Kumaribai Jamkata, one of the leaders of a collective of self-help groups (SHG) in Maharashtra's Gadchiroli district, is a busy woman. With the Assembly election due this month, she is reviewing a list of demands the group had submitted to government officials last year and says that none of them have been fulfilled so far.
"Our list addressed members' concerns regarding the implementation of welfare measures like the public distribution system and maternity benefit scheme, and the functioning of healthcare and education facilities, among others.
"It's important for society and the government to understand that the issues raised by women are the issues of the community as a whole," Jamkata says.
It's this principle that brought four SHGs in the Korchi and Kurkheda talukas together to form the Samuhik Mahila Bachatgat Parisar Sangha in 1996, as a way to consolidate and put forward difficulties faced by women in a single, resounding voice.
Today, the Mahila Parisar Sangha, comprising women from the Gond and Kanwar tribes, is 37 SHGs-strong, spread across 19 villages in both the talukas. Initially, the collective was formed to overcome roadblocks SHG members faced in dealing with bank protocol, but it has become a platform to empower women to claim their rights.
The collective's most important objective, Jamkata says, is to tackle "samajhik, arthic, raajkiya bhed-bhao (social, economic, and administrative discrimination)" against women.
"When an Adivasi man is fighting for rights, it's against the government. But when an Adivasi woman is fighting for her rights, it's against society and the government," says Shubhada Deshmukh of Amhi Amchya Arogyasathi, a Nagpur-based NGO which lends support to the Parisar Sangha's efforts for equality in tribal communities.
In accordance with its objective, the collective has fought for women to have an equal say in decision-making at the gram sabha and panchayat levels, and has demanded authority over non-timber forest produce (NTFP), which is a major source of income for families in insurgency-hit talukas.
One of the most significant steps the Parisar Sangha has taken is to deliver financial independence to women by ensuring that they have full control of, and access to the earnings received from selling the NTFP, especially tendu leaves.
Tendu leaves, the production of which is spread across the tribal districts of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand among other states, are used in making beedis. Tendu leaves are comparatively the most lucrative products from the forest.
The task of collecting NFTP from the forest and selling it is the woman's responsibility, however, Limi Devaji Naitam, a member of the Parisar Sangha, says that traditionally women would sell the produce 'in the name of' their husbands, fathers-in-law, or sons.
This meant that the money earned from selling tendu leaves — which can be as high as Rs 20,000 in a season — would go directly into the bank accounts of the male members of the family.
This was also a trend seen in the payment for employment generation schemes like MGNREGA, before one of the Centre's flagship programmes, the Jan Dhan Yojana that decreed that every individual will have her/his own bank account, was launched in 2014.
"The women did most of the work, but their husbands still had control over the income (from NTFP). Every time she needed money for the myriad household or general expenses, she was dependent on him and would have to make do with the amount she got," Naitam says.
But the situation has changed with the Parisar Sangha's appeal in 2016 before the Maha Gram Sabha, which is a body of 90 gram sabhas, to officially recognise a woman's right over her own income.
"The patriarchal setup has no scope for the woman to have authority over her own sampatti (wealth), so we needed to approach the Maha Gram Sabha to legitimise our demand, and they agreed. If we had done it without an official declaration, there would have been a lot of objections," Jamkata says.
Now, she says, at least three of the 19 villages have made a complete change in this regard. To tackle the issue of fraudulent transactions from private buyers, the gram sabha itself buys the produce from the women and sells it to vetted contractors.
The Parisar Sangha has also made progress in lobbying for equal decision-making rights in matters related to collecting, selling, record-keeping of the NTFP products in the gram sabha. The Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 gave the gram sabha complete control over the forest inhabited by the community under community forest rights (CFR) and habitat rights.
Representation in Maha Gram Sabha
The strategy of unifying over shared problems has also been adopted on a broader scale, with the creation of the Maha Gram Sabha in 2016.
An amalgamation of almost 90 gram sabhas in Korchi and Kurkheda, the group started as a male-majority decision-making body with the purpose of being a bottom-to-top watchdog and regulator of the implementation of FRA, and acting as a buffer against frauds and administrative mismanagement of the law.
"The Maha Gram Sabha was started with a focus on safeguarding FRA, and now our scope has widened into a movement against the proposed mines in the taluka," Jhanduram Salame, president of the Maha Gram Sabha says.
Among those at the forefront of the activities of the Maha Gram Sabha are women of the Parisar Sangha.
Jamkata and others have joined the committee as office-bearers after an appeal for 50 percent representation of women was made when the committee was formed two years ago.
Based on the provision in the Constitution for 50 percent reservation for women in institutions under the Panchayati Raj law, members of the Parisar Sangha started a dialogue with men in the Maha Gram Sabha, pitching to make the committee more inclusive and sensitive to women’s issues.
Although the collective's demand was met with objections at first, the women's perseverance in getting the resolution passed paid off, and now there are four representatives from every village — two men and two women apiece. The equal representation is seen at every level, from village to district.
"This is a significant leap because earlier, women were not even allowed to attend the meetings, let alone raise issues or hold office," Jamkata says, "Aata naavane nimantran detat (Now, they invite us for meetings individually)," she adds.
In addition to conducting audits on the functioning of facilities in education, healthcare, employment, welfare schemes, and the prohibition on alcohol, the women have created a credible and equal platform to discuss and tackle sexual harassment, and civil disputes like divorce.
"Crimes against women are a major area of work for the Parisar Sangha. More than anything, the objective is to lend a collective voice to a woman suffering domestic abuse or sexual harassment," Naitam says.
Picture this: Members of the Maha Gram Sabha, surrounded by 100-odd locals (largely men), hearing a lone woman’s case against a man; "How will she be able to present her case properly in such an intimidating environment? There is a systemic bias against her," Naitam says.
"A lot of men got away with crimes against women, from domestic abuse to sexual assault and even extramarital affairs, when women weren’t included in the meetings. The reigning mentality was that women are meant only for ‘chule’ (kitchen) and ‘mule’ (children)," Jamkata states.
The confidence drawn from this powerful support system is evident in Jamkata's voice when she adds: "Now, I can support my neighbour. If I know she is facing domestic abuse, I can back her story."
Decisive roles ahead of Maharashtra Assembly election?
As the state gears up for the Assembly election which, it could be argued, will be a referendum on first-time chief minister Devendra Fadnavis' government, members of the Parisar Sangha and the Maha Gram Sabha – both of which are influencers in their community – are, however, either non-committal towards any of the parties or have denounced all the parties in the fray altogether.
"It's a rule of the Parisar Sangh not to endorse candidates of any of the parties, but we make sure to hold the elected MLA accountable to our demands. We don't tell anyone whom to vote for, of course, but we also don't engage in discussions around the candidates with people in the run-up to the election," Jamkata asserts.
However, she lists the pros and cons of the current government. "The Parisar Sangha is happy with the administration because there is a noted difference in the perception of local leaders among government officials now. We are treated with respect and our inputs are given weightage," Naitam says.
The platitudes end there. Welfare schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY) which seeks to provide pregnant and lactating women with financial aid has not been implemented on-ground at all, they say.
"Poor and weak women truly in need of the aid are being greatly affected by the lax attitude of the administration in the disbursal of aid, with money under the scheme being given to them two years after their pregnancies," Jamkata says.
They further assert that the government has fallen way short in attempting to understand women's issues, and the culture and lives of the Adivasi community, and this affects governance as a whole. Pointing out that systemic discrimination against tribal communities is rampant in government offices, Jamkata says, "Aamchya dukkha la samjha, aamchya bhashe la samjha (Try to understand our troubles, our language)."
However, the Parisar Sangha doesn't seem to have completely given up on the BJP government yet. "Veda-vakda kutumb chalet, tasa sarkar pan chalte (Society under a government functions like a dysfunctional family, and we make do)," she grins.
The BJP, that has denied tickets to several incumbent legislators in its lists of candidates for polls in Maharashtra and Haryana, has fielded sitting MLA Krushna D Gajbhe from the Armori Assembly constituency, under which Korchi falls.
On the other hand, the Congress-NCP combine has fielded Anandrao Gedam.
Maharashtra will vote in a single-phase election on 21 October and results are scheduled to be declared on 24 October.
Updated Date: Oct 15, 2019 12:43:52 IST