But Rajasthan government refuses to acknowledge their claims over land

Sahariya adivasis in Baran in south Rajasthan have waged a quiet war against generations of slavery to local landlords. Pushed off agricultural land and struggling to sustain themselves on deteriorating forests, hundreds of Sahariya families here remained indebted as “hali” — among 31 forms of bonded debt prohibited by Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976 — against small loans to Sikh, Jat, and Dhakad landlords in some instances for generations. But since November 2010, more than 200 Sahariya families have refused to work, farming land and taking care of landowners’ cattle without wages. Even as feudal violence and coercion continued in pockets, this January, 135 Sahariya families sold the first portion of crop harvested on land they reclaimed from the landlords.

“We made applications to the district officials and there was a public hearing last July. The (former) Collector B. Sarvanan restored 625 bigha land encroached by landlords in Sunda from us. We feared the landlords will retaliate so women from Sunda, Amroli, Kherla, and Dabka stayed near the fields two months in the rains before the sowing,” said Gyarsi Bai Sahariya, 50, who was born into a landless family in Kishanganj and has been working as community worker with Jagrut Mahila Sanghatan (JMS) since 20 years. The families estimate the whole harvest may sell for Rs. 20 lakh. They have built a community grainbank at Sunda to pool the foodgrains.

While District Collector B. Sarvanan was transferred two months after he initiated this land reform, more and more Sahariyas have found the courage to speak up against the landlords. The extent of debt bondage in Baran is still unravelling.

“My older brother worked as a hali for five years on Hemraj Dhakad’s farm in Achramedha village after borrowing Rs 10,000. He died of a fever but Hemraj claimed my brother had a matha chadha (bonded debt) of Rs. 40,000 and I had to work for him in lieu of the debt. When the news spread that Sahariya had been freed in Eklera, he started locking me up at night but I managed to escape and board a bus,” recounted Jagdish Sahariya, 19, who had fled to Eklera village from Atru, 50 kms away.

Landlords deny that they kept Sahariya families as bonded labour on their farms and claim they paid them monthly wages. “The Sahariyas tell lies. They knew nothing of farming when we first started hiring them after settling here in the 1960s. We taught them how to plough the land, how to apply fertilizers,” said Kashmir Singh, a landowner in Sunda village.

Sahariya adivasis, identified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group, were hunter gatherers till a few decades back and are concentrated in Shahbad and Kishanganj blocks on Rajasthan’s border with Madhya Pradesh. District officials estimate there are 21,000 Sahariya families in Baran, a majority of who are landless. The death of 47 Sahariyas because of starvation during the 2001 drought even triggered a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court on right to food. Hunger deaths have been reported as recently as in 2004, 2009 and 2011.

Sixteen Sahariya families from Eklera village first spoke up about how they were working against bonded debt on landlords’ farms against loans of 40 to 70 per cent interest at a dharna organized in Jaipur to demand minimum wages in MNREGA in 2010. The Rajasthan government’s first response was to deny their claims saying they had migrated from MP, but have since provided them 200 days of work under MNREGA, twice the national norm. But it is over land redistribution that the government has been reluctant to acknowledge their claims.

“There is still 4,000 bigha land that landlords have encroached from 900 Sahariyas families by setting up cooperatives in their names and from those who have made hali on farms,” Moti Lal of JMS who is supporting Sahariyas consolidate their claims over land and forest produce. In June 2012, of 3089 forest rights claims submitted in Kishanganj and Shahbad blocks since 2006, only 538 — less than a fifth — were accepted.

Feudal violence and coercion continues

BLA Act provided Rs. 2 lakh for a survey every three years in districts to identify and resolve debt bondage. But more than two years since this was brought to the government’s notice, officials have been reluctant to complete this in Baran. The posts of labour inspector, labour welfare officer, lower divisional clerk have been vacant in Baran since five years. Those working on deputation come from Jhalawar, 80 kms away. “I would not say there is a large-scale problem of bonded debt in the area,” said the new District Collector S. L. Vohra. “A survey is going on but I cannot comment on when it may be completed.”

Sahariyas families gathered at Sunda and Eklera said the practice continued in Kishanganj. “There are at least 400-500 Sahariya working as hali in Laxmipura, Jaisva, Barauni, Gerda, Bhabhuka, Moeta, Ardanpura, Jagdevpura. In Jagdevpura, those working on Jagdish Aitwal’s farm asked us to help them but how can we reach them?” said Kishore Sahariya.

In Jaisva, at a meeting at a grocery shop in the village centre, most Sahariya families initially denied working against bonded debt in interviews with this correspondent. But Ramu Lal Sahariya, in his late teens, spoke up. “My father China Lal has been hali all his life. My mother Kunti Bai too worked as hali throwing gobar on the landlord’s farm. Anyone here will not admit to it because they fear the landlords. But the landlords cannot fool me because I am tenth class fail,” he said.

Radhe Shyam Sahariya, 28, then said that he was hali at landlord Har Charan Singh’s farm. “I borrowed Rs. 3,000 from him when I was 15 but now he asks for Rs. 20,000. My wife Leela Devi also works at his farm. Har Charan beats me up. Once he tied one of his hali to a tree and beat him.”

At this point the interview was interrupted, as Har Charan Singh reached the spot and tore the page this correspondent was taking notes on. He threatened everyone present at the meeting. A complaint was registered against Singh at Bhanwargarh police station. But no FIR has been registered against Singh or any landlord in Baran under the BLA Act 1976.

“What the Rajasthan government did by acknowledging and responding to bonded labour is heartening and is a first in many years. Land redistribution is potentially the most significant step to address bonded labour. But this and other measures by the district officials seem concentrated in a small area,” said Harsh Mander, Special Commissioner of the Supreme Court for the right to food. “Making an advance available against MNREGA work could help workers with their credit needs,” he said.

(The reporter worked on this story as part of a Media Fellowship offered by the National Foundation for India.)