Print edition : October 05, 2012

Interview with Balkrishna Renke, Chairman of the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic & Semi-Nomadic Tribes.

Yes, we steal at times, but when the only other option is to die of hunger, what else can you do? Treat us like human beings.

So says Balkrishna Renke, Chairman for the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic & Semi-Nomadic Tribes. He knows what he is talking about. Belonging to the Gondhri tribe in Karnataka, he is the son of a mendicant. His father earned his living as an itinerant singer. He never had a house to call his own, or an identity to prove his backwardness to the authorities and extract privileges. Struggling as a general category student, traversing the tough earn and learn mode, Renke, however, succeeded in acquiring an education. He became the first graduate from his community in the late 1960s. He lived for a while on a railway platform in Dadar, Mumbai, as he looked out for a job. He got appointed as a senior scientific officer in a forensic science laboratory in Mumbai where he worked for a few years. He left the job to organise his community to fight for a better life.

In 1972, the first ever convention of nomadic tribes was organised in Mumbai. Despite his meagre resources, Renke was able to gather 25,000 people from the nomadic tribes for the convention, which was inaugurated by the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, V.P. Naik. Thus began his journey to ensure that crores of homeless people like him got their rightful share in society and a life of dignity.

He was appointed Chairman of the commission in 2005, and he submitted his report in 2008, 45 days ahead of the due date. But he is disappointed that the government has completely ignored it. Determined not to give up, he continues the struggle. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

Why in your opinion is the government ignoring the plight of such a huge section of people?

We are scattered, so we are not a vote bank for anyone. Besides, we have no forceful political personality who has come from among us, so we remain unheard. It is also the mindset. Though we have been denotified, people still treat us as criminal tribes. They suspect us. And because we are not treated as a separate class, we fail to avail ourselves of the benefits of S.C.\S.T.\OBC reservation either, whereas other, more powerful communities manage to pocket all the benefits. We have to struggle not only for benefits but for basic survival. Our traditional sources of livelihood having been banned, we are left with nothing to support us. That leads many of us into begging, rag-picking, miscellaneous odd jobs and also, yes, to theft. When one is left with no option, why wouldnt one steal? If it becomes a matter of life and death because of hunger, then what is the option? It is the socio-political system that has turned us into thieves and beggars.

What should be done to lift the community out of its misery?

Count us separately, give us constitutional status, and provide us reservation in accordance with our numbers in education, jobs and politics. Give us our share in political participation, provide education and health services to our people, and last but not the least, give us a dignified identity. We are no longer criminal tribes, but the police continue to treat us so. Treat us as part of you, not as outcasts. Treat us like human beings.

How do you plan to achieve this, especially when the political class has remained indifferent to you all these years?

We will take to the streets. We are organising nationwide awareness campaigns. If we are living in a truly democratic country, then I am sure our combined numbers will one day become our strength and the political class will be forced to listen to us.

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