It's 3pm and about 60 women are sitting under a huge mango tree in Chechali village, waiting for the meeting to start. This is the first time they have come together since last week’s mass action to stop contractors moving logs from the nearby forest. Scores of men and women from three neighbouring villages threw themselves in front of trucks and physically embraced logs to stop them being moved. The police arrived, tensions ran high and there were many arrests but fortunately no violence occurred.
Many of the women have their saris drawn well over their heads but their outward demureness vanishes when the group starts talking about the mass action. The women’s undisputed leader, Mandi. aged about 40 and already a grandmother, leads the discussion.
‘We will starve if they keep cutting down the trees. The forest gives us food, it gives us life,’ she says.
‘What surprised me most.’ says one, ‘was I no longer felt afraid of the police, with so many friends there too.
Chechali village lies in Santhal Parganas, a forested area of South Bihar. The forest trees have helped sustain the local people for centuries, providing a constantly renewable source of food and income. Right throughout the year the women can collect something of value from the forest. The leaves of the sal tree are made into plates and sold at shops in town. The flowers of the mawar tree are cooked and eaten or made into wine. Silk cocoons can be raised and sold at the market. Twigs and small branches are collected for firewood. But every year the forests become thinner and thinner. More and more precious topsoil is washed away by torrential down-pours. Not only is the land being eroded, but also the people’s economic base.
The government blames the people for indiscriminate tree felling but the main fault lies elsewhere. It has long been common practice for corrupt Forestry Department officials to collaborate with timber merchants and contractors in the plunder of the forests. The forces of law and order are lined up on the side of the destroyers of the trees and against the poor villagers who have relied on forest products for centuries.
Until the recent mass action the people of Chechali and the surrounding villages had offered little resistance to the pillage of their forests. Desperately poor, illiterate and totally unorganised, they simply did not believe their efforts could halt the destruction. But now they feel their pressure could make a difference. What has happened to change their minds?
It all started when Santu, a young man from Chechali, was selling a bullock at the market in Madhupur. Noticing a small dispensary selling homeopathic drugs, he decided to seek treatment for a cough that had troubled him for some time. The dispensary was run by an organisation with a rather grand name — Lok Jagriti Kendra (‘Centre for People’s Awakening’) — but the young man examining him was friendly and didn’t charge much for the small white pills he sold. They started chatting about various things and the dispensary man — Arvind Dharma was his name — casually asked whether he could visit Santu some time in his village. Santu was flattered and said yes, but didn’t really expect to see the dispensary man again.
To Santu’s surprise, Arvind turned up in Chechali a week later. What was more, he stayed two full days and organised a village meeting where people discussed their problems. Their main grievance was the wanton destruction of the forests by contractors with the connivance of government officials.
Arvind explained that Lok Jagriti Kendra was not just a dispensary but a group of 12 young men trying to help village people organise themselves for a fairer deal from society. A few people asked if Lok Jagriti Kendra could help them resist the exploiters of the forest. Well, they could try. Soon Arvind and his friends were visiting Chechali and other villages in the area, meeting people, listening to their grievances against the Forestry officials and contractors and gradually developing a strategy for dealing with the problem.
Lok Jagriti Kendra has no political affiliations but most members were involved as students in the ‘Bihar Movement’ led by Jayaprakash Narayan in the mid-1970s. Their approach to social issues is radical rather than reformist. In combatting deforestation, for example, they do not simply encourage people to plant more trees. Rather, they go to the root of the problem by helping people understand how deforestation is destroying their own economic base and encouraging them to work together to prevent corrupt contractors from felling trees.
To the ordinary citizen of Madhupur town or the average villager in the surrounding area. Arvind and his friends are simply good young men who concern themselves with the problem of poor people. Apart from running their homeopathic dispensary, they organise a night school and cultural activities, and also help poor villagers in their dealings with corrupt government officials or the police.
In the absence of progressive trade unions or political forces in the area, Lok Jagriti Kendra plays the role of a citizens’ organisation acting as a watchdog over the rights of common people. For precisely this reason they have made more than their fair share of enemies, but not being a foreign organisation they cannot be easily ejected. For the past three years, however, they have received funds from a British charity to pay their modest salaries and administrative expenses. There is regular contact between Lok Jagriti Kendra and the charity’s field office in Calcutta but the organisation is autonomous and its staff are not on the charity’s payroll. The relationship between aid donor and recipient has generally been marked by mutual respect and a sense of common purpose.
What has changed in the 40 villages around Madhupur where Lok Jagriti Kendra has worked for the past few years? First, many people have been mobilised to confront the main economic and social problems affecting their wellbeing. People now believe that by working together they have the power to change their own lives. That is a large step forward. There have also been tangible gains. By applying pressure to the previously insensitive government bureaucracy, the people have extracted some real benefits. These include a ‘social forestry’ scheme and a centre for training people in the scientific rearing of silk cocoons.
During last year’s drought the people organised themselves to benefit from the government’s drought relief schemes, which on previous occasions had failed due to inefficiency and corruption. Through regular meetings with fieldworkers from Lok Jagriti Kendra they realised that they could demand the right to work, the right to receive rations at fair prices, to have their villages declared a famine-affected area and to have drought relief schemes implemented without delay or corruption. The people pressed the government to take action and finally mounted an impressive dharna (demonstration) outside the Block Development Officer’s office. This was a unique experience for them and succeeded in winning them government-paid work constructing a new irrigation scheme.
They were thus able to survive the drought without too much hardship and finished up with an asset to improve agriculture in the immediate future.
In the longer term, however, the acid test of Lok Jagriti Kendra’s work is whether it can help poor people build up their own local institutions and leadership. The members know this and are trying to foster committees known as Majdoor Kisan Samities to mobilise and represent the interests of poor people — such as the landless and marginal farmers — at village level. Some committees are making progress but much more spadework is still needed. In the words of Mandi of Chechali village. ‘We must get many more of our brothers and sisters into this movement. People must understand why we need to work together. But we also need more discipline. Now we are just a large crowd. And a crowd is not an organisation —not yet anyway.’