Meet Karnataka’s First MLC From the African-Origin Siddi Community
Shantaram also worked as state secretary of the Vanavasi Kalyan Prakalpa, a tribal welfare initiative of the RSS.
Shantaram Budna Siddi was waiting in a garage when he received a call from Bengaluru telling him he had been made a Member of Legislative Council (MLC) by the BJP but he did not believe the news immediately.
Shantaram, a member of the African-origin Siddi tribe, had experienced this before. "Two years ago, there were WhatsApp messages that I received a doctorate from Belagavi's Rani Chenmamma University but I never received the doctorate! It was a hoax," Shantaram says speaking to TNM.
But the leader who hails from a modest home in Hitlalli village in Yellapur in Uttara Kannada district soon realised that the news was true after he received a slew of calls congratulating him. He had become the first member of the African-origin Siddi tribe to be made a political representative in Karnataka.
"Siddi community members have become Gram Panchayat secretaries and even Taluk Panchayat secretaries but there were no other political representatives in our community," Shantaram says.
The Siddi community is recognised as a Scheduled Tribe in Karnataka. There are around 40,000 community members living in the forested areas of Yellapur and Haliyal in Uttara Kannada district while around 10,000 others live in neighboring areas including in Dharwad and Belagavi.
The community has lived in relative seclusion in India for over five centuries and historians say that the Siddis docked in India in the 16th century as domestic slaves of Portuguese traders from Mozambique, which was also a Portuguese colony at the time. Some suggest their arrival in India predates that.
When slavery was outlawed in Portuguese colonies in 1869, the Siddis migrated from Goa to forest areas in Karnataka, Gujarat and Maharashtra, where they are found today. Members of the community live in poverty, mostly doing coolie work for plantation owners. They also face racial discrimination on a day-to-day basis, something Shantaram says he is familiar with.
"Siddis are made fun of especially in coastal areas like Karwar and Ankola in Uttara Kannada. People refer to us as Africans and they assume we are all Christians. But that is not the case. We speak fluent Kannada and sometimes even Kundapur Kannada," says Shantaram. Kundapur Kannada is a dialect of the Kannada language spoken in Kundapur and its surrounding areas in coastal Karnataka.
Shantaram was one of the first graduates from his community to pass out of Karnataka University in 1988. "Ever since then, I have been involved in social service. I have toured the state and represented my community proudly. But today, I also want to say that I will stand for other communities in Uttara Kannada like the Gawlis and Halakki Vokkaligas and not just for the Siddi community," Shantaram says. Shantaram also worked as state secretary of the Vanavasi Kalyan Prakalpa, a tribal welfare initiative of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
He hopes to initiate changes that would help forest dwellers through existing government schemes under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). Forest dwellers are asked to produce documents dating back 75 years to qualify as an Other Traditional Forest Dweller (OTFD) and claim rights under FRA. "They have to prove that they primarily lived in forests for three generations and this also involves getting an old member of the community to say this person's ancestor was living in the forest 75 years ago. On top of that, they have to produce a certificate ascertaining the mental health of the 80 year old is stable," explains Shantaram.
He says this process is often laborious and requires forest dwellers to search for documents dating back to India's independence. "I want to change this laborious process and I will be doing this starting with the Vidhana Parishad," he says.
Shantaram is an environmentalist who served as a member of the Western Ghats task force in 2008-09. He is also involved with the Vruksha-Laksha NGO working for afforestation and environment awareness.
Uttara Kannada district is situated in the central Western Ghats region and it is one of the eight biodiversity hotspots in India which is home to many species of plants and animals. Siddi community members live in forested areas in this region.
Speaking about the controversial Hubbballi-Ankola railway line, Shantaram says that the state government should adopt sustainable development models. "We need railway lines and there are not many forest areas from Hubballi to Yellapur but from Yellapur to Ankola, there are green forests which should not be disrupted. TV Ramachandra from (Indian Institute of Science) has published a report and the state government should heed his advice since he is a sound scientific voice," Shantaram says.
A study by researchers from IISc showed that forest cover in Uttara Kannada reduced from 74.19 % in 1973 to 48.04 % in 2018. If the railway project goes ahead, the forest cover is expected to reduce further by 16%.
Another project, the Sharavathi hydropower project, is also planned in this region and environmentalists have opposed it on the grounds that the project falls inside the limits of the Sharavathi Valley Lion Tailed Macaque (LTM) Sanctuary. "The Sharavathi valley has evergreen forest areas that protect biodiversity and medicinal plants and they should be preserved. The project needs to be reconsidered if it displaces forest dwellers in the region," says Shantaram.
He says he is overwhelmed and surprised that he was made an MLC but vowed to help marginalised communities gain representation through his position.
(This article has been republished in an an arrangement with The News Minute)
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