As a young tribal boy growing up in the forests of Heggadadevanakote, Somanna would eat wood apples which had dropped from the tree for breakfast every day. However, he once found that no wood apples were available since someone was collecting them much before he could. He decided to see who was beating him at the game and stayed back in the forest overnight. He found out that a person was collecting them to sell them in the nearby market. What was essentially a nutritious breakfast for a poor boy had become a commercial commodity for someone else.
Something similar happened to Somanna recently who is now about sixty years old. In the last week of October when the state government was drawing up the list of Rajyotsava award winners for 2016, it had shortlisted Somanna’s name. Government officials had even collected his bio-data. The fact that Somanna was being honoured for his work as a tribal rights activist had thrilled his friends and well-wishers. However, when the final list was announced his name was missing. This infuriated many. They felt that Somanna, who richly deserved the award, had been cheated by vested interests. Just as in the wood apple incident.
Dr A S Prabhakar, associate professor at the Department of Tribal studies in Kannada University at Hampi, who has worked for a long time with Somanna, launched a campaign in his support. Soon, hundreds of activists, writers and academicians joined hands with him. All of them decided that instead of merely condemning the state government for its insensitivity they would do something substantial. They decided to honour him with their own `Janarajyotsava award’. Meaning a people’s Rajyotsava award!
Somanna’s origins are in wretched poverty. Soon after he finished his fourth standard, his poor parents left him to serve a local landlord as a bonded labourer. When the Bonded Labour system (Abolition) Act was introduced in 1976 Somanna found freedom. He was then all of nineteen years old. Somanna soon realized that though he had personally found freedom, his people were being collectively pushed into hard times.
The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 had displaced more than a hundred tribal colonies in his surroundings. The construction of the Kabini dam, which began in 1974, saw the destruction of vast tracts of forest land. Somanna was appalled at not just the destruction of natural forests but also about the annihilation of the life, culture and knowledge of the tribal people. He started galvanizing Jenukurubas, Kaadukurubas, Yeravas and other tribal communities to fight for their rights.
For more than a decade, Somanna put up such a protracted struggle on behalf of landless tribals that finally, the government had no choice but to distribute 6,000 acres of land to them.
Somanna also realized that tribals who had been displaced by the Kabini project were dying like fish out of water since they had not been rehabilitated properly. He fought for their rights and ensured that the rehabilitation facilities created by the government were not just on paper but executed in accordance with the needs of the people.
Later, along with some NGOs and other organizations, Somanna took up the cause of those displaced by the Nagarahole National Park. On the basis of the Public Interest Litigation that Somanna and others had filed, the Karnataka High Court formed a committee under the chairmanship of Dr Muzaffar Assadi, professor of Political Science at Mysore University, to look into the issue of displacement and rehabilitation of tribals.
Two years ago, the three member committee submitted its 130 page interim report which opined that a majority of the displaced tribal families of the Rajiv Gandhi (Nagarahole) National Park spread across three taluks of Mysore and Kodagu had become landless labourers and pushed into abject poverty. The state government is yet to act on the 36 recommendations made by the committee.
The credit for halting the Taj group’s grandiose plans to construct a five star resort bang in the middle of the Nagarahole forest once again goes to Somanna. It was his legal struggle which ensured that if tribals, who have been forest dwellers since ages, could no longer live in the forest, then the rich too had no right to hold fancy high jinks in the middle of the jungle.
Somanna is such a man that when he was deprived of the Rajyotsava award in the last minute, it was he who tried to pacify his dismayed friends and crestfallen well wishers instead of the other way round.
It was entirely befitting that last Saturday, hundreds of people from across the state gathered at a tribal colony called Motta Haadi in Heggadadevanakote to celebrate the life and struggle of Somanna. Noted writer and intellectual Devanooru Mahadeva conferred the `Janarajyotsava award’ to the tribal activist. Since the official Rajyotsava award includes a purse of one lakh rupees, Somanna was given 1,00,001 rupees. The entire sum was collected from well wishers which makes it the first `crowd funded’ award in Karnataka.
The ever effervescent Somanna is a man who lives in synchrony with the rhythm of the forest. He is an epitome of tribal simplicity. He is also a fount of knowledge on forest wealth, tribal lifestyle and their wisdom about the various medicinal benefits of plants, herbs and other forest stuff. That such a man was deprived of official recognition by the government says a lot about the politics behind the awards conferred by the establishment..