In Langscape Magazine Articles

Women Do It Differently: Realizing the Responsibilities of Rights in an Indigenous Community of India

August 29, 2023
Village women succeed where the men had failed in restoring the community’s fisheries.

WORDS Kanna K. Siripurapu and Aniket Bambole | IMAGES Kanna K. Siripurapu

Malguzari Talab (Malguzari Lake)

A serene view of Malguzari Talab (Malguzari Lake) near Kanhalgaon village in the state of Maharashtra, India.


On the northeastern side of Maharashtra State, India, lies Gadchiroli district, an area endowed with rich natural resources (about seventy percent of the land area is under forest cover) and a long history of both vibrant and turbulent Indigenous cultures. The village of Kanhalgaon, in the Chamorshi taluka (subdivision) of Gadchiroli, is a small community of almost 100 families with a total population of slightly over 500 people, predominantly belonging to the Indigenous Gond (also known as Gondi or Koitur), a Dravidian ethnolinguistic group that is one of India’s largest Indigenous communities.

Traditionally, the Gond formed large kingdoms and ruled most of the Gondwana region, which extends across central India. The Gond kingdoms were initially conquered by the Mughals and then by the Maratha rulers. These circumstances forced the Gond to take refuge inside forests. It was during the British colonial rule, however, that the Gond were completely deprived of their power and control over their lands and natural resources. The British not only took over their lands but also branded them as thieves and plunderers, forcing the warrior people to turn into meek peasants and wary fugitives.

We tell a story of Indigenous Gond women reclaiming traditional rights to a water body and assuming the responsibility for restoring and practicing fisheries.

The British further marginalized and oppressed the Gond by curtailing their customary rights to forests and natural resources through the implementation of the colonial forest management acts and policies. The suppression of the Gond’s rights resulted in the famous, although only temporarily successful, Bastar rebellion of 1910. In the wake of the rebellion, the Gond totally lost their rights to their lands and resources. The nationalization of forest lands during India’s post-independence era cemented their fate as encroachers and outcasts in their own kingdom.

It is against this troubling background of historical injustice and forced erasure of traditional rights that we tell a story of Indigenous Gond women’s self-help groups (SHGs) reclaiming traditional rights to a water body and assuming the responsibility for restoring and practicing fisheries.

Sakhi Women Self-Help Group

Members of the Sakhi Women Self-Help Group (SHG) of Kanhalgaon village.


To hear this story, we arrived at Ghot village (native place of co-author Aniket Bambole), which is approximately twenty kilometers away from Kanhalgaon village. One of our mutual friends, Ghot resident Sunil Neware, tried to make contact with Jayashree Mamgam, the chair of Sakhi Women SHG of Kanhalgaon and the story’s protagonist. Out of distrust, she initially refused to entertain strangers like us. But then she relented a bit and agreed to meet with us in her village the following morning.

So, come the next morning, we arrived at Jayashree’s home in Kanhalgaon. Jayashree was flanked by a few women, mostly from the SHG, with whom she was probably discussing the SHG federation meeting scheduled later that day. After an exchange of pleasantries, she inquired about the purpose of our visit. When we explained, the women appeared to relax a bit and accepted our presence. Intrigued by our interaction with the women, Jayshree’s husband, Maantu Mamgam, joined the conversation, which meandered through the Gond’s history and their reverence for nature. In the meantime, Jayshree was busying herself with household chores, while simultaneously discussing something with the women folk that we, admittedly, did not pay much attention to.

At some point, an elderly figure walked in, and it did not take long for us to realize that he was a respected man in the village: Anand Rao Kodapet, the chair of the community Forest Rights Committee, who also happened to be Jayashree’s father. Following a new round of introductions, he started recounting the history of the natural waterbody near the village, which is the focus and backdrop of our story.

Anand Rao Kodapet

Anand Rao Kodapet, chair of Kanhalgaon village’s Forest Rights Committee.


Malguzari Talab (Malguzari Lake), said Anand Rao, spreads over an area of seventeen acres. During the colonial reign, it was once under the control of Atram Vishweswara Rao, a malguzar (village-based landlord). Introduced by the Maratha kings during the precolonial era, the Malguzari and Talukdari land revenue systems existed alongside the other three more popular land revenue systems of Mahalwari (communal ownership of the land), Zamindari (absolute landlord ownership), and Rayatwari (individual peasant ownership) systems introduced by the British in India. During the British rule, malguzars were given property rights over large swaths of land and made responsible for collecting revenue for the crown.

‘A right is not a right unless it is equally distributed and easily accessible to everyone.’

It may have been under the British land revenue system that Malguzari Talab, most likely a natural wetland, became the private property of Malguzar Atram Vishweswara Rao, and local farmers largely lost access to it. After India gained independence, all the lands (including water bodies) that had been under the malguzars’ private ownership were nationalized by the government. As an extension of the colonial reign, the Indian government handed such lands and water bodies over to the state’s revenue and forestry departments. In other words, instead of reinstating local governance and control, it completely excluded local communities from governance.

Acting no differently from the British, the revenue department invited tenders and auctioned such waterbodies out to private bidders for the purpose of practicing aquaculture. Usually, a single, wealthy bidder would win and be granted the leasing rights over the wetland for a stretch of two years, perpetuating private ownership and exclusion of the local communities. “A right is not a right unless it is equally distributed and easily accessible to everyone,” commented Anand Rao Kodapet.

Since independence in 1947, the same saga continued up to the year 2018. Both the nonresident leaseholders and the state revenue department barred village inhabitants from fishing in the lake, leaving them as outcasts in their own land. Exotic weeds such as morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea) took over and deteriorated the lake ecosystem, due to grave negligence of the state’s revenue department and the nonresident leaseholders.

Both the nonresident leaseholders and the state revenue department barred village inhabitants from fishing in the lake, leaving them as outcasts in their own land.

The year 2018 was a watershed moment for the Gond people of Kanhalgaon village. In the process of reclaiming their traditional rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, the residents were educated by local nonprofit organizations about the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA), 1996. In the tribal-dominated regions of India, the act bestows the right of ownership and control over land and natural resources to the gram sabha (village council).

Taking advantage of the provisions of the PESA Act, villagers reclaimed their ownership of commons and wetlands (including Malguzari Talab) and restored the community’s ownership over such resources. What followed, however, was as interesting as the history of the Gond people’s loss and recovery of traditional rights over the wetland.

Following the reclamation of traditional rights, the men of Kanhalgaon village immediately took over the management and governance responsibility for Malguzari Talab. They decided to continue what the nonresidents had been doing in the wetland — practicing aquaculture. An amount of INR 55,000 (USD 672) was invested from the village funds to procure fish fry for aquaculture. In no time things started falling apart and going haywire. Infighting among men over theft and violation of fishing protocols became the norm and was rampant. The rights were in place, but the decision-making power was vested in only two or three of the village’s most powerful men. A proper mechanism for managing the waterbody was not put in place. There was absolutely no unity among the men. For the most part, they acted very irresponsibly toward governance and management of the waterbody and fisheries, which they had reclaimed after fighting a long battle. And the rights were left redundant and useless!

“Trust and unity among people,” noted Anand Rao Kodapet, “are the key, and they are fundamental to governance and effective management of natural resources, the lack of which is a recipe for failure.”

‘Trust and unity among people are fundamental to governance and effective management of natural resources.’

At this point, Jayashree joined the conversation, recounting how, after witnessing the failure of waterbody and fisheries management by their men, in 2019 the village council handed the responsibility for management of the waterbody and fisheries over to the women’s SHGs. It did not come as a surprise for the women, as they were already prepared for the challenge. In fact, it was a great opportunity for Sakhi Women SHG. (A sakhi is a village-level SHG federation of ten SHGs of ten members each. In total, a sakhi has a membership of 100 women belonging to the Gond community, all residents of the same village.)

Jayshree Mamgam

Jayshree Mamgam, chair of Sakhi Women SHG, Kanhalgaon village.


As a part of the SHG skill-building program, continued Jayshree, all the 100 members of Sakhi Women SHG learned the basics of microfinancing, record and accounts management, organizing meetings and training, business, and investments. By consistently attending the capacity-building programs and trainings organized for the SHGs and working together to solve the issue of inadequate finances and other women-specific problems, the members of Sakhi Women SHG acquired adequate management skills and independence.

Regular meetings and joint problem-solving not only made the women more disciplined and organized but also helped them nurture social networks and mobilize social capital. Working together instilled in them a sense of trust, understanding, mutual support, and unity, which the men lacked when they first received the rights over the wetland, ultimately leading to a total debacle. When opportunity knocked, Sakhi Women SHG seized it and ran with it.

Working together instilled in the women a sense of trust, understanding, mutual support, and unity, which the men lacked when they first received the rights over the wetland.

Once the village council handed the leasing rights of Malguzari Talab over to Sakhi Women SHG, along with the responsibility for management of both the wetland and fisheries, SHG members immediately swung into action. The 100 women banded together, jumped into the lake, and uprooted the obnoxious morning glory weeds, restoring the waterbody to health.

paddy fields surrounding Malguzari Talab

The lush green paddy fields surrounding Malguzari Talab near Kanhalgaon village. The lake is the lifeline of the surrounding farm land.


They also brought many changes to fisheries management. Unlike men, women have established regular patrolling of the lake, regularly updating the group’s executive committee. Investment records and accounts of fisheries have been kept up to date. Probably the most important change the women have brought about is in the handling of fishing rights.

During their tenure, men had granted fishing rights to nonresidents, which deprived locals of both employment and access to protein-rich food. Locals could not afford fish that were cultured in their own water body, as the traders sold them for exorbitant prices. To tackle these multiple issues — loss of local employment, high market prices, and unaffordability of protein-rich food — women instead strictly reserved fishing rights to local villagers (both women and men), thus securing local employment. And they devised a dual pricing model, whereby fish are sold to outside traders at the current wholesale market price and to locals at the price fixed by villagers. The dual pricing model works perfectly, generates enough revenue, and ensures food and nutrition for the villagers.

Women instead strictly reserved fishing rights to local villagers, thus securing local employment.

Sakhi Women SHG generated a revenue of INR 145,000 (USD 1,770) in the very first year and also cleared the loan of INR 55,000 (USD 672). They made history, managing the waterbody and fisheries successfully for the past three years. As Judith Christiana, Human Relations Manager at the nonprofit SaciWATERs, comments, “Women rising to the occasion” — a remark that rightly fits the case of Sakhi Women SHG.

“Women were on their own,” recollected Jayshree Mamgam. “They remained isolated and immersed in their own world, without much contact with the outside world. Attending SHG trainings outside our village provided the opportunity to meet women from other villages. They taught us about the benefits of a bank account and credit. Now, we are more organized and united, and more prepared to take care of any situation.”

The moral: rights are fundamental and a prerequisite for taking responsibility to ensure our survival; to realize them, however, one should be well prepared, organized, and determined to make things work!


Back to Vol. 12 |  Read the Table of Contents | Like Our Stories? Please Donate!

Acknowledgments: The authors are grateful to VIKASA, a nonprofit organization based in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India, for providing financial assistance to the study. Find out more at

Kanna Siripurapu.

Kanna K. Siripurapu is a researcher interested in the biocultural diversity of Indigenous nomadic pastoral systems and agroecosystems in India. He is associated with the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies (SaciWATERs), Telangana, India.

Aniket Bambole.

Aniket Bambole is a graduate student in development studies at Azim Premji University. His interests lie in improving rural health and sanitation, promoting rights-based approaches to the economic development of Indigenous communities, and mainstreaming traditional knowledge and practices.


Read more from Kanna K. Siripurapu:

Tags: , , , , , , ,