I was a gymnast in high school. Short in stature and with compact muscles, my body type was well suited to the sport, encouraged by my father’s athleticism. He had been a champion javelin thrower and top pitcher on the high school baseball team, a skill he honed in the prisoner of war camp he was stuck in during World War II. Every time I see Steve McQueen in the classic film The Great Escape I think of my father, who was in the camp where the escape occurred. McQueen took a baseball with him into the “clink,” solitary confinement for having stepped out of line in the prison, bouncing it against the wall as he waited out his punishment. My father didn’t like the cavalier attitude of the character portrayed in the film, “unrealistic” in his view and too much of a concession to Holywood style. His own account of the 19 months he spent imprisoned did include many references to the ball games he played in the camp, and a few close calls. He stepped over the trip wire defining the no-go zone of the camp perimeter one day to pick up a baseball that had rolled a metre or so too far. The tower guards turned their rifles on him and seemed about to shoot when another prisoner shouted out “Stop” in perfect German and then pleaded the case as a careless mistake. My father return to the safe side of the line, with the ball.
When we were young, he bought weights and made a heavy punching bag from stones and foam for his three sons as we sprouted up into our bodies, giving us all a solid shape and foundation. He also taught us to box, holding our hands in fists with the thumb to the side so as not to break it in a punch. Self-discipline, however, was his first rule, something that served us well with the demanding sport of gymnastics. My brother Casey did giant swings on the high bar. I did an iron cross on the rings, although it was more a slow descent through the skill than the requisite 2 second hold. Still, it was enough to win us the City of Ottawa Gymnastics team trophy.
The muscles got me a part in the high school play as Hephestus, the Greek god of the forge. Maimed by Zeus and a cuckold to the unfaithful Aphrodite, Hephestus was also the god of blacksmiths, artisans, fire and volcanoes. The English teacher and playwright of the school production asked me to take my shirt off during auditions. The actor had to look the part naked from the waist up. I did as I was told, turning bright red in front of a small crowd of other teenage students.
My body building experience helped me appreciate Rajeev Khedkar’s meaning when he told me that the Katkari are strong. Thin and wiry, Rajeev was a bicyclist as a youth, before the highways outside of Mumbai became too dangerous to cycle. He still carries himself with the grace of a long distance athlete.
While at a workshop I was facilitating near Mumbai in 2005 we challenged each other at ping pong during breaks and he told me the story of how the Katkari were the brick makers of Maharashtra. Katkari men and women carry loads of 60 kilos or more on their heads, stacking bricks to be fired or loading them onto trucks for transport. They have literally formed with their own hands the majority of the bricks making up Mumbai’s towering structures, modest middle-class homes, and vast slum communities. Later, I witnessed the brick-making effort directly, along with other miraculous acts of strength by this remarkable people living on the edge of survival. “How is this possible?“ I thought as I watched a white haired Katkari man threshing rice vigorously, non-stop, for 15 minutes. The harvest was not his own, but he had been hired for a few cups of rice to thresh for most of the day. “What joy in bodily struggle!” I thought as I watched a Katkari youth walk up and down a rough and inclined track in the village on home-made stilts, barefooted, sweating and laughing. Other youth, also unemployed and landless, urged him on as he performed the difficult feat as aptly as any star with the Cirque du Soleil.
Image: Katkari woman carrying bricks. Photo credit: Cousin.
The Katkari attribute their strength and long life, qualities well-known among the farming castes of Maharashtra that hire them, to the consumption of rodents. They are the only tribal group in India that eats the Little Indian Field Mouse (Mus booduga), the Servant Mouse (Mus famulus), the Black Rat (Rattus rattus), the Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus) and the Greater or Indian Bandicoot (Bandictoa indica). Farmers contract them to clear rodent infestations in their fields and fill the burrows with mud to close channels that syphon water from the rice paddy fields. The collective hunt starts by burning dried cow dung and hay inside one of the burrow openings, and clubbing the rodents as they rush out of other burrows. As some animals die of smoke inhalation, the Katkari dig to collect the dead rodents along with loose branching clusters of rice that have been collected and stored by the rodents inside their burrows. They can get as much as 12 kilos of grain from a single hunt, collecting food planted by farmers, harvested by rats and captured by the Katkari. Smaller rodents are roasted immediately and eaten in the field while the larger adults are taken home, roasted, cooked in the form of curry, and eaten with rice or bread. The rodent’s intestines and liver are cooked separately with salt and turmeric and consumed as a tonic for stomach ache.
In October or November, after crops are harvested, the Katkari celebrate the Undir Navmi, a Hindu festival dedicated to the rodent. It is not a popular festival in the cornucopia of Hindu deities that include Ganesh the elephant man, Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu and many others. The food habits and related cultural practices of the Katkari set them apart from all other caste communities in rural Maharashtra to such an extent they have no standing in any village hierarchy. In direct and subtle ways, the distinctiveness of the Katkari collectivity is used by others to exclude the community utterly, leaving them in a position even more vulnerable than the lowest castes and other tribal groups who have some form of membership in the village system.
When I told an Indian colleague in New Delhi about the Katkari penchant for rodents she couldn’t believe me and even seemed to recoil from me physically as I outlined the details. A feminist herself, and committed to justice for India’s many exploited Indigenous and low caste populations, this was beyond the pale and could only be reconciled in her mind by the thought that they had no choice but to eat what kept them alive. “No,” I said, “they are not starving when they do this. The practice, which is a service to the agricultural community, is a statement of fearlessness.” A Katkari saying is,
We put our hands in the mouth of the tiger, open the jaws, and count the teeth of the tiger.
We are the Katkari.
Tribal Land Rights
Exploitation and exclusion of the Katkari extends even to denial of basic rights of residence, resulting in evictions from their own homes and hamlets. This injustice, and Katkari resistance, became the subject of a five year study by Rajeev, his colleague Bansi Ghevde and myself, published by Cambridge University Press. It transformed my understanding of racism and the evils of modern day slavery. It also touched my heart deeply.
When we started the study I had already worked on and off with Rajeev for most of my previous ten years at IDRC, supporting him as he picked up coordination of the Using Diversity program from SANFEC, the South Asia Network on Food, Ecology, and Culture. Even as IDRC funding to the program ended when I left the organization in March, 2005, and SANFEC members turned to other initiatives, Rajeev sought funding to keep it going. He was committed to bringing small grants to grassroots organizations supporting unique traditional farming practices and local uses of biodiversity. Over the years, he gave of his time and caring attention to some 100 groups documenting their results in local languages for local purposes and under local authorship and control. Rajeev acknowledges the influence of Mahatma Gandhi on his own life, and more than anyone I have every met manifests the loving resolve needed to bring about social change in the most difficult of situations. His work with the Katkari, and with other Adivasi (Indigenous) peoples of India, is a clear and clarion call for the power of unshakable service to the common good.
My introduction to and work with the Katkari began at a difficult moment in my friend Jacques’s life, and that of his partner Michelle. Signs of trouble began in Goa, an Indian state on the southwestern coast best known for its beaches, nightlife and world heritage architecture. In mid April, 2005, only a few weeks after I had retired from IDRC and joined Jacques’s project at Carleton University, we were to meet up in Mumbai and continue to a workshop on participatory action research methods arranged with Rajeev. Jacques and Michelle were in Goa, leading a different training session when Michelle became sick, vomiting whenever she tried to eat. “My IQ dropped to around 50 even as I tried to help with the training for a couple of days,” she joked with me recently. She had a septicaemic infection due to a ruptured appendix, and on the plane from Goa to Mumbai developed an embolism that remained undiagnosed until a later return to Canada. Rajeev and I met them at the airport in Mumbai, where she was whipped into life-saving surgery and remained in intensive care for two weeks before she recovered. Jacques stayed with her in hospital, and asked me to run the workshop. I did, even though at that point I had never been a lead trainer.
It was a baptism by fire. With Michelle’s life hanging in the balance, and dozens of workshop participants praying for her daily, I felt strangely confident and resolved to do my best. It turned out to be not only the first but also the most consequential training event I ever facilitated, leading directly to work with UBINIG in Bangladesh on transitioning out of tobacco farming (Chapter 12) and fighting with Rajeev and colleagues to stop eviction of the Katkari from their hamlets.
The workshop was also my first exposure to the humour and wisdom of Mullah Nasruddin, a philosopher, Sufi, and wise man born into the high medieval Turko-Persian Sunni Muslim empire in 1208. He is much loved today by people of all religions in India for his funny stories and anecdotes in which he is variously portrayed as witty, wise, and often the butt of his own jokes. Debjeet, the oldest and wisest of the participants in the workshop, made effective use of Nasruddin stories by leaping to his feet to tell one whenever a break was needed or he could see an opportunity to reinforce the pedagogical lesson I was trying to convey. After teaching a technique exploring levels of trust among stakeholders — who is trusted by others and who shows trust towards others — Debjeet asked everyone, “Do you know about Mullah Nasruddin’s donkey?” “Yes!” came the reply, as the Mullah famously rode a donkey wherever he went. So he told the story known as Whom do you believe?
A neighbour came to the gate of Mulla Nasruddin's yard. The Mulla went to meet him outside.
"Would you mind, Mulla,” the neighbour asked, "can you lend me your donkey today? I have some goods to transport to the next town."
The Mulla didn't feel inclined to lend out the animal to that particular man, however. So, not to seem rude, he answered:
"I'm sorry, but I've already lent him to somebody else."
All of a sudden the donkey could be heard braying loudly behind the wall of the yard.
"But Mulla,” the neighbour exclaimed. "I can hear it behind that wall!"
"Whom do you believe," the Mulls replied indignantly, "the donkey or your Mulla?”
In the months and years following these various introductions — to Mulla Nasruddin, to leading training in participatory action research methods, and to the Katkari of Maharashtra — I immersed myself in the details of a people that are at once raw, ingenious, and strong beyond belief. Writing a book about their situation, with Rajeev and Bansi, became an obsession. Rajeev’s remarkable sensitivity to the voices of the marginalized and Bansi’s powerful resolve to achieve justice combined magically with my knowledge of participatory and action oriented tools to foster a rich dialogue between ourselves and the Katkari and among the Katkari themselves.
As researchers, we did not try to speak “on behalf” of the Katkari as though they had no voice of their own. Nor did we set out to “empower” the Katkari by simply offering them means to convey their own stories to key audiences, decision-makers and the powers that be. Rather, we talked with them as human beings, and engaged in a respectful process of learning together and from each other. Throughout, we planned actions together, always grounding the conversations in the struggle to fight eviction from house and community. The result was ultimately an uplifting and remarkably successful journey, with many meaningful changes in the material circumstances of the Katkari achieved together along the way.
Image: Katkari man pausing while threshing rice.
Image: Katkari stone breaker carrying fire wood home.
Retelling the full story would be a waste of time, and unnecessary as the book we wrote does the job in much greater detail than I wish to offer here and now. While academic in tone, it explains and contextualizes what we did, how, and why, as well as the many outcomes of the research. I regret not finding a way to give the published book the profile I think it deserved, and which seemed promising when reviewed first for almost a year by Oxford University Press and then accepted for publication by Cambridge University Press, the two most prestigious presses active in India. Robert Chambers and Rajesh Tandon, two pioneers and well known advocates of participatory approaches to development research, both wrote favourable reviews of the book sported on the back cover.
Competing for attention in the world of academia has never been my forte, and the book ultimately sold only hundreds of copies. Still, I encourage any who are curious about this story to read it. For my current purpose, I will simply share several pivotal moments in my experience with the Katkari and with research colleagues.
The Origins of the Gaothan Problem
The Katkari are a former “Criminal Tribe,” labelled as such by 19th Century British lawmakers and sociologists who believed that the offspring of nomadic groups were born to criminality. If your father or mother was a criminal then you were likely to be one as well. The Katkari carry this stigma even today, and it was a key factor enabling other groups and individuals to forcibly push the Katkari out of home and hamlet.
I went with Rajeev, and Bansi Ghevde, a para-legal expert and land rights activist, to visit the hamlet where they had first been confronted with the problem. It was a cluster of 12 or so mud houses along the side of a country road in Karjat some 30 km from Mumbai, parched by the hot sun but close to a source of surface water. Barbed wire had been strung on cement posts around the hamlet, hemming in every house with an irregular perimeter fence and leaving only a single small gate for people to enter and leave.
A religious trust from Mumbai, dedicated to one of India’s many living yogis, had recently purchased several properties, including the land of the hamlet. They planned to establish an ashram where a yogi could teach middle and upper class Hindus on retreat from Mumbai. We sat with the administrators of the trust and asked them why they had erected the barbed wire fence and what their plans were for the Katkari hamlet. “They have to go,” they said, “because the hamlet is too close to where the ashram dormitories will be built.” Rising before dawn to meditate within close proximity of a hamlet of rat eaters, it seemed, was not conducive to their business case for the ashram.
We were granted an audience with the yogi, who acknowledged that it was unfortunate the Katkari would need to leave, but assured us that a new site would be gifted to them some 7 km away. The Katkari women that had first approached Bansi about the situation had told us that they could not bear leaving the place where their parents had been buried, literally under the mud waddled floor of each of their tiny houses, as was their practice. The new site was on a hill, with no access to water nearby. The administrators became angry with us when we persisted in our questions, and particularly with me, asking aggressively for proof that I was in the country legally. We left with the situation unresolved but clearer about the need to strategize with the Katkari on ways and means for them to find powerful allies of their own.
Image: First village we witnessed with a barbed-wire fence erected to intimidate.
Bansi was struck by an analysis we did with Katkari in another community on whether or not conditions were in place for them to successfully assert their legal rights to their hamlet. Indian law on land rights, which he knew in detail rivalling any judge or magistrate, was clearly on the side of Katkari who had continuously occupied the hamlets for several generations. Bansi had pulled together copies of the paid electric bills, caste certificates, village maps, and other documents attesting to their presence on the land. We assessed, using a participatory tool from our toolbox, the relative power and economic gains and losses of the various stakeholders involved — regional government officials, local authorities, landholders, bureaucrats with the department of Indigenous tribes, and the Katkari families. The picture of the stakeholder configuration that emerged was a stark reminder of just how isolated and vulnerable the Katkari were on the issue. Moreover, in the eyes of other stakeholders, including government officials, the Katkari were not legitimate claimants but rather vagabonds moving about in search of employment and without a history of prior participation in the institutions of village life.
I could understand how that perspective on the legitimacy of the Katkari claims might seem true. When I visited their hamlets in the hot winter season they were virtually empty of all but the elderly and infirm. Able bodied men and women, and their children, typically spent six months of the year working at brick kilns, sand-dredging and stone breaking operations associated with the construction industry and in the production of charcoal used by small industries. Many of these were dozens of kilometres away. They lived at the work site, often paying off through their labour cash advances that have been provided to them by contractors visiting their communities prior to festivals when cash is welcome. A cycle of bondage was set with small weekly payments added to the advance to cover subsistence needs during the time they worked for the contractor, deducted at the end of the season from the total wages earned. Any remaining debt was carried forward to subsequent years, creating obligations borne by the entire family and from one generation to the next.
We stopped in a small Katkari hamlet in Sudhaghad Taluka (county) near the highway to Pune. Bansi had in the prior months been visiting Katkari hamlets in three Talukas scattered across a region 50 kilometres long and 20 kilometres wide wedged between the coastal plain south of the port city of Mumbai and the Western Gnats, a mountain range that was once the forest home of the Katkari. He criss-crossed the territory by motor bike, satchels filled with paperwork on the tenure of 212 Katkari hamlets, two thirds of which had no title of their own. We mapped their locations using a GPS and calculated that approximately 25,000 people were vulnerable to eviction.
Just how vulnerable became evident to me when we talked with an older man I saw sitting in front of a very small, dilapidated mud house in the hamlet. The walls were made from woven sticks of karvi (Strobilanthes callosa), a shrub that comes alive only during the monsoon and produces a rare flower that blooms only once every eight years. He stood as we approached him, hanging on to the beam of the thatch room. That is when I realized one of his legs was badly out of alignment and a set of crutches leaned against the wall. He told us that he had been hit by a motorcycle while working at a brick kiln and then left at a hospital with no money and no identity papers. The brick kiln operator, who at the beginning of the season routinely collected from his workers caste certificates or other proofs of identity they might have, refused to return these to him. The contractor probably feared charges against the driver, a friend, or a claim of workers compensation. Without papers, the injured man had no means to access the medical treatment he had a right to. He also had little scope to press charges. He returned to his village with a leg that never set properly, leaving him crippled and he and his wife destitute. I was outraged and heart broken by the story. So were Rajeev and Bansi, although we could not imagine what to do about it other than offer him some money to buy food. Bansi later helped him to acquire papers showing he existed.
Image: A Katkari man, broken by an incident at a brick kiln.
Stories of equal or greater tragedy came to Bansi’s attention on a regular basis as he documented land rights. Incidents at brick kilns of beatings, rape, sexual abuse, and non-payment of wages were common. When Katkari protested, Bansi told me, kiln masters filed charges of theft against them at the police station, knowing that the reputation of this “Criminal Caste” would make it difficult or impossible for them to gain police support. Bansi recorded and reported to the police 12 deaths due to beatings on brick kilns over a period of five years. A colleague of Bansi’s, a human rights activist, documented several cases where Katkari labourers had been burned alive in a brick kiln furnace after refusing to comply with the master’s expectations.
The suffering of the Katkari, even without evidence of these extremes, was visible at every brick kiln and in every hamlet I visited. Children as young as five made bricks while their younger siblings played at doing so with tiny cups of water and mud. The wattle-and-daub walls of the kuchha (temporary) houses in the hamlets were rarely in good condition and offered little protection from rain or cold. Dampness and moisture in the home would last for two or three months during the monsoon, making the living space miserable and inhospitable. Barely over 10% of the Katkari neighbourhoods we surveyed had access to electricity, even when other parts of the village or hamlet did.
We also found that the majority did not have caste certificates, tribal identity certificates or even ration cards that would give them access to government supports such as fair price shops and basic medical services. Houses were in such poor repair that even those with papers often lost them to weather and neglect. Indian authorities, other villagers, and owners of the land the hamlets had occupied for decades felt vindicated in their conclusion that the Katkari were not legitimate members of the community and therefore deserved no protection from eviction.
Image: Katkari child.
What had started as an isolated case of eviction by the ashram administrators became a flood less than a year after this first encounter. Land prices on the outskirts of Mumbai and along highways towards the mountains of the Western Ghats began to rise sharply in response to a spike in demand for “country estates” and industrial lots. Katkari hamlets on high rocky outcrops with cooler air temperature and views of the land below became prime targets for weekend retreat homes. Roadside hamlets were displaced, and the land consolidated into blocks, for new industries.
A wave of panic went through connected Katkari communities, giving us a sense of urgency and even fear as we came to understand the scope of the problem and stakes for all parties concerned. On the road to Pali, a small city known for its shrine to Khandoba, a reincarnation of Shiva, I stopped for tea at an intersection. Before me was a huge billboard advertising land for sale, and a man with his bicycle laden with possessions. I took a photograph, one which more than any image from my life as an artist, shows the cross currents of art and politics. It became the featured image on the cover of our book, and one which I treasure for the sorrow and outrage it still produces in me.
Image: Billboard about land for sale, to accommodate country estates.
Organizing and Empowering Practices
The Katkari and their culture is unique, not least because of their intimate and profound knowledge of nature. Rajeev described for me the many fishing techniques of the Katkari, including god-like powers to conjure up thunder and pending downpours that send land crabs scrambling out of their burrows to seek safety from water pouring into their homes. Using two carefully selected stones, a Katkari fisher strikes them together over a burrow, imitating the clap of thunder that coaxes crabs to the surface where they can be pinned to the ground and put into a sack for a later meal.
An exercise using a simple but powerful tool I introduced to the team brought out other details of Katkari livelihoods and cultural distinctiveness. Called problem tree, it uses a tree metaphor to reconstruct the causes and effects of a core problem as roots, branches, and trunk. Conversation about why the Katkari do not have legal title to a village site leads from a statement of direct causes down deeper to finer layers of underlying causes.
In many applications of the tool we reached deeper roots such as the fear of retaliation by landowners, the corruption of government officials, the high and rising cost of land, and the Katkari’s own fragmentation and disorganization as a community. The upward branching set of effects painted a picture of their modern enslavement at brick kilns, utter lack of privacy, and isolation from health services.
A rising branch of effects or “children” of village insecurity as they called it in one hamlet, started with a recent decision by a landholder to block construction of a school in the hamlet that had been offered to the Katkari by government officials. The school was shifted to another village a number of kilometres away and drew children from the agricultural castes the Katkari depended on. Katkari children were ridiculed and shunned by the other children and did not attend regularly, quickly dropping out. The man telling this story went on to say that the children not in school are usually taken to work on the brick kilns, where at least they can be cared for on a daily basis. People lamented this situation, which they felt inevitably and irreconcilably brought their children into bonded labour at an early age.
Image: A discussion facilitated by Rajeev (centre-right).
I introduced into the discussions visual elements to overcome the literacy barrier present in applications of the tool where cards and written words are used to create the tree map of causes and effects. I would offer people doing the analysis a few pieces of coloured beeswax I had purchased from my son Ryan’s school, a Waldorf education facility in Ottawa imbued with learning techniques for the hands, head, and heart. “Make something to represent what you are talking about — a school building, a bribe, the lack of local organization,” I suggested. They did, easily and creatively, making beautiful objects that enriched the conversation and ensured that everyone, literate or not, could see and understand the whole picture of the problem we were discussing.
On one occasion, the Katkari explained to us that efforts to grow their own crops on fragments of land available to them were often frustrated by their debt to landholders, obliging them to plant their patron’s field when the first rains came rather than planting their own fields. Late planting undermined their own crops and livelihood. I had no wax with me on that day so I asked them to collect materials from outside to create a picture of the problem. Within a few minutes they built a mosaic on the ground from sticks and leaves showing a large field planted with many green plants and a number of small fields empty and bare. This was their situation, visualized simply and elegantly.
Image: Wax figures showing flags pointing in different directions, a sign of disorganization.
Rajeev and Bansi undertook dozens of problem tree assessments with people in hamlets throughout the region, building buy-in to the relevance of insecure hamlet tenure even in communities that were not yet feeling the bite of eviction at their doorstep. At another session I attended, the various effects and causes were converted into ends that could be achieved if only they owned the land, and the means they could use to secure title. This bridge from problem analysis to planning solutions is part of the methodology I had introduced and in one case generated an evocative pathway to a uniquely Katkari future.
One of the participants, inspired by the positive image of the village emerging from the discussion, said that with a secure village site they could build a community stage for cultural events. The Katkari have a unique style of music and are very fond of celebrations of all kinds. I was familiar with the music, having heard a leading performer at the first workshop on participatory methods organized by Rajeev for Jacques and Michelle’s arrival. It is a storytelling musical art form not unlike a rap song, using a wide brass plate and a waxed karvi stick to create a wobbling, high pitched droning sound as accompaniment. The vision of a village stage galvanized people into discussing the means to overcome indifference in their community and achieve dreams, including artistic expression and social cohesion.
Image: Katkari musicians play the pitali.
As a symbol of their resolve, community elders later raised and ceremoniously anointed a stone pillar (ves) marking the entrance to their hamlet. They hoped that the gesture would show their resolve to stay while at the same time assure landholders that Katkari demands would not go beyond that point. We are here, but don’t fear us, seemed to be the message. I photographed the gathering, the anointed stone, and some of the wax objects created along the way. Witnessing the excitement of the Katkari and shift in their thinking from problems to artistic dreams deepened my own resolve to do all I could to make a difference in their struggle.
Image: Pillar (vez) at Sideshwardi erected to mark edge of the hamlet.
Early responses to the threat of eviction involved demanding and sometimes tedious detailed work by Rajeev and Bansi on a variety of fronts including mobilizing, organizing, and petitioning for more and better service from government officials and other members of the broader village community. It was a slog, unfolding over several years mixed in with other work they were engaged in. I visited regularly, to discuss new constraints they encountered and train them in use of tools they could use with the Katkari to both understand and transform the constraint. Simple things like collecting proofs of residence took hundreds of hours, but also turned a cadre of young Katkari into paralegals. They are now able to offer services in their own communities for things such as birth certificates, death certificates and ration cards needed to access even the most basic of government services.
Work on breaking the bonds of migratory labour, relevant to creating conditions for permanent residence in home hamlets, included advanced analytical tools to support discussions between literate and non-literate stakeholders. We went far beyond quick-and-easy consultation focused on a single issue to consider complex interactions between economic, social, and psychological factors affecting their lives. The insights, and action plans, were generated by and with the Katkari using visual techniques expertly facilitated by Rajeev with patience, humour, and a stunning warmth of character.
Bansi provided the key ingredient that helped us turn the corner on what at times seemed like an intractable problem with no end in sight. It touched him close to home when a business owner in Mumbai purchased land from an agent to build a country house retreat. He didn’t know that part of the plot belong to Bansi’s father-in-law, a man from the Thakur tribal community who had been allocated the land provisionally under a government program. The process had lingered for 30 years without producing a title document, making it vulnerable to competing claims and sale.
Bansi’s father-in-law was beaten when he demanded a fence be removed from his land, prompting Bansi to file with the police a charge of physical assault. He referenced in the paper work a powerful but little used piece of federal legislation called the Prevention of Atrocities Act, enacted by the Parliament of India in 1989 to reinforce articles of the Constitution of India protecting members of listed tribes such as the Katkari and the Thakur from extreme forms of humiliation, exploitation and dispossession rooted in the historical practice of untouchability and caste hierarchy.
The act characterizes the use of force, intimidation, public humiliation, and other acts aimed at asserting caste-based dominance as “hate crimes or bias crimes.” While most cases prosecuted under the Act over the years focused on caste discrimination, and had not included crimes related to land issues, Bansi convinced the deputy superintendent of police to acknowledge the roots of the case in the attempt to dispossess a Thakur man of his land. The police accepted the reference in the paperwork to the Atrocities Act, and passed it up the line.
In time, it was reviewed by a judge and the dispute settled without a ruling but the process validated a legal pathway to fight eviction put to use by the team in other settings involving the threat of eviction. By referencing the Prevention of Atrocities Act in filings with the police, Bansi had established a connection between the threat of eviction and a crime with very significant criminal penalties. This caution received attention from the local press, and sent a chill through the local real-estate industry that had been routinely encroaching on village sites and intimidating residents in an attempt to force them elsewhere. Just the threat of conviction under the Act became enough to slow and even stop overt and blatant actions of provocation against the Katkari. It created a period of respite while other actions by the team continued to secure formal titles to village sites.
I was deeply grateful to Rajeev, Bansi and others in the small team that brought me into their work with the Katkari and applied so diligently the research tools I adapted and honed to the questions at hand. This was a rare and powerful collaboration in a detailed and rigorous study of the kind I had not pursued since the Honduras mucuna story. It has been paralleled only once more in my career, in later work with colleagues in Bangladesh on struggles to break the bonds of tobacco farming (Chapter 12).
Being able to travel frequently to India, immediately delve into intimate meetings and planning activities with various Katkari groups, and to draw on detailed notes from Rajeev on the work completed was a privilege few researchers anywhere can replicate. The fact we achieved observable changes in the situation still stuns me, filling me as well with astonishment at the potential power of research-in-action. In the years that followed, whenever I doubted the value of what Jacques and I were trying to do by dedicating our time to the development of participatory approaches to research, I would think of Katkari outcomes, and find courage.
Overall, Katkari hamlets in the areas we worked became moderately more secure than when enclosures and evictions went unnoticed and unchallenged. This was relief and respite to hundreds of hamlets and thousands of very vulnerable and highly marginalized families who had been facing a tidal wave of misery unleashed by a relentless and well-resourced real-estate boom. Katkari in dozens of hamlets, at least 45 at the time the book was published in 2013, had successfully registered petitions for inclusion into the land base of rural villages. Many individual house plots had also been registered, giving families an inalienable base, a home from which to pursue a livelihood and to hope for a better future.
Rajeev noted too a tangible shift in the level of confidence, self-esteem, and initiative of Katkari communities where he has now worked for over thirty years. Katkari resolve to stay in their hamlets is much stronger than it was at the outset. Many, including several women’s groups, are making demands for rights to lands and services that are due to them, a courageous step for a people isolated in silence and hopelessness only a few years earlier.
One of my last trips to India to work with Rajeev, Bansi, and the Katkari started, in February, 2010, with a travellers inconvenience at the Frankfurt airport in Germany. I was travelling with Lufthansa from Ottawa, sitting in the waiting area when an announcement over the PA asked if there was anyone willing to take a later flight to Mumbai. My plans were flexible, so I said yes, moving my departure several hours and shifting from economy into a business class seat. For my trouble, the airline offered me $1,100 USD cash on the spot, which I accepted happily. They must have really needed that seat.
When I arrived in Mumbai, and went with a rented car and driver to Pali, I joined Rajeev and the team in preparations for a meeting with the Katkari Forum for Justice. It was a regional association of 82 Katkari hamlets that had formed in 1982 to change the image of the community by addressing conflicts within Katkari communities and conflicts between communities and outside groups. It had waxed and waned as an organization over the years, addressing matters of local consequence such as abandonment of young brides by their husbands, feuds between families, and harassment by police. “Whenever there was a crime in a village,” one of the elders told me, “the police would immediately come to our hamlet and round up a few young men. It didn’t matter if they had not been anywhere near the crime. They think that the Katkari are criminals and can easily be intimidated into confessing.” In recent years, however, this form of harassment had declined, and many internal conflicts were now being managed through regular legal channels. Members of the Katkari Forum for Justice had been questioning whether or not the association was still needed, and what direction it should take.
I arrived at a critical juncture in the discussion. A year earlier members of the forum had renewed a proposal to establish a permanent meeting place for Katkari in Pali, a commercial as well as a religious centre in the region. Other tribal groups had similar arrangements, typically a small building where people could temporarily store goods they brought to sell or bought for themselves, spend a night to rest before walking home, or wait while family members were receiving medical treatment. A place to stay in Pali also meant they could pursue important paperwork such as an old-age pension or birth certificate through the byzantine workings of the Indian bureaucracy. The town hosted the main police station, the bus stand, schools and colleges, various doctor’s offices and clinics and the courthouse.
Having a “rightful place” to stay, rest, eat food and regroup would solve a lot of problems: a missed bus home, a rescheduled medical appointment, or a meeting of local leaders from several towns. Katkari, with no relatives or friends with property in town, were forced to mill about the town while waiting for this or that, and sleep along the side of the road, occasionally prompting backlash from townsfolk that recognized their lowly status in their clothing, features and demeanour.
Some Katkari leaders had been lobbying political candidates and government officers for such a facility, known as a samaj mandir, for more than 15 years, without success. Work by a local colleague had produced something of a breakthrough. A timeline history of the lobby effort and problem tree assessment showing the ramifications inspired the forum leadership to consider ways they could address the problem themselves, without using the promise of their vote to solicit political party support.
Image: Katkari women waiting to access a government office in Pali.
Within two months of that assessment, the forum had raised Rs 50,000 from Katkari families in 40 hamlets, asking first for tiny contributions from the poorest of the poor so that they too would have equal rights to use the samaj mandir. They made a downpayment on a small parcel of land and took out a loan against the title, allowing them to also begin construction of a modest structure. It was made from bricks, of course, that Katkari had made themselves.
When I arrived on that last trip, the building had a solid foundation, walls and a tin roof but no windows, doors, gate or other amenities. When I saw the progress made, I immediately handed over the money I had collected from Lufthansa and matched it with other cash I had in hand. It was sufficient to complete payment for the land, and purchase some rugs to give comfort to meetings.
A first gathering in this shell of a samaj mandir was organized a few days later, with a special inauguration with flowers, incense and the ritual breaking of a coconut. The head of the forum, Dwarkanath Lakhma Ghogharkar, an elderly man and Katkari singer who had presided over the long years of the forum’s existence, announced his decision to step down. He said, “We have made progress by helping people break from bad customs. We have also built a Katkari samaj mandir. It is important that we continue to look outward, beyond what we have accomplished so far. Now is time for the younger generation to lead.”
Building on his speech, we facilitated a strategic planning exercise using a tool Jacques had dubbed The Socratic Wheel. I guided the process, with Rajeev translating and improving on my questions. “What things are going well in your communities, where have you seen improvements over the last few years?”
As clear statements emerged from the discussion I invited people to think of and provide an object to represent the topic.
Twenty men sat in the circle, each representing a collection of hamlets from across the Taluka. One offered his white Neru hat to represent the cleanliness in their hamlets they aspired to and had seen improve in recent years. Another pushed into the circle the cane he used to walk after suffering an injury to his hips. “The police don’t beat us with sticks as often as they used to,” he said. “This is an improvement.” The flower necklace brought for the occasion of inaugurating the building became the symbol for the practice of customs related to marriage and other religious ceremonies. Norms for expenditures outlined by the forum a decade earlier had helped to control elaborate and costly marriages and dowries, practices borrowed from the caste community and different from the bride price system native to Katkari’s tribal culture. Bricks, a pen, a rupee note and an empty bottle were place before the group to stand for self-employment, education, small business development and levels of alcohol consumption, respectively, all topics of importance to the Katkari in which various degrees of improvement could be seen.
As each topic emerged and was validated by the group I placed a long bamboo stick on the rug like a spoke in a wheel, gradually constructing a wheel visualizing the array of topical interests up for evaluation. To conclude the strategic planning exercise, the group assessed their progress on each spoke, placing markers to show the current level and a target level for the next year of the forum’s work. For me, the visual synthesis, and the ease with which a meaningful discussion unfolded, gave me hope that Katkari organization was on the rise, along with the gains in land rights we had so diligently pursued. The spider web wheel represented the weft and warp of my professional life to that point, and reinforced the courage and strength of my convictions.
Image: Wheel exercise in the samaj mandir, Pali.
Looking back, I remember that on one of my earlier trips to Katkari villages I had asked to mount the stilts a young man had used to walk up and down the streets of his hamlet. The athleticism of my youth failed me at that time, but now, at the end of my professional life and with few prospects to ever travel again to the hillsides of the Western Ghats, I can rest a little easier knowing that the youth will find a way, barefooted, sweating and laughing.