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Catch them young: Indian writers tell tales of land rights for kids

A picture book for children which highlights the issue of land rights of farmers and indigenous people in India.

Deadly disputes over land and indigenous rights are not obvious themes for children’s books, but Indian writers are using real-life conflicts to help the next generation understand their impact on communities across the country.

“I Will Save My Land” by Rinchin is about the impact of coal mining on a village, while Siddhartha Sarma’s “Year of the Weeds” novel for young adults is based on a successful fight to save indigenous land from a mining company.

“When people are displaced from their land, children are also affected, but perhaps no one explains it to them,” said Rinchin, who goes by one name, and published her book last year.

In Rinchin’s picture book, a little girl named Mati asks her father and grandmother for her own piece of land in the field where they work.

She tends to her plot until she hears that they will lose their land to a coal mine.

It is a common occurrence, said Rinchin, in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, where coal mining has forced tens of thousands of farmers off their land, many of whom are Adivasis, or indigenous people.

While indigenous people have customary rights over ancestral land and forests, the state can acquire the land for infrastructure and development projects. Those displaced are rarely consulted or compensated, activists say.

Last week, in a rare move, the newly elected government in Chhattisgarh said it would give back land taken from indigenous farmers for a steel plant more than a decade ago, but never used.

“An Adivasi’s right over land is so tenuous – it can be taken away at any time by the government or an upper-caste person,” said Rinchin, whose books are also translated into regional languages.

The story also highlights the role of caste and gender in land rights issues, she said.

“Women do so much of the work, but have so little say,” Rinchin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Women make up nearly half the agricultural labor in India, yet own less than 2 percent of its farmland, according to the think tank National Council of Applied Economic Research.

About 660 disputes over land have forced millions of people from their farms across India, according to the research organization Land Conflict Watch.

Regional-language movies and children’s books are focusing on such issues that big-budget Bollywood films and mass paperbacks generally ignore.

In “Year of the Weeds”, also published last year, Sarma tells the story of the Dongria Kondh tribe in Odisha state, which managed to stop London-listed Vedanta Resources from mining bauxite in the sacred Niyamgiri hills.

Residents of 12 villages, whose opinion the state sought for a court order in 2013, unanimously voted against allowing mining.

“It was a rare positive story, and I decided to write it for teenagers, because I still have hope that the younger generation will engage with these issues and grow up to be kinder, gentler, more humane citizens,” said Sarma.

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation, Reporting by Rina Chandran


03.01.2019 | 13:15