They were people whom the government had simply overlooked.
Astonishing as it sounds, more than six decades after Independence, nearly 5000 residents of eight villages on the Indo-Nepal border in Bahraich district of Uttar Pradesh, barely 125 km north of Lucknow, had no ration cards, no voting rights, no citizenship rights, no rights over the land they tilled until Jitendra Chaturvedi, 41, took up their cause.
With no ‘proof of residence’ they were denied government jobs and bank loans – nor were they eligible for inclusion in any government welfare scheme. Worse, they had to pay an annual tax (lagaan) to the forest department for occupying the land they did, as well as put in free labour for forest officials (begaar) whenever they were asked to.
For his efforts, Chaturvedi, who runs an NGO, Development Association for Human Advancement, shortened to Dehat, in the region, was awarded Manjunath Shanmugham Award this year.
Why were these people in such a sorry state? The roots of their situation lie in a British colonial policy implemented in 1865 by which landless villagers were encouraged to settle in select forest areas, build their own huts and cultivate the land around it.
But they were never given any documents confirming their ownership of the area they tilled. Yet in return they had to pay an annual tax to the forest department, apart from providing any kind of forest related labour — from chopping trees to accompanying hunters on shikar — the sahibs wanted from them, either free or for a very nominal payment.
With Independence, little changed, except that the forest department replaced the British. The payment of lagaan continued, as did the extraction of begaar. The villagers were all officially regarded as encroachers. The eight villages were not registered as part of any panchayat. The names of the residents were not recorded anywhere. “They were not considered citizens of India,” said Chaturvedi.
Chaturvedi began by carrying out a detailed study of the forest dwellers’ situation, which he published as Slave Forest Villages in Independent India. He went on to launch the Vangram Azadi (Freedom for forest villages) movement, aimed at getting the forest dwellers ownership rights over the land they occupied. “I’ve been threatened frequently by police and forest officials,” he said.
“Even my father thought I was mad when I took up this agitation. But now, after endless rounds of negotiation and heated discussions, officials have finally agreed to give these people ownership rights and stop the practice of begaar.”
The Vangram Adhikar Manch, initiated by Chaturvedi, continues to fight for the residents’ basic rights. A new law, The Traditional Forest Dwellers and Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, passed in 2005, has also made their task easier. “”It is the villagers who are fighting their own battle,” said Chaturvedi. “My role has only been that of a catalyst, to make them aware.”