Despite impressive national progress that occurred with the 1990s sea change away from democratic socialism and toward economic liberalization, large numbers of Indians remain desperately poor and plagued by a lack of educational and economic opportunities, often corrupt and unresponsive bureaucrats, and an inability to secure basic property rights.
Introduction: One Poor Village and an NGO
Despite impressive national progress that occurred with the 1990s sea change away from democratic socialism and toward economic liberalization, large numbers of Indians remain desperately poor and plagued by a lack of educational and economic opportunities, often corrupt and unresponsive bureaucrats, and an inability to secure basic property rights. What follows is an essay focusing upon the collaboration of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) and a rural village, whose residents were among the poorest of India’s poor, to fight for residents’ property rights. This is one story of one village but it is reflective of a national movement this NGO helped to create. Villagers and NGO workers, through author interviews, tell this story of ownership and subsequent examples of the consequences for real people and their families. The essay concludes with a short account of the evolution of the NGO collaborators.
“Before I had title to my land, life was very, very bad,” explained Aarsi through a translator. “Now life is very good.1 My brother and I had five families to feed. Rains used to wash away our crops. There were no roads, no vehicles, no jobs to get to, and no income. We couldn’t leave because Forest Department officials wouldn’t allow us to take anything with us. If the officials wanted plantation work, they forced one person from each household to work for them for no pay.”
Vasava Aarsibhai “Aarsi” Bhangdabhai is from Vandri, the interior-most village of Dediapada, which is located in Gujarat, India’s westernmost state. He described a transformation in the state of Gujarat then governed by Narendra Modi, now India’s Prime Minister. A property rights revolution is taking root and is reaching across rural India, securing land titles for hundreds of thousands of farmers. Farm families were desperately poor and terribly abused. Life was at the lowest imaginable state of existence, as the “tribals” of Gujarat are considered outside the caste system in India. Control of their lands had been taken away by the British colonial administration for national forests and, upon gaining independence, authority was transferred to an Indian National Forest Department. Centuries of traditional land use were swept aside by decree.
“The people lived in squalor,” said Trupti Mehta, lawyer for the Action Research in Community Health and Development (ARCH) center. “They hovered around fires in the bitter cold of winter for lack of clothing, blankets, and shelter. They scrounged for tubers to eat. Their huts were straw and demolished at the whim of the authorities,” Trupti explained on our four-hour journey over rudimentary mountain roads to Sagai village from ARCH headquarters in the city of Baroda.2
“These people were constantly beaten by forestry officials and the local police,” she continued. “They had no rights to use the land or the woods—no bamboo, no teak, no crops. They were treated as encroachers on their own land. Forestry officials would fine them, force them to labor for the government, wreck their homes and fields, seize their livestock. They were treated as subhuman.” “There is much teak in the forest,” said Aarsi, “but we weren’t allowed to use the wood or to build houses. When a tree fell down we’d bury it—hide it and make it look old. Then before building something with the wood, we’d paint it black and cover the walls with cow dung. If we were found out, officials beat us or fined us. If we were too poor to pay fines, then they beat us more and took our chickens.”3
1. Vasava Aarsibhai “Aarsi” Bhangdabhai (farmer) in discussion with the author, January 17, 2015.
2. Trupti Mehta (lawyer) in discussion with the author, January 12, 2014.
3. Aarsi, discussion, January 17, 2015.