My Experience working with ARCH
Trupti Parekh and Ambrish Mehta are no ordinary couple. In their sixties now, they have spent four decades working alongside the tribes of Narmada district to get them land rights and more. Originally hailing from Surat, when you meet them first, you think of them as a docile couple enjoying a quiet retired life. At least that was my first impression when I went to see them at their office that doubles up as their flat in Baroda. Trupti was sitting with two cups of tea, her grey hair tied neatly into a long braid, looking serene – until she asked Ambrish, her husband of more than three decades to look for bathroom chappals for me so I could use the bathroom before our journey. Her voice had a commanding quality and I could envision her screaming slogans in the 1980s. As the three of us sat and I could sense they both were impatient to get started, it was only 8 in the morning and we were already late. They reminded me of the rare breed of social worker, the one who still owns only two pairs of clothing, carries a jhola and knows development is a two-way process. The 1970s and 80s saw a wave of idealist college students who, frustrated with the stark inequality they saw between rural and urban India, went to villages to serve. Unlike their modern counterparts, they were not flush with funds and aid from donors, and they did not use the term ‘beneficiary’ or ‘empower’. Those they worked for were their equals and their learning was mutual. The tribals and villagers knew the local terrain better than anyone, were eager to learn and partner with whoever wanted to stay with them and make a difference. There was no distinction of “field” and “office”, both were the same.
Working with them over the last four months had been a privilege. During my early days of being in the Indian liberal circles, I would often hear their name and the work they had been doing and that is why when the opportunity came to document their work, I jumped right at it. For me, this was a chance to understand the work done in an area that most do not know about despite its relevance. The Forest Rights Act has managed to uplift thousands from poverty and ensure a dignified life. For centuries, tribals have been treated as outsiders or encroachers in forests. But bringing about the Act and then working on implementing it has not been an easy journey. Or a famous one. Work in this area has been done in rural or inaccessible pockets where the media normally doesn’t go. This is why the challenge of documenting this and being able to watch the process unfold has been truly fulfilling.
In April, I made my first trip to Dediapada, a block of Narmada district, where Trupti and Ambrish had ensured land titles for thousands of villagers. Dediapada is nestled among hills, and a major part of the region to this date does not have a telephone network, leave alone 4G services. And this is in 2021. Imagine twenty years ago when GPS would have been just introduced to measure land size for paperwork related to land titles. They have been using a combination of GPS device and satellite images to help marginalized farmers file their claims under the Forest Rights Act. The terrain is marked by bamboo growth on both sides and dry bush. Along with Ambrish and Trupti, I reached the village where a meeting was to be held to discuss the status of current projects. I was pleasantly surprised to see houses during our journey there. Made of bamboo and mud, the homes stood out for their size. Twenty years ago, houses like these would have been impossible to build for fear of being razed by the Forest Department. But now, not just homes, there was electricity fueled by solar panels in the villages, mango groves and terraced farms. The village where the meeting was being held also featured women who had been equal partners in the fight for land rights and now were setting up handloom units in their homes for a new project.
ARCH Vahini is an NGO working on land rights and FRA for tribal in Gujarat. About 1,83,000 marginalized farmers had filed their claims under the Forest Rights Act, 35,135 of which were approved (registered) through ARCH’s direct and indirect intervention. In an effort to revamp their communication strategy, ARCH Vahini through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is reaching out to young people, especially in cities, who would otherwise not know anything about the struggle to get the Act passed, and then implement it. Through this weekly, users get an insight into the life in Narmada and the untold stories about how a farmer’s son wants to be a musician, or how one woman earned more because of her hand spun cloth, or a farmer whose mango produce is now getting him a second source of income. This is a journey that has remained far cut off from mainstream media for the last thirty years. Using Gujarat and English, the idea is to produce content for ARCH Vahini not just as a consultant, but also train the tribal youth of the region to use their smartphones and democratically crowdsource content.
The intervention from ARCH Vahini has completely changed the geography of the region, and it has been heartening to document it. We have collected photographs, short videos of testimonies and clips of everyday life in the region. This is a story that must be told in urban India! It is these tribals whose lives were transformed by the Forest Rights Act and it is their stories we need to tell, stories which are unscripted, unique and unheard – until now!
 The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006, commonly referred to as the Forest Right Act (FRA) recognizes the rights of Scheduled Tribes (indigenous ) and other traditional forest dwellers over the forests that they have been living in for generations.