The Hindu | August 13, 2002
Ravi Rebbapragada has been mobilising tribals to fight for their rights through Samata, a voluntary organisation. This small grass roots movement, started 15 years ago, has today emerged as a state and national level lobby and advocacy institution.
MY CHILDHOOD was spent in the hills of Andhra Pradesh. As the son of a forest officer, I had the privilege of living in the forests amidst wildlife and tribal people. I started my schooling in Anakapalli (Visakhapatnam district) and moved to Hyderabad a few years later. Subsequently I did my B. Com. From Bhadruka College, Hyderabad. Armed with a PG Diploma in Rural development from Madras Christian College, I ventured into the forests many years later to refresh my childhood memories of the hills. The barren hill slopes and the endless battles of the tribals with the Government, outside world and nature, shocked me and I realised how inadequate and ill-equipped my degree was.
The first few days of walking up the hills, through the forests and living with the people gave an entirely new dimension to human suffering and endurance. It started in a modest way of trying to assist the tribals in facing small obstacles – the forest guard would not let them collect firewood, the MRO would not issue ration cards, the way the trader tilted his weighing scales, a police case for brewing rice beer – problems which needed writing out a petition, some follow-up with the MRO, a visit to the police station (not what one would look forward to), some hard talk with the trader – raised a storm in these remote and forgotten hills.
The tribals had and still have serious problems like land alienation, extremism and unrest, non-tribal exploitation and an erratic government machinery. The government and external societies have created innumerable prejudices around the tribal people, on their superstitions, `backwardness’ and their illiteracy to cover up for our corruption, inefficiency and lack of respect for these people who still understand how to live harmoniously with their natural resources. Otherwise how do we rationalise the way we have displaced them over the years, grabbed their lands, cut down their forests for our urban needs, denied them any basic human facilities of housing, education, electricity, irrigation, drinking water, medical services and a right to live with dignity in their own lands?
I learnt to understand these contradictions from the time I learnt to make a petition to the MDO to request for a primary school. I had to learn the law, revenue matters and to approach the courts. It was like starting afresh in school as the primers consisted of understanding to survey land and reading land records, filing an FIR and obtaining bails, learning the fundamentals of agriculture and forestry. There are no universities which teach us what one should do when there is a police encounter in village or how can one fight for a law when the law-maker breaks it, for we found that, often, it is the government which violates.
Helping tribals had to start with mobilising the community, building up their awareness of their constitutional rights and the need for collective assertion. I realised the limitations of working as an individual and built up a team of youth and an organisation called `Samata’. It required long years of persistence to fight for restoration of people’s land, legal entitlements, pursuing with government for land development and credit, for basic infrastructure facilities and to fight against state oppression. Small land disputes led to larger political and economic issues of displacement due to industries and commercial projects. We needed to build up our strength as a people’s movement and also gain support from external forces – advocates, media, technical and academic experts. It also required building up a network with other struggles fighting similar battles for tribal rights. From local courts our cases moved up to the High Court and Supreme Court. The Samata Judgment in the Supreme Court, which we as a small social action group doggedly fought to protect the rights of tribals against private illegal mining, became the final interpretation of the Constitution for tribal land rights.
Samata is a group of rural youth, school dropouts who had no future. What started as a small grass roots movement has today emerged as a state and national level lobby and advocacy institution capable of effectively campaigning for people’s right and in participating at the policy level. I realise I could not have asked for a more challenging way of life. I strongly feel that this is one field where any discipline could be relevant and offer a meaningful change. There is so much more urgency in today’s India where socio-economic disparities are widening glaringly. So more and more youth should work for this cause.