Ordinary Dreams, Extraordinary Circumstances

By Amnesty International India
24 August 2018 3:33 pm

Manohar Chauhan, Senior Campaigner, interviewed Rebati Chhatria, the woman who’s standing up for Adivasi rights.

Adivasi communities in India traditionally rely on their lands and forests for their livelihoods. However, they have suffered from development-induced displacement and environmental destruction. Authorities have repeatedly failed to seek the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous Adivasi communities prior to land acquisition, conduct meaningful public consultations on environmental concerns, and process forest rights claims.

On 15 February, we travelled to Sundergarh district in northwestern Odisha to conduct a two-day legal awareness meeting to help Adivasi communities understand their rights under national law and international human rights standards.

There, we met Rebati Chhatria, the 25-year-old Adivasi Sarpanch (elected head) of Saghumunda Gram Panchayat in Sundergarh. When she addressed the meeting, in front of more than a 100 people, it seemed like she was born to be a leader. But, before she became Sarpanch, Rebati had ordinary dreams. She had completed her MBA and landed a job at a reputed bank in New Delhi. However, her community had different plans for her. They saw her as a leader, who would be capable of defending the rights of the community and representing their concerns before relevant authorities. And thus began Rebati’s journey.

How did you become the Sarpanch?

I was settled in my work-life and otherwise in Delhi. But my community called upon me to contest for the position of Sarpanch in the Panchayat elections. While I was apprehensive initially, the memory of our continued struggle against land acquisition of our village Kiripsira and 13 other such villages, for the past 20 years, inspired me to take up the role.

How did people perceive you when you first took on the role of Sarpanch?

The female Sarpanch in our blocks are assumed to be mute participants in meetings, while their male counterparts dominate. They expected me to be the same and to be dependent on others to do my job. However, once I took office, I made my priorities clear. Today, I try to encourage all the women from the community, and participants in our meetings, to actively engage.

Development is being defined somewhere else and executed here without taking into account its impact on the locals. Someone might be benefiting from the development but at the cost of many communities. In short term it looks good but in long run we are losing our village, community, land, ancestry and legacy.

Has the perception changed after one and a half years?

I realised the extent of faith my community has invested in me when they chose me to represent them before various official committees formed to negotiate compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement of the communities affected by coal mining. These meetings are difficult to participate in, as they are controlled by company and government officials. They seldom hear the demands and grievances of an affected community. Their focus is to try and influence the community leaders/representatives present there, in favour of themselves. But, I have remained true to the confidence my community has shown in me. I speak on behalf of my Panchayat.

What are the challenges that the Adivasis of Saghumunda face?

Most of the people here are unaware of several progressive laws meant for us. In spite of being educated, even I was unaware of the Adivasi protective laws such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act until I attended the legal awareness workshop by Amnesty International India. These laws are either bypassed by government officials or are being violated. People here need to understand that according to the law, all our resources – land, forest and water bodies, etc., are not sarkari; they belong to the community.

Can you give us an example of how people have been affected by the lack of legal awareness?

For example, the officials don’t issue legal documents despite us filing claims for our right to live on and from the forest; they even cancel existing documents arbitrarily. On the other hand, companies receive forest and environmental clearances even without the consent of the village councils (gram sabha).

How has life changed due to development activities in Sundergarh?

We witness the impact of coal-mining every day in the neighbouring Hemgiri tehsil – pollution, loss of agricultural land, health issues and loss of livelihood have affected us. This is unstoppable. The development is not well-informed development; this is induced development. Development is being defined somewhere else and executed here without taking into account its impact on the locals. Someone might be benefiting from the development but at the cost of many communities. In short term it looks good but in long run we are losing our village, community, land, ancestry and legacy.

With the entry of companies, access to forests and cultivable land will be unthinkable. Even if we get compensation, we will never be able to purchase the same amount of land in the same area for cultivation.  This needs to be seriously considered.

How has the constant struggle affected you?

Many a time I get fed up of the way the company people function, and the ways the administration wants to convince us to comply with companies. At those moments, I feel like going back to Delhi. But then, I think of my people and start working again.

More importantly, I think other Panchayat leaders should also know of our rights and should implement the pro-Adivasi community laws in their area and benefit from these protections.

​The article originally appeared in Engage magazine, the quarterly member magazine of Amnesty International India.