Category Archives: Rights

Indigenous People, Rights, SRI, Video


It’s dusk and that point in the day when all is still but for the occasional distant clatter of pans or the whoops of a few children still at play. The sun stretches shadows across the fields as the cows are being brought in from pasture.

From nowhere, the tranquillity is shattered by the blast of a megaphone that emerges atop a 4 x 4: “Vote Nilima Topno!! Vote Ath-Kosia!!” The vehicle sweeps to a halt outside our building and three women climb out, all appear bristling with election fever.

They have been on the campaign trail for some time and are ready with their pitches:

My name is Nilima Topno, I am the President of a People’s Organisation called Ath-Kosia Tribal People’s Organisation.

Namaskar … My name is Ahalya Sa and I am working with the CIRTD team in Sundergar District.

Namaskar … I’m Cicilia Kandulna and I too work with CIRTD.

“Our organisation is 25,000 people strong and fights for indigenous people’s rights,” explains Nilima. “We started out with the aim of getting rights on forest land.”

Orissa state in eastern India is home to 62 different tribal groups, the vast majority are forest dwellers who rely on forest land for their living.  

Across India, there are 250 million forest dwellers. Most of them are so marginalised they do not have any recognised land rights or access to government support. This means their lives are precarious. They could get evicted from the land at any time, cannot access vital benefits and cannot even register their children in schools.

Ahalya Sa explains what her organisation is working towards: “Those who depend exclusively on the land and forest to earn their livelihood need a ‘record of rights’ – or land title – to give them some sort of security. They have that right under the ‘Forest Right Act of 2006’, which states that individual families can claim title on the land that they have been cultivating for their living.”

Unfortunately, for a vast number of those who have such rights, obtaining their title certificate is not so easy. The Centre for Integrated Rural and Tribal Development, CIRTD, is helping members of local tribes here understand that they have such rights and how to apply for them. In Orissa, progress has been very slow. “We have managed to get titles for 2000 of our families,” says Ahalya, “and now we are continuing the struggle so that all 25,000 of our members can get titles.”

Meanwhile CIRTD is also working with Ath-Kosia to help members get the most out of the land and their forest resources. Much work has gone into training people on how to improve their agricultural techniques and increase the nutritional content of their diets. And in this they have concentrated on providing support to the most vulnerable within these already marginalised and deprived communities.

“I focus on the problems and struggles of single women,” explains Cecilia. “There are many types of single women such as widows, spinsters, divorcees and physically challenged girls.” In culturally traditional communities, like here in Sundergar in the north of Orissa, the status of ‘single woman’ is a badge of shame. “These are people in our society who suffer the most,” continues Cecilia “they are the most deprived but unfortunately there are no specific government schemes for them.”

Cecilia, Ahalya and Nilima have been working with CIRTD to encourage these women that there is strength in unity and that practicing agricultural techniques that are high yielding and low cost, as well as less physically demanding, will help them gain some independence of their own so they do not rely on the families and even communities that might reject them.

This is where SRI has proven itself to be highly effective. The System of Rice Intensification is a way of planting rice that requires less seed, smaller seedlings, favours indigenous varieties and organic inputs while producing higher yields and more nutritious crops.

All these factors also have an important impact on women’s health: “Talking with doctors and according to what I have seen for myself” says Nata Mishra, the founder of CIRTD, “most women suffer from back pain because they have to bend for 8-10 hours a day to transplant their rice. And they do this regularly.”

He goes on to explain that there are a number of advantages of working with SRI that can really help to eliminate the physical hardship that conventional rice growing typically brings. As SRI requires up to 90% fewer seedlings, which are much smaller and lighter, the method greatly reduces the arduous physical labour normally required.

“And also,” continues Mishra, “many are developing cervical cancer and breast cancer which I think may be from inhaling pesticides. I think there is a serious need for scientific study into this problem.”

Nilima agrees that SRI has real physical benefits: “We bend over to transplant much less now. So, our problems with body pain have been reduced. And we use a weeding machine, which means we can stand up to weed instead of spending all day bent over uprooting weeds with our hands.

Nilima points out that another benefit of adopting SRI is that because it frees up their time and workload, members of her association have been able to diversify their crops: “Now we also grow pigeon pea, black gram, green gram. And different types of vegetables. And we eat all this produce. So, we women and our children are now eating much more nutritious food. We eat organic and it gives us more energy. I feel really happy to see these all these positive changes that we’ve worked hard for.”

Evidently these marginalised communities in Sundergar are doing all they can to improve their lives while they wait for forestry officials to follow government legislation and recognise their established rights to their forest lands.

Watch the video

CIRTD, the Centre for Integrated Rural and Tribal Development is supported by Action Aid India.

Empowerment, Food Security, Rights, Video


Sastri Sandha, a member of the milkmaid caste, lives in the rural Sundargarh district, Orissa. Now over 30 years of age, unmarried and landless, she counts among some of the most vulnerable of India’s 1.3 billion citizens. But in the dappled light under the mango tree where we chat, this strong, healthy and eloquent lady seems far from vulnerable. Her parents sit not far away. It’s as though they are monitoring the conversation: as well they might, as we’ve been told that Sastri has been exploited by them for many years, as labour on their agricultural land. Since she never married, she has never been in a position to leave the family home. They have never paid her for her work and she has always been entirely dependent upon them for the roof above her head. However, Sastri does not mention this. Instead she begins by explaining how she has turned this apparently impossible situation around: “My name is Sastri Sandha from Gidhpahadi Village,” she says. “I am a single woman and I am the President of an organisation made up of other similar single women. We now have 300 members!”

Women in India and much of the rest of South Asia are classed as ‘single’ if they are widowed, separated, divorced or over 30 but unmarried. At that age, there is very little hope of marrying and the stigma begins to set in. According to the 2001 census, there are over 40 million single women in India.[1] For educated urbanites, this status might be a lifestyle choice, made with the awareness of what social and family opprobrium this will bring. For the rural poor, the ‘single woman’ status brings with it a customary denial of any land rights, social rejection and reduced earning potential.

“The objective is to give single women some dignity,” says Baideh Kavdi, a member of the Orang tribe, who has also formed a women’s group. “In the past, parents might have taken care of their daughters,” she continues, “but nowadays single women cannot depend on their families to take care of them. We have to be able to live independently.” Sastri agrees: “The problem with our single women is that after separating from their husband, their in-laws don’t give them their land rights, but when they return to their parents’ house then neither the parents nor the brothers will give them land rights either. Another issue is that un-wedded mothers face more problems in getting any such rights. How can such mothers maintain their children?”

Nata Kishor Mishra is a founding member of CIRTD (the Centre for Integrated Rural and Tribal Development), an NGO that promotes the rights of some of the most marginalised people in this area: “We work in the tribal villages and have found that whenever schemes and government facilities arrive, the villagers who are poor and living below the poverty level, often still remain deprived. But among those, when we delve deeper into the problem, further into the analysis, we find a lot of single women are living in the villages and are actually even much more deprived but there is nobody there to speak out for them. In addition the community doesn’t accept them either. If they are living in a house with their brother or sister or parents, the community does not recognise them as part of the family. The community tends to think: ‘No, no, no. She must have done something wrong. That’s why she’s in that state.’”

Collectively giving voice to their claims to rights is a step in the right direction, but without land or work, single women who are reliant on the goodness of relatives or community not to abandon them, have little leverage. However, through the support of CIRTD both Sastri and Baideh have now learned the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and also applied the climate smart method to other crops. “I might be a single woman, but I am also a farmer. I grow vegetables and rice. And I follow the SRI method,” says Sastri. “We now do the work in less time and with less expense. But we get more produce. So we like and prefer SRI.” By collectively leasing land and adopting this high yield, low cost method of farming, the women, together with their colleagues, are ensuring their own food security without having to rely on other community members or family. “We lease the land to grow vegetables, which we sell in the market, says Baideh. “Whatever money we earn is used to provide for our family needs. And we also have money left over. Now, we are able to live with dignity.”

Collectively standing up for themselves has reaped rewards politically as well as in the field. Following a government survey, Sastri’s members won the right to be considered householders, which means they now have the right to ration cards. Next, they intend to push for the all-important land rights that will give them greater security. It is an uphill struggle, but there are laws in India that protect the vulnerable and these single women are raising their voices now so their claims can be heard. “The government pays a Widow’s Pension and a Handicap Pension. In the same way, the government should make a policy for a single women’s pension,” says Baideh. “All single women should get the pension. The government runs different schemes such as Mokudia (Home for Women) and Indra Awas Yojna (for people living below the poverty line) so single women should also benefit from such schemes.”

“When we interact with these women, it’s clear they think: I have done some wrong, that’s why I am in this position,” says Nata Mishra. “But they have not done anything wrong. By bad luck and the process of this society, they have come to this. So, it is a very important thing and I think activists should work more on this to further influence the state government and the national government. There should be several different schemes for them: for land, for accessing other rights and for their livelihood.”

Baideh, Sastri and the women they campaign with have already overcome a great deal and are now, at least, starting to get their voices heard. Meanwhile, it seems, Sastri’s parents are not likely to argue with their daughter any time soon.


Watch the video

The Centre for Intregrated Rural and Tribal Development (CIRTD) works in Sundargarh district of Orissa state, India