The Yanadis are amongst one of most vulnerable tribal groups in India. They live in extreme conditions of poverty and social exclusion. A significant population of Yanadis live in the plains of Nellore, a district in the eastern coastal state of Andhra Pradesh. They live near canals and streams and their settlement were till recent times nomadic in nature. As they lived away from the main villages, they did not have access to facilities including drinking water, school admission, access to Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and electricity.
Severe forms of dispossession and landlessness has reduced the Yanadi community to a life of agricultural bondage in the fields of village elites, often from higher castes. Some of Yanadi households also rely on small-scale subsistence fishing for survival. Abysmal living conditions forced Yanadis into debt bondage with interest rates as high as 100-120% per annum. Domestic work was another source of livelihood, but the vulnerable conditions made them subject to a lot of oppression including sexual abuse. Others worked as scavengers and rag pickers. Children were also forced to do labour.
Despite a progressive land reform and redistribution initiated by the Government of Andhra Pradesh in the 1980’s guaranteeing at least 40,500 hectares to nearly 200,000 Yanadi people in Nellore, little has changed on the ground. Land still remains in the clutches of powerful village elites. Members of the higher caste also wield enough control and influence in the local bureaucracy to create hurdles on the road to land reform and land redistribution.
Through the whole process of marginalisation the Yanadi’s lost their identity, their language and their way of life. Living in scattered settlements they were not able to build collective strength. On the one hand denied their identity, on the other hand they were not assimilated into society. They have been subject to oppression and discrimination by the dominant sections for years. The history of the community in recent decades is full of stories of backbreaking labor for little or no wages, and exclusion from socio-cultural-economic and political life. Enough instances of atrocities committed with impunity on the Yanadi community exist to create a sense of fear and insecurity.
Association for Rural Development (ARD), a Nellore-based social organisation which has been associated with ActionAid India since 2006 following the South Asia Tsunami that hit the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh, had closely observed the extreme poverty and exploitation of Yanadis. ARD initiated a longterm intervention with the support from ActionAid in 2010. In the early period the intervention focused on relief and rehabilitation work, which included provision of nets, livelihood support and housing.
Shaik Basheer, the chief functionary of ARD, says:
“It’s quite challenging to work with a community which has been oppressed for generations under the conditions of bondage. ARD took the challenge and focused its work on land and related livelihoods.
“With financial and technical support from ActionAid, we carried out a series of training programmes for the Yanadis. We sensitized them about their rights over land and speak up against the atrocities they had been subjected to over the years.”
Through continuous meetings and awareness drives, the community was educated on understanding land records and cadastral maps. Once coming to know that they are working as labourers on their own lands, Yanadis also realized that they should get their lands back.
Simultaneously ARD arranged for district authorities to visit the community and get sensitised to the abysmal living conditions of the Yanadis. Collectors were taken to their houses and were made to have food with Yanadis. Atrocities against Yanadis were challenged with mass mobilization of Yanadis.
Through this empowerment process, leadership and collective bodies emerged within the community. Through their collective efforts the Yanadis were able to reclaim more than 3000 acres of land and more than 7000 hectares of water bodies. More than 500 men, women and children were released from debt bondage. NREGA was used to develop their lands. Men and women formed fisheries cooperatives and farmer producers companies to avail Government schemes. Special residential schools were sanctioned for girl children.
In 2013, ARD came up with a plan to start a fishery co-operative for Yanadi men in the Yallansiri village to promote an alternate form of livelihood for the community. With 54 members, the Yallansiri fishermen’s co-operative was set up and fish farming started with the help of the Fisheries Development Board.
ARD also facilitated formation of a Tribal Fisher Women’s Cooperative in the district comprising of a group of highly empowered and motivated women. The group is currently led by Bapatla Sathyavathamma, a fearless Yanadi tribal woman under whose leadership the group reclaimed nearly 6 hectares of land in the nearby Puruni village, from its illegal holders.
The Yanadi community has transformed their lives. By securing access to education for their children and ensuring their youth move on to higher education, they are now transforming the future of the community.