Anna Kujur (53) is a fearless Adivasi leader from the Sundergarh district of Odisha. Sundergarh is a predominantly tribal district in north-west Odisha where over half the population is Adivasis, who depend on forest produce and agriculture for their livelihood.

Since 2002, Anna di ( a revered term for older sister) as she is popularly known in Odisha,  has organised the Adivasis in the district under the Athkosia Adivasi Sangathan. She has  helped over 30,000 Adivasis realise their claims to land and forest rights under the Forest Rights Act,2006. She has managed to do all with very meagre resources, with the power of collective action.

“ We have strengthened our Sangathan with a ‘Handful of rice’”, she told BehanBox.

Edited excerpts from an interview with Anna Kujur.

What were the circumstances which compelled you and women of your area to assert their rights and work for the forest and land rights in Sundergarh District.

First of all, people in the forest dwelling areas did not have any proof or record of their land on which they lived. Agriculture and collecting the Minor Forest Produce such as Mahul, Char were their main options for livelihood.

They wanted their children to be educated even though they themselves were illiterate. They needed certificates if they wanted to send their children to education institutions. Earlier, the Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) used to issue the relevant certificate but that certificate did not work for college admissions.

In 2000, people from Bhubaneswar came and told us about forest and land rights. A Forest Officer had earlier told us that a  household survey would be done, where those with a home and forest land would be given titles which would help their children get education and secure their livelihood. I attended a training in Ujalpur, Tangarpalli Block. After this, I realised that we needed to mobilise people if we wanted to apply for the title over the forestland.

Thus, I started my Sangathan in 2002. We held meetings in every village some 5 to 6 times in every village. We gathered both men and women and made them understand the need for the title of forest land and the process to get titles. Thereafter, we went from village to village to create awareness among the people to enable them to assert their rights over their land and forest.

How did things change after the Forest Rights Act was legislated? How did the Sangathan become a powerful force in Sundergarh?

The Forest Rights Act came in 2006 but I had initiated the work a year before- in 2005. I took the help of RI (Revenue Inspectors) and worked privately and mapped the forest land of the community members.

I trained people, especially the young leaders in the region to file the claim application under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. We mapped the forest land privately, calculated the area of land and then the youth of the region themselves filed the claim application of their respective villages for title over their forest land. Around 100 young people from the region participated in the process. It took around 5 to 9 days in each village to complete the process.

During the Joint Verification under the FRA 2006, I requested the Revenue Inspector and Forest Official to give them proper claims.

The Forest Rights Act 2006 states that title should be granted to the tribals who are in possession since 15th December 2005. But these community members have been living here since 60-70 years, since their ancestors.  Thus, you cannot decrease or cut an inch of Land, from the area for recognition of their forest land .

Even forest officials also agreed to my demands. The Sangthan also got strengthened. It is a a people’s forum and  we ourselves contributed a handful of rice and Rs 10-20 each household collectively. We strengthened our sangthan with our ‘Handful of Rice’.

During wheat cultivation, we used to do ‘Wheat Panthi’ (Collectively contribute and Collect wheat and sell it) and use the revenue for the sangthan and forest and land rights work.

Now everyone is aware. The ones who submitted all the required documents such as Aadhar Card, testimony of Old Age Person, signature, voter card. They got title over the forest land for which they had applied. For those who failed to submit their signature and other required documents, we have also submitted the forms again. We are hoping that they get their titles soon.

I must have helped in securing  titles for 30,000 people over their forest land. Until the day  my eyes are closed, I will continue to ensure that people get their titles and most importantly get their forest land demarcation.

What is the message you would like to give to young Adivasis?

First of All, I would like the young people to learn from their parents about how they are fighting for their rights over their land and forest so that they are able to teach another generation.

Secondly, I hope that young people are able to resist companies. I have myself shut down 2 -3 factories in my area- iron sponge factory and Bhushan Steel.

The young people will have to protect themselves and their children from these companies who are snatching our lands. If they will learn our practices and knowledge, then along with their strength they can fight against these companies.

Our time is nearly over. I hope that the tribal youth stand up for their rights and I firmly believe they will become second Anna and pave way for third generation of Anna.

What message would you like to give to Adivasi women?

Women are spearheading the movements and it is us who will protect this Motherland. Women in the villages are taking trainings, not only for forming Self-Help Groups (SHG), but also for forest and land rights and dealing with governance and administration. They are now heading the tribal rights movements. I firmly believe that women will not only protect Odisha but also India.

[Archana Soreng is a Research Officer at Vasundhara Odisha- an NGO working on Sustainable Livelihood & Economic Democratization, Natural Resource Governance & Tribal Rights based in Odisha, India]

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