It’s 2007 and Chhattisgarh is set to establish an elephant reserve near the lush green, un-
fragmented, Hasdeo Arand forest. The forest is home to elephants, tigers, rare plants, sal and teak trees – a complex ecosystem spread across 180,800 hectares. The Gond tribal community has peacefully coexisted with animals in the forest for generations.
But things are about to go awry; the reserve would block at least 40 million tonnes per annum of coal production. The decision to create an elephant sanctuary has been overruled by the decision to start coal mining operations in the region.
In the last decade, mining in Hasdeo Arand has led to discriminatory development through which only industrialists and politicians have profited. Coal mining in forests is always initiated with the promise of employment opportunities for locals, sufficient compensation for displacement, and general welfare of the people. Even though a tribal person would never want to exchange their forest life for lucrative jobs in towns, they place their trust in the mine operators and comply with their demands – those who don’t comply are coerced into submission. What follows is a never-ending nightmare. Livelihoods of people and habitats of animals are torn up by the roots as mining operations begin.
A hidden struggle amidst this chaos is that of tribal women who have to face the brunt of
capitalist patriarchy in its ugliest form. Women of Hasdeo are involved in the tendu leaf collection process which is a source of sustenance for the community and is extremely valuable in the market. 20% of the tendu leaf reserves in the country is sourced from these forests. But hard work and strenuous labour do not pay off when you’re a woman. Due to mass deforestation and restriction of entry to certain forest areas by the mining operators, these women are left with even smaller areas to obtain the leaves from, moreover increasing instability of the region forces them to sell the leaves at a fraction of the market price.
Several women are forced to take up work in the mines which adds to their misery instead of giving them a living income. Reports suggest that female workers are paid far less than men much lower than the minimum wage. Health studies conducted in the area have found that while living near coal mines is unhealthy for all locals, women are the worst affected as their health problems become chronic.
Coal mining in Chhattisgarh has turned it into a contentious region where tribals have to fight, for their rights, against the local police, politicians and industrialists. The rates of physical and sexual assault against women remain high in this region.
There is no singular evil that women are supposed to fight against but a variety of factors which are constantly eroding their lifestyles. But, even as survival in Hasdeo becomes progressively difficult, the women of the region have found ways to resist.
The women of Surguja district have single-handedly formed a network of 70 women across 7 villages who stay connected through their mobile phones. This group of women patrol the forests and sensitise the locals about the impact of felling of trees. Despite their significant work, they do not get any support from forest officials. However, the biggest acknowledgement of their work comes from the increasing density of forest area in the region. The area of dense forests has doubled from 320 sq. km to 705 sq. km in the last decade.
Moreover, the frequent protests in the forests see an equal proportion of participation from male and female members. Women in some districts have also taken up the position of sarpanch while all gram sabha meetings give women space to voice their opinions – something which is seen as the norm and not an anomaly.
To talk of tribal resistance in Chhattisgarh and not mention Soni Sori’s contribution to the
struggle would be no less than a crime. Soni Sori through her work has brought to light the realities of tribal women who are assaulted, killed and forgotten for merely existing. In 2011, she worked as a teacher at a local school when she helped uncover human rights violations in the district. However, instead of supporting her, she was branded as an aid to Maoist groups in the region. She was arrested and sexually assaulted in the custody of the local police. She was released from prison 2 years later, and despite the trauma that she had to experience she didn’t back off and still continues to be an active human rights defender. Her unrelenting resistance against the system has put her in life-threatening danger several times. Nonetheless, her motive remains unchanged – helping empower the women of Hasdeo while preventing the opening up of more mines in the region.
Stories of dissent from tribal communities barely meet the ordinary person’s eye, and it’s
understandable to feel distant from these narratives. However, if our social conditioning has distanced us from the cause of tribal rights then it is imperative for us to make up for years of apathy and become true allies of the tribal movement – not by taking up their spaces but helping them secure their spaces. Feminism in this day and age can only reap positive results if it goes beyond what meets our eye. Feminism today needs to be inclusive and intersectional.
- Sonakshi Yadav