Tenuous lives

Print edition : March 09, 2012

Conservation measures have taken away the traditional livelihoods of nomadic tribes in Karnataka.

in Koppal

At Hulihaidar village in Karnataka's Koppal district, which has been home to Qalandars for several centuries. The community is in limbo with bear-taming made illegal and no new jobs in sight.-PHOTOGRAPHS: G.P. SAMPATHKUMAR

AT a short distance from the world famous monuments at Hampi is the village of Hulihaidar in the fertile region of the rice bowl of Karnataka in Gangavathi taluk in Koppal district. Local residents say it was an important town in the Vijayanagara empire (1336-1646 C.E.) and the seat of a local lord. Today it is home to a semi-nomadic tribal community that tamed bears and used them for street performances. These tribal families are believed to have first settled in Hulihaidar during the Vijayanagara period.

They would travel around, plying their street trade, for 10 months in a year. For the remaining two months before and during the Islamic month of Moharram they would stay put in Hulihaidar, having grand religious and cultural celebrations with their brethren. The community is known as the Qalandars, and similar communities of Qalandars are spread across the country. (Qalandar, in Islamic terminology, usually refers to a Sufi saint, but it seems to have been used by this community historically. Sometimes it is also spelt as Kalandar.)

The street performers were forced to settle down when their bears were seized under the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), 1972. The confiscations began in the 1990s, when the issuance of licences was stopped, and continued until 2006 when the last bears were taken away. Members of the community say that they are barely able to survive. Almost all of them are illiterate and do not possess any agricultural land and have become casual agricultural and factory labourers. We understand that we are not supposed to work with bears and have surrendered them, but we have not been offered any support from the government in the form of alternative livelihood, said Shamad Ali, a Qalandar from Bear Lane in Hulihaidar. According to Shamad Ali, there are 125 households of Qalandars in the village with their family sizes ranging from five to 18. The largest community in the village is that of the Nayaks, a numerically strong Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) community spread across the region. Relations between the Qalandars and the Nayaks are nor particularly amicable. The Qalandars allege that the Nayak-dominated panchayat has meddled with the issuance of Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards to them.

Qalandars also reside in Mangalpura village in Gangavathi taluk of Koppal district (30 households according to a report by the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusion Policy, or CSSEIP, at the National Law School of India University, or NLSIU, in Bangalore) and in Hampinakatte village (54 households) in Hospet taluk in adjoining Bellary district. In all, there are an estimated 489 Qalandar households across Karnataka.


Similar is the plight of the Havadigas, a nomadic community that works with snakes (the word havu means snake in Kannada). In other parts of India, tribes working with snakes are known as Saperas and they are in a similar situation. With the strict implementation of the laws to protect wildlife, their snakes are regularly confiscated, and community members say they are harassed by wildlife officials. The largest community of these snake charmers in Karnataka lives in Bangalore, in a slum called Havadiga colony.

They told Frontline that they were not being allowed to work even with rat snakes, which are aplenty in wooded areas across Bangalore. Abdul Mastan, a young man in his late twenties, said: We are basically magicians, using sleight of hand tricks to entertain audiences, but we need snakes to attract a crowd. He later did an impromptu performance using minimal accessories, including a large basket and a bedsheet, in which a child was made to disappear and then reappear. The snakes were missing, of course.

Syed Shabeer, another Havadiga, said they did not have pucca houses to live in. We have been living in this plot of land allotted by the Bangalore Slum Development Authority for the past 10 years. Before that we were a nomadic community, he said. There are 100 households in the colony. Significant clumps of Havadigas reside in other parts of Bangalore and elsewhere in Karnataka. Informal estimates put their number at 371 households. Many Havadigas have become street vendors and sell flutes and crude dotaras (mandolin).

According to a report titled Law and Loss of Livelihood: The Havadigas and Qalandars of Karnataka by Ajit Kumar and Nadim Nikhat, both researchers with the CSSEIP, the strict implementation of wildlife laws has left these two communities high and dry. Rehabilitation has been inadequate, and members of the community have now become part of India's vast informal market economy with irregular incomes. To add to their woes, these two communities, who are Muslim, are not classified as Scheduled Caste (S.Cs) or S.Ts though their socio-economic condition and their historical lack of access to avenues for development should mark them out as targets for policies of affirmative action and other state benefits. While the Havadiga community is listed as an OBC (Other Backward Classes), the Qalandars do not even figure on this list, which is anomalous because several thriving castes in Karnataka are listed as OBCs.

Some civil society activists say the wildlife laws are insensitive to traditional trades and do not address the issue of livelihood for communities that lose their traditional means of income. The right to livelihood, they point out, finds mention in the Directive Principles of State Policy. Besides, the rights of indigenous people have been recognised under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007.

A journalist who grew up in the city of Bellary remembers the Qalandars well. He said: As a child, I remember them bringing their bears to jatras [fairs], and they were surrounded by an excited crowd of children and families. They also distributed amulets.

The plight of these two communities is part of a larger struggle by the nomadic and denotified tribes across Karnataka and India, and they should be offered commensurate benefits. The main grouse of activists is that members of the nomadic tribes do not have a sense of identity as they are grouped under a number of categories in different States for the sake of affirmative action benefits. Many severely backward communities who are essentially nomadic have not been categorised as S.Cs, S.Ts or even OBCs.

HAVADIGAS, who lost their livelihoods after possessing snakes became illegal, at a demonstration outside Aranya Bhavan, Karnataka's Forest Department office, in Bangalore demanding that all cases filed against members of the tribe be dropped. A file photograph.-


Implementation of two important Central acts The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, and the WPA has resulted in the Qalandars and the Havadigas being denied the freedom to work with bears and snakes. Subsection 3 of Section 39 of the WPA declares wild animals to be government property and does not allow possession, custody or control of wild animals without the permission of the Chief Wildlife Warden of the State. According to the CSSEIP report, the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, which makes it illegal for anyone to possess wild animals, is also invoked to book cases against members of these communities. Police and Forest Department officials use these legal provisions to seize animals with the assistance of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In fact, some NGOs have been instrumental in leading the campaign against Qalandars and have also provided an alternative home for seized bears in Bannerghatta in Karnataka.

According to an article in the Economic & Political Weekly of October 20, 2007 (Meena Radhakrishna, Civil Society's Uncivil Acts: Dancing Bear and Starving Kalandar), the campaign against Qalandars in Haryana had left the community in the doldrums. It also points out how there have been campaigns against the Saperas, the Bahelias (tribes who work with birds) and the Madaris (tribes who work with monkeys). These communities are not on the S.C. or S.T. list but are categorised as OBCs in many parts of the country.

Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder of the NGO Wildlife SOS, said it was wrong to blame conservationists for the plight of the Qalandars. Speaking to Frontline, he said: We informed the Qalandars that working with bears was illegal and helped many of them to secure bail when they were arrested for possessing bears. As an NGO involved in conservation issues, we were concerned about bears but we have done a lot for the welfare of the Qalandar community. To every family that surrendered a bear Wildlife SOS provided Rs.50,000. The Qalandars of Hulihaidar acknowledge this help but point out that the amount was inadequate and is long gone. Satyanarayan said neither the State nor the Central government had done anything to aid the rehabilitation process.

Over the past few years, Karnataka has seen a fledgling movement to organise nomadic tribes such as Qalandars and Havadigas and even those that do not use animals. Each tribe has a few thousand members, and the tribes are spread across various reservation categories; physically, they are spread thinly across the State. This movement is part of a broader national movement to organise nomadic, semi-nomadic and denotified tribes. (Denotified tribes are those tribes that were classified as criminal under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871.)

A Qalandar home at Hulihaidar. Members of the tribe do not have agricultural land, and most of them work as casual labourers.-

According to several scholarly studies, peripatetic communities of traders, artisans and entertainers have always existed on the Indian subcontinent. Endogamous in nature and stubborn legatees of ancient vocations, these nomadic tribes still live on the margins of modern societies. According to an article in the Economic & Political Weekly of January 12, 2002 (Milind Bokil, Denotified and Nomadic Tribes: A Perspective), the foremost problem of this group of people is that of correct classification and categorisation as they do not make it to any of the scheduled constitutional categories. It also mentions how, because of their itinerant nature, they do not have a link with the social space of settled society, a fact that needs to be taken into account for any rehabilitation plan to work.

Balagurumurthy, president of the Nomadic Tribes Mahasabha, Karnataka, agrees that the foremost problem is that of identity'. With incorrect classification across the country and scattered members, there is no sense of belonging for the people of these communities, he said. Balagurumurthy is trying to organise a collective of 33 nomadic tribes in Karnataka and make them aware of their rights. He is the first graduate from the Budga Jangamma nomadic tribe in Karnataka.

He also points out another serious problem that exacerbates identity issues. Some nomadic tribes are known by several synonyms, and while one of them might be on the S.T. list, their synonyms may have found their way to the OBC list. When benefits are sought under the S.T. quota, they are told that they are OBCs, he said. He cited examples of nomadic tribes that find mention in both the S.T. and OBC lists in Karnataka the Shillekyata (performers with puppets), Budga Jangamma (street musicians), Hakkipikki (bird trappers), Sudugadu Sidda (street magicians), Sindollu (self-flagellators), Chinnadasar (conch blowers), Gantichor (pickpockets) and Handijyogi (pig rearers).

There was an enumeration done in 1965, on the basis of which these nomadic tribes have been classified, but that classification is useless and outdated now, he said. He added that the problem of the nomadic tribes, who number close to 150 million across the country, could be solved only if a proper census of the communities was undertaken and the Constitution was amended to incorporate a separate schedule for nomadic tribes.

The demand echoes the recommendation of the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNSNT), which submitted its report to the Prime Minister in 2008. The commission also recommended reserving 10 per cent of government jobs for the DNSNT (on the basis of their population, which was estimated to be 110 million). However, the Ministry of Social Justice, under whose aegis the National Commission was set up, expressed strong reservation against a new quota.


The rights of nomadic tribes were endorsed by C.S. Dwarkanath, former Chairman of the Karnataka Backward Classes Commission, who submitted a report in 2010 to the State government towards the end of his tenure. The report was written after a detailed study of 15 nomadic tribes, including the Qalandars and the Havadigas, which was undertaken for the first time. While pointing out how traditional livelihoods of many of these communities were under threat, it made several recommendations, including the setting up of a State Commission for Nomadic Tribes. It also made out a strong case for a detailed socio-economic survey, grant of agricultural land and the provision of special packages to address the specific problems of these tribes.

A careful consideration of the report, which is lying idle with the State government, may be useful. As a first step, the Central government needs to undertake a through enumeration and classification as it would help community members gain a sense of homogeneity and identity. A clear estimate would also help in drawing up policy measures.

Back in Hulihaidar, Qalandar S. Ismail was despondent over the absence of income opportunities. Please write that we need some land that we can call our own so that we can grow a few crops, he pleaded. The Havadigas had a different request. All we need is a licence from the wildlife department for possessing one rat snake so that we are not harassed any more. Our lives have become hell, said Babe Saib, an elderly snake charmer.

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