Adivasis comprise about 70% of population of Sonebhadra, a heavily forested region in Uttar Pradesh. Many Adivasis living in the region have been denied of their lands and rights because of the Sections 4 and 20 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927-a colonial legislation to regulate the movement and transit of forest produce. Many Adivasis, including women, have also been charged with false cases under this Act. However, the collective and enduring struggle of Adivasis brought into force the Forest Rights Act, 2006- an acknowledgment of the rightful ownership of Adivasis on their forests and land. Though the Act is yet to be implemented in its full essence, several activists struggle hard to bring this to reality. This is the story of Sukalo, an adivasi woman who refused to back down and continues to fight for the rights of her people despite all odds, even today. Sukalo is an important force in the struggle for implementation of Forest Rights Act 2006 in the Sonebhadra region.
“We will not beg, we will claim our lands back. It is clear to us that the Government is not supporting us. Our movement will win our rights back, I am sure!” says Sukalo Gond while tying her cattle as dusk approaches. Sukalo, in her fifties now, is an Adivasi leader from Sonebhadra district of Uttar Pradesh. Marching almost rhythmically in a forest rights rally in 2006, her first such experience, Sukalo realised that the possibilities were many and things were bound to change for many like her in the days to come. Little did she know at the time that soon after, she will become one of the leading women activists of the forest struggle of Adivasis in Sonebhadra empowering other women through her own lived experience and life-struggles.
Adivasis In Sonebhadra
Adivasis comprise about 70% of population of Sonebhadra. The prominent tribes residing in the area are-Gond, Karwar, Pannika, Bhuiyan, Baiga, Cheron, Ghasiya, Dharkaar, and Dhaunar. Most Adivasis residing in the villages are dependent on the forests for their livelihood. They often collect Tendu leaves, honey, dry branches and medicinal herbs from the forests and sell those in the markets. Some also have small farms, on which they grow rice or different vegetables. Many Adivasis living in the region have been denied of their lands and rights because of the Sections 4 and 20 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927-a colonial legislation to regulate the movement and transit of forest produce. Many Adivasis have also been charged with false cases under this Act.
A Dam(n)ing Indictment of ‘Development’
While the Adivasis have found themselves at the peripheries of development models of the India state, this specific site of Sonebhadra and the Kanhar dam is a contested region that has seen interventions from many stakeholders. The Sonebhadra district is a victim of the uneven development paradigm that India adopted after independence. The entire region is affected by industrial pollution and displacement of local people has become a regular phenomenon. Researches have pointed out that Sonebhadra’s waters have become poisoned and the air toxic to breathe. The Kanhar dam is placed in this spatial context. The initial foundation of the dam was laid in 1976. It was said that this project will impact Uttar Pradesh’s Sonebhadra, Chhattisgarh’s Sarguja and Jharkhand’s Garhwa districts. According to an estimate, the water belt of the dam would cover 2000 sq. kilometres and 80 villages belonging to 3 different states would come under the influence of this water belt. Due to this, about one lakh Adivasi villagers would lose their ancestral land. Preliminary studies suggested that one lakh trees, 2500 kaccha houses, 200 pakka houses, 500 wells, 30 schools and more buildings. These numbers are likely to have increased in present day.
The turning points in the construction of the Kanhar dam kept getting more dramatic as years passed. The work would start at regular intervals and then stop. A closer look at the documents of the Department of Irrigation and Public Works Department showed that though the project was never executed continuously yet the expenditures were shown throughout. The work was stopped in 1984 and the money was diverted to Asiatic games. It again started in 1989 and 16 families were displaced. After that, for almost two decades the work was stopped. What followed was multiple foundation stones laid by different people like Mayawati in 2011 and Shivpal Singh Yadav in 2012. But the work did not start anytime soon. All this while, the Adivasis constantly faced the threat of displacement.
Tired of this vicious cycle, the Adivasis in Sonebhadra started the Kanhar Bachao Andolan in 2000 on the initiative of Gram Swaraj Samiti. The purpose of this movement was to highlight and oppose the disastrous implications of the Kanhar Dam on nature and human beings in this area. The Adivasi and Dalit villagers of the area clearly rejected the dam. Human rights groups like People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) associated with the movement called the dam not only illegal but also unconstitutional.
Sukalo’s Initiation into the Campaign
Sukalo is the living witness to a time when there was no awareness among the forest dwellers about their rights and claims on forest land. Atrocities and violence against them was rampant. The police would often barge into their houses and destroy their hutments or physically abuse them with impunity.
Her initiation in the movement to demand the implementation of forest rights in 2006 and the involvement thereafter in various struggles strengthened Sukalo’s belief that rights had to be fought for and that the Adivasis will not beg! Sukalo is not only a leader, a treasurer with the All India Union for Forest Working People (AIUFWP), but also takes cares of her family, her cattle.
When the work of the Kanhar dam resumed in December 2014, the villagers protested this and sat for a dharna. They were intimidated all the while. As they shifted the protest site closer to the dam, the cadres of Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) opened fire on the groups of peaceful protesters on 14th April 2015. While one of the protesters Akklu Chalo died in this, several others got seriously injured.
Sukalo recalls the horrific sight of the police firing, “18 rounds were fired right in front of my eyes. It was terrible. They arrested almost all the women leaders including Rajkumari immediately”. She adds, “I had no option but to run away, they were arresting everybody.” Being on the move for 15 days- traveling through Chhattisgarh and Bihar alone, she reached Delhi. She stayed in Delhi for a month, after which she returned to Sonebhadra.
In the wee hours of June 30th 2015, just as a big dharna and rally in support of a 100 day nationwide campaign for land rights and labour rights was about to begin, Roma and Sukalo along with other activists were arrested and sent to Mirzapur jail.
Incarceration and Intimidation
Sukalo describes the experience of the month long incarceration in the Mirzapur jail, “It was a life-changing experience. A lot of women and children were fabricated in false cases and imprisoned. Some women had just given birth to children.” However, Sukalo continued the struggle even from within the four walls of the jail. She, along with her other inmates sent multiple letters to the higher ups. She sat for multiple hunger strikes within the prison, both for basic facilities within the prison and the rights of land and resources outside. She would hand over the letters to other activists during Mulaqats. Her struggles combined with the resilient efforts of her comrades and their unity within the jails, won all of them minimum wages for the work they did inside. Though she was released later, all the fabricated cases still remain foist on her.
Describing the experience in the jail and how their collective strength turned it around into a struggle for rights within the four walls she often goes back in time. She remembers a time when daily wages that the Adivasis would receive were as low as Re. 1 or Rs. 2. Mostly, the wages would be much lesser than minimum wage, a concept they did not quite know at the time. She literally grew with the struggle not just for forest rights but also labor rights of the Adivasis residing in the area. When she got involved, most Adivasi women were oppressed, both in the family and in the society outside and were not aware of their rights. However today she resolutely speaks, “We have a right to live if we are born on this earth. While there was a time when I could not look any man up in the eyes, today I even negotiate alone, whether it be a minister or police officer.”
Sukalo resolves to continue the fight at any cost despite the challenges that lay ahead. Though she is the only one from her family to be involved in the movement, that fact does not deter her. “The Collective strength of the women- Their pains and joys-is what gives me strength too. The struggle is not just for land, but the dignity of existence of an Adivasi woman.” Sukalo says with a sense of finality.