The work done by voluntary and community-based organisations to make the Koraga community believe in itself and stand up for its rights has brought tangible outcomes
Planted across his one acre of land in Brahmavur village in Udupi district, Karnataka, are Dogu Koraga’s most prized possessions. These are 30 coconut trees, 30 banana plants, 30 areca nut trees and over 50 jasmine plants. In between grows sweet potatoes, brinjal, beans and bitter gourd. Rain or sunshine, Dogu is up at daybreak, tending to them lovingly. Not only does he water each plant himself after drawing water from the well, he only uses self-made manure.
“It is because of these trees that I am self sufficient today. I am not dependent on anyone, not even my sons,” said Dogu proudly.
Dogu’s journey towards self-sufficiency and dignity may not have been possible had he not been able to access his traditional land rights. Being a Koraga, a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG) and the most backward of all tribal groups in Karnataka, Dogu faced considerable social and economic deprivations, especially as the community is considered untouchable. Various legislations like the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963, and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, alienated the tribesmen from their sources of livelihood. Ousted from the forest land their ancestors had occupied for generations, the primitive tribal group eked its living from weaving baskets made from bamboo and forest creepers and manual scavenging.
What pushed the Koragas further back was the custom of anjal, wherein hair, nails and other inedible substances are mixed in food and given to them to eat by the upper caste in the belief that their troubles would, thus, be transferred to the Koragas. For generations, the community followed this inhuman custom. Food leftovers and old clothes thus given was the only way for survival.
But Dogu was able to stand up against anjal and rebuild his life, thanks to the Koraga Federation (comprising community members), Samagra Grameena Ashrama (SGA), a local community-based organisation, and ActionAid India, a not-for-profit working for the empowerment of the marginalised. Together, they were able to break the cycle of caste-based oppression and stigma faced by the Koragas like Dogu. They supported the community through a slew of measures to help them access their right to land and housing and become economically independent. The initiative has not only helped them restore their dignity but has also awakened the community to their right to education, health, nutrition and livelihoods.
Over the last 10 years, this intervention has helped secure nearly 49,000 acres of forest land — 47,000 acres under community forest rights and 2,000 acres under individual forest rights, in addition to 1,000 acres of agricultural land for tribal communities. Earlier this month, this remarkable accomplishment was chosen among 200 global initiatives as the 2019 Gold Award winner by World Habitat in recognition of the collective achievement by ActionAid, SGA and Koraga Federation to empower the community reclaim their rights and dignity. This annual award, given in partnership with the UN Habitat, honours transformative interventions that support the community to access their rights to land and housing.
Dogu became the first Koraga to benefit from this programme in Udipi district where 117 acres of land has been secured so far for the community. Dogu never thought his dream of cultivating his own land would come true. Like many others, he was reconciled to tilling somebody else’s land to earn a living. In 2003, when the Koraga Federation’s movement for lands rights led to the allocation of land in Udupi district, Dogu’s dreams came true.
It took him one year of hard physical work to make his piece of land, overrun by brambles and weeds, worthy of cultivation. Jasmine plants, given by the Federation, were the first to be planted. As the money earned through the sale of the jasmine flowers increased, Dogu planted vegetables, coconut, areca nut and banana. Once a daily wage labourer, Dogu made appropriate use of the land he was allotted. It is no wonder then that his is considered a model farm.
Ashok Shetty, SGA coordinator, who saw the land before it was given to Dogu, said not many of them had thought the transformation was possible. “The credit goes to Dogu. It was not easy to toil on this land without help. But Dogu showed it was possible and this is why others, who have received land, are encouraged to follow his example,” said Shetty.
Even Dogu believes that cultivating his land gave him the opportunity to become his own master. “This farm has given me so much. I may not have much savings but I also don’t have any debts. I am happy and live a life of dignity,” he stated.
Getting their own land has also been transformational for 45-year-old Shina and his 39-year-old wife, Mamta Koraga. For residents of village Kanjarkatte in Udupi district, the couple are a role model for the community. Not only have they used their land to turn around their lives but have equal decision-making powers, share the household expenses and even have separate bank accounts.
But it was not always so. Spending a part of his meagre income as a sweeper at a hotel on alcohol had pushed Shina further into indebtedness and poverty. Life took a turn for the better after the uneducated Shina became a part of the Koraga Federation in 1999. Not only was he able to overcome his alcohol addiction with their help but his incomes improved after he opted for jasmine cultivation, which offered livelihood rehabilitation. Although it took time, once profits made from selling the jasmine started trickling in, Shina ploughed a large part of his income back to improve cultivation. This helped increase production and boost profits.
His wife Mamta, who received training from the Government’s Integrated Tribal Development Programme under their livelihood scheme to make and sell costume jewellery, also pools in a part of her income. “Since both of us work now and share the expenses, I no longer need to take loans to make two ends meet as I did before,” said Shina.
Both are keen to give their three children a good life. They want to make sure that none of them are forced to follow the callous practice of anjal. Shina knows what effect it had on him as he had accompanied his parents to collect leftover food as a part of anjal rituals as a child and, later, as an adult. It was only after he became a part of the Federation that Shina became aware that anjal had been legally abolished under the Karnataka Koragas (Prohibition of Ajalu Practice) Act in 2000.
Although anjal and caste-based discrimination is technically illegal now, such practices continue where inequalities and prejudices remain. It has also been difficult for some to completely overcome the trauma. Although Shina still struggles at times with a feeling of inferiority born out the practice of anjal, his wife Mamta has been able to break these shackles. Having studied till Class 8, Mamta, who is also the secretary of the taluk Koraga committee, knows her rights, thanks to various awareness programmes initiated by the Federation and its partners, SGA and ActionAid India. This knowledge prompted her to register her four-year-old daughter at the local anganwadi and ensure her regular attendance. Although the only Koraga child in that anganwadi, Mamta’s daughter has not faced discrimination that her mother did when she went to school. Thanks to the enabling environment created by the Federation with the help of Mamta and other women of the community.
Community members like Dogu, Shina and Mamta are the backbone of the Koraga movement to end oppression, discrimination and stigma. The work put in by the Koraga Federation and its partners to make the community believe in itself and stand up for their rights has brought tangible outcomes evident in the land secured and advances in education, nutrition and gender equality. But the biggest achievement is their aspirations for a life of dignity and the determination to claim their rights. There is self belief within the community members that they can be the change. However long the journey, they are willing to walk.
(Writer: Swapna Majumdar; Courtesy: The Pioneer)