Bhoodevi (second from left) is a young Savaara woman from Srikakulam district (county) in Andhra Pradesh (AP) state in India. Her name means Earth Goddess or Mother Earth. The Savaaras are an Adivasi (ɑːdɪˈvɑːsi/ literally, earliest inhabitants) indigenous group that straddle the forests and hills in the border regions of modern day AP and Odisha states in east-central India. In Srikakulam they along with the Jataapus form the core of the indigenous population.
“The biggest threat we face”, she told me, “is displacement and alienation from our land/territory, our culture, our way of life. What others call ‘development’ is what mainstream society wants, not what we Adivasis want.” The threats of development come from many quarters Bhoodevi told me. Sometimes it is government programs like employment guarantee schemes or monoculture plantations for biofuels or cash crops that force them away from their traditional agriculture. Other times, it is bank loans that are given only if they invest in hybrid or imported livestock as opposed to indigenous varieties. Or, it’s corporations that are land grabbing for natural resources – forests or minerals. Even education, she said, is designed to make us stop being who we are, to the point where many of us are forced to take non-tribal names when we go to school.
“If we don’t join their schemes they threaten us with taking away our ration (public distribution system) cards, or deny our kids school admissions, and overall create fear in us. As a result we stop living our lives. We can’t sustain or claim our food sovereignty and manchi jeevitham (Telugu for ‘living well’ or el buen vivir). But, we have our own means of resistance. Our manchi jeevitham, our customary laws, and even national laws like the Right to Food, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and PESA (Panchayat Raj Extension to Schedule Areas Act). All this is being taken forward by the youth. They will be the ones taking our identity forward and also maintaining our culture. They are able to blend the best from Adivasi culture and the mainstream.”
For Bhoodevi, the right to self-determination is a tool for achieving manchi jeevitham. To move towards that the Savaraas have set up bangsa mandringa (Savaara for manchi jeevitham; Telugu is the dominant language in AP) centers in each Savaara village. In many places not all Adivasi areas are in scheduled areas. Scheduled areas are those that have a preponderance of tribal population or have been traditionally tribal. For e.g. in Srikakulam district, the majority of the Adivasi inhabited areas are actually non-scheduled. There is a big struggle to get those areas recognized as scheduled but because they are mineral rich, or form part of non-Adivasi politicians’ constituencies, it’s hard to get them recognized; as recognition would mean loss of control over resources for the corporations and politicians.
I asked Bhoodevi to share more of her personal story with me. She told me her father had seven jobs over the years and moved around a lot. “I had a bad marriage – my husband was an abuser. I took my three daughters and moved back with my father. He was very supportive of me. I joined my father’s organization – Chinna Adivasi Vikas Sangham (CAVS), and worked with my people, the Savaaras. My father asked if I wanted to get remarried but I said no. My daughters are very important to me. And being single gives me the freedom and the ability to be myself and also to be seen as me, as opposed to someone’s wife, daughter, or mother.”
“Initially I was nervous to go to the villages by myself” she told me. She was part of an NGO where she met Madhoo (of Yakshi, a Grassroots International grantee) who had come to do a workshop for the NGO. The NGO she was working for didn’t allow her to talk directly with Madhoo even though she wanted to as she was impressed by his ideas and experience. So she left the NGO and took a job with the government’s Employment Guarantee Scheme for some time. “Then my father passed away. My family tried to force me to remarry but I refused saying my larger Adivasi family was more important to me than my immediate family.”
“I got involved with Adivasi Aikya Vedika (AVS), which was begun by my father and other Adivasis to address the fact that tribal villages in non-scheduled areas (including tribal minorities in non-tribal majority areas, or tribal majority areas not declared as scheduled) don’t have as much control of their lands, face oppression and violence against women (from non-tribals). AVS began in one panchayat of six villages and then spread to other areas including two whole mandals.” And there she met Pandu (a Kondareddy activist and founder of Yakshi).
“Through AAV, I began working on the FRA implementation. Yakshi and AAV had both been involved in the long campaign for the FRA. It was a great victory for all Adivasis. I have been organizing from village to village and love that I’m working in an Adivasi organization that is led by Adviasis, and there are no restrictions because I’m a woman. We’ve achieved a lot of things and the government is now asking us to help in community rights awareness building. I appreciate the hearing people give me as a leader in my own right in our own spaces.”
Bhoodevi’s intrinsic leadership qualities were recognized by her peers. Her colleague Vaikuntha has now taken over a lot of her local Srikakulam duties, and she has moved on to take new leadership roles at an inter-state level, including the nascent national working group of indigenous people. “Today big bureaucrats want to meet with me based on my leadership role and experience” she told me with pride.
“For me as an Adivasi, as a single woman, it’s very important to be taking decisions for myself and my family. I can tell people what I want and what I don’t want. I can work with other women and bring them into leadership. It’s very important for me as a woman to be in this position and to be an inspiration for others, especially my daughters.”