RTI: Catalyst of change in tribals’ lives in Odisha
MONDAY, 28 NOVEMBER 2011 22:13
Despite several drawbacks and problems in operational procedures, Right to Information (RTI) Act has been the savior for thousands of people.
People, especially in most backward and tribal dominated areas of the State, are increasingly using the legal weapon to get benefits from the development projects. Apart from initial hiccups, RTI has become a blessing in disguise for them, thanks to the efforts of volunteers and RTI activists, who have made it possible.
Thuamul Rampur block is surrounded by inaccessible terrain and forest and is mostly inhibited by Kondh tribes. Most of the tribals do not have lands and depend on shifting cultivation and forest produce for subsistence. The area is dreaded for malaria and basic health and education services are lacking.
Fifty eight per cent of the population of Thuamul Rampur block are tribals, 67 per cent are landless and 89 per cent belong to below poverty line (BPL), 63 per cent face food stress for a period of six to seven months a year and 77 per cent of the children (0-5 year’s age group) are malnourished, according to a survey done by Antodaya. Most of the villages lack drinking water facilities besides other basic amenities.
One third of States’ population depends on Minor Forest Produces (MFP) which provides food security to forest dwellers for 4 to 6 months in a year. They also account for 20 to 50 per cent of their annual income. 29, 302 out of 46,989 villages in Odisha have forest as land use. The State has 1,779,953 hectares (31 per cent) of forest area with a forest dependent population of 15,934,768.
Kalahandi district is a tribal dominated area where the majority of the population is below the poverty line. Kalahandi is regarded as one of the most vulnerable districts in India for food insecurity, starvation deaths, drought etc. The drought prone district has two distinct features. The plain areas, which although are very fertile, are prone to regular drought due to erratic monsoon coupled with long dry spells. The hilly areas mostly inhibited by Kondh tribals with marginal or no land holdings are exposed to regular shortages of food.
Towards new dawn
Duku Majhi is a proud person today. He had never imagined seeing blooming and sparkling lights inside and outside his home. After a long persuasion
and battle, a solar panel has been installed in his house in Bejiguda hamlet under Karlapat gram panchayat in Thuamul Rampur block in Kalahandi.
For the 45-year-old Duku, it was a long overdue. The tribal head, who manages his four-member family, including two children, by collecting minor forest produces and with occasional farming in his two acres of forest land, has a lot of hope now.
“I am happy to see that my son Jogeswar, who has just entered Class 10th, will be able to read in the night and will secure more marks in exam. I am also confident that my daughter who had left the study may rejoin the school to pursue higher education,” feels Duku.
It became possible through the intervention of volunteers of Karlapat Land and RTI Clinic set under Access to Justice Project for marginalised people project, a joint initiative of Antodaya and UNDP in collaboration with the Government of India.
RTI volunteers extended helping hand to Duku, who was fighting a lone battle to get electric connection to his village. When Duku filed an RTI application with District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) to know why 47 families were provided electric connection of the total 98 households in the village, within 15 days, the remaining 47 households were provided with electricity through installation of solar panels.
Sakhi Majhi of the village said, “For quite sometime, we were running from pillar to post to get power supply, but it was out of the reach for us. The Government officials simply ignored us.”
Bejiguda is a small and sleepy village situated in the foothills of Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary in the Eastern Ghat. The village is inaccessible which can be approached through the sanctuary area.
Tribal inhabitants here have restricted living area for the fear of wild animals. Development has been a far cry for them. School-going children have to travel miles to reach the classroom. But, constant supply of electricity through solar panel has brought cheers and a ray of hope in the life of the villagers.
Road to freedom
The long wait of Naran Majhi finally comes to an end. He has got forest land patta jointly in his and his wife’s name. Till today, he was branded as an encroacher in his own land on which three generations of his family survived.
Naran is among 34 others of his village, who have been provided with land patta by the district administration. Naran alone has got the land of 2.60 decimals on March 2010, traditionally and inherently held by his family.
Out of total 45 households in his village, 43 families had applied to regularise forest land held under their possession in their favour.After due verifications and survey, the Sub Divisional Forest Rights Committee had recommended 34 applications.
“Our village is very old. We eke out a living from forest land and resources. Only when Antodaya people came to convince us to stake claim, we had applied for patta,” said Naran.
District Welfare Officer Seikh Mazeed said, “In Kalahandi district, we have regularised 21,106.76 acres of forest land in favour of 8,191 tribal families and vested community right in 155 cases.”
Till date 2, 93,901 beneficiaries have been distributed with individual titles in recognition of their rights. Out of them, only 58,724 right holders have been covered under various Government schemes.
Mazeed also expressed satisfaction over implementation of the ‘Access to Justice Project’.
Upendra Nayak (27), a high school drop-out, is now being invited to attend gram sabhas, panchayat and samiti meetings like any other sarpanch, samiti member or ward member.
Upendra was trained as an RTI volunteer along with other 15 youth of his locality during 2008 and subsequently he was attached to the RTI and land clinic set up there in Kanigumma by Antodaya, a voluntary organisation with the assistance from UNDP and Government of India.
Upendra has filed more than 10 RTI related queries to know about the real implementation of the Government sponsored schemes and programmes on progress of emergency feeding for children, Madhubabu Pension, MGNREGS, implementation of Forest Right Act, PDS, primary education and Jana Swasthy Yojana, etc. He could manage to get information on all of his queries and took necessary action on its implementation in consultation with villagers and Government officials.
On his efforts, Public Distribution System was regularised in 33 adjoining villages of his locality, besides restoration of emergency feeding for children through Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) in the villages of Karaga, Dhuliguda and Anthaguda.
Not only these, people especially Adivasi beneficiaries of Kanigumma appreciated the initiatives of Upendra, when they got their MGNREGS payments through the gram panchayat which got delayed by officials and engineers.
Apart from these, Upendra is now tracking the missing files of 22 poor Indira Awas Yojana (IAY) beneficiaries through the use of RTI Act who have been cheated by corrupt officials.
“Through my interventions, people’s inspection registers have been opened in many Government offices. Officials are now making disclosures and are exhibiting in their notice boards. Even they are now sending information through posts and letters which were asked through RTI applications etc,” informed Upendra.
He further added, “Through my experience I came to know that RTI is a weapon at the hands of poor and marginalised people to stake their claim in governance and development”.
“Experiences of using RTI shows first they will ignore and misbehave you, then they will try to dissuade, discourage and harass the applicants and finally when they will come to know that you are committed and determined for the cause, they will bow down,” said Chitta Behera, an eminent policy analyst with Odisha Soochana Adhikar Abhiyan, who has trained the RTI volunteers of access to justice project.
The writer is a senior freelance journalist
Land alienation: Bone of contention in Odisha tribal areas
MONDAY, 05 DECEMBER 2011 21:55
Livelihood of people are increasingly undermined by issues surrounding entitlement, forest rights, land rights and ‘podu’ (shifting) cultivation in rural areas in Odisha. Many families in the State either lack any access to land or a secure stake in the land they cultivate. As a result, acute poverty, hunger and social unrest have been the major concerns for everyone.
Tribals living in Kalahandi are entirely dependent on the forests for their livelihoods yet their land rights are under threat. The area is characterised by poor infrastructure, communication, low literacy, poor access to primary health care, high rate of deforestation, and no alternate avenues for income generation. Similarly, the villages of Junagarh block are thickly populated and a majority of population belongs to backward caste people.
To make the marginalised people aware of their rights and provide them with updated information and required forms and guidelines, the Government of India in collaboration with UNDP and in partnership with a local NGO Antodaya has established RTI clinics-cum-land rights resource centres at six strategic places in Kalahandi, among which five are in Thuamul Rampur block covering seven Gram Panchayats (GP) and one clinic in Junagarh block covering 16 villages of three GPs. These centres are managed by a Clinic Organiser who gives counselling; arranges awareness programmes regularly and organises mobile RTI clinics at remote villages once a month in each GP. The organisers make the people aware of different laws, policies and programmes. They identify the cases and also encourage the villagers to file applications.
Road to Freedom
Singhram Chataria is now able to cultivate paddy in his own land first time after 13 years after it was released from illegal occupation.
Forty- year-old Chataria is still struggling hard to get back the possession of his other lands. He has been running from pillar to post to get justice. The Government officials either ignored or denied his plea. Chataria, a wage labourer, had lost everything, including his dwelling during the devastating floods of 1998-99.
After a long pursuit, he had got a homestead land of 0.004 decimals under landless and homestead less scheme. The land patta was issued to him by local revenue officer along with 38 others of his Dalit hamlet. But, his patch of land was illegally and forcibly occupied by a local land lord.
Despite several attempts by Chataria and others, the landlord had never allowed them to enter into the land either for construction of houses or for cultivation. Chataria and others were beaten, humiliated and tortured by police and local goons.
After a long wait for nearly 13 years, Antodaya intervened by counselling them and extending legal support to the people who lost their land. A case was filed in a district court. Many like Chataria got stay order against the illegal occupation and at the same time also got order and direction from the court to go ahead with house construction.
Land alienation has been the most contentious issue as far as the tribal areas are concerned. At least 40 per cent lands in scheduled areas are not in the hands of tribals. More than 74,000 cases have been filed between 1959 and 2004. The Government has already decided to withdraw at least 14,000 such cases. All it needs is a comprehensive legislation and enactment of a uniform land use policy, which can take care of the need for land.
“Land rights are a means to reduce chronic poverty of the tribal population of Odisha,” argues Professor Nilakantha Panigrahy of Nabakrushna Chaudhury Centre for Development Studies. Presenting facts to prove his arguments, he said, “While population- wise north Odisha has tribal population of 35.22 in comparison with south Odisha at 34.67, but the poverty index shows north has poverty of 18.99 per cent vis-à-vis 34.08 per cent in the south. It is all because of land alienation as out of the 62 tribal groups in the State, 13 are Primitive Tribal Groups (PTGs), whose basic source of living is land and forest resources”.
Due to faulty settlement and consolidation policies, land dispute has been the chief source of conflict in many areas. The Tribal uprising, the industrial unrests in Odisha and above all, the ever -increasing Maoist violence are all attributed to land alienations and disputes over land. The Government is at loggerheads with the Adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers like Dalits in many areas.
“Though Odisha is a pioneering State in introducing land reforms but because of non implementation and growing landlessness, the problems of chronic poverty and vulnerability are yet to be resolved,” said a RTI volunteer.
He further added, “What needs to be done is tenancy reforms, protecting rights of sharecroppers, women land rights and homestead development through convergence.”
According to Antodaya chairman Dilip Das, where land ownership is confusing, common property resources are occupied by influential people and development induced land alienation has been the order of the day. “
Tale of marginalisation, rescue
After a wait over two years, finally Mamata heaved a sigh of relief. She is now spending happier days ever. Mamata (22), who lives in Kalahandi, had undergone innumerable sufferings and ordeal for a failed marriage.
She survived after a bad marriage and got compensation of Rs 60, 000. She was estranged from her husband and in laws in a court. And all these happened following the intervention of Antodaya. Access to Justice Project, a joint initiative of UNDP and Government of India, in which Antoday is a partner, was launched in 2009 in Junagarh block with a view to providing access to justice to the marginalized sections.
Mamata is the only daughter among the three children of poor parents Laxmi and Laxman Sahu, residents of Kendupati village under Kendupati GP in Junagarh. The area has earned a dubious distinction for poverty, malnutrition, starvation deaths, child sale and migration, to name a few.
Mamata had to pass through many difficult times in her life. First, it was practically difficult to find a groom for her and then her difficult marital life. Barely fifteen days after the marriage, her in-laws asked for money and had demanded a motor cycle failing which they started torturing her. She was not even provided food. She spent several sleepless nights. When she became mentally and physically weak, her in-laws asked her father to take her back.
Mamata’s father had to sell their one acre of cultivable irrigated land besides spending their small savings for her marriage. They had gone landless and were living depending on wage labour.
Antodaya came to her rescue. After its intervention through the support of district legal aid services, she got relief. Her case was accepted by the police at the instruction of district Superintendent of Police. Women desk of the district police took up the case but the matter remained unsolved and at last the case was moved to the family court in Dharmagarh. And the justice was delivered in her favour.
Mamata’s case was reported to State Women’s Commission (SWC), which took the case seriously, inquired and had ordered for compensation and rehabilitation.
“Because of illiteracy, ignorance and above all prevalence of poverty in this region many women like Mamata suffer for no fault of theirs. All they need is the legal support and counseling. We need to scale up the project to new areas,” said Das of Antodaya.
The writer is a senior freelance journalist