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Kalu Bethekar

My name is Kalu Bethekar. I am in my late twenties and live in Chilati, a village of 400 residents in Melghat, a forested area located in Amravati district of Maharashtra, better known to the outside world as a tiger reserve.

I belong to the ancient tribe of Korkus. We are a simple people, who have lived inside this jungle since time immemorial.

Melghat is also known for its poverty and child deaths. Over 10,000 children have died here since 1993 due to malnutrition.

The Korkus believe they are still ruled by foreigners though India gained independence from the British decades ago. My village has no roads, no regular supply of electricity and lacks proper schools and hospitals.

The state transport buses that connect our village to the outside world are highly unreliable. The bus service comes to a complete halt during the monsoons as the forest roads becomes slick with mud.

The rain-fed agriculture on the mountain slopes cannot sustain the Korku families round the year. Post-monsoon they migrate to nearby towns as also faraway cities to labour as casual hands.

It pains me whenever I recall the times when my parents used to migrate to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh to escape starvation. I must have been eight then. My baby brother wasn’t well. When his condition worsened, an uncle collected ‘chanda’ (small contributions) and told us to return to Chilati. For three days we walked, without food, spending the nights under open skies. My mother would beg for food, so she could feed her sick child. What she got in alms was stale food. After we reached Damjipura, near the state border, my parents left me in the care of an aunt, and proceeded to Chilati. But my brother did not survive the journey home.

My parents have never migrated for work ever since. My father would occasionally do odd-jobs in the nearby town of Paratwada to raise money for our school fees. But he never took the family along.

My parents had to pawn our only worldly possession, a few aluminium utensils, to pay for my schooling in Nagpur. After SSC, local NGOs Melghat Mitra and Khoj paid for my junior college years. We could pull ourselves out of poverty only after I started working in the late nineties.

I gave up studies after higher secondary school to become an activist with Melghat Mitra (Friends of Melghat), an NGO initiative of Pune-based Maitri, which has been working with dedication to arrest malnutrition in Melghat. In 2012, I contested the local body elections to become a member of the Hatru gram panchayat.

Korkus are a peaceful tribe. But ever since I became a member of the gram panchayat, I have been asking them to rise up and demand their constitutional rights. I’ve organised gram sabhas to demand 100-days work under the government’s employment guarantee schemes. I’ve sought appointment of teachers and doctors and ensure they attend work regularly.

Historical circumstances had forced the Korkus to take up settled agriculture. But the land in Melghat, hilly and rocky, afforded only lighter grains that could grow in less time on uneven soil without irrigation or fertilisers. They had survived on this meagre diet of low-nutrient rice, cereals and coarse bread, supplemented by crabs and fish during monsoons.

Non-availability of nutritious diet was one of the primary reasons for the Korku condition. The denial of access to forests had deprived them of their natural diet of animal meat, fruits, vegetables and roots that were freely available in the jungle and were rich in protein, carbohydrates, fats, mineral salts and vitamins.

The Melghat Mitra initiative has proved a virtual lifeline for Korkus in the area, bringing in health volunteers, medicines, nutritious diet, and initiating development activities across 30 villages since 1998. Hundreds of full-time and part-time volunteers from across Maharashtra, besides a dedicated team of workers, including Korkus, have over the decade endeavoured to reduce the child mortality rate.

What are we asking for? Roads, electricity, safe drinking water and employment opportunities. We need proper schools and hospitals.

Our recent agitations for better roads, electricity and water have borne fruit. The roads are being repaired and electricity has reached my village. Teachers are reporting to work and so are doctors.

I met the new chief minister Devendra Phadnavis when he visited Melghat recently and presented him a written petition listing our demands.

Korkus want to improve their lives. Government officers keep promising development projects for the area, but the promises never materialise. But I am not giving up. It may take a few years, but I will continue to fight.

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