How a tribal activist gifted land to start a social experiment in MP

Newly weds were given property worth crores of rupees

60-Hemant-Saryam Man with the plan: Hemant Saryam wants to support couples who can work to conserve tribal traditions | Sanjay Ahlawat

ON MAY 2, a unique mass marriage ceremony was held at Betul city in Madhya Pradesh, around 180km from Bhopal. The event was organised jointly by the Akhil Gondwana Mahasabha and the Gondwana Students’ Union, and it saw 78 couples of Gond and Korku tribes tying the knot. Each bride received a unique wedding gift—a 750sqft plot where they could build a house. The benefactor: Hemant Saryam, social activist and district president of the tribal Gondwana Gantantra Party.

We received about 225 [marriage] applications. I selected couples who would be able to take the movement further. - Hemant Saryam, activist and Gondwana Gantantra Party leader

“I am really happy; I never thought I would become a plot owner,” says Savitri Uikey, 29, who married Mahesh Dhurve, a 32-year-old labourer. “My family has an agricultural smallholding, but we had to do manual labour to sustain ourselves. My husband’s family also has a similar background. The land gifted by Hemant bhaiya gives us a chance to not only have our own home as a couple, but also earn a better livelihood in the city. More importantly, couples like us will be staying nearby, and we will have opportunities to work together on social and cultural issues.”

At current market rates, each plot is worth Rs3.85 lakh. So the total value of the donated property? More than Rs3 crore.

Hemant Saryam, 40, has no airs of being a big donor or even a politician. Sitting on an outcrop close to the donated land, he speaks candidly in a steady baritone about what prompted him to give away his property. The basic aim, he says, is to support young tribal couples who can work to conserve and propagate tribal culture without having to worry about making ends meet.

“I work as a social and RTI activist on issues of land, forests and water,” says Saryam. “During my work, I felt that the younger generation in the tribal community is not much aware of their identity, culture, traditions and laws, as many of them have to keep their noses to the grindstone to earn their living. They are hardly in a position to pay attention to these aspects. My mission is to create a pool of youth who can forget worrying about surviving and work together to revive the tribal identity and preserve tribal traditions, culture and laws.”

The donation of land to women symbolises this effort, he says. “According to tribal laws, women do not get a share of their father’s property. My effort is to strengthen this tradition. By gifting land to women during marriage, I want to give mental strength to them that they are not worse off by not getting a share of their father’s property,” says Saryam.

The Hindu Succession Act guarantees equal rights to male and female heirs, but section 2(2) of the act says it is not applicable to any scheduled tribe. In September 2022, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to reexamine provisions that deny inheritance to tribal women.

According to Saryam, indigenous tribal traditions and Indian laws ensure that married women have legal rights to a share in her husband’s property and income. They will also receive maintenance after divorce. “In such a situation, the issue of a daughter’s share in her father’s property only creates huge familial and social rifts,” says Saryam. “It is also against indigenous and natural laws. The important thing is to ensure social and familial respect and economic rights for the women in her marital home. My land gift to women during marriage is an attempt to underline this point.”

When he came up with the idea of gifting his land, the first challenge he encountered was internal. “I kept thinking whether it would be the right decision,” he says. “What will happen to my children (he has a 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter), my wife, and so on? I also had to deal with my wife’s objections. But I told myself that we had eight acres of ancestral land, of which six acres are jointly owned by me and my two brothers. I had sole ownership of two acres.”

Saryam knew that if he gave away the two acres, he could become landless. “If that happens, I can seek government land as per provisions of the Madhya Pradesh Land Revenue Code (which has provisions for granting government land to landless tribals). So I was not on losing ground. I explained this to my wife and told her that doing work for the community was more important than holding property. She was finally convinced and gave me the go-ahead.”

Saryam invited landless tribal youth to get married at the mass ceremony. “We received about 225 applications from across the district. I spoke to them in detail about my overall vision and then selected couples who would be able to take the movement further. Also, they had to agree to pay the land registration and ownership transfer fees of about Rs43,000 per head.”

Saryam says he does not want to contest polls. He plans to help the couples build houses under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. Most of the men are manual labourers who can get better opportunities in Betul city, which is 9km from the gifted property. They can also form committees for collecting forest produce, and form self-help groups to benefit from Central and state welfare schemes.

Mannulal Ahake, who married Geeta Narve at the marriage ceremony, has high hopes of the future. “We want to work for the betterment of our communities and the preservation of traditions,” he says. “Staying together will help us in a big way.”