Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Traffic Jam That Was Not

After walking hundreds of kilometres, an Adivasi rally arrives in Mumbai. PRIYANKA BORPUJARI tells their story — of a historic victory and a brush with urban callousness

ON 14 MARCH, about 20,000 Adivasi women and men from all over Maharashtra walked hundreds of kilometres, across the state, to Shivaji Park in Mumbai. The next day, they began their march to Azad Maidan. They had been walking for two weeks. And now, finally, they were in the capital: 20,000 tired but determined protestors of the Jungle Haq Sangharsh Yatra.

For urban spectators, the rally would have been remarkable for its size and spectacle; but mostly all they saw was jammed traffic and delayed transit. Few seemed to care what the march was really about. Even a prominent news daily saw it fit to report on the traffic jams and inconvenience to urban Mumbaikars without looking wider or deeper. The truth is, this massive rally of Adivasi people, far from being beaten into dispersal, as is often the case with protest marches, was escorted by non-aggressive police. And surprisingly, in the searing 38-degree heat, several MLAs in immaculate white accompanied the marathon walkers into Azad Maidan. Was this a rare moment of people’s power peacefully gaining a firm handle on a government ready to run for cover?

It was the Maharashtra government’s neglectful and callous attitude towards the implementation of the Forest Rights Act of 2006, which had seeded this strong and spectacular protest. The Act had promised to rectify decades of injustice, and validate the right of Adivasis over the land and forest that they have lived in for generations. However, negligible justice has been delivered since. Of the 2.88 lakh forest land claims that had reached the Sub-Divisional Level Committees, 1.7 lakh had been rejected. Further, the average area of approved claims (0.63 hectares) was not even 50 per cent of an economic holding. Many of the “approved” cases bear closer examination; an Adivasi may be in possession of 3 acres of land, have half an acre ‘approved’ and still face eviction from the remaining 2.5 acres.

Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan had apparently earlier requested that the rally should not enter Mumbai. This may have pleased harassed urbanites complaining “protests must happen without inconveniencing the common man”; it seemed no matter that the protesting common man — the Adivasis, rooted to their land for generations — had been indefinitely deprived of their very right to life and livelihood.

However, the Chief Minister had offered to meet the protestors twice and subsequently the Yatra’s representatives were invited to a long meeting with the Chief Minister, Deputy CM, six other ministers and several senior bureaucrats. This high-level political engagement was finally recognition of the determination of the Adivasi protest. The Chief Minister and Chief Secretary agreed that there was injustice in the large-scale rejection of the Adivasi claims to their land and that a review process was required. The Chief Secretary pointed out that there was no procedure for reviewing rejected claims. The political contingent tried to persuade the rally to withdraw their protest, vowing action would be taken. But this proved too vague a promise. The rally would continue in its journey for justice. In Thane on 11 March, the Minister of State for Tribal Development Rajendra Gavit arrived to address the tribals — and also persuaded them to return home. But no one was ready to stop walking. Not until they had been heard. Ulka Mahajan of Sarvahara Jan Andolan, a participating group, said, “Tribals have been on these so-called forest lands for more than a century, long before the government came into existence. But still the lands are not in their name. Sixty years after independence, this is historical injustice. The Act was brought about to undo this injustice. However, it is not being implemented due to several interests involved. Now we hope that there will be the political will to right the wrongs.”

IT WAS in this mood of mountain-moving focus that the rally arrived in Mumbai to assert ‘Adivasi asmita’ or tribal identity in a gargantuan system that barely accounted for their existence. Although jaded and jolted by the city, the tribals persistently coloured Mumbai’s streets with their caps and flags. Led by women holding a banner, the Bhute dancers from Nandurbar and Mawchi tribesmen followed. In the spectacle of painted bodies, turbans with feathers, waists decorated with strings of dried gourd and ghungroos, a sea of banners from participating organisations surged across the urban landscape; slogans emanated from a loudspeaker on a truck. This procession was followed by about 10,000 women rallyists.

Disciplined, the walkers did not veer off their files. When people attempted to cross the road, the women chased them down. “We have been walking for 14 days to talk to the government. Why can’t you respect our wishes?” yelled Raju. However, the walkers did not disconnect from their innate integrity; they waited for a funeral procession to pass. “We are walking for our lives; they are walking for the dead. We cannot be disrespectful,” said Kalawati from Dahanu. Raju stopped the men he was leading to allow school children to cross the road. Many watched from their balconies — a tide of people, some barefoot, braving the burning asphalt of the JJ Flyover.

Sunni from Nandurbar, whose land claim had been rejected, asked with bemusement, “Why do they say you get everything in Mumbai?” Sunni’s sojourn in Mumbai convinced her that it was a place without clean water. The drinking water tanker in Shivaji Park had emanated a strong stench. With the crush for bathrooms, very few could bathe before heading out for the rally. “Walking from our villages, we passed small rivers where we bathed. Along the way villagers offered us water to drink and freshen ourselves. But there is no water facility in Mumbai,” said Anitabai, an old woman wearing thick spectacles.

But it was not just the lack of common resources or generosity in the city that struck the Adivasi protestors. It was the general lack of human engagement. Humabai Gavit, who had been leading the rally, wiped her face as photographers obstructed the walkers near CST station, at 2 pm. One journalist asked rather inanely, “Isn’t it tough to walk in this hot sun?” Humabai smiled, “We work in the sun everyday. We don’t enjoy it, but how will we survive otherwise?” She was too dignified to jeer at the journalist. Is that all they could question, the discomfort of the sun?

This massive yet peaceful assertion of people’s power had effectively pitched a marginalised issue into high-level political discourse; it had urged the police and security infrastructure to allow a large and sensitive protest like this march across a metropolis; an entire community valiantly fights an uneven battle… and the question is about the inconvenience of walking in the sun?

The rally being allowed to wend its way across Mumbai was in itself a rare concession. The Congress-NCP government still carries the acrid hangover of the 1994 Gowari stampede: 120 people from the Gowari tribe had lost their lives while walking towards the Nagpur Vidhan Bhavan, which led to the collapse of the Sharad Pawar-led Congress government. Yet, this rally was not only allowed, but dignified with political engagement. The Opposition moved an adjournment motion in the Budget Session of the Assembly on the morning of 15 March. At 3 pm, a delegation of 50 Adivasis were invited to meet the Chief Minister. After hectic negotiations, it was agreed the Tribal Welfare Ministry would draft exhaustive guidelines to ensure that the rejection of claims was not speedy, furtive or without due process. More importantly, through these guidelines, rejected claims can now be reviewed several times — a historic first, anywhere in India.

By the evening, the resolute journeyers — exhausted but victorious — began to make their way home, back into the green forests. Mumbai looked on from cars and balconies; untouched, but perhaps not unmoved.