Breaking the Barriers of Bondage : Part 2 – Sahariya tribe show us a way ahead. | ActionAid India
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Breaking the Barriers of Bondage : Part 2 – Sahariya tribe show us a way ahead.

Author: Chandan Kumar
Posted on: Monday, 3rd June 2013

In this series titled “Breaking the Barriers of Bondage”, Chandan Kumar who is our National Co-ordinator for the Bonded Labour Abolition Programme, takes us through a brief history of ACTIONAID’s interventions and also some of our ongoing work

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Sahariya is an indigenous community in India, who are predominantly settled across the Hadothi belt of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.  Not much of written history is available on the tribe; however this is a community that has always been considered as expert woodsmen. They have always engaged in gathering forest produces for a living. The forest is what they depend on for their subsistence, livelihood, social customs and rituals.

Traditionally they have been cultivators of wheat, millet pearls etc. So it’s natural that land and the ‘free access’ to it, always played an instrumental role in maintaining their livelihood.

Regrettably, the age old casteist systems in India have always pushed this community to the margins of society and they have always been kept away from possession of land. To bring about a change in the state of their existence, the Government of India had rehabilitated them to this belt and allocated land in their names.

However, locals in the area insist that these were non-cultivable land with little or no access to irrigational facilities thus rendering these allocations useless for the community. Neither did they have the financial wherewithal to procure seeds and fertilisers from the market. The awareness about their rights under Public Distribution System, their rightful entitlements & guaranteed minimum wages etc, were minimal or non-existent within the community.

In short a tribe, that had learnt to live in complete harmony with the forest was essentially plucked out from there and put atop a land that gave them nothing but hunger and misery.

An apathetic bureaucracy that showed no interest in addressing these issues was adding salt to the wounds.  What do people do when hunger pangs strike? They latch onto whatever means of survival is quickly available – however exploitative those conditions would be. That’s exactly what the Sahariyas also did.

It all began by selling these lands to the conniving landlords in and around the area, who could easily afford to get all those seeds, fertilisers and water needed to make the land arable. In effect, this community were on rent on their own land!

The landlords, in their eagerness to reap quick benefits made them work for long hours in extremely inhuman conditions. They were paid petty cash in return and gradually all the rights on the land were grabbed from the tribe. Vey soon long hours of work and abuses became a norm and Sahariyas were soon finding themselves in a state of bondage.

High levels of mal-nutrition and deaths to starvation are reported from these communities every year. Given the level historical injustice meted out to them, for a long time the community accepted this way of life as their only means of survival. None of them were even aware of existing legislations like the Bonded Labour Abolition Act, 1976 and many such.

The landlords in the area are also way too powerful with strong political connections, thus evading all sorts of criminal proceedings amongst them. 

It is therefore inspiring to say the least, to see women leaders like Gyarsi Bai (in the pic), who rose from this state of abject poverty and garnered the courage to resist this nonsense.

My son and his wife were working as bonded labourers in a nearby landlord’s field. He would abuse them, made them work till late in the night and had them beaten up for non-performance. It reached a point where we said – enough. Abb bas!

They complained to the state officials and the media too picked up the story. A memorandum was presented to the National Advisory Council(NAC) Chairperson Ms Sonia Gandhi through NAC member Ms Aruna Roy who was leading a Satyagraha movement in Jaipur. Action followed and about 150 labourers in the area were freed from bondage. Today, Gyarsi Bai, leader of Jagruti Mahila Sanghtan is a vibrant leader who constantly fights for the justice of women and children in her community.

Jagruti Mahila Sanghtan (JMS), is the women’s wing of Freedom from Hunger and Fear (FHF) group, a civil society network that ACTIONAID has been working with for over a decade. 

The work started by generating awareness about rights, justice and entitlements as mentioned in the Indian Constitution. This was later followed up with the formation of vigilance committees under Bonded Labour system [Abolition] Act 1976. This local committee’s role was to identify instances of bonded labour, rescue and rehabilitate the ones engaged in it.

It was indeed a landmark achievement for JMS and FHF network as state government was always in a denial mode on the prevalence of Bonded Labour. The intervention has also emerged into a long term sustainable livelihood support and employment guarantee and minimizing food security.

250 acres of land was released from the clutches of landlords and its legal ownership was given back to this community. Further support provided for sustainable cultivation, empowered the community to use this asset (land) as a common property. The community also formed a ‘revolving fund’ (money raised through selling the grain) to sustain the work.

A local food grain bank was also set up. Each member of the community contributes a certain amount of food grain to the bank, which stocks it and uses it during emergencies. The concept of a grain bank is a giant step forward in providing food security to this group. It is also a significant way forward in breaking their dependency on local money lenders, which often led them into the cycle of bondage.

Sahariyas were linked up to 200 days of guaranteed employment under National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.  

Public Distribution System (PDS) is activated and 35 kg of free rice is provided by the Government for every family

Hundreds of Sahariyas got land patta (Certificate of land possession)

The community is also using available compensation (Centrally sponsored scheme) under Bonded Labour abolition system to buy assets for itself and use these assets for agriculture work, part of common property resources.

There is still a lot to be done but the community is slowly and steadily marching towards absolute freedom. This sustainable livelihood model addresses the core issue of preventing a person from bondage and could be replicated in other parts of country where prevalence of Bonded Labour is very high!

The key tactic is to let the community lead and reclaim what is rightfully theirs. Power in People! 

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(You can contact the author at chandan.kumar@actionaid.org)

Edited by: Abhilash B

Read Part – 1