Fighting the lack of accessibility and neglect, tribals in India have turned problems into opportunities by working towards tribal centric sustainable and inclusive development for livelihood. One among them is Padala Bhudevi, whose tremendous strength and fortitude in reaching out aadivasi (tribal) communities of forest belt of Srikakulam district in Andhra Pradesh made the difference. By bringing positive change in community, she became an inspiration for hundreds of tribal women, who are now rightful owners of their land thanks to her efforts.
Recipient of Nari Shakti Puruskar from President Ram Nath Kovind on the occasion of the International Women’s day 2020 for development of tribal women, widows through a community based organisation- Chinnayya Adivas Vikas Sangaam (CAVS). Now, a guiding force and torch bearer of CAVS, a tribal development society founded by her father Late Chinnayya in the year 1996 to fight for the rights of tribals in and around Srikakulam Dist. With the globalisation of the economy, Land and forests are highly priced commodities for corporate profiteering.
An innocent Bhudevi was forced into marriage at a very tender age of 11 years while she was in 7th standard. After all, for her, marriage turned into bed of thorns. She is no stranger to tough times. As a child, she witnessed her parents work day-and-night to make ends meet. When she got married, her problems only seemed to multiply. Severe torture, physically and mentally became order of the day at the hands of husband and in-laws for giving birth to three girl child. Unable to bear the intolerable situation she parted ways with her husband by keeping her children at her father’s guardianship. Nursing a burning desire to change her own fate and that of others like her, she had always wanted to make a difference. With new hope for better future, she joined as a daily labourer to earn decent living and to support kids. Then came a half acre land gift from father sown the seeds of entrepreneurship through farming. With indomitable spirit and consistent hardships, criticisms she brought up her children.
With varied experiences, she groomed herself like healing angel, fighting against all odds to get the rights of her people especially of tribal women. She is an inspiration for hundreds of tribal women, who are now rightful owners of their land thanks to her efforts. She not only encourages them to stand up for their rights and entitlements but also gives them reasons to hope for a better tomorrow. In her own words, “ for sustenance and survival, these poor, largely illiterate folks either turn to the forest or resort to some minor agricultural activity. Since the verdant greens have always provided them with forest produce, water, grazing grouds and habitat for shifting cultivation for generations, they have not only been staying in and around forest lands but have also guarded and conserved them with a lot of love and care. However, this integral and close-knit relationship between the tribals and the forest has rarely been recognised by the authorities”
To fill the leadership vacuum left by his father who passed away in 2007, who stood behind the tribals for steadfastly protecting the rights of advasis over land/forest and forest resources, Bhudevi became the vanguard to take up the unfinished work. She ensured the passage of the legislation of forest / tribal right act in 2006. This act made tribal/ forest dwellers to utilise their land and forest produce which were denied of them from decades due to colonial forest laws in India.
TRANSFORMING DECADE 2007- 2017
By accepting the challenges like making farm produce more remunerative, getting to know the perception closer by living 9 years in the hilly terrains and leading the CAVS with utmost dedication towards tribal communities is by no means small feat. Traversing through 62 villages in 8 mandals, she identified basic amenities like food, water, healthcare are lagging and absence of proper educational infrastructure. After a decade of spreading awareness among the forest-dwelling communities in the region about their legitimate claims on forest resources and numerous representations to the government officials and public representatives about the prevailing issues ultimately yielding the fruits of long struggle.
HEALTH /HUNGER THE BURNING ISSUE OF TRIBALS.
She felt that her people are suffering from ill health due to lack of nutritious food and an idea has sprung in her “why are we neglecting the ancient foods and cereals grown by our grandparents” why are we not cultivating them? Where can I get the seeds? Bhudevi started discussing with the elders regarding the millets. They shared the knowledge of various varieties of millets and pulses they used to grow and their nutritious value and impact on good health. They spoke about how they led an energetic life and how they gave birth to 3 to 4 children without any health issues. Then she understood that traditional nutritive value is missing in today’s food, lack of minor millets and the present grains not being strong varieties as past.
SEED BANK IDEA
To bring back traditional grains the main problem is seeds. She has determined to collect seeds and make a seed bank. She with her team started to collect seeds from various hill top villages where the elderly people have preserved some seeds. After collecting she distributed the seed to some farmers free of cost and asked to give back the seed after harvest. The harvest was further distributed to more farmers and encouraged them to cultivate on a buyback support. It’s the kick start for millet revolution in those areas. Implementation of this idea was not a cake walk she had faced many hurdles. With the support of organisations like WASSAN, NABARD and krishi vignan khendra she has organised many awareness camps and training sessions in various villages Today bhudevi has collected around 100 variants of seeds from various sources and are being cultivated to keep the strain alive for next generations.
Bhudevi and her team of 30 members are working towards processing and marketing of forest produce by value addition. In this way they have paved path for improving tribal peoples health as well as livelihood standards . the millet farming idea has boosted the tribals to earn more income. She has started neelammathalli bakery at seetampeta in 2017 in the place provided by ITDA. Millets being the core area of focus , aspects like costs ,planning and value addition are guided by WASSAN. Through the bakery many value added products like multigrain biscuts, millet biscuts, millet cakes, turmeric, tamarind, jowar floor, dosa mix, processed millets are being marketed to various places and being sold in exhibition stalls all over andhrapradesh.
Comprehensive revival of millets programme ( CRMP) started in 2016 is now a national programme. Her work became exemplary to many countries. From the bakery bhudevi is supplying millet biscuts to 47 tribal school hostels and all anganvadis. As most of the women are anaemic , all the pregnant women in these tribal areas are provided millet biscuts through ITDA. It has been a great support from ITDA project director, IAS officer Mr. Shiva Shankar which motivated her to expand the bakery and give employment to 30 educated girls and now she is supplying biscuts throughout srikakulam and some parts of Visakhapatnam. GCC , Girijan cooperative corporation is helping her by selling the products in gcc stores. In 2018 she has started ”Manyadeepika farmer cooperative society” with 1000 farmers to reach more tribal farmers and help them in marketing and technical trainings.
Having accomplished so much bhudevi is’nt resting on her laurels just yet. She travelled to china in 2013 to study on millet cultivation and agricultural technologies. In order to expand her knowledge base she also visited to Netherlands to know their farming techniques. By her work she has received many awards and recognitions like “ best tribal women entrepreneur ” From women and child welfare department in 2016 and “ best social entrepreneur” award from COWE , confederation of women entrepreneurs in 2018.
She always says the journey is so long and there is much to travel and much more to achieve to support tribal community. She is giving trainings to girls in making mehandi cones and chalk making . Her ambition is to develop more no of women entrepreneurs and make them self sustainable which leads to local employment opportunities. After this successsfull journey many brands are approaching her to mark their brand on her products but she with utmost confidence relies that she will promote her own brand. In future she is planning to expand the bakery by installing new technology machines to increase production. From 1 lakh turnover today she have reached to 25 laksh turnover. NABARD and ITDA are giving some financial support. All her three girl children are able to study in good schools and colleges due to her hard work and dedication. By sowing the seed of an Idea , bhudevi has also planted hope for the people of her community. lets wish that it grows to a big tree of life, sustaining those around it and spreading its branches far and wide.