October 11, 2020

Maharashtra: Tribal Women Fight Two Pandemics – Nature-made and Modi-made!

Prachi Hatiwlekar

THE unprecedented situation due to the Corona pandemic and the lockdown has not only aggravated the grim situation of women but also exposed the anti-people, anti-women policies and patriarchal ideology of the BJP-led central government.

The year 2020 started in Maharashtra on a positive note. The AIDWA 12th national conference concluded with enthusiasm in Mumbai on the eve of the new year. Thereafter, in January and February, AIDWA women in many districts like Mumbai, Thane, Sangli, Solapur and Pune came out in support of the Shaheen Bagh-like protests in those districts. And then the Covid lockdown began in March. AIDWA activists in many districts came out to help the migrant workers and the poor with food and other essentials.   

Let us take a quick look at the Adivasi women of Thane-Palghar, which is the largest district in the state in both movement and membership so far as AIDWA work is concerned.

This tribal society has been socio-economically very poor, deprived and backward. Till 75 years ago when the famous adivasi revolt began in 1945, it had been plagued by landlords and moneylenders. The All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) under the exemplary leadership of Godavari Parulekar fought hard to free them from slavery. Women are still more backward with an extremely simple life, having just the bare minimum needs to survive. Most of them survive on just dal rice, that too only twice a day. They can’t even afford the luxury of making varieties of curries. Whatever vegetables are available; they will put in the dal and eat it with rice. Many times they cook without oil. Not for any fancy dieting fad but for the obvious reason of unaffordability.

Agriculture here is just paddy farming with whatever small forest land they have in their possession. Sixteen years after passing the Forest Rights Act by the then central government, they are still waiting to get it registered in their names. The struggle for this land is still on. Women are at the forefront of it directly facing the repression of forest officers. With the aggressive anti-farmer measures of the Modi regime, this fight has become more intense.

Apart from sowing paddy in heavy rains, there is hardly any employment available in the villages. Men go out in search of work leaving women at home for harvesting and threshing, only to return home directly in the next rainy season. Nearly half of the tribal population migrates after the monsoon for livelihood, with or without their families. Thousands of tribals go for fishing in the sea. Women run their houses with whatever work is available like selling of fruits and vegetables.

The declaration of the sudden lockdown proved terrible.  All of them lost their jobs and had to come back. Their earnings stopped. Local workers and agricultural labourers, a large number of whom were women, suddenly lost their jobs. Migrants somehow returned with whatever vehicles they could find or were forced to walk for miles. In the Dahanu coastal area, thousands of fishermen were stranded in the sea. Our activists supplied them food for three weeks until they could be brought back. For this women had to wade through 3-4 feet of seawater to the small boats. 

Many women were forced to liquidate their savings, borrow money from moneylenders just to raise money for transport to enable their men to return home. The question of what to eat arose after coming back. They had to subsist on free ration supplied by government and NGOs.

In addition, the monsoon was delayed. Corona patients, meanwhile, began to be found. There were no proper facilities in government hospitals. The public health system for diseases other than Corona was non-functional. This affected pregnant women the most.

Then came the stunning news of the 30 year-old tribal woman, Mangala Wagh committing suicide after strangulating her three-year-old daughter, Roshni, due to starvation in the remote Jawhar tehsil.

In this overall alarming situation, AIDWA resolved to step in, irrespective of all lockdown restrictions. We organised conventions in seven tehsils of Thane-Palghar district. Initially, our activists were sceptical about their success. However, our women moved village to village and distributed 5,000 leaflets. This campaign made us aware of the frightening ground reality. The questions by helpless women traumatised our activists.

The AIDWA tehsil conventions were held in the first week of September and the response was impressive, despite the lockdown. Palghar (570), Talasari (400), Shahapur (400), Wada (360), Vikramgad (350), Jawhar (100) and Dahanu (100), making it a total of over 2,300 women. Other than our leaders, women from all villages were encouraged to speak. These speeches if documented are the real voice of Indian women, even the non-tribals. Their comments would be an eye-opener for our insensitive and shameless rulers.

Women said that they would prefer to die during protests, then due to Corona. Now, we are less afraid of the disease and more of the starvation. Gulab Rayat from village Awdhani said, “Their ‘Ram’ has gone and sat in the mandir at Ayodhya. He will never give us food. It is only our women’s organisation that will help us to solve our problems.” Many demands about ration, employment and public health facilities were discussed.

Young girls expressed their fear of being denied education due to the online system. Most of them cannot afford smartphones. With 2-3 children in the family and whatever money is available, only boys in the family are privileged to study. Naturally, girls who are often forced to leave their education halfway to reduce family expenses, are the first to be denied online education.

In all these conventions, along with our demand charter of August 28, we demanded Khawti (free grain and cash subsidy by the state government to tribals in natural calamities) of Rs 5,000, that too only to the woman of the house. This demand was accepted by the state government and now all tribal families have been granted Khawti worth Rs 4,000 – Rs 2,000 in cash and Rs 2,000 in kind. AIDWA in Thane, Palghar and Nashik districts took the initiative of filling up these forms and will launch a consistent struggle until women actually get this relief. This is an important victory, but there is much more which is still to be achieved.

The post-Corona world will come up with new sets of problems for women, which need to be dealt with new sets of solutions. AIDWA Maharashtra is committed to find and fight for these solutions.