India’s Other Rural Dwellers
Rural issues dominate the discussions regarding India’s development. Without a doubt, the needs of rural India are great.
As per the 2011 Census, more than 833 million people live in rural areas. This is a staggering statistic because of the challenges and needs it implies.
What is even more startling is the fact that approximately 7.2% of India’s rural population – so-called tribal communities – fare worse than the other 92.8% because of its official government classification and colonial legacy.
Under British rule in India, the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 pronounced (or “notified”) people from certain tribes as “criminal” from birth – a lifelong stigma to a person’s identity. This Act was repealed in 1952, five years after Indian Independence. It “denotif[ied]” these same tribal communities. They were no longer criminals. Demographics show that there are 60 million people that fall under the category of India’s 315 nomadic and 198 denotified tribes.
Though more than 60 years have passed since the Criminal Tribes Act of 1952, India’s nomadic and denotified tribal (or, NT and DNT) communities still face tremendous developmental, economic and social challenges to catch up with the speed of India’s modernity while achieving sustainable livelihoods. Some of these challenges, it can be argued, are even greater than their rural counterparts.
Even within Indian government and society, there is little knowledge of tribal communities. Schoolchildren are not taught the particulars of how, when and why certain communities were singled out and granted a second-class citizen’s status.
Vinod Jhunjhunwala, executive vice president of the U.S. chapter of the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation, notes that there is a real disconnect between mainstream society and tribal communities. Typically, tribal peoples are only acknowledged during election time, when politicians come to their communities to make promises and get votes. But once election time has passed, tribal communities and promises made are long forgotten. It is out of this fact that Ekal was founded, to make sure tribal peoples do not remain invisible in India’s landscape.
Vimla Thakkar, administrative chief at Vicharta Samuday Samarthan Manch (VSSM), clarifies that the term “nomadic and denotified tribes” is to be understood as wandering communities, moving from one village to the next, in search of a livelihood.
Thakkar says, “Popular belief is that their lives would come to a halt if their wandering had to cease. As a result, they never became part of any village or a rooted society.”
VSSM is a grassroots organization working for the empowerment of NTs and DNTs in the state of Gujarat, India, with programs that address livelihoods, housing, education and the acquisition of official documentation. VSSM was launched and grew from a seemingly simple question: where were the Vaadee-Madaree and gypsy communities? These communities were once symbols to the outside world of an exotic India populated by snake charmers and colorful caravans. This search led the VSSM team to learn more about the plight of Gujarati NT and DNT communities.
In its research, VSSM has found that NT and DNT settlements are usually 1-2 kilometers away from the nearest village’s boundaries, and that the most immediate needs of these communities are social acceptance and sustainable employment with a stable income. Though the Ekal team works with tribal communities throughout India and not necessarily just NT and DNT communities, their findings echo VSSM’s. For instance, they also stress the importance of access to clean water and reliable energy for these communities.
VSSM’s research in Gujarat has shed light on the degree to which NT and DNT communities are overlooked. In 2005, it found that schemes by the Developing Communities Welfare Board had reached no more than 500 families over the previous five years. One particular oversight was the fact that NT and DNT populations did not have the legal documentation (i.e., birth certificate) required to vote, get food from public distribution centers or purchase land. VSSM lobbied the Board to design more inclusive, effective schemes. As a result, the Manav Garima Yojna scheme was born to the benefit of below poverty line NT and DNT communities. They were granted voter ID cards, ration cards and residential land plots, as well as school scholarships for their children.
Both VSSM and Ekal have taken pro-active approaches that involve working alongside tribal communities. The numbers tell a story of holistic impact that started in one place but has had far-reaching effects. VSSM has reportedly reached more than 22,500 families from more than 1,000 settlements in nine districts with its bridge and government schools, home constructions, provision of voter ID and ration cards, and access to water and electricity. Ekal estimates that with its education, healthcare and farming programs, it has reached over one million people.
What organizations like VSSM and Ekal have achieved highlight the weak political will to empower tribal communities. Strides have been made though: in 2005, the Government of India established the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes to study the country’s tribal communities.
It is too easy to group tribal communities, particularly those falling in the NT and DNT categories, with the rest of rural India. But the daily lives of these marginalized tribal communities indicate that their status and needs are not in the public spotlight, and cannot be classified as the typical rural Indian experience.
All photos are courtesy of rajkumar1220/Creative Commons.