End of a long struggle or the beginning of a new one?

August 8 perhaps marked the end of an old struggle and the beginning of a new one for the residents of Hakki Pikki colony, Bannerghatta….the struggle for sustainable livelihoods and for land that was granted to them almost six decades ago. This was the day when against all odds a Public Hearing on Lands and Livelihoods for Nomadic and Forest Dwelling Tribes was organised by the Hakki Pikki and Iruliga Tribal Society in their settlement to mark the occasion of Indigenous People’s Day that would be observed the next day by several organisations in Ramnagar the next day.

It is a normal working day for the community despite the air of festivity…..

As the time approaches the village starts to gather itself together in wait for the star attraction, the Member of Parliament, Shri D.K. Suresh who has taken a lot of initiative in the last months to resolve the long pending issue of land rights for the Hakki Pikkis and Iruligas. He along with many other State and civil society/tribal activists have been invited to listen to the community speak about what is happening to them, caught as they are in the midst of bureaucratic battles between the Forest and Revenue departments and between real estate mafia embedded within themselves and the larger political dispensation. Despite all the confusion and delay, the shamiana gets set up, the chairs are put down, the stage laid out with the trademark plastic bouquets stuck in vases crafted from bamboo brought from the forest…gifts for our guests. Mahen Reddy adds his special touch with the fresh resplendent  bougainvillea, the women, men and children start sitting down and fooling around …and the electricity decides to play truant….by design or default we will never know!

The community conversations we had begun six months ago through the process of film making in the different settlements has drawn in some welcome guests from the other settlements for the meeting……Kumuda Sushil from Shimoga, one of the most articulate spokeswoman of the community; Kallesh from Kengeri, the soft spoken leader made of steel; Hem Reddy and other older war horses from Gowripura….

In the meantime our other special guests too begin to arrive……Michael Fernandes, the former MLC and trade unionist, Shri Metry, the respected tribal academic/ activist, Shri Siddanna, from the Pardhi community in Bellary, Chandramma from Janasahayog, the Assistant Commissioner and other officials from the social welfare department from Ramnagar, Jayaram, the Zilla Panchayat representative, Renuka, Muniraj and Chandra, the panchayat representative and other local community leaders….

As the waiting happens the youth brigade decides to seize the moment. They decide to write out and circulate a petition for improving the school in the community for which they gather signatures so that they could present it to the MP.

The members of the Tribal Society gather around….among others, the grand old patriarch of the community, Division; the hard working son-in-law of the community, Dayanand, Ragini, Kencha, Chandar and the dependable town crier, Halallappa…

The tensions and tempers rise as the repeated phone calls to the electricity departments refuse to bear fruit and the generator we are expecting to arrive does not and when it does, refuses to work. And then voila….there is a crackle in the air, crackers get burst and the sound box comes to life along with the arrival of the Chief Guest who begins the long walk down the main road of the village amidst a lot of fan fare and hand shaking….the people’s representative has arrived! He takes his place on the dais where planned seating arrangements are shelved for a spontaneous shifting of positions. The men in power have taken their place.

His Secretary had warned that the MP might not be able to stay for too long in the light of his many engagements but he graciously tells us that since he had given his word that he would spend 3-4 hours with the community, he would honor his commitment. And he does.

A soul stirring invocation by Kewdal, Dephone and Kot Reddy brings the Goddess right into our midst through Nandrani. And then the lamp is lit collectively with all the elected women’s representatives from the community leading with Mamta’s strong voice in the background singing “Mahila jyothi jalao….”.

The guests are garlanded and welcomed by the community.

Mamta and Amelia from Vimochana/CIEDS Collective welcome the gathering and give the background and context for the public hearing. Division from the Hakki Pikki community and Krishnappa from the Iruliga community speak about the path on which the two communities have traveled in search of a dignified means to livelihood after they were displaced from their earlier ways of life by changing government policy. And the struggle to get the formal rights over the land that has been released in their names in 1962. Together they set the stage for the others who will follow to speak.

And then the voices begin to flow. Gundamma speaks of how they have been stopped from grazing in the forests which is really hitting hard at one of their primary means of livelihood…livestock; Dodeeriah speaks of how they have carried on with the cultivation on their land despite the onslaught of the elephants who regularly come and destroy their crops and how they are not entitled to compensation since the land is still not in their names; Sakamma speaks of the harassment and intimidation by the CRPF that has occupied part of their lands that they have been cultivating; Pasang speaks of how they were duped off 67 acres by an unscrupulous land mafia in collusion with some in the revenue department and how they were forced to go to the Courts to cancel the Order;Sameet speaks of how they are harassed on the roads and villages whenever they go to do their vyapara of plastic garlands etc and are asked for formal permissions and documentation that they dont have; Attabariya speaks of how they have been trying to organise themselves  into a Society that could bring about unity amongst themselves and represent the interests of the Community. And then the floor was opened to other voices who might want to speak.

A note of dissent is struck by Kantraj who speaks out against the “Samasthe”which he says has done nothing for the good of the community and infact has delayed in getting the land. He was clear that it is the MP who is responsible for speeding up the process and no credit should be given to anybody else. Dephone gets up and takes issue with Kantraj chiding him and asking the gathering to forgive him as a young hothead. Michael Fernandes gives a strong, passionate rejoinder saying that he had been following the issue for the past many decades and if there was a delay it was because of internal differences. He also felt strongly that if the samasthe had not been present then the land would have been appropriated by the land mafia long ago. He warned the community against being exploited by vested interests who would try to exploit them and expressed the need for some strong measures to prevent the alienation of land.

It was healthy that differences which are infact  cleaving the community apart were aired and responded to defiantly but openly…democratic dialogue in action?!

Other voices of solidarity then spoke urging the communities to think long term in a much changed world. Renowned academic and tribal activist Dr. Metry of Hampi University, Dr. Balagurumurthy (President of the Alemaari Budakattu Mahasabha and presently the Administrative Officer of the Ambedkar Research Institute, SC/ST Cell) and Kumuda Sushilappa, the first woman from the Hakki Pikki community spoke about the need to organise and struggle to secure Tribal Rights that had been historically denied, both in the colonial and post-colonial periods. They stated that the decision to grant land titles to Hakki Pikki and Iruliga peoples is an unprecedented step, and sets a precedent for all other Tribal communities to similarly reclaim their Rights that have been denied through brutal and historical injustices. They called upon Tribals to join collectively with other disenfranchised communities, to organise and struggle to reclaim what’s rightfully theirs. Revenue and Forest officials present at the Hearing, spared no words in assuring the people and the MP that they would get on with the task of settling the Land and Livelihood Rights without any further delay, which they admitted was the main way in correcting a grave historical wrong that had been committed against the tribals. The AC also struck a cautionary note when he said that the tribals could not sell the land since it would come with very stringent conditions and adviced them that they should make the best use of the resource that would be granted to them.

In what must have been a rare moment in the history of this community the audience sat in relative silence and actually listened as each of the speakers came up, took up the mike and spoke…. even the children were rather muted once the programme started! And Kutty from the CIEDS Collective is busy capturing all the moments on his camera.

After listening with a lot of attention and patience to all who spoke finally the MP got up to speak. Chastising the Karnataka Forest department for putting such obstacles in the grant of the land, Member of Parliament Mr. Suresh said that if there are forests left at all, it is because the Adivasis have protected them. He encouraged the Forest  Department officials to work with the tribals and utilise their extraordinary knowledge of the ecological landscape in partnership to protect forests for posterity. Acknowledging also that this major restoration of Rights of Tribals is taking place on the occasion of the International Day of Indigenous Peoples, Mr. D. K. Suresh said the Hakki Pikki and Iruliga peoples in Bannerghatta could now look forward in hope of dignified future for themselves and their children. No more begging or going out to sell trinkets to survive, for a people who were not long ago the very “owners of the forest”, he asserted. Stating that just granting land rights would not be sufficient to guarantee secure livelihoods, he guaranteed his support in securing all training, health and education support schemes to ensure that these communities could live a life of freedom without fear of displacement and exploitation. He assures the community that all efforts are being made to conduct the survey the land that would be released in their names in the next six months.

The MP leaves taking his large retinue with him. The community is happy that there has been a public recognition by a people’s representative of their rights to a sustainable and dignified livelihood. It is a victory of sorts and a validation of the years of struggle for the land that seems finally to be approaching an end that is not so illusory after all. Yes there will be new challenges if and when the land is formally transferred to the community. And these challenges could infact make them more vulnerable than before to the land vultures that hover around incessantly never too far away. But that is a battle that the community will have to gear itself up to fight in the best way possible. In the meantime Division thunders to the press who asks what we would do if there was a further delay in the grant of the land ” We will descend in the hundreds on Vidhan Souda and demand for our due!”

For now there is a satisfactory high that comes after a high voltage programme…like a wedding in the family! Farewell photographs are taken. The guests are escorted out and goodbyes are said. The stage is dismantled and the shamiana is taken down. The village too winds down and begins to look like there was nothing of the feverish activity that consumed everybody the whole morning!

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