People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 42

October 18, 2009

Tribal Societies, Women and Crisis of Survival


A Field Report from Shahdol, Anuppur and Umaria in Madhya Pradesh


Archana Prasad


IT is well known that the tribal people of Madhya Pradesh have faced the onslaught of right wing Hindu nationalism as well as industrial capitalism for many decades. Their vulnerability to these forces has only increased over time, especially with concerted efforts of privatisation of natural resources and the worsening economic and agrarian crisis. Further, the burden of these processes is borne mostly by the women of these communities. Keeping this in mind, a team of Sandhya Shaily, Neena Sharma and Archana Prasad made a three-day visit to Anuppur, Shahdol and Umaria districts to understand the main problems of tribal women in the area and to discuss ways in which the work of the Janvadi Mahila Samiti can be strengthened in the area. The three districts visited were originally part of the undivided Shahdol district where the Kisan Sabha and CITU has a significant presence among workers in the mines as well as the tribal peasantry. Several land struggles have been carried out in the area, and there is an ongoing campaign for increasing the wages under the NREGS. On the basis of these initiatives, the local cadre of these mass organisations provided crucial support for the visit and helped us to understand the challenges that faced the local tribal societies in general and the women. The field visit also revealed the real situation on the ground vis-à-vis the implementation of the flagship programmes of the UPA government, namely, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Forest Rights Act.




In all, the team visited eight villages --- Umrao Tola, Kusumai and Tara Dand in Anuppur district, Amajhiriya, Katiea and Rampur in Shahdol district and Mardari and Naya Mangdhar in Umaria district. Two of these villages (Umrao Tola and Naya Mangdhar) were set up to settle the people because of the displacements about twenty years back. One of these villages (Taradand) was formally classed as a forest village. Other villages lie in the vicinity of the forest and many of the villagers have lands within the forest. The tribal communities of these villages (mainly Gonds, Oraons, Baiga and Kol) have a patriarchal system and hardly give any land rights or inheritance to their women. Unmarried daughters, widows and deserted women of these communities have no right to land. Though most of the villages have occupied forest lands where they are sowing one crop, none of the families have titles and are therefore subjected to regular harassment by the forest department. For example, in the case of Uraon Tola, there have been many skirmishes between the police, forest officials and the Christian tribals on the issue of evictions. Women of the village have even gheraoed the district magistrate on this issue.

In this context, the new forest rights law is important as it has a provision for joint pattas on forestlands. However, the implementation of the act is slow and flawed. In most villages the Forest Rights Committee were formed, but claims were not being processed properly. It was further observed that most claims were filed in the name of both spouses. But what is surprising is that most tribal women were unaware of the provisions of the act and had not participated in the Gram Sabha that had formed the forest rights committee. In many places, such committees had no female representatives and women did not even know that a claim form could not be submitted without their signatures. 

Further, the definition of the family is unclear; it is also being vaguely applied in Madhya Pradesh. In older villages where some land titles are settled, the settlements took place as early as 1868 and 1898, under the colonial government. Therefore lands were in the name of the siyans or the ancestors even though the family comprised of several married sons. Villagers are apprehensive that their claim forms may be rejected because they possess no documentary proof for their claims on the one hand and no ST certificates on the other. Though most families had applied for this certificate, they have received no positive response. As one woman put it, “When we ask for a patta, they ask us to produce the certificate; and when we apply for the certificate most officials ask us to produce a patta.”

This vicious cycle is furthered and strengthened by clear violations of the law by the forest department in these villages. Villagers reported that without the settlement of claims, foresters had started to fence and enclose the forests and stop agriculture on lands where families have no ST certificates. This is clearly illegal as the Act itself states that no evictions should take place till all claims have been settled on the basis of fourteen types of evidences provided in the Act. Clearly, such processes are being short-changed in favour of a limited and hasty application of the act without much success. While villagers suffer these violations, the real encroachers seem to be undisturbed by the rights settlement processes. In case of Anuppur villages, non-tribal traders and landlords living outside the area have enclosed up to 50 acres of forest lands and declared them their own. They control both the access and harnessing of forest produce from these tracts. This has made the villagers suspicious of the nexus between encroachers and the forest officials.




As in most other tribal areas, women are the main forest produce collectors in the region. In the villages visited here, women go into the forest (about 7-15 km away) at around 7 in the morning and return by noon. They collect only two minor forest produce, i.e., tendu leaves and mahua. In most cases, the tendu leaves work is given for 10-20 days in a year whereas mahua is collected for 15 days a year. In some cases, landless Bhumia women make pattals (plates) from sal leaves and sell them in the market. Fuelwood is also collected for domestic purposes. However, since no efforts have been initiated for formalising forest rights so far, some instances of harassment have been reported. Women state that forest guards demand a bribe of up to Rs 500 for ‘illegal’ extraction of produce.

A class of middlemen in the forest produce trade (even of nationalised produce) also appears to be emerging. For instance, for tendu leaves, most women get Rs 40 to 50 per hundred bundles --- about 25 to 30 per cent less than the price determined by the government federation. The surplus is taken by the middlemen who are in contact with the forest department. A similar story is about mahua. Though mahua trees are on forestland, some non-tribal big land-grabbers claim their ownership. This means that tribal gatherers usually keep only half of the mahua collect from these trees for themselves. The rest of the produce is given to the person claiming the ownership of the trees. This system is called adhiya.

In the event of an uncertain agricultural situation and no ownership and minimum price for forest produce, most women depend on whatever work they get as casual labourers. In many cases, e.g. Mardari tribals, those with even 5-10 acres of land are forced to migrate to do work at construction sites and on the land of richer landlords. This is mainly because of the lack of irrigation and state investment in agriculture in tribal areas. Therefore the women of Uraon Tola borrowed cycles from their Christian mission to go and do seasonal casual labour. As always, almost all women agriculture labourers get at least Rs 10 to 20 less per day in comparison to the male labourers. In the same way, even tribal men are paid much less than the minimum wage of no more than Rs 50-70 per day.

What is even more amazing is that the introduction of the NREGA does not seem to have improved the situation in the last two years. Though most people have job cards, many of these cards are in possession of the sarpanchas who decide and distribute the work. There were also some complaints about false job cards being issued. Further, most of the work is decided by the sarpanch alone, despite the fact that villagers in Mardari (Umaria) had repeatedly asked for a gram sabha meeting to be called. Thus the functioning of the sarpanch and gram sabha itself had short-changed the ordinary people of these villages.

Thus, it is not surprising that in most cases households do not receive more than 15-45 days of work in a year. Further, the villagers are not aware that the work to be undertaken under NREGA has to be decided in the gram sabha. In one village, people asked the sarpanch to call a meeting of the gram sabha but were ignored. Payment of wages is irregular and delayed. In one case, villagers had not been paid for more than one year for a road that they had built under NREGA. Further, women stated that they did not receive more than Rs 40-70 per day as payment for work under the scheme even though the minimum wage for unskilled work was Rs 95 a day. In many cases, women reported that they had signed for Rs 95 per day but received only a fraction in actuality. It is clear that while the attempts of the CPI(M) mass organisations have succeeded in declaration of a higher minimum wage, its impact is yet to be seen on the ground.




Lack of regular employment and the failure of agriculture have made tribal people dependent on government welfare schemes. This is especially true of vulnerable women like widows and deserted women. One of the surprising features of our visit was the high presence of such women in the meetings. In most villages that we visited, only a few tribal families had ration cards. Of these, very few had antyodaya cards. Though there were ration shops in the village, most of these opened not more than twice or thrice a month. It was found in case of one village that the ration shop opened only once in three or four months. There was an inadequate supply of food grains and kerosene to these shops. Therefore, tribal families did not receives their full quota of rations. For single women, such provisions were not available and widows were receiving no pension despite repeated applications. Scholarships for girl children and health cards under Deen Dayal Swasthya Yojana were available to only a few families. It shows that most tribal women are victims of the withdrawal of the state from its welfare functions.

The visit highlighted the vulnerability and precarious situation of tribal societies in general and tribal women (particularly single women) in particular. It also showed the urgency with which the organisation needs to act if it is to help the tribal people and gain their support. On the basis of this analysis, the JMS has prepared a detailed demands charter so as to launch a comprehensive campaign along with membership drive and formation of local JMS committees in these districts.