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By: Rishabh Kumar (AID representative/Intern) V. Gandhi Babu is an activist and the founder of Agricultural and Social Development Society (ASDS). This interview was done on 24th November shortly after his meeting with the participants of the CSR initiative of HPCL project Swavlamban (translation: self dependence). The participants of this initiative, which has been briught to ASDS through AID, are being provided vocational training in sewing and stitching over a period of 6 months to make them self sufficient and employable. The primary membership of the initiative consists of the women of Natwan Sangham, a self-help organization of tribal women created and supported by ASDS. The women belong to a number of tribes both native to Andhra Pradesh and those that have been displaced from Chhattisgarh in the wake of the continuing violence there (along with several other reasons). This awakening among the tribal communities of the area has been the result of the untiring efforts of Mr. V. Gandhi Babu over the last 25 years. A highly regarded man in the Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh, Mr. V. Gandhi Babu talks about ASDS, the Internally Displaced People (IDP) from Chhattisgarh, native tribes and his passion for activism. RK: What is your educational background and what were the reasons that you chose to work in the field of Social Development? GB: I wasn’t made for traditional means of education. I have learnt more from practical experiences than formal education. My formal education has been up to class 6 after which I dropped out at will. In my youth I did most of my work in Tulasipaka village with an organization called Integrated Tribal Development Agency.
What was your work profile there? I was involved with a number of activities of the organization. I functioned as the apprentice and assistant for a local activist by the name of Mr. Chandrashekhar. It was him who urged me to work in Reddigumpadu, a Kondareddi village (Kondareddi is native tribe of Andhra Pradesh). I lived with them for the most part. There were days when I lived off Bamboo Rice alone. I experienced their hardships personally. This left a deep impression on me.
So what pushed you to add further dynamics into a pre-existing model of social service with the tribal community, already established by Mr. Chandrashekhar?
He was more of an inspiration for me in adding further dynamics in this field. I realized that tribal rights need to be addressed far more widely than they were being addressed. It was his charisma that eventually inspired me start an organization of my own. On one occasion 27 members of Reddigumpadu were killed in a truck accident while transporting bamboo for a company. We filed a petition for compensation. Soom after this Mr. Chandrashekhar received a threat from an influential political leader in the area. He was told that if he doesn’t stop his legs will be hacked. Mr. Chandrashekhar responded by threatening him back saying it wouldn’t slow him down even if the cut his hands. I was so inspired by his courage that I decided to increase my participation in the issue of tribal rights more and more. Therefore with his initial help ASDS was started by me. Today ASDS has helping the tribal communities in the area by not only procuring more rights and claim on land but also by mobilizing them.
After 2005 when Chhattisgarh government declared a war against the Maoists the local tribes of Chhattisgarh such as Dorla and Muria were internally displaced from their indigenous homes. When they arrived in Khammam how did things change for ASDS?
We were used to working with the local Gondi tribes like Koya and Kondareddi tribes. When new Gondi tribes like Dorla and Muria arrived one of the biggest challenges that we faced was that of identification of these tribes. It took us 10 years before we could make sense of anything with these new communities. They were regularly coming to Andhra prior to 2005 for job opportunities since the 1990s but the introduction of Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh led to a mass exodus of these tribes into Andhra Pradesh. They came pouring in as there were better, well paying jobs here in comparison to other geographically close states to Dantewada like Maharashtra and Odhisa. It also became a real problem to manage these new people as almost all of them were accustomed to a life in the forest where they survived by practicing ‘Slash and Burn’ agricultural. This was hazardous to the reserve forests of Andhra. We had already worked with the native tribal communities and they were well aware of the disadvantages of deforestation but it was difficult to explain to new people. Although ASDS’s various aids have helped in curbing rampant deforestation by tribals in the region, this problem continues to exist.
What were the strategies used by ASDS to manage the IDP tribes in Andhra Pradesh? Well obviously our first objective was to recognize and understand the customs of these new tribes. Then we concentrated, and this is an ongoing project, in the areas of basic amenities such as providing them food, safe drinking water and shelter. Most of these tribes have left all their private properties such as cattle, utensils back in Chhatissgarh.
Many have made an overnight escape with absolutely nothing but the clothes on their bodies. Resettlement is a huge problem which is being countered by ASDS. If they are mobile more deforestation will follow which won’t benefit either them or anybody else. Therefore we are trying our best and have recognized as many as 125 IDP settlements scattered throughout Khammam. We have established a Nutrition and Rehabilitation Centre in these villages, many of which are in remote areas of reserved forests. Some of these settlements are in partially revenue and partially forested areas and many can be located in mostly accessible revenue areas in the hinterlands. In Nutrition and Rehabilitation Centre our focus remains on Children and Lactating/Pregnant women. The NRC ensures they have access to proper food and nutrition. Schools have been established in some settlements, with the help of young educated tribal boys where government schools are not accessible (owing to the remote location of these settlements). RK: Tell us something about your collaboration with bigger organizations like AID and ActionAid India and how has this helped you? GB: ActionAid and AID both support ASDS in our work in tribal rights. There is likemindedness between us in that regard. AID particularly is working in the area of education. ActionAid has helped us in obtaining funds from the European Commission. Funds are only a part of the bigger picture. These organizations have been instrumental in helping us by providing moral support and media spotlight. In addition to this these organizations help us out with programme designing and lobbying with the government. The state government has also been a major support in the area of development and infrastructure and has been instrumental in facilitating Residential Bridge Courses. Policy
makers and IAS officers at the office of State Commissioner of Rural Development and MNREGS are fully aware of the work ASDS has been doing. Today many mainstream parties like Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) has also shown us support. The government has shown active support in this regard they have been drafting new policies especially for the IDP related issues with the collaboration of ASDS. RK: Are there any other vocational classes going on for Natwan Sangham along with HPCL Swavlamban sewing and stitching classes? Any plans to further expand this programme? GB: Yes, we apart from sewing we are also holding vocational training programmes for teaching things like palm leaf craft, bee keeping, seed banking, wormicomposting and organic anti-pest management. We are planning to extend this further into Income Generation Programmes (IGP) for the trainees. For this women are preferred over men. The reason is that men can go and work outside far from their home but women find it easier to run a business from their home or close to it. As far as the turnout is concerned as of now it is phenomenal considering these are tribal women. 2 people from big villages and 1 person from small villages has been recruited in this programme. With constant help and support from volunteers and larger organizations we see a better future for the tribal communities in the region.