Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Fight the Good Fight: A People’s Tribunal and an activist’s Epiphany

On numerous occasions well-meaning friends have come up to me asking me why I have railed, raved and ranted against some of the positions of the GBA. ‘They are trying so hard’ they’d say, ‘why not give them a little credit’. In a wonderfully self-reflexive and honest column in the Herald yesterday, Venita Coelho laid out what exactly was my (and others’) gripe with the positions that the GBA and associated groups and individuals had been taking for a long time, “It was all about land and land use – and not about people and the reality of their lives at all”. Welcome to my world Venita, we are now on the same page!

For another healthy slice of the reality of people’s lives, I would have recommended attendance at the Peoples’ Tribunal held on the “Restoration of Adivasi Homelands in Goa” organized by the Gawda Kunbi Velip and Dhangar Federation (GAKUVED). Over the two days at the end of the last month, close to 60 tribal persons from Goa presented their woes before a jury, indicating the wide number of problems they faced, none of which have been even remotely touched by the Regional Plan 2021 process.

The sorry fate of the tribals of Goa is primarily because of the invisibilisation that they have been subjected to. Goa is constructed both internally and externally by discourses that would see Goa as either Dourada (Indo-European) or Indica (Brahmanical). The originary myth of the first is that of the creation through contact with the Iberian west, the originary myth of the second is of creation through the peaceful extension of the land by brahmanical settlers. Both myths have a basis in fact and both have done much to deprive the tribal population of the rights of dignified existence. As a result of the operation of these two frameworks, the woes of the tribals have as yet never been articulated systematically, and the Tribunal was probably the first time such a systematic articulation was achieved. For this reason alone, the Tribunal was a momentous occasion.

It became clear, in the course of the Tribunal that there were at least three categories of problems that the Goan tribals face. The first emerged from among those who lived on the fringes of Goa’s forests. Like tribals in the rest of India, their interaction with the Forest Department officials is far from ideal. They are harassed by the operation of the Forest Department, their rights not settled and very often are illegally assaulted and interrogated by Forest department officials. The space of the Communidade emerged as the second arena of problems faced by the Goan tribal. All too often their names are not recorded in the Government’s land survey records as the tenant. This is despite their being present on, and tending to the land for at least two generations, and very often also having Portuguese-era documents to prove their title. Somehow, subsequent to the ‘Liberation’ their presence on the land, and their rights on it, were cleanly erased. As a result today, they are unable to claim Government benefits and schemes, unable to extend their homes, get electricity or water and are made to beg for permissions, not from the Government offices, but from the Communidades. The third category of cases is the threat of mining. Many of the tribals who are educated are first generation learners. Their primary skills lies in tending the land. this they have done for generations now. The extension of mining leases threatens to destroy their homesteads (and livelihood bases) either through appropriation for mining, through the illegal dumping of mining rejects in their fields and forests, or through the destruction of the fresh water aquifers that quench not only their thirst but all of Goa. Listening to this last category of problems, the audience realized with a shock that the large sightings of wild-life in Goa, and the large number of reports of crop destruction or at least straying into villages, was the result of the aggressive extension by industry into the forest areas. As is normally the case however, rather than deal with industry, it is the tribal who gets caught by the Governmental machinery.

In the context of the Regional Plan, it also became clear that there was wild confusion as to what was the status of their proposals. Would proposals in the light of recent information be accepted? Further, it became clear that there was no uniform system that was followed with regard to the articulation of the village plan. Interestingly some villages in Sattari that were in opposition to the Eco-I status of lands in their village had this decision taken in the chamber of their Legislator in Porvorim. Interesting!

On another front, one that would have been hilarious if it weren’t so tragic, it appears that most developmental schemes formulated by the Government have compounded rather than relived the condition of the tribals. One case in point was that of the Bandharas, that dam water in the rivers, but instead of proving any use, make impossible the traditional cultivation of the river bed. When Venita therefore realizes that planning is about people and their problems, and listening closely to what the facts on the ground, as articulated by the people say, she has hit the nail squarely on the head.

Both Venita and the representatives at the Peoples’ Tribunal would have agreed on one fact. That a mere gram sabha deciding the Village Plan is not enough. What is necessary is an honest collation of the factual conditions in the village, and the building of claims and decisions on the basis of those conditions. What was very clear through the representations however, and through the dossier submitted prior to the Tribunal, was that what was required was first a recognition of their land rights (rather than solely that of the landlords) and secondly a system for consultation with the tribal groups in villages across the State.

The next couple of columns will identify a few issues that emerged in the course of this Peoples’ Tribunal and deal with them at some length.

Before concluding however, we must recognise that Venita’s epiphany, and the Peoples’ Tribunal were made possible primarily because both the GBA and GAKUVED looked outside of Goa for inspiration. This is not to say that Goa is lacking of ideas, but that they have hit on a very vital ingredient for successful social mobilization; networking. All too often Goan struggles have refused to take lesson from similar struggles in other parts of India. The tragedy of the Regional Plan process is exactly this. Rather than looking across our borders for communities that have already invented the wheel, we attempted to invent it ourselves. In the process, we have failed to draw strength from across our borders. But, as Venita’s realization, and the Peoples’ Tribunal indicate, it is not yet too late and there is much that can still be salvaged.

One last point. It should be seen as part of a divine plan that the GBA consultation that Venita benefited from and the Peoples’ Tribunal occurred at around the same time. If networking and listening to the voices of the people are the lessons that we are being asked to learn, then surely, the renewed process towards a Regional Plan must see a networking between these two groups?

(Published in the Gomantak Times 3rd June 2009)

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