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 contributed to the enactment of the Forest Rights Act in 2006. Since 2008, several thousand Adivasi households in Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh have got titles to their ancestral forest land as a result of this struggle.
Some of the photos for this essay were taken by Magan Singh Kalesh, a member of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath.