Mittal Patel, 30, a gold medalist from Gujarat University's department of journalism, wanted to become a journalist. But destiny had something else in store for her.
For the last six years, she has been trying to give voice to twenty-eight nomadic tribes and twelve denotified tribes in eight districts of Gujarat, whose existence is hardly recognised or acknowledged. From helping them claim their land rights to getting voter ID cards, setting up a school for their children and fighting with bureaucrats to extend welfare benefits to them — she has been busy, to put it mildly.
These tribes were branded as ‘habitually criminal’ by the British under the Criminals Tribes Act of 1871 — defined as ‘addicted to the systematic commission of offences’ such as thefts. Restrictions on their movements were imposed. Madaris (snake charmers) were one such community.
However, despite the Act being repealed in 1949, nomadic and de-notified tribes are yet to become a part of the village panchayat, as they reside outside the village boundaries and are often mobile. Since planning for welfare and development is done in the context of village panchayat areas, basic civic services like roads, shelter, electricity, water supply, schools, hospitals etc are out of bounds for people of these communities.
With no permanent address and membership in the panchayat, the community can’t obtain ration cards, voter’s registration cards etc, increasing their vulnerability.
“In 2005, I started working with Janpath, a local NGO. I had no idea of nomadic communities, their occupation, their issues and problems. There was no data or information available on them. It was then that I decided to bring their existence to the notice of not only the government but also of civil society groups,” said Patel, explaining how she got engaged in this field.
Over three million nomads did not figure in any government records at the time. Mittal and her team spent months travelling to far-flung rural areas to locate settlements and gather details to get them official identity.
“During the 2007 assembly polls, I made a presentation about such nomads to the then chief electoral officer of Gujarat, VK Babbar, who promptly ordered their registration as voters and provide them voters’ ID cards. Thanks to his intervention, over 20,000 people from various settlements got the right to vote. Now, we enroll more than 3000 persons every year,” she said, stressing that many of these nomads were not official voters in India even in 2007.
In 2010, Mittal started the Vicharta Samuday Samarthan Manch (nomadic communities support forum), which aimed at bringing these communities into the mainstream.
Presently, with a team of just half a dozen people, the organisation has set up 31 alternate schools, enrolling close to 1000 children. “Initially, we had enrolled some children in government primary schools in their respective villages, but since they had spent their lives wandering, they found it difficult to sit for a couple of hours at a school. They were also not comfortable with other children, so we decided to set up alternate schools in order to make them accustomed to schooling,” she added. She has also prepared a detailed report on each of these communities, their traditional occupations, present situation, the main settlements located in Gujarat and the main issues they face.
Nomads and denotified tribes used to provide a range of essential services like sharpening of knives and farm equipment, making utensils, brooms, entertainment like snake charmers, singers and dancers. “But with modernisation and the advent of technology, their traditional skills have been largely made redundant,” she said. There was a need to update their skills.
Recently, with the help of government authorities and some NGOs , Patel organised a mass wedding in Banaskantha district, of women from the Saraniya community (a nomadic tribe).
Saraniya women were traditionally ‘entertainers’ for feuding warlords in Gujarat and Rajasthan, dancing and singing, as well as providing sexual pleasure to their employers.
“We are trying to get rid of such culture and stigma. We want to pull it from its roots,” said Ramesh Saraniya, whose 25-year-old sister and 22-year-old niece got married to men from a local village in the mass ceremony.
“We told the authorities to create alternative employment such as teaching embroidery and animal husbandry to end this vicious cycle of flesh trade. No woman would want to do this by choice,” said Patel, expressing satisfaction that at least 21 girls were married or engaged due to their efforts.
Thanks to her efforts and the support of civil society groups, last year, famous kathakar (storyteller), Morari Bapu, organised a special event for nomads in Ahmedabad district. “His katha has helped put focus on such communities which are widely discriminated against. Gradually, things are changing, but it will take time,” she said, serving tea at her temporary office at Sadvichar Pariwar campus in Ahmedabad.