‘Vayam’ as seen by a visitor

It’s often said about India that where something is true, the opposite will also be true. Paradoxes have become an integral part of contemporary Indian culture. One of such stark contradictions can easily be seen if one looks below the beautiful veneer of natural beauty of tribal areas and landscapes. The disconnect between humans living here and rest of the fast growing, would-be superpower is enormous.  A visit to Jawhaar and villages around, only a few hours away from where I was born and brought up, makes me feel like a foreigner.

A bumiheen(landless) farmer from Vhelpaadaa(a village few KM from Jawhaar) tells me with all the hope he could gather of getting help. He has been doing whatever he can, to reclaim a piece of land confiscated before independence for forest conservation and then passed into clutches of “forest department” post 1947. Since the time his ancestors were kicked out, nearly half a dozen of his generations are farming illegally on their own land. There are about 448 such bhumiheen farmers in Vhelpaadaa alone and hundreds if not thousands of such villages still fighting for the rights “free India” owes. As clichéd as it may sound, all attempts to garner some real support from political left, right or center beyond “vote and/or note” have been in vain.

The recent Forest Rights Act of 2006, makes provision to reclaim the land owned by such farmers. It also lays out procedures to legalize and regularize illegal farming and resolve conflicts, if any, during distribution of the reclaimed land. All of this is shrewdly kept either only on paper or sometimes not even on paper by government officials. With no access to education and/or any other skills, these farmers continue to be exploited as much as possible by bureaucrats and baabus sitting in the forest department, while the department enjoys forest resources and wealth it generates.

This is the place where Vayam steps in. Vayam is a registered charity with an aim to create awareness among tribals of their own legal rights and to help create leadership from within these communities to fight for those rights independently. Milind Thatte, founder of Vayam and a passionate activist tells us (a group of urban facebook “likers”) about how he and his colleagues at Vayam, conduct training sessions to explain the laws and procedures to follow, in a layman’s language. Vayam has a very simple but effective methodology. Cultivate local leadership by honing the native volunteers to create awareness and help local communities to fight on their own. While eliminating any scope of xenophobia towards outsiders like himself, this approach also eliminates any possible sense of moral philanthropic superiority among the activists and volunteers.

The classical Forest Vs. Humans dichotomy pops out during the discussion. Surely, if the forest department is failing to conserve the natural resources, we certainly can’t rely on those uneducated, lowly skilled peasants to do the job! Or so does the echo-friendly classist in me thinks. Travelling through lush green landscapes of Jawhaar, “Vayam”, now seems like an environmentally ignorant, pro-human, anti-green organization. Only till Milind leads us to “Hateri”, another remote village in Jawhaar taluka, to show a couple of interesting projects.

He doesn’t take us to business straight away though. A local volunteer is looked up to show us the place. Vayam’s style! This is not a difficult job for Milind. Most of the village knows and treats him as one of their own. We see a rain water harvesting project built and maintained by the local farmers. Few kilometers away is a block of forest land on a hillock, planted with trees, maintained by and for the local farmers as a communal resource. No external effort has to be put for conservation of this land, neither does it get depleted by any extravagant consumption. This was possible, explains Milind, because local farmers who are the real stakeholders of forest resources were not only made aware of the need to conserve but also given ownership and hence responsibility of their own land. A rare living example of “by, of and for the people” phenomenon outside of law books and political rhetorics. This gives me a glimpse to an effective middle ground for the “Green” ergonomics.
Unfortunately these are still rare examples and majority of the cases still live in an “on paper” wonderland. This suppression and continuous exploitation can start taking roots of movements like those in red corridor, which can easily be nipped in the bud by effective communication and justice to local farmers. Vayam’s approach looks promising in that direction. Apart from legal knowledge, Vayam also tries to imbibe technical know-how of modern echo-friendly farming techniques in the youth. Graampanchaayat of “gorthaN”, after witnessing the great work of Vayam, has leased out a piece of land to build a training facility. The project, says Milind, is estimated to cost around Rs.10 Lakhs. Fundraising is underway with hopes of having this facility to train local youth in a much better and effective way. This truly looks to be a move in a positive and an even tempered direction.

Tejas Gokhale
+353 74 911 1640


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