As we entered Mendha Lekha village in Dhanora Tehsil of Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, one thing which will surprise you the most is that almost every household has grown pumpkin or native beans (wal) and has goats or poultry or cow in their backyard.
The livelihood of 300-odd people of Gond tribe community in Mendha is dependent on forest produce and farming. The village has community forest rights on 1,800 hectares of forest land under the Forest Rights Act 2006. Then there is a 100 hectare of farmland under the “individual rights” of all the residents.
Following centuries-old traditions, the close-knit tribal village grows only food crops such as rice and pulses, mainly for its own consumption. While, vegetables are grown in the backyard, in every household, eggs, chicken and mutton are also available at home. Barring purchase of small items like salt, spices, tea and utensils, which is usually a monthly affair, tribal families do very little cash transactions.
“We hardly need cash above few hundreds. The money we earn by selling tendu and bamboo is disbursed to all villagers through bank accounts only. Hence, demonetization has no effect in my village,” says Devaji Tofa, the village leader of Medha, known for grassroots democracy. He is credited with transforming his village into a rich, self-reliant entity by heading a successful campaign to acquire community forest rights for the Mendha Gram Sabha in 2011, emulated by over 1,300 villages of the district later.
While a large part of urban and rural India is facing hardships due to the cash crunch in banks since demonetization, Tribal villages in Naxal-affected Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra seem to be largely unaffected by the move mainly because of self-reliance and adopting banking. The district has nearly 4.8 lakh tribal population, 40% of the total headcount. Maharashtra is home to one crore tribals, who account for nearly 10% of the population in the state.
The “big cash component” comes into the picture in the Gadchiroli tribal villages only when they sell tendu leaves, bamboo and some other minor forest produce.
This is an annual affair for tendu and other produce and once in 3-4 years for bamboo. Over 1,300 gram sabhas and their residents have bank accounts. Each gram sabha has around 50-100 households, earning up to Rs 40 lakh to Rs 1.5 crore by selling tendu and bamboo. “The earnings are then distributed equally among all, through online mode only,” says Bavsa Pave from Mohgaon, a village nearly 50 km away from Gadchiroli city.
The tribals, whose livelihood is primarily based on forests produce and farming, largely remain as a close-knit family even now. They exchange farm produce, celebrate together and help each other in crisis.
“We grow rice and pulses in fields while vegetables like beans, pumpkin are grown in the backyard. For constructing home, we use sand and wood from our own forests. All we need is just a few hundred rupees to purchase fruits and other items which are not grown here. Rs 500 or Rs 1,000 never comes into picture, hence no worries,” says Dinesh Tekam, a farmer from Dhanora.
Most of the children study in tribal residential schools and the youngsters, a few of them, study in colleges in big cities and live in hostels supported by the government.
For big festivals and feasts, which are a community celebration, Gond and Madia tribes go and hunt bigger animals like deer and wild pigs from deep forests. “We have been doing so since ages but we have some strict rules to conserve the nature. A hunter attempts for only three consecutive days. If he fails to get a wild animal, then we abandon it altogether for that festival,” said villagers from Laheri village in Bhamragad tehsil.
Other 15 tribal districts in the state are also largely unaffected in the demonetization drive albeit due to different reasons. Since community and individual forest rights are poorly implemented in these districts, people suffer due to lack of livelihood resources. For instance, villages in Palghar and Amravati (Melghat) struggle with poverty and malnutrition. “Being cashless is not a choice but a compulsion for many of us,” says a Palghar villager, who lost his child to malnutrition in May.
In Nandurbar, Thane and Nanded, which have sizeable tribal population, most tribals are either farmers with small land holdings or farm labourers. “Many of them have never seen Rs 1,000 or Rs 2,000 note for that matter. Their needs are minimum,” said Gowardhan Munde, a teacher from Kinwat, Nanded.
“Cops inquire whether we carry Naxals’ money”
Many villagers in Naxal-affected Gadchiroli district charged security personnel of highhandedness and unnecessary questioning while they queued up outside banks to deposit now invalid currencies. “Police personnel unnecessarily harassed us by asking whether we are depositing own money or that of Naxals’. Those who came with higher amounts were questioned by the cops at many places,” claimed Ramdas Jarate, a tribal activist in Gadchiroli.
Villagers had to travel 50-60 km to reach to their nearest banks, a part of which was on foot, to deposit banned notes in the initial few weeks. Some had to spend the entire night outside when they failed to get cash. Only handful of banks and ATMs exist in the district, while the tehsils have just one or two.