Written specially for Vikalp Sangam
As we made our way through the narrow pathway blending through the forests, we reached a mountain top Sauri Paharia village surrounded by lush green Rajmahal hills and secluded from the happenings of the world. This isolation for long had kept the indigenous culture intact but in the wake of the present scenario of extractive industries eyeing these hills for mining projects, this isolation has not equipped the villagers to deal with recent encroachments legally. “After few years these hills might not even exist”, says Krishna (a local volunteer of Badlao Foundation), an eventuality that most of us see coming in times when developmental state works in hand with the corporate to ensure expropriation of resources.
The standard development model that pictures specific stages of economic growth as the panacea for all ills and evils is the logic that governs most of the state interventions. Large-scale industrial development accompanied by assertion of interventions like plundering of natural resources for rapid economic progress for the ‘larger good’ is the logic that determines state actions. Badlao Foundation was born out of a contextual resistance against one such panacea: Maithoon hydro–power project, a 1987 project that could have submerged large tracts of lands of Santhal-Pargana region (north-eastern part of the new state of Jharkhand that stretches between the river Ganga on the northeast and the river Barakar in the southwest). BajrangSinghji, inspired by the Jayprakash Narayan Movement felt the need to work with Adivasis who were being displaced by the project. Since then, Badlao Foundation has been continuously expanding its efforts to achieve welfare, self-reliance, and gender justice among SauriaPaharias , in the eastern districts of Jharkhand (earlier part of Bihar, Jamtara/Chittarganj, border of West Bengal and Jharkhand).
Commenting on the present development model, wherein the state sponsored corporates are destroying the livelihood and traditional knowledge systems of the Adivasis through various large-scale extractive projects and initiatives, Bajrangji says, “these big hydro-power projects, dams, mines are not development, they are weapons of destruction.” The benefit of these projects never reach the Adivasis, they are always at the tail end to receive any benefit. Thus, speaking about the focus areas of the foundation, Bajrangji explained, “Jaha sarkar ki welfare schemes pahuch nahi paye hai, wahan pe Badlao prayas kar rahi hai.” (Badlao is trying to reach, where the government has not been able to fulfil its promises).
Inspired by the Gandhian idea of self-reliance, Badlao Foundation has believed in creating local institutions; and the strengthening of grassroot level governance and women are central to the process of change. Badlao Foundation stresses on the need to empower women in the community to be able to forge any change among the people. Faced with staunch opposition by the powerful moneylenders, landowners, politicians and industrialists, Badlao Foundation has been drawing its strength from the marginalised sections, by organising the oppressed and giving them a dais to voice their opinions. The journey until 2016 has not been an easy one, the Foundation had to struggle to be accepted among the community, ease out the differences and the history of conflict (untouchability, heterogeneity, and politics within the Adivasi communities). For long, the Santhals (living in the plains) and SauriPaharias (forced to move to the hills due to Santhals) have been in conflict. Attempts such as community eating and cooking, meetings started creating a sense of solidarity between the communities after which Badlao could begin gathering their strength and voices.
Based on research and considering the heterogeneity of requirements in various villages, the Foundation works in three Phases. In phase 1, they focus on natural resource management, food security, and livelihoods; in phase 2, on governance and in phase 3, on health, education, and nutrition. While exploring various initiatives in a SauriPaharia village we got to see phase 1 initiatives implemented in the village, such as provision of a drinking water well, installations of roof water rainwater harvesting for providing clean drinking water to households to reduce water-borne diseases, rain water harvesting tanks to support subsistence agriculture in order to reduce food insecurity, solar lights, and smokeless chullahs. The Foundation aims to move towards creating a self-reliant village by attempting to create a women’s self-help group that can spread awareness about literacy, health and various government schemes in the village.
The Badlao Foundation, since its inception, has been involved in sensitization and promotion of MahilaSabhas. MahilaSabhas are owned by the community and so act as a vanguard for any efforts in the community. Strengthening of local institutions like youth groups and MahilaSabhas is vital for enabling the environment to augment and accelerate community-based efforts congenial to the need of the region. Moving on to a village with which Badlao has been working for a longer duration, we came across a confident and participative SHG, named BasatiSena. “Now we can fight with the administration for our rights,” says Asha, a member of the SHG which has evolved into a strong local decision making body for the village. The group meets four times in a month to discuss issues related to economic security, health, literacy, freedom, social awareness against domestic violence, livelihood schemes such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM). A fight against the escalating prices at the PDS ration shops and prize winning dance performance at the local cultural festival are some of the collective efforts which have strengthened the group. While we sat through the meeting, the active and confident participation from each member signified the strength and transparency of the collective process.
Through promotion of indigenous agricultural practises and eco-friendly, sustainable agriculture for food security and prevention of malnutrition, Badlao has been relentlessly trying to revive traditional farming methods by spreading awareness through songs, posters and videos among MahilaSabhas about natural farming methods, distributing natural manure and conducting training for interested small and marginal farmers. Kanti Devi, the first in the tribal village to support sustainable cultivation said, “I am a poor woman and I have seen with my eyes, land of big farmers destroyed by the use of fertilisers. They have the means to change the soil when it becomes infertile, but it is a costly affair and not sustainable for poor people to do so. I use traditional seeds and compost and it is a matter of delight for us that the yield is very tasty.”
Badlao has also initiated the documentation of more than 100 folk songs related to agriculture, the forest, hills, trees and birds that can be distributed in the form of booklets and newsletters among the new generation of the region, so that the rich traditional knowledge of the region can be preserved amidst the cacophony of development.
Believing in the principle of ‘from roots to the top’, Badlao has been pushing for a curriculum in Santhali, the tribal language, in the state syllabus, in order to promote local knowledge and culture of the region among the kids. Although it is a long battle between the centralised and localised curriculum, Badlao is making efforts towards reinforcing traditional knowledge. Badlao is also working for the promotion of Khadi products and Adivasi handicrafts in the local market. Through the establishment of ‘Gandhi Ashram’ the Foundation has been trying to reach out to the younger generations through various training camps and has been experimenting with local livelihoods such as organic farming, fisheries, and weaving. With the intention of creating a bridge between the government and the communities, two Gramin Service Centres (Public Information Centre) have been put in place for disseminating information about various schemes and to provide assistance to deal with the tedious legal requirements.
However, in the wake of the upcoming Adani Thermal Power project in the region, the task has become difficult because villagers are caught in a daunting battle against a huge corporate. In addition, because of the limitations of finances and capacity that leads to project based work, Arvindji, secretary of the Foundation, pointed out to the fact that Badlao has to work within the current political scenario with the help of the existing government infrastructure in order to sustain and spread its work. This dependence on the state and the wealthy giants who themselves perpetuate damage could be an obstacle in fulfilling the aims and objectives of Badlao and similar initiatives. There is a need to figure out a solution or a way out for creating alternative sustainable models for the functioning of such initiatives.
 Sauria Paharias are a particularly vulnerable adivasi community amongst Sathals and largely depend upon food gathering and shifting cultivation, and are fastidiously dwindling in numbers.