An Elusion called Justice- Struggling with an Enigma - A Chronicle of Samata as lived by us

A Journey of Odds:

The hills looked so tranquil that life appeared to be a lilting rhythm. Yet our instincts told us there was something seriously amiss in this rustic disquiet. First we witnessed government disparagement in the form of physical neglect of basic human needs. Health, education, infrastructure, economics, law - all were utterly wrong. But where do we start? We hadn’t a clue. So we started with what we impulsively felt was the best way to begin - we started by just living with people. They showed us where the problems lay and they dared us to meet the challenges.

We understood that problems existed not because of the ‘savageness’ of tribals but because of the gross injustices meted out to them. We saw tribals pitted against the government and against non-tribals and we saw them either neglected or exploited.

Pandora’s Box:

Looking back, it was a tiny emotion that opened up the Pandora’s box. Ideology there was none. Neither was there any development paradigms. obscure were dialectics. A handful a remote tribal village called Pedamallapuram. Before we realized, the perplexities of human imbalances caught us unawares. Truth was not impenetrable. But answers never came easy. We tried to beat the elusiveness of justice with our youthful enthusiasm and a candid search for the un-traversed paths of freedom and space.

We wanted to define development beyond targets and beneficiaries. We wanted to look at people as people, not mere projects. It was a parody that the tribal way of life was seen with images of wild romanticism by the outside world. On another side demeaning perceptions of tribals by outsiders bordered on prejudices of "savage, uncivilized, uncouth creatures of misfortune".

Responding to an inspiration called Tilak

It all began with a man, a ‘Spandana’ (inspiration), - Tilak - socialist, veteran freedom fighter, retired parliamentarian, Gandhian, a man who had the tenacity to dedicate himself to the service of humanity even towards the eve of his life. He came to work in a remote tribal village called Pedamallapuram in East Godavari district with an incredible energy to toil in austerity. His reverence for humanity, his commitment to the tribal people and his undying belief in the simplicity of being initiated us into an awe-inspiring philosophy on the humility of life.

He gave us an anchor and a freedom to experiment with our ideas and instincts. He infused into us an energy and emotion to work and to reach out. It is to him that we owe our inspiration and our conviction in this struggle. It was with him that we started our first voyage to Reality.

A Decade Ago....

Mallapuram and its surrounding villages fall under the sub plan area of the agency region of East Godavari district in A.P. We were stupefied initially that the population was almost ninety percent tribal, yet they were not recognized as scheduled tribes and were denied all constitutional safeguards of the Fifth Schedule. In other words, they were almost non-existent in the eyes of the state.

Tribal villages in the foothills face a very distinct exploitation that of land alienation. Thus, the first and most complicated issues came to us with land and a plethora of false cases. We plunged headlong into a maze of land disputes. Inam lands, banjar lands, benami lands, mutta lands - we learnt our first lessons in revenue matters. Bouruwaka was also our first experience in learning to fail. To our utter dismay, we lost the case when the high court dismissed the tribals’ appeal for land restoration on the grounds of ‘procedural irregularities’ and bang came the realization that justice is, most often, denied to the poor.

Attending Courts and Police Stations

Our first pulsating experiences were visiting the local police stations and prisons, a constant activity we were involved in once we realized that what the tribals were looking for was not contrite social forestry programs but a release from the human abuses and brutalities. Victimized and terrorized by the state for the political unrest they were not guilty of, spending time in and out of police stations and jails, neither convicted nor acquitted, became a normal routine for many of the tribal families here. It was in this turmoil of feudal non-tribals, state oppression and extremist violence that a bewildered community was struggling to survive. The extremists came by night. The police came by day. It was insanity all the same.

We learnt to move bails and to attend courts. We also learnt never to interfere in traditional disputes or have the presumptions of rendering justice. It was a culture far too superior and advanced in law and justice matters. (This realization dawned on us after we were attacked and nearly got killed by a furious tribal on whom a ‘wrong’ judgement was passed by us. It is an outrage to tamper with customary laws!)

The Stumbling Blocks of Development

Where we managed to get the state to respond and restore lands to tribals, a larger problem confronted people, the incapability of the tribals to put in capital on their lands. Helplessly, we watched tribals’ lands slipping back into the hands of the non-tribals and the moneylenders. We then put together our energies in demanding for support to land development and agriculture from the government. Fortunately, the administrative machinery or at least a part of it in the ITDA, displayed a remarkable sympathy for the tribal people and we swung into action in ensuring that government programs were implemented in these remote villages.

Our feverish excitement matched the earnest enthusiasm of a few officials and the area, for the first time received government attention as never before. Almost every village, of the 49 villages, saw primary schools, housing, drinking water, roads and electricity came in a row. Cashew plantations in 5,000 acres of podu lands, agricultural and consumption loans from GCC Ltd, credit support and matching grants to grain banks were an overwhelming assistance to the tribals.

Breaking the ice with tribal women

A visit from a team of women from CDF in 1989 slapped a new challenge on to us. Why weren’t we looking at problems of women or involving them in the community issues? It had never occurred to us that we, a band of male youth, could ever approach women and look at their problems. We were confounded out of our wits and requested Shashi Rajgopalan to train us on this matter. The first women’s meeting was held in Polavaram but the women fought shy of the suggestion to form a sangham. A series of discussions and the then idea of thrift was floated among them.

Very hesitantly, a women’s thrift society was formed in Achampeta with the help of CDF. The first miracle had happened. The women could take a loan without the humiliation of pleading before a money-lender. The exhilaration of this dignity caught on to the women of other villages and ‘podupu sanghams’ were forming all over the area. By then we had also gained confidence that we were capable of helping organise women’s meetings.

There were visitors from NGO’s, government, credit institutions and researchers and these illiterate tribal women were giving them orientation on organising and managing thrift societies. We saw an equally encouraging Managing Director in GCC Ltd who dismissed all apprehensions and made a landmark shift in the credit policy. All GCC credit was streamlined through women’s thrift societies in 1993-94 and the results were stupendous - there was almost no default!

Burning our fingers in marketing

Once the lands restored to tribals started yielding good crops and the cashew plantations started bearing fruit, we were confronted with the next stage of exploitation. The market was an unknown terrain to the tribals (and so to us, as well) and they were totally at the mercy of the traders. Unable to witness this ruthless robbery of tribal drudgery, we struck upon the venture of forming a tribal cooperative society. Tribal farmers were taken to Mulkanoor and introduced to the rules and methods of managing cooperatives. Enriched and enthused, we went back to the villages and tried our hands at marketing in cashew and failed miserably! We still had to understand the nuances of trade and its dynamics. Before we could get into any serious attempts, the tribals received a warning and there was stiff opposition from the extremists. The traders continued to have their will.

Campaigning on local issues

Development activities through pressure on government for better implementation made fruitful results in Mallapuram area but Samata’s forte and perspective was based on organising the tribal communities in demanding for their rights. An apolitical people’s movement gained strength most discernibly felt through the women’s village sanghams which encompassed all issues of the community from land and forest conflicts to education and health.

A spontaneous protest against the government was demonstrated in the first major rally in 1988 to oppose the state government’s moves to amend the Land Transfer Regulation Act I of 70, which gave us courage and conviction in our work. An aggressive campaign for a separate mandal for the tribals was an important issue we took up in the area. We participated in the boycott of elections in defiance of the state and its apathetic attitude towards tribals. We were still constantly drawn into bailing out tribals from police custody, on false cases of involvement in extremist activities. By this time, what had started as helping a few individuals in their daily problems of pattas, ration-cards, caste-certificates, moved into village level community issues and gradually spread across the hills and yonder as tribals saw in us a catalytic force for a burgeoning people’s movement.

It was these human rights issues and organising tribals for asserting their rights that created situations of conflict for Samata. Police harassment on our team was growing and we personally faced illegal custody and interrogation, which only heightened our resolve to pursue tribal rights issues. However, it was also this very zeal to mobilize and build up a democratic people’s movement that brought collisions with other political parties, particularly the extreme left. Even before Samata was formally registered in August 1990 we received our first threat from the extremists that we beware of trespassing into unwelcome political territories.

The Floods came...

And we plunged into a frenetic exercise of flood relief in the plains just as we left Spandana. The experience was irreversible. With not a penny in our pockets, we jumped into the activity by organising the victims, directing and supervising the aid that came into the area, mobilising voluntary assistance from private doctors and regulating prices of commodities which plummeted into soaring heights because of the greed of local traders. The important outcome of our flood relief work was our decision to formally register as an organisation and

... Samata took formal shape in August 1990.

We made a dramatic start as, the day after the formation, all the Governing Body members of Samata were arrested in false implications of naxalite activities. We faced our first trial as an organisation.

Relatives in Sarugudu

The tribals of Sarugudu panchayat, an interior area cut off from the main tribal agency of Vizag district, had relatives in Mallapuram across the hills. They had heard of Samata and sought our help. It was police repression, land alienation, government negligence, epidemics, moneylenders’ exploitation a de javu for Samata. The experience of Mallapuram helped us organise the people by building up a local team of youth. This time we as an organisation were more meticulous.

We took up the issues one after the other and followed up with the government and the people were always eager to respond. We helped them get government assistance a road, a sub centre, transport, electricity and an ashram school became evidence of our hard work. We also helped set up the weekly market (shandy) in Sarugudu so that the traders came to the villages to buy the produce and the tribals were saved the burden of walking for 20 kms to just get even simple needs like salt and oil.

A people’s health centre was initiated by us with a team of para medics. This was to the tribals their first access to medical facilities and they were willing to maintain it with their own contributions. Thus health centres became a popular demand in all the areas that Samata worked.

Interface with outsiders and a Shift in Base

Our work attracted many professionals from the outside who wanted to interact with tribals and get to understand their livelihoods better. We had academicians, researchers, advocates, students, government servants and many others visiting us and we realised how important it was to forge links with the outside world and lobby for the rights of tribals from within. As tribals grew dearer to us, our political relations, unwittingly, grew stressful. We were perceived with suspicion and as a political threat to extreme ideologies and this time, there was a definite offensive. We thought it was more sensible to move our base from Mallapuram and give space for local initiatives to take over. For a short while, Samata was homeless and the future nebulous. Upon request from local struggles in the region, we started helping on land issues and in organising tribals in the foothills/sub plan areas.

Heading towards the hills for a new destiny...

Still with a strong sense of roots with the tribals and the hills, our journey took us to the interior forests of Paderu agency in Vizag district in 1992. Although problems over land with non-tribals were lesser here, conflicts were centred around denial of rights over natural resources and what we saw was a confusion over what development could mean for tribal people in the eyes of the government. An ITDA which had experimented and was still experimenting with the nuances of development and other ‘welfare’ departments in absolute blissful apathy bordering on bemused presumptions were what confronted us.

We trudged up the hills to Poolabanda - a valley of flowers - along with the Community Coordination Team (a community development initiative of GCC Ltd) breathing in a new excitement for our team. It was a fascinating beginning to fusing relationships with a people isolated in their struggle. Human endurance of suffering and pain were revealed to us as only tribals can display - death as an everyday occurrence, constant threats of eviction for being ‘criminals’ and encroachers into forest and government lands, primary education which could only be dreamt about, economics formulated by traders and projects which lasted the length of nine yards. Gods must have been really crazy! Or else how could a nation call itself progressing?

Organising the tribals, a constant dialogue with government for ration-cards, pattas, development schemes, primary schools, land development and irrigation programmes, settlement of forest conflicts, right to marketing of tribal produce, bailing out people from police cases, demanding for infrastructure and more were part of Samata’s regular activities during this period.

Sovva - the bugle call from the forests

While working in Poolabanda, we were attracted to the richness of the hidden cultures of surrounding tribal villages. Sovva is an interior panchayat on the borders of Orissa where tribals followed a forest management system of their own and grew the most delicious vegetables this generation has ever seen. With Sheer insensitiveness, the government had tried to co-opt these traditions with their own lopsided programs. A Joint Forest Management programme was being implemented by the forest department in this valley which had an invaluable system of protecting and managing their forests traditionally and was being replaced by a Vana Samrakshana Samithi. Samata tried to intervene to prevent a culture from being lost to the follies of development and strengthen the people’s knowledge so well implemented by the tribal with the bugle - the people’s own forest guard.

We found that the tribals in Sovva walked for 30 kms (the nearest local market) with their head-loads of vegetables to sell them away for a handful of coins. We approached ITDA to help provide transport but it was unwilling to give ‘alms’ to the people. We retaliated with dignity having formed a Vegetable Growers’ Cooperative with a contribution of 2.5 lakhs from its members and ITDA was happy to extend a grant of Rs. 9 lakhs for purchasing a truck to ply the vegetables and other produce to the market. They were the first group of tribals in the region, or even perhaps the state, to drive their own truck all the way to the city of Vizag to trade in with their goods!

Stumbling on a Mine-field....

While grappling with these new adventures, we stumbled into Borra Caves like any naïve tourists when suddenly, the bomb-shells roared over our heads. Out of curiosity we enquired about these explosions and found that private companies were mining for limestone above the caves. Being ignoramuses to the subject, we returned to our villages until it cropped up again in a training camp we were organising for tribal youth in January 1993. A session on tribal land alienation brought up the issue of Borra panchayat being denied pattas while mining companies were favoured with leases. A trip to the villages by our team brought the skeletons tumbling out.

Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer minus the girlfriend...

Our lessons on minerals and mining started with a torch-light adventure sport down the Borra Caves with Doc Sridhar, our tutor on geology. We went sliding down in the dark meandering levels of the caves, befriending bats and blindly trying to hold on to dear life. This was the ‘limelight’ of our first learnings in geology and cave formations that only Doc
Sridhar could have enlightened us with. The caves, dating back to the paleolithic age, are an important monument and a sacred sanctum for tribals in this region. Perhaps it is the only ‘temple deity’ in the state not mainstreamised by Hindu societies and which still preserves the tribal rituals performed by tribal priests in true tribal tradition.

Our Battle through the Minefield...

We approached the local court for settling the people’s lands as tribals in Borra have lived here for centuries. Soon we came to realise that Borra issue was completely different from all the land alienation disputes we had confronted before. It had larger stakeholders
and was linked up to macro global issues of economy and market forces. It was not a landlord we were fighting this time, but the very state institution and an industry large enough to gobble up the state!

Undeterred by the might of the industry we went ahead with our campaign. A spontaneous people’s movement picked up on this issue. We went to the High Court and obtained a stay order which prompted the tribals to drive out the mining companies. For the first time in decades, people could cultivate their lands and not have to work on it as wage
labourers for the mining companies.

Facing the wrath of the mining companies...

As people rejoiced over the crops, the companies were biding their time to slaughter us. Samata’s team, almost en masse, was put into custody one early morning without any cases filed. It was one of the tensest moments we went through. And it was also a
bitter moment which is deeply engraved in our memories, on how alone and isolated we felt when all friends among the NGO’s refused to extend solidarity while we were facing trial. We realised that it was only the people who would stand up to a situation of crisis.
The companies came to interrogate us in police custody, we were shifted to different police stations, separated and tortured so as to break our morale and finally to admit that we were a naxal ‘dalam’. The police were excited over promotions for a successful wipeout operation.

The media was the first to extend their support and let the world outside know the deviousness of our law enforcers. It still is incredulous that the whole team came out of the illegal custody - alive!

A Tryst with the Central Jail..

Persistence, thy name is police! They were always on the look out for gnashing at us. After the illegal custody came a false case on Ravi. Unfortunately, innocent friends who were not part of the struggle were also not spared during such moments. A tryst with
the central jail was slapped on us but we took it in our stride and it helped us have insights into what prison life meant - an experience worth not having a repetition.

From Borra to Nimmalapadu – a road to development?

A bevy of activity amidst large tents, an army trooping around in large trucks and bulldozers as if at war with a deadly enemy - this was the scene for four years in the heart of the thick forests of Anantagiri mandal. A war between ‘development’ and nature, law and might, power and people reverberated in these hills to test the strength of a mining industry armed with the Border Roads Organisation and a people protesting with a quiet dignity, for social justice. The whole state machinery came bending over backwards at an animated pace. They stripped down the forest and bull-dozed the lands to pander to one of the most influential industrial houses in the country, the Birla group called Indian Rayon and Industries, for exploiting the calcite mineral from a small tribal village called Nimmalapadu.

Girijana Vijayotsavam (A Tribal Triumph)…

In August 1997 we celebrated our triumph over the state after the Supreme Court reiterated the Constitutional protection for the tribals. It culminated in a padayatra and public meeting attended by thousands of tribals from all over the region and was a sheer display of strength and rejoicing of people against the giant powers of state and industry. Neither the state nor the counter state were happy with our efforts for the adivasi people. An apolitical democratic and non-violent people’s movement was unacceptable.

Our withdrawal – An Apogee

For the second time, on the 2nd of October, in 1997, we bade farewell to the hills, against our hearts for a destination we knew not and was an ordeal for the team. A fomenting unrest for almost a year finally gave space for a resurrection of Samata which was determined to create a meaning for itself. While the extremists continued suspecting our intentions, a simmering disgust against external power structures burst out as a rebellion from the most unexpected quarters - the illiterate adivasi women of Mallapuram.

Determined to take life into their hands, they refused to let outsiders interfere with their destinies. They had to pay dearly for this. The extremists, unhappy with the revolt, retaliated dragging the women out of their houses by the hair in the dead of night killing two male leaders. Again Samata was blamed to have masterminded the people’s revolt. Little was it realized that it need not take an organisation to bring a revolt. A people repressed are a people in fury!

Shadows and ghosts - an uncertain silence.

Vizag became our base after leaving Paderu. Yet, the ghosts of unknown faces continued to haunt us. Threats and invisible enemies kept following us during that year of 1998-99. The unease and uncertainties forced the team to disperse and a sense of nothingness and a restless turbulence overpowered us all as a wrecked organisation and a shaken morale. Stifled by the frustration of political asylum we felt like refugees denied the freedom to live in our homelands and to work for what we thought was a fight for justice.

We march forth with a larger vision

The isolation we felt as a small community based group and the need for withdrawal from a village level intervention took us through a journey of introspection. We needed to forge stronger relations with the outside world and continue the struggle to make meaning to the people we lived with. Samata had also matured to take up a larger responsibility while providing a space for the community to take on a role of leading its own movements. We saw a wide hiatus between a grass-roots movement and macro policies and global powers. With our experience of understanding micro conflicts, we set out to redefine ourselves.

Miles to go before the devil catches us...

Samata was formed to address a need. We thought pattas were a need. Ration cards, caste certificates, seeds and pump-sets - were all a need. They still are as much a need as the Birlas are a reality. Globalisation is a reality. So is liberalisation. Only, it is given another name - development. Yet what we saw was different. So different that to explain away displacement, atrocities, police custodies, untruths, invasion of cultures, landlessness and a self expunging government as tribal prosperity - we could not tell the tribals that this was the Enlightenment.

And so we march forth in our struggle to confront the realities - the thousand headed demons who sometimes appear as the Birlas, at times as the World Banks, often as the state and always with a weapon, the all pervasive development -ubiquitous and omnipresent where ever tribals are!

Samata transformed from a small community-based social action group into a platform for support and advocacy for the rights of the adivasis. Now based in Hyderabad, it works on problems and policies related to the Fifth Schedule, natural resources and forests, is the National Secretariat for a national alliance of mining struggle groups called mines, minerals & PEOPLE, supports local community based organisations in the Eastern Ghats and monitors the industries in north coastal Andhra Pradesh. It provides information, documentation, technical, legal and campaign support to communities and groups, lobbies with the media and legislature, networks at regional, national and international levels for advocating on the rights of adivasis and the marginalised.

We have worked for twenty years now. Our journey of odds still carries challenges but the tiny emotion is always alive with new hopes and with new strengths - for the voices must be heard, and heard till the end of the road.

Samata learnt from Pollanna, a village headman that the monkeys will keep coming again and again to eat our corn – we have to keep shooing them away. Life is difficult to rest till the harvest comes home – and then the next crop and a new struggle