Damoh (Madhya Pradesh), Jun 2 (IANS/ 101Reporters): Even a decade ago, the villagers of Phular in Damoh district of Madhya Pradesh had no claim on the lands that they had lived in for generations. They lived under the constant fear of government officials destroying their crops or asking them to vacate these lands. The aridity and limited prospects of agriculture further compounded their poverty.
Chandravati Gaund, who lives in Phular said, “We had to borrow atta (wheat flour) from the neighbours to feed guests who would come by rarely.” Else, the nondescript village with 92 houses and 975 people — home to the Gond tribe — survived on kodo-kutki (a raw variety of rice) and barley.
Things changed drastically after 2006 when the people’s movement, Ekta Parishad, made inroads into the hamlet. They helped the residents understand their claim to the land. Parishad’s founding member and a proponent of Gandhian ideals, PV Rajagopal, started the stir to pressure the Union government to implement the Forest Rights Act (FRA). It was passed in 2006 to “recognise the forest rights and occupation in the forest land of the Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers…”
A march to remember
A year after FRA’s birth, Rajagopal helmed the Janadesh Yatra to better inform the people about the rights granted by the FRA. About 25,000 people participated in the Yatra, marching from Gwalior to Delhi to make a statement. This included 325 people from Phular and its neighbouring village, Jabera, whose residents had also long lived in fear.
“Government officials asked us to vacate the lands on many occasions. We were helpless until members of the Ekta Parishad intervened. They told us that this land was ours,” said Ghanshyam Prasad, convener of Manav Jeevan Vikas Samiti and a resident of Jabera.
Prasad, along with Ekta Parishad, passed on this information to other villagers. The awareness sessions boosted their confidence, which was further bolstered by the Union government’s promise to implement the FRA with immediate effect.
The process of reclaiming land under FRA started in 2009 with 90 families submitting the required forms. Of these, 45 claims were rejected. The beginning of the reclamation process was marred with such incidents of rejection and general confusion over the paperwork. Most villagers did not know where to get the forms, which ones to fill and where to submit them, besides the other formalities they needed to go through to claim their land.
Prasad and his team stepped in to assist the people. They relentlessly trudged through the bureaucratic quagmire till 2017 and helped 128 families (out of the 162) claim their rights. As a result, 221.118 hectares of land have been claimed. And, the contrast to the situation from a decade ago is stark. “Before 2007, only 30-40 families owned agricultural fields,” said Gopal Kurmi, Panchayat Sachiv, a ground-level state employee responsible for implementing all the government schemes under the Panchayat and Rural Development Department.
Turning barren land fertile
The successful fight to reclaim their land raised the morale of villagers. There was an urge to do more with this land, utilise it more efficiently. The native landowners were only too aware of how Damoh’s acute water shortage was limiting their traditional means of agriculture. Thus, it was imperative to find solutions to improve these circumstances.
The residents of Phular had networked with water experts during the Janadesh Yatra of 2009 who had recounted the many benefits of creating small water structures and practising rainwater harvesting. Upon returning to their hamlet, the villagers levelled the fields, created small ponds, and constructed boundaries to catch rainwater.
Vimla Bahin, who has been the unsung guardian of Phular — for she had constantly resisted the government efforts to usurp their lands before FRA came into force — took the lead among the women in charting and creating these water bodies.
“A member from each family would donate labour to develop small ponds in the low lying places,” said Amar Singh Gound who played a crucial role in identifying sites for making ponds and gathering the village folk for shramdaan. This slowly changed the face of Phular. By 2011, there were dozens of such structures, and farmers realised that their agricultural produce had increased, along with their groundwater table.
Amar Singh Gound added that earlier, one farmer had an average production of 30-40 quintals of grains. It is now at least 70 quintals per farmer.
“At present, every farmer has a reserve of 8-10 quintal of grains at his home,” said Sone Singh Gaund, a farmer. He has seen veritable growth on his land. His crop inventory now includes onion, brinjal (eggplant) and tomatoes. The kharif crops include wheat, channa (chickpeas), and masoor (lentils) and rabi crops include rice, makka (corn), jowar (sorghum), bajra (pearl millets), moong (pulses), arhar (yellow split pigeon peas) or urad (black gram).
The water catchment has created the scope for farming all year round. It has helped many of the villagers stay home, rather than go to places like Delhi, Punjab, Guna and Ashoknagar in search of labour opportunities.
“This is a dry area. Agriculture was completely dependent on natural rains,” said Kurmi, the Panchayat Sachiv. The villagers, he added, used to migrate to bigger cities in September-October and return in June when the skies promised rains. But now, they stay and plant crops throughout the year.
Apart from the bustling agriculture at Phular, many people continue their traditional activities of collecting forest produce and maintaining livestock.
(The author is a Bhopal-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)
First published by Daiji World on 2 June 2021