the Kols would forever be resigned to their ‘fate' of displacement every few years.
Mamta's story is in no ways atypical. Sadhulal, 62, born in Suhawal, had to move to Barahula, then to Daharan before finally ending up in Bishar, a hamlet deep within now-denuded forests. He liked living in Bishar as the hamlet was relatively inaccessible and provided refuge from dadulog (landlords in local parlance). He saw this as a shot at stability. For people trying to escape generations of bondage, the justification seemed genuine.
He, with 56 other residents of the hamlet, got a patta as well. The fairy tale ended when an upper caste landlord turned up, who forcibly usurped some land and started litigation claiming that the distributed lands were his private property. The case being ‘subjudice', the lands are lying uncultivated even today. “If the government gives us land leases, does it give us power for fighting court cases? Would we have had to beg for land had we had that much power?” asked Hiralal, a community elder.
From Mohanaiyya plot of Seeganwtola to Nonari of Jawari and from Dondar Colony to Dhakara, the story repeats itself. The evictions come in different forms: sometimes self-inflicted in search of freedom from bondage, at other times by the forest department throwing them out on the pretext of ‘illegal encroachment' on forest lands. Displaced from the hamlets, the tribals look for a place that is often uninhabitable, as the risk of being chased out of habitable hamlets is very much there.
The story never changes. Once the new place is made liveable, the kith and kin also wanting to escape structures of bonded labour are invited to stay. However, soon after they fall prey to either a new development project or a diktat of the forest department. Another eviction follows and the older the person is, the more are the number of displacements suffered. In fact, the number is often directly proportional to the age of the person. Some people here have spent a lifetime spanning almost the whole of Baghelkhand.
Ironically, if the tribals are not evicted, their fate is even worse – it means they have not been able to flee the bonded condition of their birth. This was the case in Loni hamlet, where the inhabitants did not get displaced even once. The predicament of the residents here is symptomatic of why they put everything at stake for that elusive freedom. Ramkhelawan of Mohanaiyya says it simply, “What could be better than being the master of one's own self. Whether there is livelihood or not, one is independent at least.”
Independence has been a lifelong struggle for Shailesh Verma as well. A Dalit from Dhakara, he adopted an OBC surname merely to escape ‘insults' hurled at him by a feudal society. He became the first graduate from his community, and says defiantly, “Those who make it big become Rawat, while the failed ones remain Kol all their lives”.
As path-breaking is the story of Ramkripal Namdev, 65, of Nonari. Though hailing from the darji (tailor) community, he has made it his mission to establish villages for the dispossessed Kols and Dalits. Whenever he would see empty government land he would invite deprived groups to build a new hamlet. He would then become the self-appointed mentor of the hamlet, lodge legal cases against the Forest Department to stop them from reclaiming the land and engage in political struggles, including indefinite hunger strikes. Ask him why and all he says, smilingly, “people have a right to live, don't they?”
Yet, stories of such defiance are few and far between as against those of evictions and displacements. The miseries of these communities are akin to the internally displaced people. Is someone listening?