New Delhi: 19-year-old Suresh is a waste picker. He belongs to the Kalbelia tribe. A lack of healthcare, no access to protective gear, and little knowledge about his rights has cost him dearly, not once but twice. The first time he had to drop out of school after his father’s accident, and then in August last year, he lost his left eye when a splinter injured it while he was collecting waste.
It isn’t just Suresh. A large part of the Kalbelia tribe – a denotified, traditionally predominantly nomadic tribe from Rajasthan, is affected by little access or awareness about basic facilities like healthcare.
The population of denotified tribes and semi-nomadic and nomadic tribes is approximately 10 per cent of India’s total population. The uncertainty of their status has left them with little or no access and awareness about their rights, and this has a huge impact on the quality of their lives. So when we talk about leaving no one behind and health for all, are these communities included? Are they a part of this?
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Rajasthan, called the Land of Kings, has a rich history and a diverse culture. It is known for its palaces and forts, temples, legends and lore. From colourful and vibrant cities to remote desert villages, Rajasthan is also home to numerous tribal and nomadic communities. Unfortunately, the contribution of these tribes and smaller communities to Rajasthan’s diversity and traditions is often overlooked.
The acrobatic, yet sensuous, dance steps of the Kalbelia women as they perform the dance they are best known for, and their embroidered black outfits have continued to entertain people for decades. However, beyond this, not many know about the Kalbelia community and its other traditions.
The Kalbelias were snake handlers once. The word Kalbeliaa itself is a combination of the words ‘Kal’ meaning snake and ‘Belia’ meaning friend. The traditional occupation of the Kalbelia tribe has been catching snakes and trading their venom. But in 1972, this tribe faced an existential crisis after the Wildlife Protection Act was enforced. They moved away from their traditional livelihood as nomadic snake charmers to whatever work they could find.
Dr. Madan Meena, Trustee, Bhasha Research and Publication Centre and Project Coordinator, ‘Voicing The Community’: A Study on the De-notified and Nomadic Tribes of Rajasthan, Gujarat and MP shared with us,
The Kalbelias were dependent on snakes and as snake charmers, the community was entertained by them. When the wildlife protective act came in 1972 the community was barred to keep snakes but there was no other option for their rehabilitation hence they were left to beg so now they are ragpickers or collect scrap.
Dr Meena added how the Forest (Conservation) Act further made the lives of the Kalbelias tougher.
The Forest Act came in 1980 and this tribe was dependent on the forest so both forest and wildlife act affected them very badly.
The Kalbelia community is one of the most backward, deprived and neglected communities in India. Though tribal communities like the Kalbelias are culturally rich, and play an invaluable role in preserving indigenous knowledge and old cultures and traditions, this has never been recognised and validated. Though they have been categorised as Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs), they get negligible benefits from this categorisation. Dr Meena said,
The communities are categorised differently but there is no anthropology or study that has been done. Kalbeliya and Jogi are the same but they are categorised differently so the community cannot get any benefits.
Further speaking on this issue, Kishan Nath, President of Kalbeliya Tribe, Rajasthan told us,
If you consider Rajasthan, nowhere has any part of the Kalbelia community been given access to water or road facilities. They have in very few places. The Kalbelia community has not been given any financial support either. In fact, they have not been given any land rights at all. They don’t have access to housing or to regular food, to the extent that they don’t even have ration cards.
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The denotified tribes continue to live a marginalised life in the post-Independence era. When we looked in the context of rural settlements and gender specificity, the situation is very dire.
Ganga lives with her 70-year-old mother. She lost her leg in an accident at the age of 12. She has no means of earning a livelihood and lives in a kutcha home, a makeshift tent just outside the village of Dholkipati in Udaipur. Ganga shares,
Sometimes my mother or I go to a slum cluster nearby and get 5-6 kilos of wheat flour, which is what my mother and I eat for the next 5-6 days. When the wheat flour finishes, we go back asking them for more.
The mother-daughter duo are both waiting for a miracle to happen. Ganga says,
There is no work to do. What work will I be able to do with these crutches and my mother has now grown old, she gets tired and starts panting when she walks.
Ganga gets Rs 750 as pension, and her mother gets Rs 500.
How far will that take us? asks Ganga.
Meanwhile, Suresh has no choice but to continue as a waste collector despite losing his eye 8 months ago.
I was working on a car engine that we got as scrap, everything was almost done, when a small splinter flew up and hit my eye and burnt a tiny hole in my left eye.
Inspite of hurting himself, Suresh went to work the next morning, when his eye started hurting. Suresh shares,
I called my mother and asked her to send my younger brother to the hospital, to meet me there. The doctor told me that there was a cut inside my eye and now I am unable to see anything from my left eye, but I still go to work as I am the only earning member in my family and I have to earn a living so I can feed my parents.
Most people of the Kalbelia community just earn enough money to live on and nothing extra to save. Even after seeing Suresh lose his eye, the family continues to work without any sort of protective gear, completely unaware that it exists, and that using it will keep them relatively safer than are they are now.
Kali Nath, Suraj’s mother doesn’t know about any kind of protective gear that needs to be worn.
It is hot, how do we wear it? Also sometimes it can get wet, then how will we remove it? We are not used to wearing any protective gear.
It is Suraj and his mother Kali who collect waste and earn a living for the family. Kali added,
It’s just the two of us, mother and son who earn, I have a daughter whose marriage we need to arrange. My husband doesn’t earn because of his health. We have financial problems. In our house, we have a scarcity of food and clean water. I earn about Rs 100-200, and my son brings back about Rs 100-200.
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Health, a fundamental human right, is one of the major concerns among the denotified tribes. Basic Healthcare Services runs 24/7 health facilities in the rural interiors of Southern Rajasthan where the tribal populations are based.
Many women shared their experiences about the health of their children. Aarti Nath, said,
Our children fall sick because of dirty water, because of mosquitoes. They get vector-borne diseases like dengue. We take them to the hospital. They get diarrhoea, vomiting with all the mosquitoes, and unhygienic conditions.
Malnutrition is a huge problem within the community. Radha Megwal, ASHA Sahayogini, Department of Medical and Health, Government of Rajasthan worker shared,
People eat but do not have access to nutritious food, their surroundings are unhygienic. So when they eat, there are flies on their food, and they are in the middle of the dirt. They don’t keep their spaces clean and hygienic, so they are exposed to all kinds of germs. They end up getting diarrhoea and vomiting.
Another issue is getting the Kalbelia community to get health check-ups, regular vaccinations. Radha added,
When the children come to this center, the families do not have any trust in us, they do not trust our team to give vaccinations. They fear their child will get a fever and will suffer. Even when we visit them to explain what the medicine is for, they feel the vaccination will bring on fever and pain. They don’t let us even come close, for fear of being vaccinated. We literally have to drag them out of their homes to get them vaccinated.
Sapna has 3 children. 6-year-old Namesh, 3-year-old Bhavesh and Kundan who is 8 months old. None of them have birth certificates, and like most children in the community, none of them go to school.
None of my children have a birth certificate and because of this, we are unable to get them admitted to a school. Wherever we go, they ask for birth certificates. If we go to get our Aadhaar card made, we are asked for the birth certificate.
Like Aarti, Sapna too echoed the pain of seeing her kids falling ill frequently. She said,
Kids keep falling sick and we need to take them to the hospital. The area is very dirty to live in. There are mosquitoes that breed here, dirty water, garbage is all around and the children are exposed to dust and dirt. When we go to pick waste, we have to leave them behind at home. They are often left hungry. There is nobody to look after them. We have no money, we have to go and work.
Dr Madan Meena, Trustee, Bhasha Research and Publication Centre said,
Because they are illiterate even their documents are wrong. No one knows their rights and no one helps them.
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According to a survey report by the NGO Bhasha, 44.1 per cent of the Kalbelia community have no birth certificates – that’s the highest figure for all of India. This also corresponds to the low literacy rate among them. But Vijay Nath is trying to help people of his community to get their papers in order.
Vijay is one of the few educated members of the Kalbelia community, and is working towards his dream of becoming a teacher. Vijay uses social media to reach out and create a dialogue and give information about the process of getting an Aadhaar card made for people without any documents. He said,
My father gave me the gift of education, in fact, I am the only person who is studying in a big family. Most people in my community don’t have an Aadhaar card, which is the most important. When I got to know this, I volunteered to make Aadhaar cards for the people here.
Rajnath Mehar, Social worker, Rajasthan Kanipav Nath Kalbelia Social welfare committee has been running a remedy centre for the last four years and he feels it’s not as though the children do not want to study, but their parents or guardians are not aware of the importance of education. He shared,
There are government schools here, the teachers approach the families. And there are private schools as well. However, unless the community itself becomes socially aware, it will be difficult to link them to education.
Tough life conditions and a lack of awareness about basic rights, such as healthcare make life very difficult for the Kalbelias.
The Kalbelia dance is an important cultural marker for the tribe and for the state. In 2010, the Kalbelia folk songs and dances of Rajasthan were declared a part of the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List.
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Gulabo Sapera from Ajmer, perhaps the best-known exponent of the traditional Kalbelia dance, has taken her art across the globe. But she was buried alive for 7 hours right after birth because a girl child was considered a curse. Gulabo’s journey has been truly inspiring. Not only has she received a Padma Shri for keeping the Kalbelia dance alive, her achievements have also helped end female infanticide in the community. She now wants to pass on her legacy to students who will continue the tradition of the Kalbelia dance.
The Kalbelia dance started with me, in the sense that it started bringing recognition to our community. And so, I don’t want this dance to fade away or end with me. Though this is unlikely to happen because the Kalbelia dance is now world-famous, girls are learning it and it is being performed nationally and globally as well. Whenever this dance travels to other countries for festivals then it brings both India and Rajasthan into the limelight – that we invited the Kalbelia dance, the snake charmers dance, and these are the people who perform it. So, I hope this continues, I hope this folk art is preserved. It is my dream to make such a school where we teach this dance. A Sapera School, where I teach children dance and also give them an education, because they will progress only if they study. If performing folk artists are suffering today, it is only because of a lack of education.
While the Kalbelias have made an impact with their singing and dancing, there are still many dancers like Ramudi who have to beg to make ends meet. Ramudi lamented,
The father of my children used to drink, so he would borrow money from people. When I would return home after a performance, I would find out that we owe someone Rs 10,000, and someone else Rs 20,000. It started worsening. My husband didn’t stop drinking. Three or four years later, he was diagnosed with cancer of the stomach. I took him to a government hospital, and also to private hospitals, spending upto Rs 10,000. His condition deteriorated slowly, over time. And the number of my performances also started decreasing. I got involved with taking care of him. I had a young daughter at home, I mortgaged my house for Rs. 1 lakh. If I don’t go out to beg, then I have nothing to feed my sick husband.
Ramudi lives in the temple in Jaipur’s Kalaakar colony. Finding work for the community is never easy as they continue to face the stigma of being a criminal tribal that has its roots in the colonial era, when the British included the Kalbelias in the Criminal Tribes Act, designating them ‘habitual criminals’. The situation took a turn for the worse with the spread of Covid
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Lalita, Ramudi’s daughter shared her struggles,
It has been very difficult for me because since childhood I have seen nothing but misery. I have seen my mother beg, my father passed away. It is extremely difficult to watch your mother go out to beg. People tell me, ‘your mother goes out to beg, why can’t you do something?.
No education is the reason she hasn’t found employment.
I am just a woman. I don’t know how to read or write. Our condition growing up was such that I never went to school. When I think about it now, I feel bad that I couldn’t do anything from my mother, and I still can’t. My mother goes out to beg and brings back food for us. If she gets us food, we eat it. If she doesn’t, we manage without it. I pray that somehow our situation improves a little bit.
Once a nomadic tribe, the Kalbelias still have no address and no land-holdings. Even their dead are most often deprived of a proper resting place. Because of discrimination and social stigma, they are forbidden from using burial sites. This has led to eight members of Lalita’s family being buried right next to her/his house. Lalita Nath said,
My father, my brother, and my grandfather are buried here. We do feel a bit scared, but there is no place to bury our family. What else can we do? So, we buried them here. There are many graves here where we stay, because of which we are unable to make our homes as we feel scared as well.
Kishan Nath started his fight for his community at the age of 17. However today, after 50 years, he feels he has not achieved a thing. Kishan Nath, President of Kalbelia tribe, Rajasthan and Rajasthan Kanipav Nath Kalbeliya Samaj Kalyan Samiti said,
The government did not give any land to our community, nor did they provide us any housing. Nor have we got any benefit under the Chief Minister Relief Fund or Prime Minister Housing Scheme. I belong to a denotified tribe, which is a nomadic community. If we are allotted a designated piece of land, we can avail of these benefits. But we have not been allocated any land by the government.
During our time with the Kalbeliya community, we have seen there is a huge lack of awareness where their rights are concerned, there is a lack of trust in dealing with those outside the community, there is a fear of the unknown which also prevents the Kalbeliya from addressing their issues.
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NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.