The torch bearer of rights for marginalized tribals of Odisha

If you ask Video Volunteers’ Community Correspondent Bideshini Patel to rate her childhood on a scale of 1-10, she would probably give it a negative marking due to the neglect and abuse she faced. 

But if you ask her to evaluate her professional life as an impactful journalist, resolving basic issues of her tribal community members in the Eastern state of Odisha, her rating would soar off the chart. 

So how does a young tribal girl with a torrid childhood end up becoming the voice of her sidelined community, have a documentary (watch it here) made on her life and be a star community journalist? 

Bideshini hails from the lush and verdant jungle of the Sambalpur district, where she spent her childhood among the indigenous tribal communities. Witnessing firsthand the struggles they faced, she was driven to make a difference. 

For the last decade, as a Video Volunteers correspondent and through her involvement with various organizations, she has been a fierce advocate for tribal rights, taking on powerful mining corporations and fighting for the marginalized. Through her impactful video stories, she has also worked to empower ostracized women and effect real change.

A rough start

Bideshini, which means ‘foreigner’, is a moniker bestowed upon her by the village locals due to her nomadic upbringing. This name would ultimately become the very label that would shape her destiny. A name that once signified her transient roots would come to shape her entire existence, as she embarked on a journey that was truly out of the ordinary.

Bideshini’s early childhood was an extremely tough one. A large part of her growing up was spent in acute poverty and the company of an alcoholic and abusive father to make matters worse. 

Fortunately, the villagers intervened and got her and her sister enrolled into a local government school so that they could at least get one square meal a day. (Under the government’s mid-day meal programme, free, cooked meals are provided to children in primary and upper primary classes in government and government-aided schools.)

The bright side of her personality began to shine as she slowly made her way through school. Her talent in singing, dancing, drama, and poetry all came to the forefront and she got invited to be a part of the National Children’s Science Congress organised by UNICEF in Germany. Though then 7-years old Bideshini couldn't participate in the event, she always felt happy and proud to be invited. 

But her little joys and proud moments got overshadowed by her father’s aggressive behaviour. “My father beat my mother regularly. He beat up me and my sister too because he had two daughters and no son. Then one day he just left home suddenly. We were left with nothing to eat, no money and no roof over our heads because we don’t own anything. As a child, asking for food by going from house to house was a part of our poverty-stricken life,” she recounts teary-eyed.

The sisters spent their nights at monasteries, spiritual hermitages, under trees and even at the verandah of others’ houses, begging for food during the day.

Then, one day just as he left, Bideshini’s father returned to their village and the fights resumed. Tired of living in turmoil, Bideshini knew she needed to make a change. All she yearned for was a peaceful existence and the opportunity to focus on her studies and pursue her career aspirations. So, with a heavy heart but a determined spirit, she left home at the young age of sixteen, never to return.

Taking charge of her life

Bideshini left home to take charge of her life. While she was wandering she landed in a village in the Balangir district and that’s where she met an activist from the NGO THREAD that focused on women’s welfare. “I joined the organization because they worked for tribal women to get their basic rights and justice. Mining for minerals is a big business but it is done under inhuman conditions. THREAD activated local people to agitate against the injustices by mining companies. Working with this organization made me a very strong, confident individual. I loved helping people and the people responded with love too,” says Bideshini.

The atrocities on these villagers by some of the corporate companies were flagrant and almost unchecked in the tribal belts where she worked. To counter this, Bideshini stepped up her protests in Sundargarh village. Her outspoken opposition to the exploitation of women made her a target in the eyes of the company officials, who began scheming for a way to eliminate her. But Bideshini's activism did not go unnoticed. The elderly women of the village came to her aid. “The elderly women of the village helped me escape the village in the wee hours of the night through the treacherous jungles and kept me at a safe place,” she recounts.

A new place - another jolt

Bideshini then moved to another village in Sundargarh, which was the stronghold of an organization called Sundergarh Gramya Unnayan Pratisthan (SGUP) in 2008-2009. She was offered a very small remuneration but the enthusiasm to work for the tribals and with the tribals was her main drive so she took up the job. During her stint here she helped many tribals get loans for farming, building houses and to pursue their studies. “But, thinking of my childhood, I decided to do something for women who faced abuse from alcoholic fathers or husbands.”

In addition to her other efforts, Bideshini also made it a point to raise awareness among women about their health and education, working closely with government officials to address the concerns of her community. Her own sister's tragic fate, being married off young and dying during childbirth due to heavy bleeding, only further propelled Bideshini's passion to speak out about and address women's health issues.

She recalls one of her fondest memories-- when her picture was published in a magazine called Anteswara. She didn't know anything about what a camera was or what publishing was then. "They called me and took a photograph. When it was published, I saw a copy of the magazine with my photo in it. I felt very happy. I felt certain about doing something in life, escaping from the trouble at home", she says.

But unfortunately, things took a dirty turn with the coming in of the South Korean steel giant POSCO in the state. “This company took advantage of the simplicity of these villagers and tried to encroach on their property to build factories. At this stage, SGUP informed her that she had to choose between her work at the organization and her work with the people. Without hesitation, I chose to work with the people at the grassroots level over the organization’s tasks,” says the community journalist.

She says that she later learnt that the NGO was trying to manipulate her by trying to misuse her ground-level connections and her ties with government officials.

“Realizing that I was being used, I immediately quit the job”, she adds.

VV’s light at the end of the dark tunnel

Having quit her job, Bideshini was back to square one in 2011-12. When she ran out of money for her daily needs her larger family, the villagers, came to her aid. They ensured that she would have the basic necessities - food, clothing, and shelter. It was during this time that Bideshini met Sarita Biswal, a Community Correspondent at Video Volunteers who was coordinating the network of CCs in Orissa, who showed her light at the end of the dark tunnel she was staring at. 

Sarita informed Bideshini that she could continue with her social work but now she could take it to the next level with the skill set that Video Volunteers could provide her with. Bideshini took that ray of light and shone it like a bright torch to light her life and that of many others. 

Bideshini was interested in the new opportunity, but did not really put her mind to understanding the operations of VV. Instead, she sent two other boys to understand the way the organization worked. But the moment she learnt how this community media organization could help her further in amplifying her voice against corruption and injustice, she knew how to take this new lead ahead. She attended VV’s training session at the main city of Ranchi and became an active Community Correspondent in 2013.

She worked dedicatedly towards it and has had over 37 impacts on her videos. What she started at the grassroots level went on to the state level. She was thoroughly happy and satisfied that now she could now be known people and therefore be able to help more tribal community people.

Empowering the Pauri Bhuiya

Video Volunteers gave Bideshini a platform to amplify the collective voice of the community. With VV, Bideshini continued to focus on atrocities faced by the indigenous people of Sundergarh, including the reclusive Pauri Bhuyan community. The communities had been fighting to protect the Khandadhar hills and waterfall, which sits on Odisha’s third-largest iron ore reserve, from mining companies that threaten to destroy it. 

Bideshini did a video report showcasing the efforts of the indigenous people who live in about 100 villages around the hills to organize protests and resist the mining companies' attempts to operate in the area. 

Anthropologists have established a genetic link between the Pauri Bhuiya tribe, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group, and the Jarawa tribe of Andaman, an ancient, reclusive tribe that lives on the island. These tribes have been in existence for around 24,000 years, and today the Pauri Bhuiya are afraid that they face extinction due to the mining and environmental exploitation of their homes.

Bideshini also started a small women's organisation in Bonai, Lahunipada. It is a small Sangathan (collective) to save the Khandadhar Falls; She actively participated in grassroots-level agitations and it was due to her and the community’s efforts to convince government officials that the Khandadhar waterfall is still flowing.

One hurdle too many

While her profile as a social worker, activist and community media person made her popular among the masses, along with it came threats, particularly from politicians. 

“The people involved in the alcohol trade also targeted me because I told men to stop drinking and also empowered women to stand up against abuse.” At one public hearing she was arrested for protesting against the exploitation of villagers.

Bideshini recalls that this stage of her career was replete with threats from government officials, politicians, the mining mafia and even people of other communities.

“My efforts of building a team of local tribal women went to waste when the mining company executives managed to lure tribal women to work for them in return for ‘favours’. I was left all alone in the fight against exploitation,” she recounts. 

Mining companies like POSCO, Jindal, and Odisha mining corporation were involved in slyly encroaching upon the rights of the tribal people. They were basically depriving the people of their natural environment and were turning the place into a corporate desert. 

Shining even from the cracks of despair

Even as Bideshini faced setback after setback, nothing could dissuade her from shining as a Community Correspondent focusing on social empowerment and development.

Despite the recent setback, she rose again and formed another team of about 7 people whom she personally selected after a rigorous interview. She was determined to make a team that would carry her work forward, in case something happened to her. She gave this team the moniker ‘Insaniyat ki soch’ (the thought of humanity).

Jungle marches, Right to Information protests and women’s rights were the topics her team was trained to work on. At present, her team strength is over 115 people who are trained to stand up for the rights of people.

My family name is Video Volunteers

In her 10th year as a community correspondent, Bideshini is thankful to Video Volunteers for being a medium of positive change in her life. 

In her decade-long journey, she has created 200 video reports for VV, impacting 20,742 lives.

Bideshini is also a part of Video Volunteers' campaign #KhelBadal to dismantle patriarchy. The campaign is taking on patriarchy through stories of women and men who face, negotiate and challenge patriarchy in everyday life — at home, at work, at school, in cultural and public spaces. Under the campaign, she makes films that capture the nuances of routine, normalised gender discrimination, and stories of change and runs Gender Discussion Clubs where lively, introspective conversations  around gender equality and patriarchy happen. 

Bideshini feels that the best thing about the people's struggle is their unity. "If anything happens, they gather instantly. The slogan of our movement is Khandadhar bachao, Posco hatao!" she says. Today, the Orissa Mining Corporation is creating havoc in the area – displacing people, and polluting the air and water. Bideshini hopes that the land will become green and fertile again like it once was.  

"Being a Community Correspondent gives me strength. Watching the India Unheard videos reminds me of how far I have come." 

“There are several media companies covering corruption-related news, but VVs reports bring these matters affecting the common man to the forefront. This is the reason this organisation is my family. They also stood by me during tough times,” Bideshini says.

Impact stories from ground zero

Among the numerous situations she has provided justice to the tribal community through her video stories, some incidents are very close to her. 

The Jungle Patta (patch of land) is one such story. This is a story of the fishermen's community who lived near the river in Odisha's Sundergarh district  for generations. The floods were the main enemy of these people and they often lost their personal property due to this.16 families from the community were paying taxes for a piece of land allotted to them 22 years ago through government schemes. But in reality, the land was allotted only on paper. They did not even know the location of the land for which they had been paying taxes. It was only after the efforts of Bideshini that the families were actually given physical possession of the land. 

The other memorable story was about making education available to the villages like Tasada in 2019-20. The condition of the potential students was very sad, they had to travel about 5 kms up and down to get to the schools. As a result, their entire day would be spent travelling. These were the Maobadi areas (areas declared as Maoist-affected villages). The people were very scared to even go to these areas.  But when she went there she found that the people were very timid, quiet and simple. 

There were about 68 students and a couple of teachers. But unfortunately, these teachers preferred teaching under a tree but would not go to the school. They did not have proper roads, schools, electricity, and Anganwadi and were deprived of several basic amenities. Bideshini took it upon herself to ensure that a proper Anganwadi, toilets and electricity reached these backward classes.

This story of being able to provide education remains closely embedded in this brave girl’s heart. 

A heartbreaking situation

Difficulties are synonymous to Bideshini’s life. She’s attempted suicide a couple of times fed up with her childhood situation but bounced back from these dark moments. But, she considers the alienation she faced from some community members while handling certain issues as a worse feeling. 

In one instance, she spearheaded a movement to help people who lived a nomadic life by petitioning to the government and ensuring that they get their share of land. This was also necessary to help in the school admission of the children. So, she pulled all the strings that she could with the high-level officials and got these villagers their land. This helped solve both issues; of land and education.

However, the problem began when people of upper castes wanted to continue their domination over these villagers. According to Bideshini, “they wanted to keep the villagers as slaves”. 

When she tried to uplift those deprived people, the upper caste males gathered together to beat her up. These were the same people who Bideshini had helped to get a toilet at their homes. She was utterly disheartened to know that they were not even grateful for what she had done for them and still wanted to remove her from the place. She very heroically faced a large angry mob and tried to reason with them. The Sarpanch also came forward to stand up for Bideshini and finally the danger was averted as the villagers understood what she was trying to say.

Life during COVID

Bideshini tips her hat for the way Video Volunteers supported her and her fellow villagers during the COVID situation with the regular ration supply. “This is a jungle area and the effect of COVID was not felt too much, except for those who lived in the city and those who had their businesses in the towns. Video Volunteers were also instrumental in helping these affected people in whichever way they could,” the community journalist says. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many families in Sundergarh were struggling to access food grains. Through the support of VV, Bideshini stepped in to help, reaching out to families of daily wage workers in Sundargarh Odisha to distribute rations. These families, often without ration cards, were in dire need of assistance and Bideshini's efforts made a significant impact in helping them weather the crisis.

“I reached out to Video Volunteers and told them about the families who are not getting rations. VV sent me funds to buy and distribute ration among the communities.”

Bideshini’s exemplary life displays her extreme courage and dedication to society selflessly which was rightfully honed by Video Volunteers.

The road ahead

Bideshini has enrolled in the Bachelor of Social Work programme at the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) to arm herself with a degree.

“My main focus now is to learn English and to operate a computer. After 16 years of working in the social sector, that's why I am still stuck at the program manager level," the career-driven journalist says. 

Besides working in the social sector, Bideshini is also a trained artist. "I write and direct plays, I dance, and I also sing on the radio", she says. 

The story of Bideshini is one of grit, determination and rising from the ashes of a difficult childhood. Despite facing neglect and abuse, she refused to let her past define her future. Instead, she channelled her experiences into a powerful drive to bring change to her community. As a journalist and advocate, she fought tirelessly against the exploitation and corruption that plagued the tribal belts where she worked. Her courage and dedication earned her the respect and support of the people she sought to help, and her efforts have made a real and lasting impact on the lives of many. Bideshini's story is a testament to the human spirit's ability to overcome adversity and make a difference in the world.

Bideshini, a non-tribal girl in tribal land, now stands firmly alongside the tribes of Pauri Bhuiya and others, working tirelessly to secure them basic necessities such as ration, education, and more. Armed with her mobile phone, she is determined to expose corruption and exploitation of marginalized communities, and empower them to fight for their rights. 

Though her name may mean "foreigner," Bideshini has woven herself deeply into the fabric of the tribe, and her connection to the people is unbreakable.

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