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'We pay for the work with our dignity'

By Aparna Pallavi

Women of the Kol community on the MP-UP border carry 30 kg of wood every day across several kilometres and return home with Rs 15. Others survive by working long crushing hours in stone quarries or on farms for meagre wages. The women are sexually exploited by landowners, upper caste groups, and government officials. "If we put up a resistance," one woman says, "we will starve to death"

Parasia Devi Adwasi's day starts at 3 am , when she and her group of eight women from Lakhanpur village on the Uttar Pradesh-Madhya Pradesh border start off for Manikpur railway station, each carrying headloads of about 30 kg of firewood. They have to hurry, because they must reach the station by 6 am , covering a distance of 14 km. Once they reach the station, they have to take their chances at getting into any train going towards Satna, along with their loads of firewood. Without tickets, of course, because the Rs 40 fare for a one-way journey is more than what each woman hopes to earn during the day.

An hour's journey later, they are out in the markets of Satna. If they are lucky, their regular customers will buy all the firewood. Or they will have to wander in the bylanes looking for buyers until the last load is sold. Each bundle of between 10-15 kg of firewood sells for Rs 10-15. When Parasia Devi gets back on the train, at most she will be carrying Rs 30.

The money will have substantially dwindled by the time she is back home, because the railway police and guards have to be bribed for letting the women travel without tickets. By evening, when she has collected two more bundles of firewood for the next morning from the forests near her village, with the 'permission' of the forest guards, she will be lucky to have Rs 15 left for her family.

In the same village lives Lakhmi Devi Adwasi, who is fortunate because her family owns two bighas (slightly less than an acre) of land. Due to continued drought, no one in the village has been able to cultivate their land for four years. Lakhmi Devi and her family of seven survive by quarrying the granite rock from their land and selling it to contractors. For one truck full of stone, the family is paid Rs 1,200-1,500. This includes the cost of the stone and the labour involved in quarrying, breaking the stone, sorting it into pieces of a specified size, and finally loading it onto the trucks. It takes Lakhmi Devi, her husband, father-in-law, and two grown up sons eight to 10 days to fill one truck.

"I don't know how long we can keep doing this," Lakhmi Devi's husband Sipahilal says. "The land is sinking lower, we are losing soil. Soon it will become totally unfit for cultivation." About 60 families of Kol adivasis in the village survive by selling rock from their land.

In Gadhwa village, about 20 km into Madhya Pradesh, the Kol do not own any land. Only two options are open to them -- to work for paanch-paua majoori (a daily wage of 1.25 kg of grain) on the farms of upper caste people, or work in the illegal stone quarries owned by the same people for a wage of Rs 50 a day, for men, and Rs 35 a day for women. In both cases, the workday is over 12 hours long.

"I don't know which is better," Sohan Devi says. "The paanch paua is not a survival wage -- I have six children to feed. The stone quarries offer a better wage but the wages are not regular. The babus do not pay us for 10-15 days at a time, and then when they do pay, they cut off a few days' pay and threaten to sack us if we protest."

The Kol, who form a majority of the population in the Rewa and Sidhi districts of Madhya Pradesh, and also in adjacent parts of Uttar Pradesh, have been landless for generations. In Madhya Pradesh the Kol have tribal status, whereas in Uttar Pradesh they are included in the scheduled castes.

Whatever their legal status, their economic condition is the same. Exploitation is a way of life, given the near-absolute power that the economically powerful upper-caste groups wield. This power equation has gender ramifications -- the men are required by 'custom' to perform unpaid labour at the time of sowing and harvest, while the women are sexually exploited, as they have been in these areas for generations. Violence against both men and women at the slightest pretext is common.

"It is well known around here," says Ram Bahadur Singh, who works with a local political party. "In popular parlance, it is said that quarry owners do not let women touch the hammer without touching them first. It is a pre-condition to being allowed to work at all. It is the same in agricultural work and selling firewood."

The women themselves speak openly about this exploitation. Parbata Mai, an elderly resident of village Biharia in Madhya Pradesh, who is part of a group that sells firewood, says bitterly: "No one ever gives anything for free to a Kol. Our men can't work in the firewood trade, because if they do they will never bring anything back home. Instead, they might be arrested or beaten up, apart from being robbed." She says, in searing words, that the women are forced to use sex and sexuality not just as a 'work permit' but also as a shield to protect their men against violence.

"What can we do," asks Semaria Devi of the same village. "Our mothers and grandmothers have had to put up with the same situation. Our men know it is happening to us and can do nothing to stop it. We have no land. The lands, the quarries, the forests, all are owned by the thakur-bamans (powerful, upper caste people). If we put up a resistance we will starve to death."

It is not as if there are no legal provisions to protect people like the Kol from such exploitation. Constitutional provisions speak of land distribution to the landless, the right to livelihood, and a sexual harassment-free workplace. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 was recently enacted to rectify some of the historical injustices against adivasis and dalits. But most of these provisions remain on paper.

The reasons are not difficult to understand. Ramesh Shukla of the Patha Dalit-Adivasi Sabha, an organisation working for the rights of oppressed communities in this area, says: "The revenue and forest departments of both Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have a strong nexus with the powerful upper-caste groups, and the two together block all the benefits of these laws from reaching the people. The revenue department has not initiated land reforms, so these people remain landless while hundreds of landlords continue to own hundreds of acres of land each. The forest department looks the other way when the powerful people start quarries on forest land, but persecute and exploit poor women for collecting firewood, which is their right."

And so, as another day is about to dawn, Parasia Devi prepares to begin another long arduous journey to Satna with her crushing headload of firewood. Unlike Parasia Devi, who will return with only a few rupees, her young daughter-in-law Shyamkali will bring back most of her monetary earnings, having paid off the men along the way in other ways. The young woman says: "We need work, so they give us work. We need food to live, so they let us have just enough to stay alive. But we have to pay for that work and food with every ounce of our dignity and humanity."

(Aparna Pallavi is an independent journalist based in Nagpur )

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007