Ruled by the Chandelas until the sixteenth century, the area of Bundelkhand area comprises the districts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh -- Damoh, Sagar, Chhattarpur, Panna, Tikamgarh, part of Satna, and right up to Gwalior, from Madhya Pradesh; Jalaun, Jhansi, Hamirpur, Mahoba, Lalitpur and Banda districts of Uttar Pradesh. Damoh is well-known for the legend of Rani Durgawati who fought bravely against the Mughals. Today, the district is also known for its sanctuaries like Nauradehi Sanctuary in Tendukheda block and Rani Durgawati Sanctuary in Jabera block.
Damoh is largely inhabited by tribal groups like the Gonds, Lodhis, Karpetis, and other communities like the Dalits, Rajputs, Kurmis, Thakurs and Marwaris. The economy here is based on agriculture. Dalits do not possess much land and earn their living as labour on the fields. Traditionally, Dalits were mainly involved in the tanning of leather and in manual scavenging, but opportunities are slowly opening up which help them achieve a level of occupational mobility.
With very little or no arable land, the Dalits and OBCs often migrate to neighbouring areas to work as agricultural labourers, or to larger cities for menial work. The society is largely feudal in nature and untouchability is widely practised. The secondary status of women in this region (the purdah system is still in practice) has also been one of the reasons for the absence of a culture of resistance.
Based in the town of Tejgarh in Damoh, the Bundelkhand Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (BMKSS) was formed in July 2007, with an aim towards ensuring the ownership of forest land by tribals, dalits and people from other backward castes, as per the Forest Rights Act of 2006. The sangathan was earlier supported by the Grameen Vikas Samiti, but owing to differences in principles, it became a separate entity in 2007. Education and the public distribution system (PDS) are also among the core areas of the sangathan's work. Currently, it has taken a strong stance against alignment with any political party, as it sees itself as a strong opposition to the administration, no matter which party is in power.
Led by Lakhan Singh, the sangathan today comprises 20 core members. It works in 150 villages, based on different issues pertaining to those places. Due to the patriarchal society, not too many women have been part of the sangathan. However, the sangathan functions through a democratic set-up – there is no hierarchy and since each person represents a certain area of work based on his residence, it is observed that each of them have an equal say in the decision-making processes of the sangathan. (Team)
Due to the patriarchal structure of the society, the sangathan has been facing a lot of difficulties to enable women to be involved in the process of a Jan Sangathan or even in the gram sabhas. The Women’s Literacy Project had been of some help where at least they would meet often and talk on certain issues.
Tribals account for 80 per cent of the sangathan's work focus. Due to migration, new rituals and practices are deeply entrenched into the tribal lives, such that they today consider themselves as Hindus today. While the FRA might have given the tribals a hope of claiming their ownership on certain patches of forest land, its non-implementation has been one of the key concerns of BMKSS. Instead of being a tool to ensure people's rights over the land, the FRA has instead become a bane for the people. However, until recently, the sangathan has facilitated the submission of 10,566 claims for land holdings to be legalised under FRA (Towards Implementing FRA). The nexus between the Forest Department and timber merchants further ensured the subjugation of the tribals, and this has been the common link between most villages in Tendukheda block where BMKSS works. Additionally, the proposed cheetah project which has led to the creation of two sanctuaries, will displace 130 villages. The signs of coercion are already visible. The political platform is being shared by people from different castes and tribes, but this still doesn't trickle down to practising it on a real basis. However, Lakhan feels that one of the major victories has been the formation of the sangathan itself with people from different castes, sharing the same platform and working together.
The sangathan often organises day-long meetings with people and local activists where various issues are discussed, on oppression, environment, development. It is towards an effort to get people to start thinking and talking, and get the people to conduct surveys in their village, about income, livelihood, investments, expenditures, etc. One such meeting was done towards an effort to get people to understand the tax amount that they would pay to the government and the obligations of the government. “When we began to show them the calculations of the tax money being generated from every village, people had the question in mind whether they ran the government, or whether the government was ruling their lives. We told them this was the basic crux of asking questions to anybody contesting the elections and canvassing for votes. People realised that they ought to ask questions about the whereabouts of their money, and what percentage of that amount was used up for the developmental works within the village. People never think on these lines and they feel that the government is indeed doing a lot: it launches new schemes all the time to eradicate poverty, helping people build their homes, give food to children in school, etc. Hence that particular meeting was a success in many ways – getting more people to believe in our efforts and to learn to look at the government objectively,” says Lakhan.
The sangathan had started a theatre company and in 2006, some of them had undergone training in Kolkata to master the skill. The strategy of the theatre company during its street plays has been to ask the audience a lot of questions persistently, and then provoke people enough so that they indeed begin to seek answers within themselves.
The severe winter of 2010, which was last seen by the people of Bundelkhand 30 years ago, had destroyed most crops, especially the plantations of arhar daal. In 2008, the sangathan had made an attempt to collect the local seeds of various plants which would not have been cross bred or cultivated with the help of chemicals. The seeds were distributed to people to plant them, but the yield was just 20 per cent. This was just a mere experiment, but it failed. “We saw that in earlier times, only manure was used as fertiliser. People had more cattle then, and hence there would be enough manure,” says Lakhan. But attempts are on to revive organic farming.
Amongst the sangathan members, in possession is 4 acres of land which they intend to use as an office and congregation space, even for trainings. “We want to create a space to be able to accommodate at least 100 people at one time. If we build it on the principles of 'Shram daan', getting the raw materials for the construction will alone cost us Rs 5 lakh,” says Lakhan.