Rajasthan's nomadic tribes suffer neglect as lack of unity, political apathy leave them on fringes of society

Pallavi Rebbapragada
Successive state government in Rajasthan have failed to do justice to the nomadic communities, or the ghumantu jaatis.

In contrast to many other parts of the country, construction labourers in Rajasthan stay at one place on a relatively permanent basis, and do not move often from one site to another. Many of them are members of de-notified or nomadic tribes. These people are, however, chased away by civic authorities from one street to another. The reason for this is that the state's changing governments have failed to embrace the nomadic communities, or the ghumantu jaatis.

The traditional occupation of these groups was collection of salt from the Sambhar Salt Lake near Ajmer. In the eighteenth century, Jaisalmer emerged as a major salt market. It was linked to the markets of Tharparkar of Sindh on one side and to the markets of Saurashtra and Kutch on the other side. The community moved from one region to another by adopting other trades, but its mobile way of life €" living out of tents €" remained a cultural practice through the centuries. Owing to this, even 70 years after Independence, in an era of financial and social inclusion, a large section of the community lacks basic documents like Aadhaar, ration cards and voter IDs. Since the BJP and the Congress have failed to consolidate them as a vote bank, their needs have not been any party's serious priority. Firstpost hit ground zero to find out the community struggles for survival.

There are no official estimates for the number of members of ghumantu tribes who lack documentation, but those working on their rehabilitation for decades estimate that over 60 lakh people don't have proper documents. This keeps children out of school and also fuels crime. For instance, some ghumantu community members in Pratapgarh district are allegedly involved in drug smuggling and peddling, because youngsters are uneducated, unskilled and don't find jobs.

Harkesh Bugalia, social activist who had contested on a CPI(ML) ticket from Vidyadhar Nagar, Jaipur in 2008, said, "I have been working with ghumantu communities since 1988 and have been closely involved in the rehabilitation of 2,250 nomadic families. Unless a leader from within this community comes up and contests elections, their voices won't be heard." He adds that those families who had been stationed in one place for relatively longer have some educated youngsters, who are now coming together to find a common voice. At the kachhi basti on Gandhi Path, Jaipur, nearly 150 ghumantu families have been living for more than two years. Bugalia says that these families don't reap the benefits of government policies like the Swachh Bharat Mission. "If there are 150 families, the area will have 450 votes. These votes may be decisive in a councillor-level election. However, given their dispersed nature, they haven't formed a vote-bank," he explained.

One of the other reasons for the absence of this vote bank is the intense occupation-based differences within them. Each sub-community demands reservation only for itself.

The Banjaras had revolted against the British attempt at seizing their lands for plantations. In 1871, the Banjaras were hence brought under the Criminal Tribes Act, which effectively ended their ability to carry out their trade. The community was denotified in the 1950s.

But people like Bhairu Ram are determined to change this. He holds an MSc from Rajasthan University and is the president of the newly-formed All Banjara Mahasabha, which has about 250 members representing different communities across Rajasthan, ranging from the Rabaris (camel rearing ethnic group) to Gadiya Lohars (ironsmiths who travel from one area to another on bullock carts).

"Pregnant women from this community are shooed away from hospitals because they don't have documents. Children are rarely born in hospitals and are not given birth certificates. These people meet the eligibility criteria for Below Poverty Line cards but don't have the documents required," he said.

Bhairu Ram had filed a writ petition in the high court in 2015 against the Jaipur Development Authority's officers who were trying to uproot 5,000 Banjara families from unauthorised colonies in Jaipur. But the court observed that Bhairu Ram did not provide specific details to prove these people belonged to the Banjara community. "This is the problem with advocating their cause. To prove you are discriminated against requires you to first prove who you are," he said.

The Rajasthan government's CSR portal mentions that ActionAid, an NGO, has been raising the issue of citizenship rights for the Kalbeliya community. Based on findings from their intervention, the government formed a 'Ghumantu board' for the welfare of de-notified nomadic tribes.

However, Morenath from the Sapera jaati (snake-charmers) says his family has no access or knowledge of such a board being formed. He lives in one of the half a dozen tents on one corner of Jaipur's Niwar's road, where waste lies in heaps and a saline stench hovers around open drains. In areas like Badarwas, Bambala Pulia, Mundia Ramsar, Kanakpuria and Kotputli in Jaipur district, such tent clusters are a common sight.

Laxman Sankla of the Bhat Banjara jaati has served in the Rajasthan Police. He said that the poorest among the Banjaras are the Gadiya Lohars and the Bagaria community, which makes brooms. The Bagarias fall under the OBC category, but Sankla says that many in this community are either unaware of this or unable to find the documentation to avail this benefit. His experience from his days in the police is full of instances where villagers refused to let mortal remains of Banjara community members be cremated on Hindu cremation grounds, and the bodies were eventually cremated by police officials.

A member of the Bhat community of Nagaur, whose father had performed Rajasthan's katputli show in front of Jawaharlal Nehru, says he has performed in front of Ashok Gehlot and other dignitaries. "We get applause and earn tips but nobody gives a serious thought to the community's development. Ours is a dying art and many in the community are unskilled at anything else," he said on the condition of anonymity.

In 2008, the UPA-1 had proposed the expansion of the reservation list of the Scheduled Castes by including denotified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment had then circulated a Cabinet note, accepting the recommendations made by a high-level panel for giving 10 percent reservation to these tribes, beyond the 50 percent quota fixed by the Supreme Court.

Both the BJP and the Congress had mentioned the uplift of these communities in their manifestos before the Rajasthan Assembly election in 2018, but no serious steps are being taken to address the problem of lack of documentation. Presenting the most recent budget in the Lok Sabha, Piyush Goyal said that a committee will be formed under the NITI Aayog to identify de-notified, nomadic and semi-nomadic communities. He also said that a new welfare board will be set up under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.

While the diverse community is finally a unified voice of its own, it still has a long way to go before it gets basic rights.

Also See: On the eve of Lok Sabha Election 2019, a look at Andhra Pradesh where winnability of women candidates is frequently ignored

Impunity for cow vigilantes in BJP's India threatens the foundational idea of the country's pluralism

Political violence, bloodshed a 'big blot' for Kerala; 'no hope for change' unless police, administration show impartiality

Read more on India by Firstpost.