“It makes me happy”

Negotiating the bureaucratic obstacles in India: thanks to their many volunteers, village communities manage to exercise their right to work and to own woodland and land.

Peace and quiet reigns in the early morning in the village of Dhaba in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The people emerge slowly from their houses and gather in front of the “Documentation Centre”. The women wear typical, heavy silver chains around their necks and carry their babies in their arms. 

The residents of the village belong to the Baiga ethnic group. They originally lived in the woodland and lived on its fruits, leaves, roots and mushrooms and on hunting. Their natural living space has shrunk in recent decades, as a result of which they are now compelled to safeguard their survival as day labourers and through subsistence farming. 

Sukal Singh Raturia tells us, using rich language and a wealth of gestures, how things have developed in recent years. The young man from the village is what is known as a gramdot, a volunteer who has received training in how to deal with Indian bureaucracy from SWISSAID’s local partner organisation. This is because disadvantaged ethnic groups have a right to support in India. That said, claiming this support is anything but straightforward. In addition to a good knowledge of administrative procedures and persistence, it also takes pressure from the entire village community from time to time.
The local partner organisation and the gramdots have managed to secure up to 70 days’ paid work a year from the government in road building, erosion control or the construction of water-retention basins. Thanks to this income, the Baiga are able to bridge the dry period until the next harvest. Sukal Singh Raturia reveals that “it makes me happy to be able to work for my village.”

Woodland for the Baiga

In addition to the government-backed employment programme, laying claim to the rights which are enshrined in woodland and land rights legislation is an important cornerstone in the activities in the 120 Baiga villages. SWISSAID’s partner organisation and the local people must endure complex and tedious processes in order to claim these rights. The villagers have to prove that they have used the woodland or the land for at least two generations. 

However, it has been worth the persistence and stubbornness. Last year, the 105 families from Dhaba alone were promised 9100 hectares of community woodland, and 33 families successfully applied for land ownership, whereby the ownership certificates are made out in the names of both spouses. Around 90 applications are still pending.

Promoting women: Courage to act

In addition, special attention is given to underpinning the position of women. They are made more aware, receive training and are encouraged to proactively raise their concerns at village meetings. In future, the Baiga villages will focus on using organic farming techniques to boost harvest yields, create gardens and promote small animal husbandry. And women will receive further support to enable them to play a role in the social and political life of the village.

Project code: IN 2/12/20

Duration of the project: until 2013

Project costs: 96,265 Swiss francs