Guest post by DHRUBA JYOTI PURKAIT and DEEPSHIKHA HOODA.
Sakhra (Yavatmal): Deep in the heartland of Maharashtra’s suicide-ravaged Yavatmal district, the Gond tribal settlement of Sakhra holds a surprise. “There are no husbands here, just children,” explains Kishore Tiwari, president of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti. A member of the VJAS accompanies us on the bumpy two-hour ride out of Pandarkawada.
We turn onto a dirt trail that runs through a forest clearing; an hour passes before we start spotting cotton fields. We stop and our guide calls out to two female labourers. Only then does it strike us. Most of the labourers picking cotton are women.
It has been 10 years since Laxmi, now 24, gave birth to a son. She met a rich, upper caste boy who had promised to marry her. “Pyaar jataya tha mujhse,” After the delivery, he refused to acknowledge the parentage of the baby. “Congressi tha woh,” she says.
She filed a case against him three years ago. The case has not had a hearing yet and might get nowhere. “I just want him to own up to his fatherhood,” she says.
Laxmi wakes up at 4 am everyday to work as a farm labourer. She lives with her parents and provides for her son, who is studying in a residential school in Gopalpur. “I didn’t want him facing questions in the village,” she says. “Everyone asks where the father is. Don’t they know everything?” she wells up.
“My parents are supportive. It is all because of Meera,.” She says. Meera, 27, is Laxmi’s elder sister. Twelve years ago, she was similarly duped by a married man. After the birth of their child, he revealed that his wife lived in another village. He had been living with Meera for two years without the knowledge of his wife, who had slapped a case against him. He abandoned Meera shortly afterwards.
The oppressively poor settlement holds many such stories of deceit; however, social censure drives most victims underground.
“The village people look at us derisively. Thankfully, my parents and sister always stood by me,’’ she says, throwing a glance at her sister who smiles back.
Although certain tribal customs let men and women sleep before marriage, bearing a child of a non-tribal usually results in her excommunication.
“It is still better now. Five years ago, the situation was terrible. They would come to the village and if someone’s wife was good looking, they would ask the husband to send her to their homes,” the VJAS activist explains.
The Maharashtra Human Rights Commission (MHRC) had asked the government to institute support for unwed tribal mothers in 2009 after the VJAS petitioned the government.
“A majority of unwed mothers reported are from the tribal belt; they are facing starvation and malnutrition. But even after MHRC’s intervention, there is no ray of hope for them,” Kishore Tiwari explains.
Three years later, there are still no government schemes or benefits for them. There are over 300 reported cases in Yavatmal alone.
This characteristic trend of tribal exploitation came to the fore first in Wynad district of Kerala in 1952. After decades of neglect, the Kerala government had instituted a welfare scheme in 2011 with land and Rs 1000 as pension for mothers. In addition, bicycles and scholarships for school and college education were given out. The number of cases in 2011 alone stood at 935.
“The unwed mothers become victims of development from outside. The exploiters hold enormous power over the local population. Any exposure to the outside world leads to misery,” said C.V.Joy, activist.
The Kerala Women’s Commission has been advocating DNA testing for parenthood since 1997, but has only had limited success. Financial costs are too steep to be borne by the women. Hence, there have been only five reported tests.
The rampant injustice forced firebrand tribal activist C.K.Janu to launch an agitation that led to a cordoned-off 188-acre area in PanavallyReserveForest being declared as a self rule area for tribals, prohibiting non-tribal entry.
“The settlers have taken over our lands, turned our men folk into drunkards and sexually exploited tribal women. An Adivasi colony is not a brothel for outsiders to come and go,” said a statement of her organization, the Adivaasi Vikasana Pravarthaka Samiti.
However, Vidarbha has not seen even this kind of political mobilisation, let alone government support. There have been sporadic reporting, but for the hundreds of Laxmis in Yavatmal alone, there seems to be no hope in sight.
“Hamara koi votebank nahi hai na,” she concludes.
Dhruba Jyoti Purkait and Deepshikha Hooda are students of print journalism at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai