INDIA: Tribal women leaders seek safety & innovation as Maoist insurgent conflict continues

Stella Paul – WNN Features

Community Tribal Council leader Ms Kalavati Devi
As a woman ‘Sarpanch’, Kalavati Devi is leader of her local Nagarveda Tribal Council in the central Kanker district of India. Wise, strong and steady she is used to juggling conditions of military conflict surrounding her and the community she loves. Since she has become a Sarpanch she has brought numerous good initiatives to the region, in spite of a life living inside ‘The Read Corridor’ in India, where Maoist insurgency and the India government counter-insurgency conflict causes women throughout the region to suffer. Image: Stella Paul/WNN

(WNN) New Delhi, INDIA, SOUTHERN ASIA: As security forces battle with Maoist insurgents in India, women village leaders known as ‘Sarpanches’ continue to struggle.  To fulfill their duties as heads of their local councils they must work constantly with the threats of insurgency.

31-year old Kalavati Devi is a worried woman. She is also an Adivasi indigenous Tribals woman who comes from India’s Central Tribal Belt, a region that includes 100 districts inside the Indian States of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and West Bengal.

India’s total population of Tribals is now 84 million. 70 per cent of them live in what is known as India’s Red Zone or The Red Corridor, the region where Maoist insurgency is the most active.

It’s been three years since Kalavati became the Sarpanch of the Nagarveda Tribal Council in the central Kanker district of India. Now she is desperate to fulfill her election promise to bring economic development to the 1,200 people of the twin villages under her council. As ongoing military conflict between India’s counter insurgency and the Maoists insurgency continues, improvement is now hard to come by.  Today the situation continues.

Married into a family of grassroots politicians, Kalavati Devi is a member of the Tribe known as the Gond. Previously her father-in-law and her husband held the office of the local Sarpanch, which is head of the local Tribal Council, before it was officially reserved as a seat for a woman.

As the only woman  who had attended high school within her Tribe, Kalavati was urged by her villagers to take up the job as the Sarpanch leader which she did at first rather unwillingly. While she was unopposed in her election, she now finds herself fighting a different opponent: rumors and accusations against herself based on her gender.

“The Naxalite movement began in India in the late 1960s as a peasant struggle (in Naxalbari, West Bengal, hence the name Naxalite). It represented the revolutionary stream of Indian Marxism, with the aim of capturing control of the Indian state through armed struggle rather than parliamentary democracy,” outlined Social Anthropology Professor Nandini Sundar, a PhD graduate from Colombia University who is now teaching at Sociology at Delhi University in India.

After its initial formation the ‘Naxals’ insurgency spread to the large central east Indian State of Chhattisgarh. The State has a large population of indigenous Tribals who have too often been displaced by mining land grabs in the region, as large deposits of iron ore, bauxite and coal, among other minerals have been discovered.

To bring improvement to the region Kalavati began in office by facilitating the construction of a road that would connect two of the villages under her jurisdiction with the nearest larger highway. In the process truckloads of gravel, stone chips and concrete were brought in. But soon after the project began a threat of ‘dire consequences’ from Maoists in the region who were opposed to the construction came to the Sarpanch office. The result was obvious. The construction then came to a halt.

“Early 2011, we started to build the road. But every day there were threats coming in from them,” outlined Kalvati as she referred to Maoists as “they” or “them.”

“They [the Maoists] said the road was not meant for the villagers, but was actually for army men and their big vehicles. They also set some loaders and stone crushers on fire which scared the laborers. We had no option but to stop the work,” continued Kalvati.

Map of Maoist 'Red Corridor' inside India
A 2007 map of ‘The Red Corridor’ where Maoist & India government military forces continue to battle today. Women caught in-between the conflict are too often placed in situations where their safety and/or their well-being may be compromised as violent military forces cause continuing stress and fear with local communities. Image: Wikimedia

Another project in the region was also abandoned halfway. It was a detailed plan for a large concrete arch that would be placed at the entrance of Kalvati’s local governing building. While it may be hard to understand why a local leader would focus and spend local resources constructing a massive 10-foot arch, Kalavati shared that the idea was to attract the attention of the top leadership of the State so they might begin to pay more attention to the needs of her village.

“Once completed, I was planning to invite the chief minister to come and inaugurate the arch…it would have brought a lot of attention to my Panchayat,” Kalvati shared.

The arch now lies incomplete on the land where it was started, looking like a ‘disaster-struck’ construction site.

Concrete structures and roads are not the only stalled projects in Kalavati’s village. Healthcare services have also been impacted in an area that has been badly affected by the Maoist insurgency and Indian government counter-insurgency conflict. Though the Maoists themselves may not have perpetrated it, health workers are now afraid of walking outside too late in the evening. The health center in the village closes by 4 pm every day as both the medical staff rushes to catch the last Jeep to Antagarh, the nearest town where they reside, thanks to the threat they perceive in the presence of the Maoists in that area.

Kalavati admits that the conflict in the region has negatively challenged her plans, but she says that she can do little about it. According to Kalavati the Maoists are not bad people at all. They do care for the Tribal people. But they have a different political agenda which doesn’t match with that of the government she represents.

As a saving grace, Kalavati is now focusing on implementing projects that are less dependent on construction projects and much less likely to earn the Maoist’s ire. She’s now making ‘ready to eat food’. She is now helping to bring a local multi-grain cereal, provided by the government as a nutrition supplement, to pregnant lactating women and toddlers. Once a week the cereal is distributed in a community health & early education center for mothers and toddlers free of cost. A great bonus is that the cereal is prepared by women of the same village who get to earn a living by selling the grain mixture to the government.

“In the villages here, women have little or no scope to earn money. If the road construction went on, they would have been given work…but now that is halted,” Kalavati emphasized as she highlighted the ongoing conditions for women suffering from poverty inside the region.

“Our village is not well-connected, so people –  especially women – cannot take up work outside the village.  The ready–to- eat food initiative is an earning opportunity for them within the villages. I want to encourage them to participate in these schemes in an organized way, so that the result can be very empowering,” she continued.

In Kalavati’s village there are 16 women who are currently employed to produce the mixed-grain cereal. Kalavati has also stepped in to provide a part of her own house to the women as a manufacturing location for their business. Vimala, one of the women now working, says that but for the favor extended by Kalavati as the Sarpanch leader of the community, they could not have started the business venture.

Tribals Adavasi women who live in the Nagarveda in the central Kanker district of India toast and package multi-grain cerea
Tribals Adavasi women who live in the village of Nagarveda in the central Kanker district of India toast and package multi-grain cereal that will be sold as part of an government cooperative initiative created by woman community leader and local village Sarpanch, Kalavati Devi. Today a chosen group of women work out of Devi’s home as a base location for their growing food manufacturing business. In spite of ongoing problems in the region with life under conflict between Maoists insurgency and India government counter-insurgency military troops, the women continue to work to create a positive, forward-moving life. Image: Stella Paul/WNN

“There was no work in the village as roads were no longer being constructed, so when we learned that there was a chance to earn a living…we were very happy. Cooking comes to us easily, so we knew we would do well. But we needed space to stock our grain and start a kitchen and we had none. When we told the Sarpanch about this, she told us ‘come and do it in my house.’ We are very happy,” outlined Vimala.

Trying to prevent an ongoing generation of women from experiencing constant stress and worry due to the challenges of poverty, Kalavati is working to bring women in her village a better life. But other Tribals women living inside India’s Red Corridor are not so lucky.

One of these women is Soni Sori, a Tribal school teacher who was arrested by local Indian police for her alleged ‘link-ups’ with the Maoists in 2011. Two years after her arrest, she is still being held in police custody where reports have been made saying she has been physically and sexually assaulted multiple times by the police.

But the conflict itself doesn’t always create political impacts, it can often create humanitarian impacts.

27-year old Khemwati Pradhan is a mother of two infants. She is also a ‘Mitanin’, a rural health counselor who’s job is to educated village women about government maternal healthcare programs that are available to them. It’s also her duty to encourage every pregnant woman to go to a government hospital to deliver her child safely. But ironically when Khemwati had her second child a year ago, she had to deliver her own baby at home with little medical help at hand. The shortage of medical staff to help her had directly to do with the ongoing conflict in the region.

“The compounders [paramedics] leave early because, they are scared to stay in the village after dark,” explains Khemwati. “I had labor pain[s] in the evening. There was no transport available to go to the town then. So, I delivered at home.”

Now Kalavati is working to bring running water to every household in her local region. So far one third of her population has received water, she says as she points out that the work requires laying pipelines which is labor intensive.

But the apprehension of a Maoist opposition has made it hard to find laborers, slowing the work down. Despite this Kalavati hasn’t given up hope yet that the initiative to bring water to a larger community will happen.

“It’s for the state to solve [the Maoist problem], all I can do is keep trying to help the villagers get a better life,” outlined Kalavati. “If I fail everyone will say ‘she was a woman, so she was incapable.’ I don’t want that to happen,” she says, before signing off with our interview with a weary smile.


Gyan Devi from the village of Gyanpur in East Uttar Pradesh is a woman Sarpanche who became an elected leader of her Panchayat (local council). She is one of over 200 women elected through the locally based law set by India’s government to encourage more women to take an active role inside their community. This program has been supported by the UNDP – United Nations Development Program Swaayam project. In this video Gyan Devi describes her journey from a quiet shy womenan to an articulate leder determined to fulfill the aspirations of her family and community. While some inside the regions say the women Sarpanche system is flawed, because men often have the final say in local rural decision making, many women in the region feel the legislative decision to bring women to the center of local councils is very important. This 3:18 min Feb 18, 2013 video is a UNDPIndia production.


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India based news reporter Stella Paul is a media fellow at the National Foundation for India.


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