Vaikuntha's Vision -- Bangsa Mandringa for all Savaaras (and all Adivasis)

Vaikuntha is a young Savaara (an indigenous tribe from east central India) man I met in Bhimaavaram village in East Godavari district of India's Andhra Pradesh (AP) state on a site visit with Yakshi (a Grassroots grantee). 
 
Thirteen years ago, he finished 10th grade and went back to his village in Srikakulam district. The school he was in was in a different area, and he didn’t like the fact that they made him and his other Savaara friends take more Hindu sounding names like Vaikuntha or Mahesh.
 
There were a lot of young people back in his village. They had many questions about what kinds of development serves people. Vaikuntha and his friends talked a lot about this and felt they should get organized. Around that time a Savaara organization called Chinna Adivasi Vikas Sangham (CAVS) came to their village; it had been working to organize and empower Savaaras in Srikakulam district. Vaikuntha and his friends saw the work CAVS was doing as a sustainable and economic way of working and living. 
Bhoodevi, a Savaara activist and organizer with CAVS explained the Forest Rights Act (FRA) to the local villagers and told them how to claim rights under it for tribals.
 
“On seeing the work of CAVS I was impressed and decided I wanted to get involved” Vaikuntha told me. “Forest issues are very important for us Adivasis (indigenous peoples), as we live in and depend on forests. They are everything to us. We also want to reclaim and resurface our identity, which, in turn, is tied to our forests.” In the course of his organizing with CAVS Vaikuntha met Pandu (another Adivasi leader from East Godavari district). Pandu told him about a session on GMOs that he was organizing. “I couldn’t go so my friend Rajesh went and recorded it for me so I could access it later”, he said.
 
“On learning about the FRA from activists like Bhoodevi and Pandu I realized I could work in my village on demands related to the FRA. Through my work with CAVS I met Madhoo (from Yakshi) and also other Savaaras, including from Odisha state. That ignited my interest in our language and culture. In 2011, at a meeting where Madhoo and Sagari (from Anthra, a sister organization of Yakshi) also were, I brought up an idea of a meeting for all Savaaras.”
 
The Savaaras have a festival honoring their dead once every 10 years – it’s an old tradition that brings all Savaaras together. Vaikuntha felt this could be a model – but something less grand, and more often. Like once a year, to bring his people together. “I learned over the course of my work that I had gotten a lot from my parents and grandparents; and if I didn’t take care of what I’d received – land, forests, culture, language – that I wouldn’t be able to pass it on to my future generations. For me, seeing my land and forests and culture as something to pass on to my descendants is as much, if not more important than seeing it as something I inherited.”
 
A big challenge he sees is that there are lots of government schemes in villages to train youth and find them jobs in cities or markets – essentially moving them off their lands, their forests, and their rivers – to open those up for exploitation. Like in many other parts of the world, India's Adivasis (indigenous peoples), numbering some 60 million, inhabit some of the most mineral, forest, or water rich areas of the country.  
 
He and his friends feel it’s important to remain and work with other youth to stay on their lands, and work the lands and through that maintain their culture, traditions, languages etc. “We’ve built a community center that is involved in seed and livestock preservation, revival, and exchange. We also engage in political education and discussion. And we are furthering the concept of Bangsa Mandringa (El Buen Vivir – Living Well – in the Savaara language).”
 
The Savaaras have revived dakorjangber, a local council. According to Vaikuntha, “as youth we were alienated from our culture. The dakor is a space where youth, elders, women all come together to discuss everything that affects our lives. Gram Sabhas and other imposed institutions dilute our culture. We as youth have been working to revive our own institutions.”
 
Since the work of CAVS and other Adivasi organizations in the area, 12 villages cut down cashew monoculture plantations and are now doing shifting cultivation in the traditional style. “We gave them seeds as part of our seed sharing towards seed sovereignty and food sovereignty. It’s important for all Adivasis to realize food sovereignty and manchi jeevitham.” 
 
CAVS and the other Adivasi organizations work across scheduled/non-scheduled areas in all Adivasi areas. The irony is that the government imposition of monoculture in scheduled areas meant a loss of shifting cultivation, of food security and sovereignty. In non-scheduled areas the government didn’t care as much and so shifting cultivation survived. As a result food sovereignty is more real, in terms of agrobiodiversity being more secure.
 
Vaikuntha has also been an active member of the Adivasi Aikya Vedika (AAV). “AAV is a space where I maybe Savaara, someone else is Gond, or Kondareddy. But finally we are all Adivasis – branches of the same tree. We come together to share, draw strength from each other, learn from each other, strategize together. It is possible to do this at the local and state level but now also at the national level. In January 2012 we had a national working group meeting. We hosted Adivasis from all states here in AP at Yakshi’s center", he added smiling. 
 
"Many of us from AP came as observers as we thought we should not have an excessive number of AP delegates participating. The next meeting is in February 2013 and will be hosted by Adivasis in Jharkhand. I hope to participate in that session.”
 
“My other major priority – and this is a priority for Savaaras in general – is to bring together all Savaaras from both AP and Odisha states. This should be a political space for self-determination. AAV has helped us get here. We want to determine for ourself – as Savaaras – our future.”