Fighting for those who ‘do not exist’
Mittal Patel’s fight for an identity to nomadic communities in
British notified them as
‘habitual criminals’ through
the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871.
Though we abolished the
discriminatory law in 1952,
over 200 nomadic
communities are still treated
as a ‘threat’ to the settled
society. Consequently, around
80 million people of these
communities keep on
wandering from one place to
another—deprived of all
constitutional safeguards. The modern development only robbed
them of their traditional livelihood. In this situation, Mittal Patel
of Ahmedabad came as a devdoot for these people. Thanks to
her efforts, over 60,000 nomads from 28 nomadic and 12
denotified groups got voting right in 47 blocks under nine
districts of the State. She has successfully transformed the lives
of over 23,000 nomadic families.
Without ascertaining whether the benefits of its schemes are really
reaching the target beneficiaries or not, the UPA government
hurriedly announced another scheme—Food Security—on July 3.
While bringing an ordinance for it, the government never thought
how the people who do not have ration cards or any other
document showing them Indian citizen will get benefit of the
scheme. Around 8 crore people of 500 nomadic communities,
who have been living in the country since centuries, are going to
be deprived of the benefits of this scheme also as they were
deprived of other schemes. Despite being 7 per cent of the total
population these people ‘don’t exist’ for the governments.
They have nothing—no birth certificate, no ration card, no land
deeds, no school admission record, nothing. Consequently, they
are completely left out of all government schemes including the
MGNREGA. Even if a nomad person wants work under the
scheme, he can’t get it, because to be eligible for the scheme
one needs to be a resident of a village. But village Panchayats
routinely refuse to let them be registered as part of the village
population. So what if they have lived on the outskirts of a
particular village for 20 or more years, they are treated as nomads
only, who don’t belong.
The nomadic communities are spread over multiple states mostly
in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat. In Gujarat, they are about
40 lakh—roughly the population of Singapore or Ireland. They are
divided into about 300 groups who follow different ways of
worship, practice different occupations and have different
customs and beliefs. The Dafer, for instance, are typically
employed to guard ripening crops. The Saraniyas are knife
sharpeners. The Kangsia are bangle sellers and traders. The Nat
and Nataniyas are performers—bards, musicians, acrobats,
dancers, fire-eaters and so on. The Vansfoda work with bamboo
and sell bamboo products. The Vadis are snake charmers; the
Madaris work with monkeys.
It was in these circumstances that Mittal Patel, a gold medalist
from Gujarat University’s Department of Journalism, started giving
voice to 28 nomadic communities and 12 denotified groups of
Gujarat in 2006-07. From helping them claim their land rights to
getting voter ID cards, setting up schools for their children and
fighting with bureaucrats to extend welfare benefits to them —
she has been doing every possible for them. The impact of her
work can easily be witnessed in 47 blocks of nine districts—
Patan, Mehsana, Amreli, Rajkot, Ahmedabad, Sabarkantha,
Gandhinagar, Banaskantha and Surendranagar, where she
enrolled over 60,000 people in voters’ list and brought 23,000
families into the mainstream.
“In 2005, I started working with Janpath, a local voluntary
organisation. 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 the civil society groups,” says Mittal, while explaining how she
got engaged in this field. Over 30 lakh nomads did not figure in
any government record at that time. She and her team spent
months travelling far-flung rural areas to locate such settlements
and gather details to get them official identity. During 2007
Assembly polls, she 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 that intervention, over 20,000 people
from various settlements then got the right to vote. Since then
about 3,000 persons are enrolled every year.
Later, Mittal formed her own voluntary organisation, Vicharata
Samudaya Samarthan Manch, in 2010 to intensify the work.
Presently, with a team of three dozen workers, she has set up 31
alternate schools, enrolling close to 2,500 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 emphasised.
Mittal is involved so deeply in the cause that she has 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. This is a fact that these
nomads and denotified communities used to provide a range of
essential services like sharpening of knives and farm equipments,
making utensils, brooms, entertainment like snake charmers,
singers and dancers. But due to modernisation and the advent of
technology, their traditional skills have been largely made
redundant. Television and cinema killed the demand for traditional
entertainment, legislation killed the livelihood of those who work
with animals, plastic replaced bamboo and other materials. In the
past, people in villages waited for the nomads to show up on
their annual routes, trading goods, services and entertainment.
Now, there is no demand, literally making them out on the
Mittal seriously focused on updating their skills. The children
were encouraged to have compulsory education and those above
16 years of age were arranged jobs in some private companies.
Those who are traditionally involved in entertainment were trained
for modern entertainment. “Our all efforts are aimed at arranging
respectable means of earnings for them,” Mittal adds. The
interesting part of her struggle is that she is satisfied with the
response from State government. Noted kathakar Morari Bapu
encouraged her by organising a special event for the nomads in
2011, which helped put focus on these communities.
Mittal’s struggle continues. “We have so far covered only 60,000
people. We will not stop till we bring all 40 lakh nomads into the
mainstream. It is a big target for us in this birth,” she says.