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Even when her entire life came to a standstill, Chitra Nilambur refused to give up the fight against the injustice shown towards her community.
The 34-year-old belongs to the Kootanaykar tribal community in Malappuram, Kerala. She was born in the Appankapp Colony in Pothukallu Village, Malappuram, completed her primary education from the nearby tribal school and studied upto Class 10 at the Catholicate High School.
Although she was a good student, circumstances prevented her from pursuing her education any further and was married off at the age of 16. By 18, she had a child.
But that didn’t stop Chitra from pursuing her dreams.
Knowing that most children from tribal communities in the remote forests didn’t have access to education, she started working as a teacher and as a tribal promoter with the Tribal Community Development Team of the state government.
Chitra’s efforts to go visit different tribal villages, organise seminars and classes to spread awareness about the importance of education and her enthusiasm to speak to each family individually enabled many students to continue their school education. She even helped students procure the necessary documents to join school.
“It was a great feeling to be able to act as a bridge and give these children a chance to fulfil their aspirations and dreams,” she explains.
During this time, while working closely with various government schemes, Chitra came across several instances where land contractors were taking advantage of the uneducated tribal communities.
“These contractors and government officials would take money from tribal families claiming to speed up the land allocation process, but eventually refuse to give them ownership of their land. I started speaking up against them, and they soon tried to bribe me with money. When that didn’t work, they started threatening me. By then, I had even lost my job,” she explains.
Chitra had to face several false accusations during her fight for tribal rights. Some even tried to frame her as a Maoist, but that just made her even more determined to continue the work.
It is estimated that 25 crores of India’s population lives in forest lands, out of which 10 crores are tribal communities. Although the 2006 forest rights act came into being, Chitra is still fighting to claim the rights over lands that belong to certain tribal communities.
“Almost 104 families in Neliyampathy, Palakkad were given claim over 1 acre each, but only 28 families were allocated the requisite plot of land. When we enquired about it, the government officials kept delaying the process and denied to give us a proper answer. A similar situation happened in Wayanad as well. Whether it is through the forest rights act or otherwise, at the end of the day, our (tribal) community ends up bearing the brunt, and I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing,” says Chitra.
To make the community aware of their rights, Chitra conducted various classes and seminars explaining tribal rights and how to write petitions to the various tribal communities in Wayanad, Malappuram and Palakkad districts.
Along with this, she and her team of volunteers identified leaders from these communities and trained them specifically to ensure that petitions would be filed at the right time and that the matters with regard to the forests rights would reach the respective authorities without any corruption by area leaders and contractors.
“As a result of the work that my volunteers and I have put in, we’ve been able to claim most of our land, and today the community is aware of their rights,” Chitra adds.
Into The Light of Education
Besides her fight for forest rights, Chitra has been a part of groups like Mahila Samakhya and the Neeti Vedi that empower tribal women to pursue their dreams and aspirations.
“After joining the group, I was motivated to continue pursuing my studies. So I completed Class 12 and acquired a BA in Malayalam. Now I work as a paralegal worker for Neeti Vedi, Malappuram,” she explains.
As a paralegal, Chitra has been able to sort out cases for many tribal communities. In 2017, she even rescued a hearing-impaired tribal man from bonded labour and was able to get him Rs 7 Lakh as compensation.
She also founded ‘Patika Varga Seva Society’ (Tribal Upliftment Society) in 2017 to address the various issues that the tribal communities face including education, land rights and employment opportunities.
Her work for the empowerment of the tribal communities won her the MJ Joseph Outstanding Commitment Award in 2018, given to grassroots level innovators and leaders.
“Documentation and paperwork can be quite overwhelming for the tribal communities due to the lack of awareness. I’m trying to bridge that gap and ensure that we get what we deserve,” she concludes.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)