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“He first came to us as a part of the PMRD [Prime Minister’s Rural Development] fellowship in 2013. He would visit every village with other government officials and meticulously note down grievances and parallelly also research on several village and state-level policies that could come to our rescue. His work in the formative years helped us build our struggles in the coming days.”
These are the words of an elected district council member, Lalsu Nogoti, from Bhamragad in Maharashtra. He is speaking about Mahesh Raut. Four months after Mahesh Raut was arrested, accused by the state of being an ‘urban naxal’, 300 gram sabhas from the two districts that Mahesh worked in, issued a resolution in his support. (Gram sabhas are ‘people’s councils’, a Constitutionally instituted body comprising of all people in any village above the age of 18 years. Each of India’s 500,000 villages has a gram sabha. It is the heart of India’s famed decentralized democratic structure or panchayati raj governance.)
It was a resounding challenge to the Indian state to reflect upon its own biases. The resolution lists Raut’s work in the area and the challenges the villages have been facing since his arrest, challenges mostly from private mining operations of large corporations such as Lloyd’s Metal and Energy Limited, Corporate Ispat Alloys, Gopani Iron, and Ispat (Jindal Steel Works) – all of them aided by the strongarm tactics of the Indian state and the presence of a very large paramilitary force in this region. Mahesh Raut, a graduate from one of India’s premier and oldest social science universities, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), had been working with villagers to highlight the grave injustices being done to them with respect to the implementation of the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) and Forest Rights Act (FRA) in the region for the last six years. Both these laws are central Constitutional guarantees for the right to land and livelihood for India’s rural poor especially the most vulnerable indigenous populations – the adivasis or ‘tribal’ population.
Senior activists and members of the gram sabha say Raut was involved in a crucial agitation at the time of his arrest. “At Surjagad, the onslaught of mining companies has increased in the past years. Raut along with other activists from the region was in the process of filing a petition in the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court on June 7 and he was arrested just a day prior,” said Sainu Gota of Gatta village, an Adivasi leader and now a member of the zila parishad from the region.
Who Is Mahesh Raut?
Born in very humble circumstances in Lakhapur village in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, Mahesh (and family) had migrated to the neighbouring Gadchiroli district during childhood. He pursued his initial education in Gadchiroli and then moved to Nagpur for higher education. In 2009, he joined TISS in Mumbai to study social work. The two years at the institute and later a PMRD fellowship upon the completion of his master’s degree in 2011 gave him an opportunity to work on forest rights and other issues (such as organizing against exploitative contractors and large companies to get better rates for tendu leaves – the indigenous tobacco leaves harvested by large numbers of adivasi workers in this region) directly impacting Adivasis in eastern Maharashtra.
Mahesh Raut’s commitment to social justice and his personal valuation of social welfare above personal gains has always secured him respect and adoration amongst his peers and community. Thus about 80 former fellows of the PMRD as well as well-respected former rural development minister (Mr. Jairam Ramesh) have come out in strong support of Mahesh.
“He has been one of the best performing Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows (PMRDFs) who served in Gadchiroli district (a conflict area district) for two years in close coordination with the district administration. Raids on his house and detention had become very common for him in last few months because of his tireless work with Bharat Jan Andolan, an organisation started by late B.D Sharma (IAS). Mahesh has been instrumental in mobilizing people for participative decision making in areas affected by mining projects and has been constantly raising voice for the people’s welfare. His work on PESA and FRA has been noteworthy and acclaimed by then District Collectors and State departments under Government of Maharashtra. Moreover, he was actively involved in the process of deepening democracy through strengthening Gram Sabhas in the tribal areas. How can a person working to deepen democracy be ‘anti-state’ as claimed by state security agencies? Development often means taking sides of people and taking collective action for people’s betterment within the ambit of law and constitution.
Due to his tiring efforts in driving social change in conflict areas, at this young age, Mahesh has been suffering from swollen liver and digestive issues. His health condition deteriorated early this year and on medical advice, he moved to Nagpur from Gadchiroli. The consulting doctor also advised him to be on liquid diet.