Though the Kols are anthropologically tribal, they are recognized as a Scheduled Caste in Uttar Pradesh. Not only has this deprived them of their traditional source of living-the forest, it has largely left them dependant and landless, languishing in silica quarries and sand mines.
The Kols mainly inhabit the backward Bundelkhand and Baghelkhand regions bordering Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, in the districts of Allahabad, Banda, Chitrakoot, Mirzapur, Sonbhadra, Satna and Rewa. They are divided into exogamous clans-but have similar work patterns, and are patriarchal with traditional patrilocal residence. In Madhya Pradesh, they are accorded tribal status. A Kol development agency was formed last year to ensure their extensive development spinning around better education, housing, community shed, health examination, employment and forest produce-based programmes.
In UP, however, they remain untouched by any government schemes, even though they share the forests with Kols of MP.
Their struggles come right down to basic rights of residence. In south-west Allahabad, clusters of blue, white and yellow polythene tents are clearly identifiable against the rocky landscape.
Landless and dismayed by the rocky terrain- that makes cultivation difficult- the Kols settle down close to silica mines, crushing stones for much of the day and bearing a nomadic existence. Over the years, a large number have contracted lung diseases like silicosis and tuberculosis. Some have lost limbs or sustained crippling injuries during the blasting of the rocks.
Pannalal Kol, 60, who lives here with his extended family, lost a finger during an accident at the quarry some years ago. He does not remember how far back they came here.
"Our ancestors lived here for years. But nothing has changed. In the villages, the Mukhiyas manipulate the funds and have their say in MNREGA. Here, we are at the mercy of the thekedaars and dalals [intermediaries]," he explains their multi-fold exploitation.
Few kilometers away, Laukush Kol’s family lives with a couple of Kol families who have crossed over from Madhya Pradesh in search of better opportunity.
"We only have BPL cards [that entitles them to rice and wheat]," he said, when asked to furnish any proof of identity or residence. Many still do not have ration cards, and even those who did, have been deprived of regular grain rations. In 2010, there were reports that Kol children were eating mud out of hunger in the Shankargarh block, subsequently leading to a Supreme Court enquiry.
A section of Kols also dwells in stone hutments, but without the basic amenities, such as electricity, safe drinking water and health care, typically located near silica quarries. “The wells are either dirty or have dried up. Our women travel 2 km to fill water, “says Ram Kol, of the severe water scarcity in the Shankargarh area. Many of the primary schools are also deserted and have appalling infrastructure.
In most cases, the landlords provide the Kols space to work and live, and in return deduct portions from their silica mining. Kol women are also invited to serve as domestic help for no or minimum remuneration. They often endure the most of police apathy, with reports of them facing sexual harassment and violence going unheard or unreported. "When we go with complaints, we are shooed away and asked to come back later," says Indu Kol.
However, the Kol’s most grim concern remains the forest department’s restrictions on the use of forest produce. Generally, they require permission to plant or use trees such as neem, amla and mahua. The Kols complain that they face harassment from the authorities even if they collect the twigs and barks and sell them. According to Amarnath Kol, who works with a local Kol organization, at least eight Kols have been booked by the forest department for carrying wood for sale.
The Kols also allege that the forest authorities encroached on lands allotted to them legally years ago. “The zamindars and the sand mafia intimidate us to leave land where we settle down. If the forest lands are rightly returned to the adivasis, they can make a living without depending on the dalals,” Amarnath says.
In comparison, in Bara tehsil, a fraction of the population has benefitted under the Indira Awaas Yojna, with Kols acquiring jobs in the city as drivers, guards and construction labourers. They have been assimilated into the urban population.
Today, Kols are mostly followers of Hinduism. They claim their descent from Shabari, who in the forests of modern day Chattisgarh fed berries to Lord Ram and Lord Lakshman during their exile. As the legend suggests, the Kols have a close relationship with the forest.
This bond was disrupted in the 19th century by the British East India Company, which indulged in deforestation and introduced zamindari to extract revenue from their forests lands. The Kols protested violently, in what is known as the Kol Rebellion (1831-32), where a British Major is said to have noted their "courage and daring."
For the Kols, the difficulty lies in the implementation of the Forests Rights Act. Under the Act, other forest dwelling communities who are not Scheduled Tribes will have to furnish proof of their presence in the forest for 75 years. Those recognized as tribal are free from this burden of proof of residence.
The contending question is: How can they produce proof of 75 years of residence when they have no residential rights and live like nomads?
The forest ranger's office was closed. When forest officials in Allahabad were approached, they said the Kols had no claim to the forest produce.
"There is no forest area so where is the question for their claims. Without documentary proof of 75 years how can we give them land?" said C.B Nath, Allahabad Division Forest Range chief. "They have never approached us demanding rights to the forests," he added.
The officials also defended their decision of checking locals from picking fallen twigs and wood for selling. "We stop illicit taking away of wood. We try not to bother the Kols…They [Kols] earn Rs. 250-300 daily-much more than what the government pays. It's a different matter that they suffer from silicosis," said a senior official.
With just over a percent of the state’s SC population, the Kols have rarely got representation in the state assemblies and remain out of the scope of parliamentary politics. They have also not been able to organize a sustained movement for their demands. Inspired by the Gujjar community's movement for tribal status in Rajasthan, in recent years, students and professionals from the community gathered support to rally Kols under the Kol Adivasi Vikas Samiti. It, however, could never gain momentum and is today virtually stagnant.
"There were people who had joined the movement for their political motives. They did not look into the major problem of forest rights, but voiced for the few unemployed youth. The majority of Kols are forest dwellers, so any movement without forest rights is futile," said Bhimlal Kol, a student associated with the organization.