At the age of 18, Shabham Shah understood the problem of illegal land grabbing in her village – Mungaoli in Madhya Pradesh. Even her own family had been a victim of this problem for 30 years. Her father finally won the case over the house they are currently living in, in the early 2000s after numerous expenses on lawyers and visits to the court. It was in 2008 – two years after her father passed away – when Shabnam attended a session by Ekta Parishad on people’s movement for land rights and she realized the extent of this issue. After ten years of joining the Ekta Parishad, she is now the district coordinator and is tirelessly working to save the land rights of tribal families. So far, she has ensured land protection of 1,400 exploited tribal families, mostly from Saharya tribe.
A recipient of ‘Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life’
For her exceptional and selfless contribution to the cause of land rights protection, Shabnam was recently felicitated with the ‘Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life’ by the Women’s World Summit Foundation (WWSF). The Summit awards are given every year to women leaders or groups who have contributed to improving the quality of life in rural areas. This year, the recognition was given to ten women from around the world, out of which four are Indian. Talking about this victory, National Coordinator of Ekta Parishad, Aneesh Thillenkery said, “Shabnam has shown tremendous courage and dedication over the years to help people in almost a hundred villages. Her empathetic attitude towards strangers and willingness to help at all times has moved mountains. She has been able to solve some of the toughest cases, and she deserves this award.”
“This is encouraging for someone who receives threats for seeking justice.”
Shabnam reflects her happiness over a phone call as she is sitting hundreds of kilometres away in her village, upon receiving the award. She said, “This (award) was completely unexpected. I am very happy to receive such an honorary mention alongside other brave women. It is very encouraging for someone like me who is often at the receiving end of abuses and threats for seeking justice.”
Her father wanted her to be a lawyer
Shabnam was a righteous and virtuous kid from an early age. She says she had a happy childhood, but as her father died in class eight, she had to drop out to run a ration store and support her family. She went back to school a year later after her brother started supporting the family, but she could never be a lawyer. Talking about the land dispute her family had, she says, “In hindsight, my father was never behind the piece of land or the house, but he knew that if he lost the battle, it would be a loss to humanity and people’s faith towards the judiciary would further decline. He was not okay with the ‘powerful people control everything’ narrative. When we won via a legal course, his faith was restored, and that’s why he wanted one of us to become a lawyer.”
Land Rights, Organic Farming, Dispute Resolution, and More
Shabnam looks after district Ashoknagar where there are three main types of land disputes:
- The owner has legal papers, and still, the land is illegally occupied by someone.
- Forest dwellers, who are denied their right to use forest resources or farm near the forest under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006.
- The owners have no legal papers of their land, and hence it can be taken over by the government at any time.
Shabnam stands a guard between the authorities and all such people to make sure that justice is not denied to anyone. Economic and Political Weekly verifies that 200 million Adivasi citizens depend on forests and its resources for their livelihood. The FRA formally recognizes the right of individuals and communities from Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Forest Dwellers to settle in forest areas. As per this right, they are not encroachers. But the process of settlement of rights is very complex.
“The Act recognizes only those lands that are already under cultivation before 13 December 2005. The proof of burden lies on the person, and if one does not have any document to prove the date, then she/he can get an affidavit from a village elder (60+) that states the person has been cultivating before the mentioned date,” explains Shabnam.
So far, 1.94 million applications have been rejected of the total 4.22 million filed for settlements across India. There are long bureaucratic processes that scare the tribal people, and lack of any documents makes things worse. Still, Shabnam continues to educate them and make them aware of their rights, duties and ensures the fulfillment of all legal requirements. Better India talked to some locals, and they appreciated the efforts of Shabnam. “This land is our ancestor’s identity, and we couldn’t afford to lose it. I was threatened by a mighty family, but it was Shabnam ji’s support that kept us going and I am grateful to her,” Birjlal tells The Better India.
Shabnam has dedicated her life to this cause to the extent that she chose not to get married and spend more time working for Ekta Parishad. She proudly says, “Most people live for their family, some live for society also, and I am one of them. I am a proud unmarried woman who still lives with her mother.”