A 13-km trek carrying 30-40 kgs of firewood on their heads to earn Rs 150 – the daily life of adivasi women in Panna
At four in the morning, adivasi women of Govindpura village in Madhya Pradesh sally forth with bundles of firewood on their head and trudge the 13 kilometres to sell it to hotel owners. While most of their lives is spent gathering firewood, the forests are shrinking too.
Arun Singh 21 Sep 2022 8:39 AM GMT
Govindpura (Panna), Madhya Pradesh
Anyone visiting Govindpura village in the morning hours will be struck by how there are hardly any women visible there. Only men, children and perhaps a few elderly people can be seen here and there.
That is because almost all other women leave the adivasi village that is in Panna district, Madhya Pradesh, to sell firewood they have gathered. That is the only source of their income.
At four in the morning, they sally forth with bundles of firewood on their head and trudge the 13 kilometres to Devendranagar where they sell firewood and if they have the money to spare take a tempo ride back home or just otherwise walk back the 13 kilometres to get home.
"People who run hotels in Devendranagar buy the wood paying anything up to Rs 150 a bundle. Each bundle of wood that we carry on our heads weighs between 25 and 40 kilos," Kallu Bai, a 46-year-old resident of the village, told Gaon Connection.
"Nearly all of the 80-90 women from ages 15 to 50 years in this village do this. The firewood that they gather from the forests around is their only source of income and their daily food depends on this," she added.
Govindpura lies 22 kilometres from the district headquarters at Panna, and about 400 kms from the state capital Bhopal. It is a tribal inhabited village.
Not just in Govindpur, this is the story of people in several tribal villages in Panna district where it is not uncommon to see lines of women with firewood on their heads walking along the roads towards the nearest towns. Most of their lives is spent gathering firewood and then lugging it for miles to sell it.
"Lack of education, proper livelihood and extreme poverty is a lot among the people in this village," said 60-year-old Maina Adivasi, an inhabitant of Govindpura. And it is the women in the village who are mainly responsible for bringing up their children and ensuring there is food to eat. But life, if anything, is getting even tougher for them if possible.
"I have brought up my five children with the money I made from selling firewood. In the earlier days there were plenty of wooded areas near Govindpura, where we could find firewood easily. But not anymore," Maina told Gaon Connection.
That is the reason she said she has stopped going out as now the tribal women have to trek four to five kilometres to the jungles of Vikrampur and Bilhahar to find wood. "I can't do that anymore and hence I now look after sheep," the 60-year-old said. She worried about the disappearing forest lands and wondered what her fellow villagers would do for a livelihood.
"The problem is worse because the forest officials do not let us bring out firewood on cycles. We can only get that much that we can carry as headloads. If we take cycles, they are confiscated," Kallu Bai said.
No farming, no MGNREGA works
Govindpura that falls in the Mutwankala gram panchayat has about 600 residents. None of them finds work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) that guarantees 100 days of work a year to the rural population.
"The adivasis will only do work that pays them the money on the same day," Ranjit Singh Yadav, the 46-year-old panch, told Gaon Connection. "Those who work under MGNREGA have to wait several days to get paid their dues, and that is the reason they do not want to do this work," he explained.
According to Yadav, if the adivasi menfolk do not get daily wage labour, they preferred to stay home and play cards. "The households run only because of the hard work the women put in," he added.
"Many of Govindpura residents own patta land, but they do not do any farming on them. Because of extreme poverty, most of their lands have been given over to the Yadav community on mortgage," Ranjit Singh Yadav said. He added that the Yadav community did agriculture on those lands and the adivasis were their daily wage labourers.
Not a single inhabitant of Govindpura has passed the tenth standard, said the villagers. This despite the presence of a secondary school in the village and a high school about two kilometres away at Mutwankala.
"It is no school at all. The teacher comes there only to while away time and not to teach the children," Chandu Adivasi, told Gaon Connection. "If they are not taught and if they cannot study, how will they pass any exams," he asked.
Barely any child had studied beyond the eighth standard in the village, said Maina Adivasi. "Our poverty prevents us from sending our children elsewhere to obtain an education. So they are also destined to become labourers like us," she said.
"We are trying to spread awareness about the importance of education amongst the village people," Gyandndra Tiwari, the regional coordinator of a volunteer-social organisation called Swayam Sevi Sanstha Samarthan, a non-profit, told Gaon Connection.
"The women are particularly interested in getting their children to study and they have agreed to the formation of a community school that has only just begun operating," Tiwari said.
It is remarkable how the women in the village have stepped up to make sure the community school runs and their children get a chance to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty they are trapped in.
"That is the reason we are paying fifty rupees a month that we can ill afford to give our children a fighting chance. Our lives are almost done cutting, collecting and selling firewood. We want something better for our children," Phagunia Adivasi from Govindpura, told Gaon Connection. "We want the community school to work so that our children do not grow up to be gamblers and drunkards," she added.
At nine in the morning about 30 children gather in the veranda outside the classrooms of the government secondary school where the community school is run and Mohini Yadav teaches the tribal children.
Mohini, a college student from the neighbouring Mutwankala village, who is pursuing her Bachelor of Arts, teaches the children from 7 am to 9 am. "Out of the money that the women of the village pay, Mohini is paid a salary of Rs 2000 a month," Tiwari said. The voluntary organisation provides the children with slates, copies and other stationery.
Social worker Gyanendra Tiwari said that the non-profit has been working to bring some development to Govindpura as part of the Gram Vikas Yojana 2022-23. "We want to make Govindpura a part and parcel of the Gram Panchayat Vikas Yojana and we are sure if that happens, the poverty in the village can be alleviated," he said.
Involving the community in development work, providing education and health-related initiatives, and ensuring job security through MGNREGA, can go a long way in integrating the adivasi village and help it progress towards a better tomorrow, Tiwari hoped.