Rahul Banerjee believes in empowering tribal communities by synergizing traditional practices with modern economic and democratic systems. Over the last 25 years, he has mass mobilized the Bhil tribes in Madhya Pradesh to create a strong sense of identity. Simultaneously, he has also leveraged Government schemes and laws to revive traditional agricultural practices, create decentralised, gender-sensitive and equitable governance systems that conserve the Bhil culture.
A large part of his work involved the development of a written language using the Hindi Devnagari script to document the entire body of Bhil myths, folklore and literature. This helped instill awareness and pride among the younger Bhil generation in their identity. Encouraging the public celebration of festivals developed a sense of ownership, by mainstreaming and projecting the Bhil identity. “People know how to solve their problems, but don’t have the resources” states Rahul, having also mobilized and educated the tribes about their rights and entitlements. These efforts resulted in the implementation of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 that created for the Bhils a special governance system through decentralised gram sabhas. It also empowered the community to play a key role in national campaigns aimed at implementing the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act. As a result of his efforts, the Bhils now have control over decisions that involve them directly or indirectly, including issues like the declaration of a wildlife sanctuary or other environmental projects on their lands. Government schemes like MGNREGA are being used to rejuvenate traditional agricultural practices and conserve natural resources like soil, water and forests while at the same time generate livelihood options.
Other tribal communities and civil society organisations across the States of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh are now following this alternative development model created by Rahul’s organisation, Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra. Since his college years at IIT, Rahul has been working towards bridging the wide socio-economic gap that separates tribal communities from the mainstream. His plans for the future include mobilising the Bhils to integrate movements at the community level with those at the national and global level bringing about larger societal impact. These movements include the economic involvement of tribals in trade circles and the protection and conservation of natural resources that lie at the heart of their lives.
Note: This was updated in December, 2013. Read on for the ELECTION profile