In the remote Korku-dominated forests of Melghat in Maharashtra, employment and forest rights continue to be denied to most of the Adivasis. Over 200 people, mostly from the Melghat region, aired their grievances on Saturday before activists and government officials to drive the point that theirs is a voice that cannot be ignored.

Organised by Koshish, a coalition of voluntary groups in Amravati, the first-ever public hearing on forest rights and the rural employment guarantee scheme run by the State exposed the huge lacunae in their implementation.

At a time when migration has begun in a major way from Melghat, the government confessed to having a mere 900 people on employment guarantee schemes run by the State in the two districts of Dharni and Chikhaldhara that comprise the Melghat region. Ganu Mavaji Mawaskar from Bodu village declared that many people had already migrated as there was no work. People complained that they had no information about the employment schemes and there was no one to give them proper guidance.

There were also many who said that they were not paid for their work in time and one person has been waiting for his payment since three years. Rukmini Dhande said that the people were selling off their goats and cattle and migrating in large numbers. Ramesh Kasdekar said the minimum wages were often not paid and people preferred to go out for work as they were paid promptly. He demanded that the government set up hostel facilities for the children of parents who migrate.

More serious issues were raised by Dhagu Betekar who said the gram sevak was absent for weeks and there was absolutely no coordination about the work. Gram Sabhas were rarely held and there was very little planning, he adds.

Under the employment guarantee schemes run by the State, the gram panchayats are expected to do the bulk of the work. However, this does not seem to be the case with a complete lack of interest in the gram sevaks who are supposed to liaise between the people and the government and ensure that the work is carried out.

Ramlal Jamunkar, sarpanch of Tarubandha village, said that since 15 years he has not been able to even secure drinking water for his village. There is no work and the Forest department does not have any schemes for them. While the issue of work is grave, the implementation of the forest rights is even worse despite the Act being in force. Only about 400 or so of 1,700 claims have reached anywhere near approval in Melghat.

The government’s response to the public hearing has been prompt. Amravati district Collector Rucha Bagla, who did not turn up for the hearing though her deputy was in attendance, has agreed to promptly initiate work, which has been approved.