It was in this context that KHOJ began its work. In the beginning our focus was on understanding the region, the people and the problems. The approach was to learn from the people and share with them the learning’s that we had gained from our training, education and exposure.
Our stay in the villages took us closer to the people and the issues of the region. From lack of transport and communication, lack of information and education, ignorance, apathy and massive levels of corruptions not only in terms of finances but in terms of insincerity on jobs, exploitation in the name of access to forest resources, namesake participation rather misuse of people in development plans was what we were to deal with.
With whatever resources- both human and financial at hand, we also worked on our strategy to respond to the situation in a few villages of Chikhaldara block.
We focussed on transport and education as our entry point programmes ensuring that people were able to participate to the extent possible in raising demand for a bus service connecting them to the hospital and the block place, where all the government machinery could be found.
Ensuring health and nutrition facilities were available to the people, mainly children; follow up of the PDS, formation of grain banks, support classes for children, were some of the initial level programmes in the villages.
Later on formation of youth and women’s groups in the villages and their capacity building programmes were undertaken to ensure that their levels of information and participation in the village decision making increased.
The issue of forest land encroachment is prevalent in Melghat as any other tribal pockets of the country. Situations became tough when some villagers approached us with the issues of destruction of standing crops in the villages by Project Tiger Melghat. We were compelled to file a PIL to safeguard and protect people’s livelihood under various provisions of the same conservation rules and court guidelines that were used to evict them.
The petition protected entire tribal people of Melghat who were cultivating forestland pre 1980 and could prove it either through documentary evidence or through community declaration. Later the District Collector found about 1000 people’s claims eligible for regularisation and they were given Certificates for their land holdings. This is however not the end of their struggle. People use these certificates are not yet getting the 7/12 land document which is useful for seeking any other benefits from the government.
The sole means of earning for people is from agriculture which is rain fed and on a hilly terrain. We discussed with some people from a few villages the need to experiment conservation of natural resources like soil and water and to change the cropping pattern to see its impact. With support from DST and CASA we could demonstrate the improvement in the quality of yield.
In another village, we diverted one of the schemes of the state and developed the idea of community irrigation well. This provided the participants of the scheme with an opportunity to take two to three crops a year. Moreover this well also served as a source of drinking water to another parched village nearby.
Encroachment of land of tribals by other communities or by affluent tribals is an issue still untouched in Melghat. In certain cases in which people approached us, we were able to help them get the possession of their land. Several more are being worked on.
Capacity building programmes for women’s groups in the villages has helped in their more vocal participation in the village activity.
We have been a part of the process facilitating and participating in public hearings at village Bori for its resettlement outside the Melghat Sanctuary and in the Upper Tapi Dam public hearing in Melghat. Both the processes were undertaken with a firm belief in seeking the informed involvement of people in the development plans affecting them. People together voiced their concerns and demands during these hearings thereby ensuring that they were heard before any decision affecting them was undertaken.
Campaigns to ensure effective implementation of the EGS has ensured that the proportion of employment has increased and migration of people in search of jobs stopped in some areas of the region.
Youths are a major force for change. However the youth of Melghat is on cross roads. With the state planning to cut jobs and withdraw from service sectors, educated youths of Melghat are also jobless. The quality and nature of education does not promote development of any confidence in dealing with the joblessness. As a result most of the young people will be found in the villages. There are more mouths than hands to work at home.
We shared information, provided support, guidance, exposure and vocational training to some youths from Melghat. A few have dared to develop their own livelihood option as a means of ensuring a dignified life. Our youth intervention also ensured that there are improvements in facilities for youths for education and trainings.