A community's plight

Print edition : April 24, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

PEOPLE of the Lambada tribe lead peripheral lives in thandas (hamlets) sprinkled across Andhra Pradesh. Some of them still follow a nomadic lifestyle. But whether they are on the move or settled in a hamlet in the poverty-ridden Telengana region, life has always been harsh for them.

Lambadas hardly own anything in terms of land or property. Their culture is different from the mainstream cultures. Lambada rituals have nothing in common with the rituals of the plains people. Traditionally, Lambadas or Banjaras have moved in groups.

Community celebrations were in vogue. Hardworking and sincere, they depended on forest produce and odd jobs for a living. Work was equally shared between husband and wife. A strong family bond and a strong thanda bond were the hallmarks of Lambada life.

Oli or bride fee was prevalent in the earlier days. Each Banjara youth had to pay both in cash and in kind to secure the hand of a girl. A couple of milch animals often served as bride fee.

All this changed in the last decade when thousands of Lambada families transformed themselves into agricultural workers and adopted the ways of the mainstream population. Lambada labour comes cheap and they never shy away from work. Often they take up annual contracts at low rates. Landowners find in them a hardworking and undemanding workforce.

A Lambada woman receives training in sewing work.-H. SATISH

A Lambada employed as a farmhand earns less than Rs.3,000 a year. A little paddy, maize or jowar and a set of new clothes once or twice a year are enough to make a Lambada worker content. Lambada women supplement the family income by working in fields and as domestic help. Illiteracy and ignorance about family planning practices among the Lambadas result in large families. Curiously, most of them have female children. The anaemic and ailing mothers find it difficult to take care of their children. Infanticide was known to be practised by members of the tribal group.

The Lambadas have benefited from very few welfare programmes implemented by the government. Neither social workers nor non-governmental organisations (NGOs) paid attention to their plight until recently. The literacy rate is an abysmal 1.8 per cent among females; among males it is at best five times that figure. Teachers absent themselves from schools for Lambadas, ration cards are not issued to them (even if they are issued, local merchants appropriate them for a paltry sum) and health workers rarely work with them.

Living in remote rural areas - Katravat thanda, Palepalli thanda, Peddamungala thanda, Kuralakshmi thanda, Dubba thanda and so on - the Lambadas of Devarakonda, Dindi and Chandampet mandals of Nalgonda district have not gained from the community welfare programmes that have been launched in the past 50 years.

Hundreds of Lambada families, which settled down in these areas after the completion of the Nagarjunasagar project, were promised that they would be rehabilitated by the State Government. But so far nothing has come of the rehabilitation package.

Efforts to attain social acceptability began after the Lambadas settled down in Nalgonda district. Tribal culture and rituals gave way to non-tribal and brahminical rituals and along with this came financial burdens. The oli system gave way to dowry and the demand for boys, who were far outnumbered by girls, rose steeply. A dowry of Rs.30,000 and more is in vogue now. Educated Lambadas turn away from the lifestyle of their families and seek respectability elsewhere.

The girl child soon became an expendable commodity and the arrival of racketeers doubling as social workers began around the same time. Adoption agencies, which needed little by way of investment, mushroomed in the region. All that they needed was a few social workers to go about the thandas convincing Lambadas to sell their infants. The offers constituted a source of income for the poverty-stricken community, and many parents struck deals with the agencies. Children became commodities to be booked in the womb.

The business flourished and kept both sides happy. But for the Lambada girl child, it was a choice between going from her mother's lap to the cradle of the NGO or to the grave.

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