Print edition : October 05, 2012

Indro Devi and her husband, Sarvnath, in a shelter of polythene and rags, on the outskirts of Delhi.-PHOTOGRAPHS: BY PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI

Members of denotified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, treated as criminal tribes by the colonial rulers, have no place to call their own and no land, no rights, and no support from the government.

Emaciated, eyes sunken deep into sockets, skin hanging loose, almost gasping for breath, Indro Devi and Sarvnath, a couple in their eighties, lie on polythene sheets in an 810 square-foot tent made of rags, by a stinking nullah on the outskirts of Delhi. They have no means of supporting themselves: no income or old age pension, no access to government hospitals for treatment, no access to subsidised ration, no drinking water, no house to shield them from rain or chill, and no identity card to enable them to avail themselves of any government-run welfare schemes. They have been living in Delhi for 60-odd years but have nothing to call their own. Sixty-five years of development in free India has simply passed by them.

They are not alone in their mind-numbing misery. There are roughly 13.5 crore helpless people like them, enough to populate an entire State. And the Indian state has simply forgotten them.

They are the members of denotified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes who have lived in independent India for decades without any identity. Having no land to call their own, no place to call their own, no rights and no support from the government, forced to live in abject poverty, often harassed by the police, they are aliens in their own country. Their su-human existence forced the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to constitute a commission in March 2005, called the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic & Semi-Nomadic Tribes, to study their condition and recommend remedial measures. The commission submitted its exhaustive, two-volume report to the government in June 2008.

The government has not taken any action on the report; it has not even made it public, which would have at least initiated a debate on this marginalised section. The report, of which Frontline has a copy, was prepared by a three-member team: Balkrishna Renke, who headed the commission; Laxman Bhai Patni, former Congress MLA from Gujarat; and Laxmichand, a retired IAS officer. A copy was presented to the then Social Justice Minister Meira Kumar (now the Lok Sabha Speaker), on July 2, 2008, and then to the Prime Minister on August 8. The Prime Minister wrote: Process and prepare a note for Cabinet within two months. Nothing happened. A presentation was made to the National Advisory Council led by Sonia Gandhi, but there has been no action from that quarter either.

The denotified tribes are those which were designated as criminal tribes by the colonial administration in 1871, mainly for committing crimes against the British Empire, which included participating in the 1857 rebellion. The Criminal Tribes Act was repealed in 1952, but the stigma attached to their past stuck to these tribes. Their nomadic habits ensured that they had no place to identify as their native place. Even when they tried settling down, they were treated as outcasts by the rest of society and were not allowed to mingle with the mainstream population. Deprived of their traditional sources of livelihood by a series of laws and prevented by their lack of education from making use of welfare schemes, they were pushed to the fringes of society.

The commission put the number of such tribes at 829, including 148 Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts), 260 Scheduled Castes (S.Cs), and 301 Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Going by figures provided by the governments of States, Union Territories and independent research bodies, the commission concluded that the total number of such people was 13.51 crore, which is a conservative estimate. The commission found that their main occupations were acrobatics, puppetry, singing, dancing, acting, snake charming, showing tricks with monkeys or bears, hunting, fortune-telling, selling herbal medicines, brewing liquor, begging, making handicrafts, doing construction work, and fishing. Many of these, however, have become criminal offences with the enactment of legislation such as the Wildlife Protection Act, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the Drugs and Magic Remedies Prohibition Act, and the Prevention of Beggary Act. Shorn of their traditional sources of livelihood and with nothing else to fall back on, they beg, rag-pick, sell themselves into prostitution, vend traditional craft items on the streets, and push their children into child labour. Singing and dancing at marriages remains a major occupation for many, but that is hardly enough.

Risha Devi, a Sapera community member, and her husband, Padam.-

According to a national rapid survey done by the commission, the socio-economic status of these people remains pathetic: 94 per cent had no below poverty line (BPL) cards; 98 per cent were landless; 57 per cent lived in rag tents; and 72 per cent had no ration cards. Most of them lived in slums, they had no access to safe drinking water or affordable health services. Most of them reported harassment by the police; women reported sexual harassment. Most had no record of birth; there were no records of death, either.

A study of the Van Gujjar (S.T.) community from Himachal Pradesh provides an example. There were 850 families, and the commission found that none from these had attended school. None of them was enrolled on the voters list, none held a ration card or a government job, and the community had no political representation.

Other pastoral, nomadic communities such as the Bakharwals, Gaddis, Raikas, Gaikas and Rebaris do not fare any better. The Nutt community, with a population of 75,885 in Chhattisgarh, and others such as the Dombari, Masanjogi, Sapera and Madari communities are in a similar situation. The commission recommended a comprehensive survey on these communities, saying that lack of information was what chiefly came in the way of any meaningful intervention. It also recommended, in view of the extreme backwardness of these communities, that they should be taken out of the existing categories of S.Cs, S.Ts and OBCs and given separate constitutional status with a quota in education, jobs and elected posts. The commission also recommended that separate funds be earmarked for the development of these communities, an aggressive sensitisation campaign to create among them an awareness of their rights, and provision of training programmes to enable them to earn their living.

According to Renke, it is not as if governments are not doing anything. In Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan, some welfare measures for these tribes have been initiated. For instance, residential schools have been set up for their children and scholarships have been instituted. But it is too little. What we need is concerted action on the part of the government and separate reservation across the board, he says. He has been mobilising members of these communities to demand their rights in Maharashtra since 1972. Now he plans to pitchfork his campaign to the national level.

A series of round table conferences are under way and will be followed by a nationwide Jan Jagran Yatra next year, to culminate in a rally in Delhi towards the end of 2013.

Our community should get its dignity. We are not asking for anything more than our rights, he says.

Channu Ram Bavaria is the founder head of the All India Bavaria Samaj Sangathan in Haryana, an organisation of the denotified Bavaria tribe which was famed for its military and hunting prowessit helped native Indian kings fight the Mughals and then the British. The colonial government treated the tribes members as criminals. Bavaria laments that so many years after the colonial rulers left, real freedom still eludes the community. Even today our community remains one of the most backward; we have been excluded from all welfare programmes of the government because we have been clubbed with the S.Cs, and most of the welfare benefits get pocketed by the better-off Chamars, who are the most dominant S.C. community. Nothing comes our way. We should be taken out of the S.C. list and given separate reservation; that is the only thing that can lift us out of our present misery, he says. And for this, if we have to take the route of active agitation, so be it.

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