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Modern freedom fighters of India

Aug 18, 2009

As India celebrates its 62nd independence day, a leading Indian magazine, Tehelka takes a look at those who are fighting to keep its democracy alive. These torchbearers for the poor and oppressed are trying to show us the way forward for a more humane society.

Magline Peter, 41, leads a massive movement of fish workers that is learning to fight everything from climate change to superstition.

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Ten lakh fishermen and fisherwomen, in 222 coastal villages and 113 inland fishery villages, along Kerala’s 590 km coastline. Chances are Magline Peter has met all of them at some point. Every now and then one of the women will tease Magline and ask her what she is so worked up about. “I am angry because I have to protect my community, my father and mother, my family and friends, my sea, my coast,” says Magline.

Miracles among the fish

Magline is the state convenor of the Theeradesa Mahila Vedi, the women’s wing of the Kerala Swathanthra Malsya Thozhilali Federation (KSMTF or Kerala Independent Fishworkers Federation). The massive community organisation is no windy, exploitative trade union weighed down by acronyms or political parties.

Though the federation was once synonymous with the Latin Catholic community, there has been decisive action to make it secular and inclusive of other religions, all the way up from the trenches to the leadership. Magline’s community- based organisation is a live-wire entity that responds quickly and consistently to the challenges faced by fishworkers in an extremely difficult world: greedy trawlers, globalisation, climate change.

Magline became an active community leader after she met her husband Peter Thayil, a fellow activist with the KSMTF who was organising meetings at her village Veliyaveli in 1986, though her mother was already an active member of the union. Today, Magline’s daughter, studying for an MBA, sees herself as a part of this movement. Magline has been key in evolving the strong women’s movement among the fisherpeople.

Traditionally, in south Kerala women used to collect and sell fish caught by their community’s men. Today they must buy fish from big contractors and deal with a market as unpredictable and as shark-filled as the seas. The state did not even recognise them as part of the fishing industry. It took TMV leaders like Magline a long while to change that.

To understand how far TMV had to go one has to hear about a seemingly trivial concession they gained from the state. In the 1980s women fish vendors were not allowed to travel in buses or trains with their baskets. The way to the market meant miles of walking. Work, family, leisure and livelihood suffered. Fisherwomen had been injured when the helpful public pushed them out of buses. TMV organised massive protests that eventually led to increased bus services from villages to markets and even a train bogey on one major route.

At the markets themselves the vendors faced violence, sexual assault and attacks from goondas and politicians. This apart from the assumption that they did not need infrastructure to conduct business.

Over the years they have picketed, held rallies, resisted arrest and downed their baskets, and won their livelihood inch by bloodied inch. All this while combating a culture that displays its mixed feelings about its powerful women through superstitions (such as the one that if women sit with untied hair when the men go fishing, there will be huge waves in the sea).

Magline has a humbling ability to switch from the local to the global, from the seemingly small to the massive. She can talk about state-wide representation for women vendors or climate change with equal passion.

Magline herself has participated in agitations with Sardar Sarovar project-affected villagers in the Narmada valley, with dalit and tribal people fighting for land rights across India, with people affected by industrial pollution, with the women’s movement.

It seemed natural that eventually her organisation played a key role in founding the World Forum of Fisher peoples — a necessary formation when their future is affected by a state that thinks it can give away fishing rights to American, Scandinavian and Japanese fishing vessels, dredging the sea for their dinner plates. Or when fish workers are affected by natural disasters, the WTO or fish diseases.

Everyday, Magline says, she gains courage from the lakhs of women fishworkers and vendors who are financially independent — strong and opinionated women who despite the most violent state action are able to continue doing what they do, while also fighting for their livelihoods, sea and coast.

The pied piper of parks

Roma, 44, lobbied in favour of the Forest Rights Act against a State impervious to the possibility of a civil war.

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Roma had just finished a masters degree in social work from a Delhi college. She found herself gripped with the anxieties of a young urban woman. “I was scared my parents would get me married if I stayed in the city,” she says.

“I wanted to explore and understand rural India before settling down.” But Roma never married or settled down. Her exploration into the interiors of Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan’s villages and the forests of Uttar Pradesh changed her in fundamental ways. She began reading Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh, and understanding “the politics of a forest life.”

Two decades later, Roma, 44, is one of the founders of the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers. The forum was instrumental in lobbying for the landmark Forest Rights Act passed in 2006, which recognised the rights of adivasis to their own forests for the first time in India. Initially, the act was only meant for scheduled castes and tribes. “We fought to have it amended to include other forest dwellers who may not be adivasis,” she says. “The adivasis wanted it changed to prevent a civil war.”

In August 2007, Roma organised a mass protest in UP to have the Forest Rights Act implemented. She was in Lucknow for a meeting days later when she heard the police may arrest her. Roma returned to her base in Sonbhadra because “it’s better to be arrested in front of the public.” She was booked under the Forest Act, and under criminal sections of the IPC. Soon, she was labelled a Maoist and booked under the National Security Act. The locals wreaked havoc for the 20 days Roma was in jail.

For 20 days, thousands of adivasis from three districts, mostly women, blocked roads, beat up the police, got beaten up, got condemned as Maoists, but refused to budge. The Mayawati government had to revoke the NSA. “I got out only because of the people’s protest,” Roma says. “If there was a BJP government, I would be an unknown Binayak Sen.”

Roma’s journey began as a college graduate working with rural development NGOs. “They were just a delivery service,” she says. “There was no attempt to bring a qualitative change in the lives of people. The moment the project stops, everything stops.”

Opposed to social work that “leads from the outside,” Roma searched for ways to immerse herself inside rural communities. She found the opportunity in the Rajari National Park spread across Uttarakhand and UP. There she lived in dense forests with indigenous people who cooked with forest wood and earned their livelihood by making ropes from wild grass. But every time the adivasis took from the forest, forest officials harassed them with false cases of illegally damaging State property. Desperate, the adivasis went out at night, only to be trampled over by wild elephants.

“A man is worth 1.5 paise,” forest officials said when Roma asked for help, “but an elephant is worth 1.5 lakh.” In 1992, Roma spearheaded a local movement against forest department exploitation – Ghar Shetra Mazdoor Sangharsh Samiti. “We declared we are not afraid, and demanded our rights,” Roma says. After the Samiti formed, locals marched into the forest by day, united. The forest officials had to back off. In 1996, the UP government agreed to make official forest depots and passed an order which “allowed” adivasis “to take grass and fuel wood from the forest.” It was levied on five other national parks in UP.

Roma now lives and works in Sonbhadra district, in the Kamo region of UP, rich with minerals, fossil fuels and rock paintings. Producing 10,000 MW of power, Sonbhadra is also called the ‘energy capital’ of India. The 500 villages in the district have seen no benefits.

“Their lands were transferred illegally to the forest department and declared forest land,” Roma says, “so there has been no development here.” She spearheaded the formation of a Kamo Shetra Mahila Mazdur Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, and inspired locals to fight the State and the police.

Adivasis and farmers united; they reclaimed 20,000 hectares of forest land in the Kamo region. “My biggest achievement is forming groups of people and awakening a collective political consciousness among them,” she says. “They are moving away from Maoist control. Their consciousness is far beyond the Maoists. They’ll do anything to fight for their rights.”

To read the profile of other activists, please click here]

Source : Tehelka
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