Dip Kapoor / Kumar Prasant

This article describes a popular education initiative being utilized by Kondh adivasis (original dwellers) and a partner adivasi NGO in the state of Orissa, India, to improve Kondh prospects for subsistence food production and land security. Dip Kapoor is Adjunct Associate Professor in Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada and President of HELP, a Canadian voluntary development NGO, while Kumar Prasant is President of VICALP, a local adivasi NGO in Berhampur, Orissa, India.

Popular Education and Improved Material and Cultural Prospects for Kondh Adivasis in India


The Kondh adivasis are one of India’s 427 Constitutionally recognized “scheduled tribes” who constitute roughly 8% (88 million) of the Indian population. Numbering over one and a quarter million people (the largest of at least 62 tribal groups in the east coast state of Orissa), the Kondhs are located in the hilly region and valleys of the eastern ghats, spread across seven districts with the largest concentration in Phulbani district. Relatively new to settled cultivation, the Kondhs are primarily hunter-gatherers that have been, according to sketchy historical/anthropological accounts, pushed deeper into the forested regions since 4000 BC through successive waves of marginalization and exploitation at the hands of various “invaders”, including Dravidians, Aryans, the British, the Oriyas and the administrative agents of an independent Indian state.

In 1994, a small group of ten adivasi people registered a local voluntary development non-governmental organization (NGO) by the name of VICALP (or “alternative” in Oriya). With some formal schooling and, in some cases, holding university degrees, these individuals had all worked for large NGOs (international and national) and felt the need to develop an “alternative” to the existing approaches to dealing with poverty and marginalization of adivasis in their region. Having built relationships with various partner Kondh adivasi villages over the years, largely through critical adult education, organization building and activism aimed at resource mobilization from the state, VICALP was in a position to establish a more tangible partnership with 30 villages in 1997 with the help of some external support and people’s contributions from the partner villages.

Popular Education and Critical Dialogue on Destructive Development

Adult popular education is the cornerstone of the approach adopted to social change, as VICALP addresses the psycho-social barriers and material concerns associated with adivasi marginalization, simultaneously. VICALP has chosen to get “tangibly involved” with only those communities that have gradually accepted the need to wean themselves off the “charity approach” to development and social change (i.e., communities that remain in “permanent emergency relief mode”, waiting for aid agencies to provide material aid until funds run out, at which point the dependent community simply waits for the next “cargo ship”), opting instead for a critically informed organized activism concerned with control over resources, social-cultural justice and autonomy for the adivasis. VICALP’s hope is to build a non-violent social movement of adivasi “constructive resistance” to state-corporate led “destructive development” that has challenged their ability to co-exist as indigenous cultures. The hope is to enhance the current and long-term material and cultural prospects for the Kondh adivasis (and other social groups who might join the struggle) within the political context of the Indian union, by utilizing popular democratic activism to activate existing policies and constitutional guarantees (or agitate for legal/policy reform when necessary) pertaining to tribes, as understood in terms of the adivasi existence-rationality.

Inspired by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, popular education as understood and applied by VICALP has meant an education that galvanizes Kondhs to actively address a historical process of marginalization through the development of critical awareness of the social structural constraints that contribute towards their marginalization. More importantly, popular education encourages Kondhs to recognize their role as agents and subjects who can resist, reform and/or mold these constraints to address their own interests and their cultural and material survival as adivasis. VICALP and the Kondhs engage in a democratic dialogue on issues that emerge from their experience of exploitation with a view to uncovering the social structural contribution towards problems of poverty, cultural marginalization, gender discrimination and casteism, while simultaneously considering the idea that if such structures are imposed by those in power, they can be challenged through resistance and conscious activism aimed at reversing power and domination. Organization and strategic action to address this possibility are integral to the process of democratization encouraged by such popular interventions.

Critical dialogue between VICALP and the Kondhs has made it abundantly clear that Kondh concerns are predominantly tied to questions of land/forest related insecurity. As forest-dwellers, the Kondhs rely on the forests and the land for their subsistence and their cultural survival as a people (their aranya sanskriti or forest culture: they became cultivators over the last century out of necessity - a change that is still accepted with some degree of “guilt”, given that cultivation is viewed as a violation of the earth deity/mother goddess). Consequently, critical dialogue between VICALP’s popular educators and the Kondh communities often centers on national development and land/forest related issues.

While Kondhs recant their history of displacement through stories recited by their elders, punctuated with details of recent displacements/evictions narrated by adults who have had to deal with the lower cadre of the state bureaucracy on a regular basis, VICALP’s popular educators attempt to make explanatory links for these occurrences by referring to colonialism and post-independent developmentalism/nationalism and the implications of these changes for Kondh marginalization from the forests and the land.

Popular educators explain that the British Forestry Act of 1865, which then became the Indian Forest Act of 1874 (and has essentially remained intact since) clearly establishes state ownership of the forests, while also giving the state the authority to define what constitutes a “forest” (Section 2[3]). Furthermore, a complex land classification process has led to the de-tribalization of land and the destruction of forests as forests were removed from the moral subsistence economy of provision for the adivasi and inserted into the political economy of profit and limitless accumulation for state-capital led development. Through the establishment of reserved forests (reserved for national defence, communications, industry and purposes of “public importance”), revenue forests, fodder land etc., the state controlled the use of space in a manner that ignored the adivasis’ traditional rights to the commons, reducing them to the status of encroachers or providing them with grudging concessions, such as the increasingly shrinking village forest classification intended for people’s use. Tribals have no legal rights in “reserved forests”, which are being exploited for revenue by the Orissa Forest Corporation and by private industry, which is being provided with logging contracts and cheap monopoly leasing licenses on non-timber forest products (NTFP) under the state NTFP policy.

Popular educators point out that these political-economic-legal structures have been justified by a sense of cultural superiority and the ethnocentric belief that adivasis are in need of civilizing and civilization or, worse still, are of no consequence and are expendable if necessary, in the interests of national development and the “public interest”. Examples are used to illustrate adivasi struggles against such treatment, such as the Bhilala adivasi struggle against displacement by the Narmada River Valley Project, which will necessitate the displacement of 1.4 million people, or the various struggles against mining operations, 97% of which are located in predominantly adivasi regions of India.

Developing and Activating a Strategy for Improving Food and Land Security

Prompted by a critical appreciation of the social structural impediments to social change, such as those alluded to, critical dialogue also includes strategic discussion to improve Kondh community prospects for food and land/forest security. The informational and strategic knowledge of VICALP’s popular educators is integral to this exchange as people are often unaware of constitutional guarantees, the law and policy pertaining to adivasi concerns, not to mention of administrative structures and procedural issues when dealing with various governmental departments. Such knowledge informs the process of constructing a response to adivasi domination.

Given the existing classification scheme for land and forests, Kondhs have been essentially defined as and forced into the permanent category of encroachers and squatters on public land/forests, for the most part. They often do not have pattas/deeds over hutment area land either, and are consequently in constant dread of forced eviction from their “illegal temporary domicile”. Even when legally permitted to use certain classifications of land for subsistence, revenue inspectors and tehsildars have taken advantage of Kondh ignorance in such matters and have either forcibly evicted them or allowed them to stay on land in return for bribes. The traditional Kondh response has been evasion, payment of bribes, vacation and re-encroachment in other areas, pleas for leniency etc. A collective, organized response has been practically non-existent.

Through the popular education process, Kondhs are informed about various land classifications and possible opportunities for Kondh control over hutment, forest and agricultural land. For instance, they now know that encroachment into reserved forests, revenue forests (state enterprises) or “pathit land” (wasteland) is likely to be met with a severe response, with little chance for legal recourse on their behalf. Encroachment in “avada yogya anawadi” land (or vacant state land), on the other hand, provides the community with some options for long-term control and use of forests/land. With this in mind, the partner Kondh communities have decided to only encroach on avada yogya anawadi land (previously, encroachment was haphazard and individualized) through the development of community fruit orchards and rabi season vegetable gardens (second growth season) on slope land (just below hill tops). Individual family vegetable gardens (kharif season only/main growing season), fruit and grain cultivation have also been developed on dry land (lower hill slopes) anawadi land areas.

In addition to not having the necessary legal, administrative and strategic information/knowledge necessary to even begin to contemplate other means for ensuring some control over land and subsistence concerns, the Kondhs have not had the necessary inputs to begin cultivation activities. Without active cultivation of land, it is not possible to address subsistence and/or future control over land (encroachment and activation of legal proceedings for land claims assumes cultivation is taking place). With the help of some external support, collective funds raised from the participating communities and from VICALP, the communities have collected enough capital to buy seeds, saplings and grains to begin the process.

Unlike in the past, the Kondhs pay encroachment fines, (Rs.100-200/charge) assessed by revenue inspectors (when asked for bribes, they now remind the inspectors to fine them instead!), for community orchard land encroachments. Continued refusal to vacate this land results in a case being filed against the respective community in a quasi-judicial revenue court, where judgments are made by the revenue division commissioner, as per the dictates of “directive principles of state policy”. Under these directives, landless people cultivating avada yogya anawadi land for subsistence purposes are legally permitted to do so, if the land is not being utilized for productive purposes by the state. While this buys the communities temporary “legal right to use the land”, the next step involves submitting an application to have the land re-classified as “community forest/land”. This would now allow the community long-term use/control over this land (or places them in a position to negotiate future claims by the state), while the directives also stipulate that such land cannot be sold for commercial gain by the community. Periodically (and especially prior to elections), the government is known to re-classify land en masse on a “disputed zone basis”. Consequently, the communities are being encouraged to continue to pay nominal fines for encroachment and continue to “maintain their case/dispute” in the revenue courts in order to avail of such “political largesse”, when the opportunity arises.

Alternatively, continued cultivation of plots of land by the community and/or individual families for a period of twelve years eventually results in automatic title, as per existing land acquisition laws. Individual family encroachments will be decided via this avenue. In the case of pattas/deeds to hutment area land, people are simply expected to follow a paper and pencil application process and then persevere through the bureaucratic “waiting/massaging” process before pattas are granted. VICALP has not only informed these communities of the process but has also reduced the waiting time for families by assisting them with procuring forms, filling them out, filing and follow-up/pressure on the administrative machinery to follow through on these applications. These are normally daunting tasks for adivasis, who are illiterate in such matters, and communities are gradually growing in confidence and ability in this regard.

VICALP’s popular educators also educate them about the bureaucratic channels that need to be approached. Discussion centers around the use of pressure tactics, which might include mailing campaigns, demonstrations, gheraos (encirclement) of key officials/offices/residence, marches, mass sit-ins, civil disobedience and other non-violent acts of protest and resistance to unresponsive and/or dominating practices by the state bureaucracy, subject to the particular issue/situation. The effectiveness of such actions requires a critical mass of people, and such support is building. VICALP started tangible organized action with some 30 villages and 3500 people four years ago, and today some 70 villages and 10,000 people belong to an organized constituency in a proximate geographical space in the same administrative block. Grouped into 6 regions, village organizations, regional organizations and multi-regional meetings heed the call of villages that require strength of numbers to apply civil pressure to protect or develop their collective interest.

Improved Material and Cultural Security for the Kondhs (1997-2001)

Kondh communities in the partnership are gradually expressing an increased sense of security about their prospects for subsistence and cultural autonomy, as 480 families (of 1471 families in the partner communities) have secured pattas/deeds to hutment land, while others are in the process of filing claims as well. In addition, all these families have started vegetable, grain and fruit cultivation on dry anawadi land on a total cultivable area of some 1500 acres, or an acre per family. Through the community fruit orchards, another 500 or more acres of anawadi land have been encroached on, and claims/cases have been booked by each of the villages in the revenue courts (a disputed zone has been created). As per community-established self-sufficiency land targets, there is more than enough anawadi land available in the region, making this a viable long-term strategy for them and other villages that will join the partnership in the future.

Through the vegetable cultivation initiative, people have grown and consumed (and sold the surplus) some 600,000 kgs of vegetables over 4 years, including squash, beans, brinjal, leafy greens, tomatoes etc. Similarly, 350,000 fruit trees have been planted over the same period of time (with an average 65% survival rate) in the community fruit orchards, and people are consuming/selling papayas, bananas, pineapples, mangoes etc. Grain cultivation (ragi, millet, paddy) has formed the basis for establishing emergency food stocks in the form of grain banks (with four successive year-end balances of over 50,000 kgs of grains) that have saved the communities in times such as the super-cyclone of October, 2000. The exploitative money-lending network in the area has been dealt a serious blow by this initiative and by people’s savings-credit schemes (men and women each have their own SHGs in each village) that have been built with the help of some of the proceeds from the sale of surplus vegetables and fruits, in addition to animal husbandry schemes. After five years of tangible support from VICALP, some 25 communities are now in a position to buy their own seeds, saplings and grain to sustain existing and/or expanding cultivation activities on encroached land. Grain banks, community savings/income schemes, seed storage and nurseries are making cultivation activities sustainable and bringing the process entirely within community control. As villages like these become “self-sufficient”, more villages will be brought into the partnership.

Furthermore, government support under various tribal and rural development schemes is finally being provided (as opposed to remaining as fictitious records in government files!), as organized pressure has seen to the completion of Rs.7,672,501 or US$192,000 worth of infra-structure projects over 4 years, such as the construction of link-roads, ponds, wells, community halls and bridges. The Kondhs are both “amused” and taken aback at the change in attitude towards them, exemplified in responses to their demands/requests for action, not to mention the declining incidents of harassment by officers, which used to take place on a regular basis prior to their activism.

Concluding Reflections

While we feel a lot has been accomplished in a relatively short span of time, such championing of adivasi constructive resistance runs the danger of obscuring some of the many difficulties that adivasis encounter in their attempt at resistance, such as the power of the brakes put on resistance by circumstances of domination. It would be well to take note that the focus of this article has been on accomplishments and that we have not considered the response of the state and other vested interests that feel “challenged” by an open, democratic policy of assertion by groups that are “expected” to remain submissive and docile. The following observation by an eminent political scholar and analyst of the Indian socio-political situation unfortunately rings true as well for the Kondh situational context: “Through the manipulation of social divisions, the assertion of elite hegemony through the development process and the increasingly coercive powers granted to the state through legislation, there has been a growing brutalization of the state in its relationship to civil society” (Kothari, 1987, 17). This being said, we feel that the Kondhs (with the help of small-scale partnerships with “outsiders”) have made gains in systemic knowledge and understanding and are politically, strategically and tactically better equipped to deal with the pragmatics of social change, as it pertains to securing some of their material and cultural interests.


Kothari, R. “Human Rights - A Movement in search of a Theory.” Lokayan Bulletin, 1987, 5(4-5), 17-28.