Kashtkari Jan Andolan

Brief Background

Situated in the heart of India, Nagpur has has a long history of several social, cultural, political movements. In the early 90s when the new liberalisation policy was much talked about, the Indira Sagar dam on Vainganga river was inaugurated in 1988. It was initiated under the tribal sub-plan of the Sixth Five-Year Plan (1980-1985) of the Government of India, aimed at developing in particular the tribal region of the district of Chandrapur, situated in the command area. Its completion is expected by the end of the Eleventh Five-Year Plan, which makes it one of the oldest river-basin projects to be achieved, despite being of a comparatively small size if put in perspective with the heard-of infamous Sardar Sarovar or older dams such as Hirakud.

Vainganga river passes through the Gosikhurd village in the Pavni block of Nagpur district. The dam, to be bulit over three stages, is 11 kms long and its proposed height was 22.5 metres, whereas it currently stands at 29 metres. It was originally assessed that 22,258 hectares of land from 34 villages of Bhandara district and 51 villages of Nagpur district would be submerged by the dam. But it is evident that all the water is being routed out to the power plants and so there is no way that the water can be left for irrigation. As per the project estimates, around 81,623 people are going to be displaced due to the construction of this dam. Of these, 75 villages are such that not only the homestead but the agricultural land too, will be submerged. At the time when the dam was being built, the people were told that they would get Rs 16,000 per acre. According to today’s price index, the rate of the land currently stands at Rs 7 lakh per acre.


Kanta Madaame

Kanta Madaame (47) came to Nagpur from Amravati with her 3 children 12 years ago, after she could no longer bear the violence meted out to her by her husband. “Many people from villages would come to the city in search of work, and would end up as labourers. But today I am happy doing this work, even as compared to the work I would do on our farms. This feels more comfortable than working in the hot sun. Initially, people from my village would mock at me for my work. They would find it wrong to be washing someone else’s used utensils and clothes, and wash their homes. They’d rather prefer farming to such kind of work. When I began work, I was earning Rs 400 a month. Now I work in 7 homes and earn Rs 4,500 in all,” says Kanta, sitting in her home after a day’s work.

Kanta learnt about the Vidarbha Molkarin Sangathan through some other women working as maids, and today she is one of the key members in the sangathan. When the sangathan was formed about 15 years ago, through a struggle that began several years earlier, about 5,000 domestic workers had registered themselves as part of the sangathan. As of today, there are more than 1 lakh women as domestic workers who are part of the sangathan.

Kanta knows her reasons why the sangathan is so important for people like her. “We are not in a sangathan to earn money. We are here to show the government that this is about our identity as domestic workers. This is our profession. We too need our own policies and framework within which we will do our job. When people like us vote, the men and women become ministers thanks to us. But there is no change in our lives. We continue to beg for development and for our rights. In this country today, the poorest of the poor throng to the voting booths in large numbers to vote. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that today only the poor vote to elect a government. Politicians lead the poor the greed for alcohol, food, money, saree, and that’s how they lure people in slums to vote for them. I work in big houses and so I know that people living in bungalows do not vote. After all, nobody bribes them to vote. They know the dirty game of politics, but the poor are unaware. They still believe that the men and women they elect would truly bring about change in their lives. During the time of campaigning, politicians would spend at least a lakh, if not more, in wooing the people. They will earn back that money easily, but the promises made are left unfulfilled. They like to talk in a way to motivate people, by saying that every house has a leader, and the potential of that leader has to be tapped. But these are all lies and part of a large scam,” she asserts.

Kanta remembers the initial days of struggle to get the sangathan registered. “Finally, after many dharnas and morchas, we were granted the permission that there will be a framework and law within which our work come under. Among our demands are increments every year, deduction of PF, 4 days leave every month, Diwali bonus, an insurance card for health, and BPL card for all of us. But none of that is on paper as yet, but I am sure we will get there soon,” she smiles.

Kanta claims that she doesn’t leave from work when even she is ill. “I save the leave days for the times when there are programmes of our sangathan. They are much more important to me, as only I understand the kind of strength and courage I have received from this sangathan. Also, I would earlier get just 2 days’ leave, but I fought it out with my employers and managed to earn myself 3 days’ leave. I am also very good at my work. I do not give anybody a chance to complain. But even after my work if they pick faults, then I fight back. I have also lost many jobs because nobody wants a maid who would fight back. But I am ready to lose my job rather than losing my soul. I know what makes me and so I’d fight for my soul.”

She leaves home just before 9am and gets back home by 6.30pm. “This is how I managed to educate my children and get my daughter married. My elder son is studying in Delhi now, preparing for UPSC exams, while the younger one lives with me. I am happy to feel so empowered today and with my earnings, I have managed to buy this little home for us, in these slums of Indira Nagar,” she says, offering tea.

“I also owe my ways of savings to my previous employer. She explained to me the essence of saving and helped me open a bank account. Those were really tough days, but thanks to her encouragement, I managed to buy the craggy hut, which I later made into a concrete house,” Kanta remembers.

In the sangathan today, women register with an annual fee of Rs 25. About 100 women come forward as volunteers for any of the programmes that are organised – Savitribai Phule Jayanti or Ambedkar Jayanti or even International Women’s Rights Day. “And women who are part of our sangathan are more than willing to leave their work for a day and come for these programmes, where there is more discussion about our rights as women and housemaids. There is a sense of unity and oneness during such meets. Nagpur has about 400 slums and the women part of our sangathan come in from all of these slums.:

The sangathan is also vociferously promoting education for the girl child in the basti. “Strangely, it would often be the women asking us what would education result. Their main question would be whether education would get their daughters jobs earlier. I would then tell them that this is not about getting them their jobs, but it is more to learn to be street-smart – something that every woman ought to be to survive in this mean world. The other issue engulfing our bastis is the problem of alcoholism among the men, and the resultant violence. I have often beaten men who have been drunk and would misbehave with their wives. On so many nights, I would shelter these women till the morning – it could empathise with them as I have been through it all, and there were so many times that I too longed to run away from my abusive husband. We would also then lobby with the cops so that they would take cognizance of their abuse towards their wives,” says Kanta.

There are three distinct photographs in Kanta’s house – those of Babasaheb Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule. “I derive a lot of my strength from Babasaheb Ambedkar, and not from any set religion. He was one man who defied all odds as a Dalit, and it is thanks to him that today I and so many other women are able to earn a living by having gained entry into other people’s homes. He is someone who conveyed to us the value of education. Although I had never been to a school all my life, I ensured to get my children educated. And when my elder son grew up and realised the hardships that I had to face in order to raise them, he got me enrolled into a school. Today, I have a certificate with me with states that I successfully cleared my fourth class exams,” she grins shyly.

Gosikhurd Prakalpgrast Sangharsha Samiti (GPSS)

When Bhongade visited the villages in Bhandara district to be submerged by the dam, he found that the people were not much aware of the implications of the village. After a tour of 4-5 days around the villages, he realised that people were taken aback by a stranger frequenting their village. “I began to organise small sabhas and then the people’s questions began to pour in. The questions were mostly about land. The land on which the people lived was originally owned by kings and princes, while the farmers were just considered to be living off those lands. So this brought about a class divide among the people – as the landlords and the landless,” he says.

There were also issues of inheritance rights on the lands. A notification was then issued in 1993 with regards to the sale and purchase of land, which stated that nobody could trade the land which would be submerged by the dams. At the same time, no developmental work – new roads or health centre – was to be undertaken by the government in those villages to be affected by the dam, simply because the government believed that there would be no more people living there. The other question was about the compensation for the people being displaced, because there was no clarity on that front. So these were the concerns that came to the fore during the various discussions, and based on these points, a large congregation was planned. Then the officials came to measure and assess the land. The officials also have a cunning tactic whereby they would measure just few acres of land from this village, and some land from another village, and so on. So this would have led to some rift among the villagers. But the people got together to form a movement only after 1996, when a large congregation was organised in the village of Salisari and people discussed their issues. Then by 1998, the association strengthened with more villages.

Unique Ways of Protest

“In 1999, we had the first large-scale morcha in Nagpur. Prior to this morcha, there were demonstrations in many villages, at some with also the torch of fire. So after February 22, 1999 till date, we have been taking out about 3-4 large scale rallies every year. So we then found out that from 1999 to 2001, the government was clueless about any rehabilitation plan for the people, although the work for the building the dam had slowly begun,” says Bhongade.

In the earlier days of the struggle, the price of the land was decided by the government to be Rs 10,000 per hectare. When more information began to be revealed, it began to anger more people and they further got together for discussion and struggles. “In 2000, we began to have face-to-face discussions with the administration, and not just in their office cabin, but in big halls where the large number of villagers could congregate. After the large rally in Nagpur in 1998, we had a meeting with the Irrigation Department in a large hall. Everyone tried to put forth their complaints, and they somehow found the courage to question the officials: what are your plans for the dam? What is the rehabilitation plans for us? What benefits will we get? On what basis would you decide the value of your land and our house? What will be the value of our doors and windows and trees in front of our house? So this was the meeting with the officials from both Bhandara and Nagpur districts, which also saw the present of the District Collectors. At that time, the BJP-Shiv Sena coalition was the ruling party in the state. Nitin Gadkari, who was the Irrigation Minister then, was compelled to organise a meeting to offer the government’s balm to us, but he did not let me speak during the meeting. I leaked this news to the media, that this meeting was a mere farce. So we organised a similar meeting in Bhandara also, but there too I wasn’t allowed to speak. People began to see what was happening, and slowly, even they managed to get strength to talk and question openly. Earlier, they did not even know where the Block office was! At least today, when the karyakartas go, the Tehsildar offers him to sit. So at every level, we got people to be together and would organise rallies, etc. In 1998 alone, after the rally on February 22, we had another on March 14. Then on the night of April 22 of the same year, we gheraoed the entire dam area with fire torches in our hands. The cops had prevented some people from coming to that rally across the river. So we sat by the river all night,” remembers Bhongade.

Then political parties also came forward to support the movement, but Bhongade and the people of the villages continued to organise their rallies, often in unique ways. “Everyone talks of compensatory land and compensation for the house, as also jobs for their children. These are common demands. But nobody has given a thought about the cattle belonging to a farmer and hence there are no demands made for the same. Nobody questions what would happen to the cattle when the farmer would be rendered landless. There is no talk about his large farming equipments – he can either burn them or dispose them. Similar is the outlook towards the cattle too. So with the demand that the new space allocated for the displaced people should also have an area as grazing land for the cattle, we organised this rally with the cattle. We also demanded that there should be drinking water source for the cattle, and hence at least 2 acres of land should be allocated for the cattle,” explains Bhongade, the rationale behind such a rally.

“We had asked all the people to get their cattle to graze close to their homes on the day of the morcha. We also had bullock-carts that came in from Patri village, which is 5 kms from the dam. Some people also brought along the stray dogs which they had been taking care of. There were at least 500 animals – with cows and bulls leading the march, followed by buffaloes, then goats, then 18 decorated bullock carts, dogs, and then about 400 people. Some people were seated in the bullock carts, while many others were walking along with their animals. But the administration had appointed a new special squad to manage the security during the rally. This was for the first time even for Nagpur that such was a squad was appointed and their trial test was during our rally. We had also never seen this squad in its blue uniform. We had invited Justice Wahane to flag off the rally Patri village to the dam, which is a distance of 7 kms. Most of the animals had joined from Menda village which lies adjacent to the dam, as many animals would not have been able to walk for such a long distance. And the police officials from all three districts – Nagpur, Bhandara and Chandrapur – were present to oversee the law and order during the rally. There were mixed reports the next day in the press. While some appreciated this unique protest, some others claimed that it wasn’t right for us to protest the dam, and thus development. Many people also began to use this incident as an anecdote in their speeches. The day after the rally, the MP from the area, Ramtek Madhasan also called me up to ask the purpose behind such a rally. I remember that I replied to him that I am a resident of a village and that I am aware of the concerns of the village folk. He then said that it never clicked to him that this could also be an issue that needed to be raised,” says Bhongade, with his face brightening as he describes the successful rally.

“We had another rally of about 100 motor boats on the Vainganga river. The boats rallied for about 10 kms. On one shore of the river is Nagpur district and on the other is Bhandara. So the cops from both these respective districts were also moving along the shore, just as we moved ahead. We had invited the Tehsildar to take our memorandum, but he never turned up. Finally at 11pm, the Collector arrived for negotiations. We all had joined the two shores by holding our hands while still on the boat. This gave out a strong message to the administration. In this way, we had several rallies either on the dam or on the river. We also had a rally in the cremation ground, with the question about our cremation ground in the new place where we would be rehabilitated. We had invited the officers to the cremation ground to take our memorandum. It would so happen that on one end, corpses were burning while we were shouting out our slogans in the other end of the cremation ground. We conducted such a rally about 2-3 times,” he says.

“Another demonstration that we organised was to light 1,000 mud stoves with firewood on the dam. People brought grains and vegetables from their own homes and cooked food together. There had been an announcement that the water would be collected. Our stand was that without any rehabilitation, where would we go and settle ourselves. So we decided to mark a statement that we would establish our lives at the dam’s doorstep. We had told all the village folk to get their own material from home. So while people from different villages had grouped themselves together, it was a fantastic sight to see so many people cooking and eating together,” Bhongade remembers.

As a form of protest, we also shaved our heads on a mass platform, on the dam. About 500 men shaved their heads there, over a period of 10 days, beginning with the children and then moving to the senior men. It was a spectacle for the media.” Bhongade sure knows how to get the attention of a media haggard with dam and displacement issues.

Rallies would also be taken onto the streets in Nagpur city, in front of the Assembly Hall, and have meetings with the CM and other ministers, with people invited from other states, as well as renowned people, to gain that strenght and solidarity. “As a result, the administration had to pay heed to what we were asking for. We also raised the urban issues of education and health, before schools and hospitals. We had also conducted a health survey.”


The houses demarcated as those falling under revenue land were the only ones that were liable to receive compensation, and not the others which fell just on the border of the villages – they were labelled as encroachers. “So we raised this issue too and sent in a memorandum for at least 1,000 such houses which were claimed to have not been in revenue records, and who would hence not be liable to receive compensation. In 2004, when Vilasrao Deshmukh was the CM, he summoned for a discussion on this issue in the House, and I argued for this issue. Then those 1,000 families – spread over several villages – were also considered for compensation. We also sent in a memorandum to get youths enrolled into training for ITI courses, as well as consideration for loans, etc. The administration then also determined a package to train youths in different fields.”

“We also found out that the compensation received was not enough to erect a house. There were some families who came under the BPL bracket and they wouldn’t have had the monetary capacity to make their houses. So just 6,000 claimants of the compensation were adjudged to receive some more money, but we protested stating that everybody was liable to get more money.”

Bhongade feels that the increasing value of the dam should also be considered while determining the rehabilitation package. Then the other issue is that of unemployment. “We had a meeting with the CM on May 10, 2010, and he said that the government would not be able to provide jobs to each and every youth from every family, and would hence instead provide a cash compensation of Rs 5 lakh. At the same time, he said that farmers and those working as labour help would be provided the remuneration of work of 750 days and 125 days, respectively. So all of this new provisions that have been made are a result of the decade-long struggle of the people – it is quite an achievement that today the people are discussing their issues directly with the CM.”

It was originally assessed that 22,258 hectares of land from 34 villages of Bhandara district and 51 villages of Nagpur district would be submerged by the dam. “But now, about 33,000 hectares of land would be submerged. So we were not informed about this, and the Irrigation Department ought to clarify this. On the other hand, 2.6 lakh hectares of land would be irrigated while the earlier reports stated that 1.99 lakh hectares of land would be irrigated. But it is evident that all the water is being routed out to the power plants and so there is no way that the water can be left for irrigation. So when the original land area was to be irrigated and that never happened, how is it possible that more land would be irrigated thanks to this dam? This is the prime issue – the issue of rehabilitation comes much later. So it is evident that the planning was all sketchy. The irrigation work was to take place over three phases, but in the first phase itself they bungled it all up, with water already entering the villages to be rehabilitated in the third phase,” Bhongade elaborates.

The price of the land has increased only in the last 5 years, and earlier, the sum of Rs 10,000 still had a lot of value. But as time elapsed and the struggle was strengthened, the value of the land also went up. The land can today be valued at Rs 1 lakh. The criteria for assessing the value of the land is based on the land buying-selling patterns in that particular village, and also based on the amount mentioned in the government’s ready reckoner. So while the value of a particular land in the market would be about Rs 3 lakh, the government is offering just Rs 80,000. The calculations of the compensation to be offered is based on some laws made by the British in 1894 and there are different brackets of compensation. The people are being displaced today, but the compensation that they received was a long time back, based on an amount of that time too. So if the dam had been built and completed at that time, then it would have been right for us to take the compensation amount and keep quiet about it. But because the dam is still being built and its cost and value is still increasing, our question is about why the value of our land and our lives is not increasing at a similar rate. So we have been requesting for a new special package.”

So as of now, the government has given a cash compensation. Last year, a package of Rs 152 crore was sanctioned which comprised four points: Rs 68,500 to build new house to all; amount to set up a shop for every 25 people; an interest on the amount for the time that elapsed between announcing the compensation amount and the actual time when it was given; Rs 10,000 towards vocational training for all youths. It was also decided that those who had received training until now or those who were undergoing training currently or those who would be undergoing training in future, they would be receiving Rs 10,000. This training amount is meant for anyone who would be taking up courses in welding or nursing or ITI.

There is a provision for government jobs, 5 per cent of which is to be allocated to those displaced by government projects. An amendment was made to this provision three years ago, whereby 3 per cent of the 5 per cent of jobs would be reserved for those affected by earthquakes. But with so many dam projects in Maharashtra related to irrigation and electricity, which means so many more displaced people, the 2 per cent reserved for them would mean nothing. Explains Bhongade, “So we suggested that every family should get Rs 10 lakh instead of the job. During the same meeting of May 10, 2010, the government agreed to pay Rs 5 lakh for any youth whose family is a victim of the displacement due to the dam. A second meeting took place on August 10, 2010, in the Mantralaya in Mumbai with the Rehabilitation Minister. There it was decided that this new package would be disbursed as per the Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy of 2007, because in February 2009, this dam was declared as a national dam, and hence all the funds further required for the completion of this dam will be furnished by the Central government. So we insisted that since we would be displaced after the dam has been declared a national one in 2009, the policy of 2007 should also be implemented for our rehabilitation. We also demanded cash amount of 750 days of labour for farmers, and cash amount of 725 days for farmers hired to work on other’s farms. Once we get these two packages, that would be our ultimate success.”

Our Forest, Our Life

The work of the Kashtkari Jan Andolan also extends to the implementation of the Forests Rights Act of 2008. The efforts have been on in 37 villages of Umred block and 42 villages of Bhivapur block of Nagpur, and 22 more villages of Nagpur which border Wardha. This area is mostly inhabited by the Gond and Mana tribes. Ever since the notification issued by the government that people ought to file in their applications to claim their part of the forest land, several people have been doing the needful. Significantly, 6 people from Nangaon village and 4 people from Iraya village – both falling under Vibhapur block – had received their land pattas (deeds). But, there have been instances, claimed Eknath Gajbiye, that the officers in the Revenue Department have been demanding bribes so that these people could handed over their ‘saat-baaras’ (the papers which would mention further details about the measurement of the land, etc.). “The Pardhi tribe, which is currently residing in Mandwa village, has been a nomadic one always. They therefore do not even have the ST status, which could make them beneficiaries of the FRA, because it demands proof in documents, of 75 years of residency. But people would leave their villages in vast numbers during epidemics and floods. So how were they supposed to know that they should have claimed some papers that would testify to their claim on land?” asks Gajbiye, who has been associated with KJA since some time now. He is a resident of Alesur village of Vibhapur tehsil, and has to rely on his family’s earnings from their work on the farm, to support himself. Gajbiye trots around the villages on a bike given to him by Bhongade.

Gajbiye has been responsible for getting the people from this area to trust him and the sangathan, with their paper work. But this hasn’t been an easy task. “Earlier people wouldn’t trust us when we would tell them about FRA and their need to file in applications to claim their land. They had seen many political parties come in and go, promising them heaven and more, without any straw of development in sight. This was even ironic because this area has the maximum number of leaders from different political parties. So it was tough to get the people to realise that we had entered into their lives, only to help make their lives a little better. So we began with getting the people to claim a higher wage for the collection of tendu leaves, as also to claim for a bonus if they exceeded in their set targets. Slowly, when they saw that we indeed had no vested interest in getting them their own rights, they began to listen to us patiently. Additionally, we have been working to get the poor their BPL cards and there has been some success in that sphere,” said Gajbiye.

Vibhapur is the last tehsil in Nagpur district, before one could enter Wardha, through Khursapar village. This village, which comes under Dhamangaon Panchayat of Samudrapur tehsil in Wardha district is inhabited by 120 families, of which 51 families have been tagged as encroachers over forest land, while 20 other families do not have any land of their own. And taking up the case of these 71 families is Subhash Adkine, whose family doesn’t own any arable land of their own. There is just one primary school that caters to the children for all the five villages of the entire Panchayat. The nearest middle school and PHC are 17 kms away; a sub-centre of a PHC is 8 kms away.

Subhash first learnt about FRA a year ago through Bhongade, who had meandered into a nearby village to talk to the people about their rights over their land. “I have studied only until the 12th. But when I heard Bhongade speak, and invited him to come to our village too, I kept thinking to myself, ‘If this man can come to help us all the way from Nagpur, why can’t we do something on our own too?’ I realised that someone would have to lead the people here, and since I too have been a victim of the government’s various policies that do not translate into real work, or policies that are out to grab our land, I decided to lead my own people,” says Subhash, who works on other people’s farms as labour to earn a living.

The struggle to get his people to know about their rights over forest land begun with the realisation that even the Tehsildar was unaware of the FRA! But considering that there is no newspaper reaching this remote village, it was surely a gigantic task for Subhash to get people to understand the issues being discussed in the neighbouring district or in country, or in the world. “Among other challenges was my own lack of confidence and the fear of not being able to do the work well. This is a work that requires a lot of commitment and there is no room for mistake, else people would mistrust me. There were many who thought that I had taken up this work to kill time, and was trying to be famous. But I guess I will win my credibility when I am able to get some pattas delivered to the people,” says Subhash, in an exasperated yet hopeful way.

During a meeting set up among the villagers and Bhongade, a plaque mentioning the efforts of KJA was unveiled in the village square. The plaque bore phone numbers of people who could be contacted for any help. While speaking to the people about the need to struggle, Bhongade emphasised on the work undertaken by Subhash and urged the people to look beyond the petty matters of one’s qualification to do the work. “Do not make your movement a person-centric one; rather, let it be led by your collective issues, and your demands for a better life,” he said.

When asked if the he considered his village to be a developed one, Subhash replied in the negative. “It is only when we would be able to have a claim over our land, by having a grip over our documents and pattas that we can consider ourself to have progressed, for that would mean that we can fight for our rights and win our struggle,” he asserted.