Chawli Devi, 45, takes out four clips from a steel tiffin. Tied to the clips are the umbilical cords of the children in the family who were born recently. She also opens a small silver box and takes out jaduli (children’s hair offered to the family goddess). After this, she arranges passport pictures of every member of the family on a charpoy.
The umbilical cords and the jaduli are the only identification “documents” that Chawli Devi possesses. She used to also have her husband’s hair and the hair and umbilical cords of her children, but they are now lost. Living as she does, under a tree by the side of the road, it is difficult to safely hold on to anything.
Chawli Devi belongs to the Satia tribe of the Banjara community. She has no voter ID nor any other officially recognised identification document. “I do not have anything, but my husband has an Aadhaar card and a voter ID card,” she told The Wire.
Chawli Devi and five other families from her community live together under an Acacia tree in the town of Sri Dungargarh in the district of Bikaner. There are 20 children in the five families, who the women feed using the money they get from begging.
A large number of people, like Chawli Devi, belong to nomadic communities in Rajasthan. By one estimate, around 55 lakh people, who form 8% of the population of Rajasthan, belong to various nomadic communities. This is only an estimate, as the government has never published a report that lists the total number of nomadic people (belonging to 32 tribes) living in the state.
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Just the fact that the government is unaware of the total population of nomadic people speaks volumes about their situation. How can the nomadic community expect justice from political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress when it barely finds any mention in their election manifestoes?
What the manifestoes say
The BJP has promised an increase in the budget allocated for the welfare of nomadic communities and also promised to form a board for the same. Yet the truth is that the previous Ashok Gehlot government had already formed the welfare board and also increased the budget allocated by Rs 50 lakh.
The Vasundhara Raje government did not release a single rupee for that welfare board. Without allocating any budget for the board, Raje appointed Jagmal Sonsi (who died in a road accident in 2017) as the head of the board.
Although the BJP has promised to give land for housing and leases at concessional rates to nomads, Prakash Satia, who lives by the side of the road in Sri Dungargarh, said, “The government ostensibly gave us a 40×40 plot 30 years ago, but without any lease. We still do not have any of the documents. How can we prove that the land was given to us?”
Prakash Satia earns his livelihood by cleaning animals and clipping their hooves, which is the work that his ancestors did. Due to the lack employment opportunities, many nomadic tribespeople have become involved in criminal and illegal activities.
In its manifesto, the BJP has promised that it will open residential schools, provide identification documents and work towards protecting and preserving nomadic arts and crafts (which are slowly becoming extinct). But how will that be possible unless the government knows how many nomadic people there are and what their socio-economic situation is like?
The Congress manifesto, on the other hand, only mentions nomadic people in one sentence. The line says that nomads will be included in the BPL (below poverty line) category on the basis of eligibility and provided free land leases. But this promise seems vacuous in light of the fact that there are already thousands of nomadic pastures located on government land. How will those nomads be given land leases? The last two governments did issue orders that nomads should be given land leases, but the orders were not implemented because of the lack of clarity in the rules. As of today, most nomads do not have any land on lease.
Regarding the BJP and Congress election manifestoes, Paras Banjara, a social activist who has been working in the field for 14 years, said, “This is an attempt to fool us. The BJP says they will give us land leases at concessional rates. If the nomads had money to pay for those leases, they would have settled somewhere or the other long ago. We had asked for a ‘special component plan’ for the welfare of nomads, but neither party has said anything about that.”
Banjara further said, “Eight percent of the population in Rajasthan is nomadic. But the nomads have no political representation. Where there are no political leaders from the nomadic people, who will raise the issues that concern us? There was a demand that a permanent commission be formed for the welfare of nomads, but both parties have maintained their silence on that.”
There was also a demand for an academy of nomadic arts and crafts for the protection and preservation of the techniques that are on the verge of extinction.
Social activist Nikhil Dey told The Wire, “The nomads do not even have anywhere to bury their dead. Rajasthan, and the rest of the country, should formulate and implement a homestead Act on the lines of what Kerala and Andhra Pradesh have done, so that nomadic people can have land for dwelling and for their livestock. Under such an act, if the government does not have enough land to give, it is forced to purchase more land for that purpose.”
Hiralal Jogi, the head of the BJP’s nomad cell, said, “This is the first time since independence that anyone has given the nomadic people any thought. Yes, the [welfare] board has been in existence for some time, but our party wants to form the board anew on its own lines. We were making our agenda, but since the board chief’s death, the board could not function. Now by means of this cell, we will publish a detailed report on the nomads. We have submitted a request to the Central government that the recommendations of the Idate Commission of the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNT) be implemented.”
Gopal Keshawat, the erstwhile president of the nomadic board of the Congress party (and who is now contesting elections on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket from Shahpura), said, “The BJP and the Congress are just playing political games in the name of nomads. They are not going to do anything substantial in that regard. They have yet to think beyond the issue of leases and the issue of BPL. Education and health, although the need of the hour, have been completely forgotten.”
There is nothing in either party’s manifesto regarding the security of nomadic people. Security is relevant because people from the Banjara and Gadia Lohar nomadic tribes (among others) buy bulls from fairs to sell to farmers, but this work has been impeded under the reign of the BJP government by the incidents of violence in the name of cow protection. Several fraudulent cases of animal smuggling have been lodged against nomadic tribespeople in Rajasthan. And in 2014, 42 houses of Banjaras were set on fire in Dhikola, a settlement located in the Shahpur block of Bhilwara district.
Identifying Rajasthan’s nomads
Nomads are people who move from one place to another in search of a livelihood. According to the government of Rajasthan, there are 32 nomadic tribes, which include Banjara, Kalbelia, Rebari, Sansi, Kanjar, Gadia Lohar, and Satia, among others.
According to the Bhiku Ram Idate Commission, there are 666 nomadic tribes in India. The prominent professions amongst nomads are that of moving goods, herding and raising animals, and putting on shows for entertainment.
According to the Renke Commission report, 98% of the nomads in the country do not own land, 57% live in jhopdis (impermanent huts) and 72% have no identification documents. And 94% of nomads, despite eligibility on the part of many, have not been included in the census under the BPL category.
In arrangement with The Wire.in