IMPACT: Villagers take back community land from corrupt headman

A quiet village on the border of India and Nepal, Semri-Dumri is a sleepy hamlet where nothing seems to happen. A paved road blends solemnly into sand a few miles behind the vaguely identifiable border. Motorcycles that pass through can be heard from a distance, along with the stones rattled by its tires. Yet, scratch the calm exterior and the intricacies of power crop-up flagrantly.  The rights of tribals face the brunt of the repression based on social hierarchy.

Way back in 2000 the Village Head, Ashish Prasad Verma, surreptitiously took over land that connected Semri-Dumri to the forest, and started farming on it. Gradually, he banned people from walking through the area. Being the only road that led directly to the forest this posed a problem for locals, as the forest is a vital source of livelihood for many of them.

More than a decade later, in 2013, VV-PACS Correspondent Tanju Devi, a young woman in her late twenties,, supported her tribal community to take back control of the community road. 125 people from two villages now have easy access to the road that leads to the forest, their lifeline.

The aggrieved villagers had tried to sort the issue by approaching the Block Officer, Purmendra Kumar, who didn’t do anything. Instead, the administration lent its full support to Verma. The map that once showed the road mysteriously changed — the new one excluding any sign of it.

In 2012, Audh Bihari Khojwar who is Tanju’s husband and a ward member put forward a proposal in the panchayat meeting, which, again led to nothing. Increasingly, the absence of the road was beginning to affect residents severely, including Tanju. The anger felt by villagers did nothing to break the status quo that weighed heavier than their Rights. A large part of the problem was that people were genuinely scared of taking this land over from the Village Head. “It took a lot of persuasion to get people to talk about the issue. They were very hesitant to question authority,” says Tanju.

Tanju and Audh have played a key role in making their community aware of its rights to land and resources under the Forest Rights Act, 2013. Having made several videos about the issues that plague Semri-Dumri, Tanju has garnered a reputation for being a problem-solver in the area. People regularly come to her seeking guidance. Being a Community Correspondent, Tanju had the means to put an end to the drama that had gone on for far too long. “It was finally decided that if the village head couldn’t show any proof that the land belonged to him, we would take back the land,” recalls Tanju.

In the meantime, she started gathering video-testimonies of the affected villagers and evidence of all the efforts that had previously been made. She then started showing interviews in the two affected villages in an attempt to motivate people to collectively end the problem. Tanju, Audh, and Rambrish Majhi, a vocal supporter of these efforts, started rallying the forces, motivating them to speak out.

On the evening of 25th December 2013, the frustrated residents gathered to find a solution by themselves, since the state had failed them over and over again. They decided that they would take back the land on their own. The next morning, 125 people gathered with their sickles and pick-axes to clear out the road. As they re-dug the farms, Tanju filmed the palpable sense of change in the air.

“I do the work that I do, because it gives me a chance to serve the needs of people like me. Be it things like delayed pensions or ‘upper-caste’ folk taking over community land, I can report it and change it”, says Tanju.



About the Partnership:This is a PACS-VV video. The Poorest Areas Civil Society (PACS) Programme and Video Volunteers have come together to create the Community Correspondents Network. The videos created by the network bring out voices from the margins, providing communications skills to marginalised individuals and advocacy tools to community-based organisations.

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