Adivasi Mahila Mahasangh
The birth of Adivasi Mahila Mahasangh (AMM)
“I did not know anything; whether one needed to start work first and then register the sanstha, or register first and then begin the work. I was completely naïve,” Mamta reminisces about the early days. “Somehow I formed the sangathan with some other like-minded people, and without much planning or thinking, we named it Jashpur Jan Vikas Sanstha. We did not even know where the registration could be done, but we were helped by an uncle of mine. He guided us through the registration process which was done in Bilaspur in 2003. Since my uncle had quite a bit of influence, the registration was complete in just about 3 months, after we paid a sum of Rs.5,000.” The sangathan then began to work in the villages. It was first essential to understand how they would enter the villages as complete strangers and how they could possibly work with the people.
Saving For A Rainy Day
Mamta understood that the rural adivasi society did not have a concept of savings. If they needed instant cash, they would sell off the grains from their barns but would not save any money. If they would need even more money, then they would mortgage their farm land with bigger farmers. “We decided that this would be the course of our sangathan. We initially told women to begin saving Rs .25 each month. Slowly we began to form SHGs, and during that period we got a fellowship from Swiss Aid. Because of their network of people that they work with, I learnt more about the ways a sangathan ought to be run. But I realised that the financial aspect of the adivasi society was a key area to be worked on. The world thinks that the adivasi society is very forward-thinking and the women are quite empowered, but this is not the case when it comes to issues of money. She would have no property rights. I saw several cases of oppression against women, depending on whether she is healthy or whether she is able to bear a child or not. Many women would also not want to drag their families to court. That’s when I decided that something should be done for their income generation. We managed to make a federation of the women who are part of the many SHGs. It isn’t very successful but it has been breathing in its own pace. They have formed the Prerna SHG which is being run by the Women of AMM completely (Read about Malti Tirigi’s story)” Mamta explained, adding that there are several gaps to be filled in this functioning which needs to be filled. (Alcohol Campaign)
“Earlier we would work only with women, but in the case of the latter SHG, we realised that it was essential to also get men to work with us as this was an issue that involved everyone. So a sangathan needs to be formed with the geographical, political, sociological situations in mind. But that doesn’t mean that the sangathan can move forward on its own because it is very fragile and can take any turn depending on the direction of the wind. And I never want to keep the remote control of the sangathan in my hands, just because I have formed it,” Truly, Mamta has understood through her work that the process of the strengthening of the sangathan has to be organic – it will develop, grow, stagnate, taking its own journey with the strength of the people.
We were also just a group of seven, and we felt the need to be a pressure group before the administration and play the role of the opposition. Two years ago, some ministers from the Centre came here to see the functioning of NREGA and he was shown only those places where work was done well. Suddenly, the ministers of the two oppositional parties became allies. There should be someone in the opposition to observe and point out when the administration goes wrong. So we have been raising issues of corruption; water, land, jungles; the lost culture of the adivasis, and thus this comes under the banner of Adivasi Mahila Mahasangh. We don’t have one person heading this sangathan since the adivasi have a culture of a community-based leadership. So all we did is make a core committee which would help anchor the work and we then invited all women to be a part of it. 10,000 women are a part of AMM, with 11 women in the core committee” Mamta says.
Jashpur Jan Vikas Sanstha is the registered body with seven women as its board members and the effort has been to keep it as a separate formal entity on the paper, by which they could send in proposals for projects, when the need is felt, and also as the body to receive funds for the sangathan.
Mamta is also of the opinion that it would not be right to take the leadership of the very many sangathans which fall under the banner of the Mahasangh. “We want them to be able to take their own decisions. When we go to villages and organise programmes, we do not mention where we’re coming from. People surely do recognise us, but we try our best to support the local sangathans. So even if someone may ask us, ‘Which sangathan do you represent?’ We can confidently say that we are here to support the local sangathan. Even when we organise mass rallies, we insist that everyone display their own banners. I do not mind even if our sangathan is not mentioned in the media reports because we are not working for fame,” Mamta asserts.
Women of AMM
“The other thing that we have tried is the creation of community-based organisations (CBOs), under which SHGs would be formed, people would mobilise to learn more about their rights, governmental schemes, etc. We try to have awareness campaigns and sometimes also take those karyakartas outside for trainings and workshops in other sangathans for exposure,” says Mamta about expanding their work among women. In the last three years, the focus has been on the adivasis’ prime issues of water, forest and land (jal, jangal, zameen), considering that several companies are making their inroads into Jashpur. “I can say that the primary work of any sangathan – be it training, forming SHGs or mobilising people through awareness campaigns, etc – all of this has been done in the last three years. But our team is small and the area of work has become very vast today. We are not doing any project-based work. We are trying to get governmental schemes implemented in the right way. While at the same time, often we have to pick up issues, like ensuring the mandatory employment as per NREGA or the implementation of FRA. Preparing the people to fight the mammoth system alone takes up a lot of time – raising awareness of their rights, telling them about the possibilities of winning the struggle, getting them to come out in hordes before any governmental institution, how to handle any retaliatory attack by the administration, etc. In the last three years, due to such work, the work of focussing on income generation among women has reduced. We surely did make a cooperative society but it hasn’t begun to function yet, we are still trying to figure out capital and this will take time. We are planning to start a handloom unit for the women and also have trained few women, through the Prerna SHG.”
Initially, the women did not even know what was sloganeering or walking in a rally, says Mamta. “We had to begin from the very basic level. They would often be fearful of participating in anything that had a political colour, or that which was meant to challenge the administration. Earlier there was the rule of the king and so they have always been suppressed. Even if there may have been rallies previously, it only meant stone pelting and violence. But we have broken that myth and in the last three years, we have organised about 20 large rallies with the network of other groups. But other sangathans have also been inspired by our work. So now all sangathans here support each other and stand by at the time when needed. Nobody can win or do any fruitful work with the attitude that a particular issue can be handled only by us and nobody else should partake in its work. No change can take place with such an attitude. It has be an open forum always, since we are all working in the same area. So in the rally, and in the meeting after it, we raised questions about the status of the adivasis in the society and what they ought to do to fight off the injustice. Just making a group of people to address FRA issues, and then giving them training to manage work on their own, and then biding them goodbye is not the way a sangathan can function. Sangathans often break due to this reason, but they may get back together again. This has also been our experience here. Sometimes the passion is lost, or at other times, there is a sense of confusion. So such issues should also be addressed. For example, we have the Prerna SHG which has 600-700 women under its fold, from about 6-7 Panchayats. Then there is another Jal-Jungle-Zameen Bachao Sangathan at another place.”
Petite and with a wide smile fixed on her face, 36-year-old Malti Tirigi has been working with Mamta ever since the sangathan was formed. A resident of Dumbartoli village of the Gholeng panchayat, Malti was initially working with the Church in their efforts to uplift women. Fluent in Hindi, this Oraon-speaking tribal woman today has erected a house of her own, and is inculcating the virtue of self-reliance among her four children.
Malti also had the opportunity to visit Imphal with Mamta in November 2010. It was fascinating to see the matriarchal society. Malti has plans to invoke some of her observations back home in Jashpur. “The markets there are completely controlled by the women. The men are mere carriers of heavy load. It was amazing to see how the women had managed everything in the market, even the finances!” said Malti.
Malti’s 10 years spent with the sangathan included training women to form CBOs and SHGs, but it wasn’t an easy journey. “People were initially very apprehensive when we would approach them. I would sit in front of them but they would be seated at quite a distance from me. I would slowly pull my mat towards them, while still in conversation. Eventually, I would get really close to them and would carry their children in my arms, even if the kids had a runny nose or had their hair soiled with mud. I would take their photographs and show it to them. This would be a real ice-breaker,” Malti reminisces. Earlier, she was working among 25 villages of the Gholeng parish, as part of the Church’s efforts to uplift the women. Her role involved organising street plays in the villages as a campaign against alcohol.
Malti met Mamta about a decade ago when the sangathan was beginning to develop. Malti admits that the monthly stipend of Rs 30 for creating SHGs among women in villages was a boost for her to work with Mamta. She saw the need for the financial liberation of women, as a way towards their freedom. Besides, it also helped her gain strength for her own personal battles – initially her in-laws criticised her for being out from home until well past sundown, and for interacting with men all the time. They would rather have had her working as a migrant labourer. But Malti cites the support of her husband which gave her the strength to continue her work, along with the assurance of good work that was associated with Mamta.
Malti is a household name today for the people in and around Dumbartoli. She cites this incident that got her ‘fame’: “Once I was standing at the Jashpur bus stand and saw that some men were beating up a young boy. Everyone else was just looking but nobody wanted to step in to intervene. I looked closely and saw that it was one of the boys from a nearby village who was being beaten. I knew that he was an innocent boy. I stepped up and told the other boys to stop beating him. Suddenly, they too realised that a woman was among them and stepped back. It was only then the some people came forward to pick up this young injured boy. By the time I reached my own village, I seemed to have become some hero, with everyone taking my name and treating me with much more respect. That really felt nice and I realised that it did take a lot of courage to stand up for what is right.”
But this strength is something that Malti attributes to her and her children’s age. She admits that earlier she would be afraid to be at the forefront during a rally, for an arrest would mean that her children would have to suffer, with nobody managing the kitchen. “But now my children have grown up and so I feel that they will be able to manage the household if I am not around. Besides, they too understand what I am doing. So I have the complete support of my family today and that encourages me to travel on my own to far off places for my work,” Malti says.
The campaign against alcohol was a particularly challenging task, considering that people of the area feel that alcoholism is a personal matter that doesn’t warrant societal intervention. But it seemed to be the root cause of the violence that women were facing from their husbands. The sangathan once stood at Jashpur bus stand for 45 consecutive days to protest the sale of liquor in the villages. But on International Women’s Rights Day on March 8, 2010, the women from Gholeng panchayat managed to stop alcohol supply into the village for good. “We were having a meeting that day with women from many villages having congregated. Suddenly, we learnt of a truck bringing in illicit liquor. We surrounded the truck and found 30 litres of liquor being brought here. We threw it all and then took a collective vow to never let any alcohol enter this village. That was when we formed a squad of women who would be responsible to check on an entry of alcohol in the village,” says Malti, who says that her husband doesn’t drink alcohol, when such a query was placed before her. “He may drink when he is elsewhere, but he would never dare bring home alcohol or come home drunk,” she smiles.
After BHS was formed in 2006, the first district level meeting was held on June 19, 2006 for which about 700 people gathered together. Many senior and recognised people had promised to come, but none of them turned up because this was an event of the Dom people. So the Doms themselves inaugurated the function and began the programme. That gave the people enough confidence and made them realize that they need not rely on others.
Since they were never considered part of the mainstream system, they initiated their own elections. They made their own wards within the district, elected the mukhiya (head of village council) and sarpanch (village head). They managed to resolve local disputes through this system, rather than going to the police station or the courts. Each year, they have an election where they elect a president at the village, block and district levels.
The office bearers of this new panchayat are addressed according to the offices they hold, such as “Sarpanch jii” or “Mukhiya jii”. When the Doms began to address them with those titles, the people from the rest of the society also addressed them thus. So they began to feel a kind of dignity and self respect that they had never experienced before. However, not going to the established institutions like the police or courts is just a short term strategy till people feel confident enough to hold their own in those spaces.
Dudidhadh village in Kunkuri block – 60 kms from Gholeng – is where the seed of Prerna SHG was sown, and is still blooming slowly. Daadar Ram and his daughter Padma weave 2-3 shawls every winter day, and about 4-5 gamchas or scarfs during the summers. The small handloom unit, set up with a capital of Rs 30,000 invested by Mamta, is a kaleidoscope of colours and textures. Indeed, what is woven there is a matter of pride for the people of Kunkuri, and especially Mamta. The idea of the unit was to train women to learn the age-old art of weaving cloth, so that they can earn a livelihood from their produce. However, this ambitious dream is currently stumbling.
“I can teach anybody to weave in just a week. And I would not even charge my student a single penny for it. How can I charge someone for something which even I am still learning?” laughs Daadar Ram or Baba, as he is fondly called. Most of the raw material or the yarn is purchased from the neighbouring district of Raigarh. Once in the unit, the work begins and goes on till sunset. “My daughter Padma helps me in the weaving but there is so much more I would like to create. There is a lot of scope to do creative work here, but few hands mean more time, even for meagre work.” The father-daughter make a profit of Rs 100 for every shawl for which they may have invested about Rs.250-500.
“I think we should at least take a profit of Rs 120 per shawl, but my father is adamant that we should keep our products affordable. But it is not that we are not making sales – almost every other day we get orders from the nuns at the convent to make shawls for them, and nothing that we make during the day stays with us. We are doing well, but we can do better,” says 25-year-old Padma, who has three brothers and their wives to support and take care of the family, in addition to this small business.
“The rural folk are accustomed to the idea of being paid a stipend for any training they may undergo. Besides, the women feel that it is pointless to learn to weave, when they are already burdened with so much work. So it is becoming quite a task to try and motivate the women and girls to try their hand at weaving,” says an exasperated Mamta. “Just imagine what this business would do to the lives of the women here! They would have control of their own money. I know there is a good market out there in urban areas for such handloom shawls and scarfs. But a catalyst is needed to galvanise the women.” says Mamta.