One man’s efforts to bring back traditional crops and methods of cultivation has ensured land rights and food security for an indigenous tribe.
“The forest officials would come and beat us up when we tried to cultivate in our lands. My father died in 1986. They had beaten him and locked him up. He died because of that,” says Bhagwati, who belongs to the Baiga community from Dindori of Madhya Pradesh. Such injustices were not uncommon but are now a thing of the past.
The Baigas are indigenous people from Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Their ancient farming method, called ‘bewar’, is a unique agro-ecological practice. The land is not tilled. In this natural farming method, up to 12 crops are grown together. The Baigas cultivated traditional millets, grains and beans, and supplemented this with foraged fruit, tubers and other forest produce. But with time and the push towards high-yield crop varieties, these traditional methods were left behind and the traditional knowledge was neglected. This led to large-scale impoverishment and malnourishment.
Naresh Biswas, a community activist, has been working tirelessly with the Baigas of Baigachak for over two decades and has persuaded 700 families to return to their traditional farming and food cultures. Son of a Bangladeshi refugee, Biswas came to these parts as a child, as part of a government resettlement programme. He was moved by the stories of injustices like that of Bhagwati’s family and set about reviving traditional knowledge and agriculture. He formed the Baiga Maha Panchayat to advocate for the rights of the Baiga people. His fight for the land rights and food security for the tribe has brought a huge change in their living conditions.