FROM RIGHTS TO ENTERPRISE : THE STORY OF AMA SANGATHAN
Ama Sangathan began as a movement of tribal women and tribal people in general to protect their rights and their natural ecosystem, two entities that perhaps go hand in hand for most tribal and ‘ecosystem’ people. In the early nineties, Ama Sangathan began a network with other tribal women’s organisations in districts like Kalahandi, Malkangiri, Koraput, Nawrangpur, Keonjhar, and Mayurbhanj. In this, they were supported by grassroots based organisations like Agragamee.
In 1993, Ama Sangathan petitioned the Chief Minister to address issues of exploitation and rights of tribal communities in different parts of the state. A major issue was that of rights over minor forest produce. Lead by the women’s group, Mandibisi Mahila Mandal, women in Kashipur had been trying to check the cheating and exploitation by middle-men in the area of minor forest produce. The government policy denied any benefit to tribal gatherers of minor forest produce by giving monopoly rights to traders, and government corporations like the TDCC to buy and sell minor forest produce.
As women complained about the issue, the Chief Minister agreed that women could buy and sell MFP in tribal areas if they registered as a Mahila Mandal. But, this did not solve the problem, as the forest department was loathe to grant any rights to tribals or women’s groups for that matter on this issue. A long and bitter struggle ensued, lead by the women of Mandibisi. During this time, the stock of brooms collected by the Mandibisi Mahila Mandal was seized by the forest department, women were booked in false cases, and had to run from pillar to post, facing trials and court cases, and the entire nation woke upto the fact of dreadful exploitation that underlies the trade in Minfor forest Produce. Finally, in 2000, the Government of Orissa, realised that tribal people deserved a better deal than being pawns in the hands of profit minded business interests, and changed the MFP policy, giving the rights over minor forest produce to the Panchayats in the Scheduled V areas.
The movement linked together women and women’s groups from many villages in the remote Tahsil of Kashipur in the fifth Schedule District of Rayagada and Orissa, and decided to go in for a formal identity by registering under the Societies Act of 1860. Rising upto the occasion, it also took up the challenge of processing and marketing agricultural and minor forest produce from the tribal regions, and became the first tribal women’s enterprise to take up such efforts in Orissa.
A follow up to its efforts at changing the MFP policy this micro-enterprise had manifold impact breaking the monopoly of the local middlemen over trade in the area, as also in increasing the bargaining power of the tribal community in selling its products. Prices of the items marketed by Ama Sangathan went up by 300% and for the first time in the region, tribal women were able to handle machinery with confidence, and enter into the value-addition chain, creating local employment, and helping wage earners find an alternative to the landlords and contractors. Ama Sangathan sells its products to different states, including Andhra Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, and Tamil Nadu, and has been recognised far and wide for its pioneering work in taking advocacy efforts forward to mean enterprise and profits to its members.