By : Annu Anand
They belong to the most backward communities of our society. They don't even have basic rights and continue to live much below the poverty line. Most don't have voting rights because for centuries they have not had a permanent address.
But now they have taken their first decisive steps in democracy. They are becoming a part of the local governance system and beginning to carry forward their struggle for the development of their communities. These are the gutsy, enterprising and dynamic women of nomadic communities - Nat, Bawaria, Banjara, and Bhopa. Last year they were elected for the first time to panchayats in Rajasthan.
Vimla aged 32 is one such nomad. She is currently deputy sarpanch of Pilkhudi panchayat. She belongs to the community of jugglers, known as Nat, and has been head woman for long. To earn their livelihood, Vimla and her family members perform dances, street theatre and other traditional entertainment in the villages of Alwar, Bharatpur and other areas in Rajasthan.
A little away from the Delhi-Jaipur highway is a small hamlet called Sawari. Here about 700 to 800 Nat families live in kuchha houses. Kaluram Nat says, "Most of our women dance and perform nautanki in fairs and festivals, while men folk beat the drums. We go out for such performances before Diwali and return to our homes around Holi."
However, the situation is changing slowly. Many in the community are trying other odd jobs as opportunities in their traditional vocation are shrinking. They have stopped making temporary shelters, and are giving up their nomadic ways. Some have been living in Sawari for the past few years.
When Vimla filed her nomination for the post of deputy head of the panchayat, she faced protests from other villages in the vicinity. "The people of other castes declared they wouldn't give a senior post to any Natini or dancer," she recalled. "They blocked our way. But people of my community supported me, and at last I won the election by 17 votes."
After her victory, Vimla's first priority was to tackle the water shortage in the village. The two existing hand pumps were not sufficient to fulfill the village's needs. She raised the issue in the panchayat meeting, and got one more pump sanctioned. Now she wants to develop a pucca road for the village.
Vimla makes it a point to attend every meeting of the panchayat. She does not go on dancing trips, so she can concentrate on development work as a representative of the panchayat. According to her, 40 to 50 bighas of land is lying vacant, and it can be used for construction of an anicut that can solve the water shortage to a great extent. Her active participation in development activities means she could become an important link in the development of other nomadic communities as well.
Vimla is not alone. 45-year old Moomal of the Banjara community- always dressed in traditional lehanga, orani, arms full of silver bangles and tattoos on her body - has been elected unopposed as a ward panch of Bamanwas Kankar panchayat. This village, located about 40 kms from Alwar, houses 700 nomad families called Raadi. Access to this village is difficult as the last kilometre is full of rocks.
Moomal and members of her family earn their livelihood by selling salt and Multani mitti (a fine clay) in the markets of rural Rajasthan. Curiously, the barter system is still in vogue in India. Moomal says, "We exchange four handfuls of salt to get one handful of grain. After collecting large quantities of grain, we sell it to local shopkeepers to buy other daily needs." This is the main source of income and traditional occupation for all villagers of Raadi. "We transport salt and multani mitti on donkeys to different villages," she added.
In her new role as a ward panch, Moomal is concerned with the lack of electricity in her village. Electricity is available up to the nearby road, but the settlement is not getting any since the residents don't have land rights.
"We have been staying here for many years now and this has become our permanent settlement," she says. "Still we have not been given pattas." She has raised the issue of getting electricity and making a pucca road in her village in panchayat meetings, but has not been getting support from other members.
"We have earned our place in the panchayat and we are able to express our demands, but we are being treated with discrimination," feels Moomal. "All discussion about development only starts on suggestions made by higher caste Gujjars. Perhaps it will take time for them to accept our suggestions in the panchayat meetings."
Sharda Banjaran, ward panch of Kishori panchayat also share the same sentiments. She says that whatever she earns by selling salt and Multani Mitti she spends in attending meetings of the panchayat. She is determined to attend every meeting to know where they spend the funds for development work.
Sua Banjaran of Prithvipura panchayat is also struggling to get a hand-pump for her village. She complains, "They write down everything in panchayat meetings, but when I go to the Block Development Officer to find out what has been done, the reply is that the proposal has not come."
Gaindi Bawaria has been elected as ward panch of Sothana Village, located near Alwar. She has been elected unopposed from the reserved seat for women in the last panchayat election.
Bawarias used to traditionally hunt wild animals. When a ban was imposed on killing of wild animals in 1972, most members gave up hunting and work as security guards (Chowkidars). They protect crops from wild animals or by grazing animals like goats and sheep. They have not been able to get into other jobs due to the stigma attached to them.
Bawarias were included in the Criminal Suppression Act enacted in 1871. Though this law was scrapped in 1952, the community continued to be part of the new Habitual Offenders Act. Because of this, Bawarias are victimized by villagers, police and other law enforcement agencies.
Gaindi and her other 500 fellow villagers have been staying in Sothana for the past fourteen years. This is forest land, and everyone is under constant threats from forest officers. "Neither have we been rehabilitated anywhere else nor have we been given pattas" she says. "Even forest officers victimize us for minor things. If they see a piece of wood in our houses they impose a fine."
There is an acute problem of water with just one hand pump located one kilometer from the village. It is not sufficient to fulfill the needs of the whole village. "Nobody listens to me in the panchayat meeting," she complained. "The Sarpanch is a Brahmin. Many times I have raised the issue of water. Only today they decided on BPL cards and the widow pension scheme. Today or tomorrow they will have to listen our problems. For how long will they keep us quiet."
Sheela from the Bhopa community has been elected as ward panch from the Kesroli Gram Panchayat. Sheela with 120 families of her community has been staying in Ramgarh, also known as Bhopawas, for the past three years. Bhopas sing songs and narrate stories based on ancient paintings. Sheela and her husband still play the sarangi to entertain and earn their livelihood.
There are 40-50 houses in this settlement. Most residents don't have pattas for their grass and mud houses. Their children study in the open. They have to fetch water from a source two-kilometer distant.
According to Sheela, she raises the demand for a hand pump and electricity connection in every meeting of the panchayat. "They make me write but my demands never reach the administrative people. This is not going to deter me from making these suggestions. I will keep raising them till they are resolved. "
Ratan Katyayani, founder of Mukti Dhara, a voluntary group instrumental in encouraging nomadic women, observes, "Now these women are sensitized and are coming forward to participate in the local governance process. They are no more afraid of speaking in panchayat meetings or raising their problems, but society is prejudiced against them."
The Ghumantu Vikas Panchayat is fighting to secure constitutional rights for nomads. Katyayani is hopeful these nomads will ultimately succeed. Meanwhile, Mukti Dhara is providing a fellowship of Rs 1000 a month to ten women who have been elected for the first time to panchayats, as a token of help and encouragement.