The people here say this village was once lush green. “We have lived with nature and have always fulfilled our needs from it,” says Addya Mota, a marginal farmer and Adivasi elder. “But the forest became barren after the bajariya [modern humans] came here and we have become dependent on the market.”
Addya Mota is one of 312 Bhils in this village of 62 households. Their forests were denuded due to indiscriminate logging for industrial and other interests in the cities of Gujarat.
Another Adivasi elder, Bava Mahariya of Jalsindhi village, says: “We have always conserved the forest and used only as much as we needed. We have never exploited the forests as they are our only habitat and life.”
The Bhils had for long cultivated forest land, but most of them have been dispossessed by the state’s forest department after 1957, when these areas became ‘reserved forests’.
The Indian Forest Act (1927) provides for a legal process to settle the land claims of farmers when their area is declared a reserved forest. However, the forest department, taking advantage of the Adivasis’ unfamiliarity with these laws, cheated them of their land. As a result, many Bhils could no longer cultivate their ancestral lands.
In 1987, they formed the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath – Addya Mota is a member – to fight for their rights and began cultivating again. This led to a long battle, which culminated in the enactment of the Forest Rights Act in 2006. Since 2008, several thousand Adivasi households in Alirajpur have got titles to their ancestral forest land as a result of this struggle.
Sorghum, millets and maize are the main cereal crops that the Adivasis cultivate in this region. The produce is just about enough for their own consumption for a year; they don’t sell any of it.
The productivity of the kharif crop here, grown only using cattle manure, is quite high. But the landholding is so small that the total produce is not enough to feed everyone in the village.
All members of the household contribute to looking after the animals. But due to a lack of fodder in the deforested hills, not much milk is produced
The Bhils pool labour – they work on each other's farms to save on monetary wages. This custom is called ‘ dhas ’.
The Bhils remain self-sufficient for many of their domestic and agricultural needs.
The Adivasis sell a considerable amount of local produce in these haats , including jowar , bajra , maize, sesame, groundnut, onions and potatoes. They also buy some of their household and farm items here, such as salt, sugar, cooking oil, soap, ploughs and axes.
Maize and sorghum are a part of the staple diet, not wheat, which is commonly used to make rotis elsewhere in India. People here can rarely afford to buy other grains from the market.
Most of the villagers eat leftover rotis the next morning with ground red chilli and edible oil.
To make taadi, the villages hang pitchers around the inflorescence (the incipient flowers of the tree) to collect the juice. This is done in the evening, and the pitchers fill up during the night. Early in the morning, it tastes like a sweet juice, but if exposed to sunlight, taadi ferments and becomes an alcoholic beverage
The sale of the beverage has become a major source of income. On good days in the peak season (which extends from November to February), they can each sell up to 20 litres a day at Rs. 30 per litre. That goes down as the juice tapers off and their supplies diminish
Mobile networks are scarce in the village of Khodamba as well as in many other villages here. The phones are essential to keep in touch with family members who have migrated to Gujarat for work.
A lack of adequate livelihood options in Alirajpur has forced 85% of tribal families (according to a survey carried out by the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath) to migrate seasonally to the cities of Gujarat – an unhappy transition from their once dense forests to the forbidding modern concrete jungles.
Some of the photos for this essay were taken by Magan Singh Kalesh, a member of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath.