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Leaving No One Behind

The Story Of Gujarat’s Siddis, The Marginalised Tribe Facing Numerous Challenges

Siddis, who have a heritage going back almost 800 years and have been living in India for decades, are among the country’s forgotten and marginalised communities. The tribal community suffers from many challenges, from poverty, unemployment, to illiteracy. Above all this, there is an added layer of challenge: the colour of their skin

New Delhi: Gujarat’s tribal community, the Siddi, has one of the most unique cultures to be found in India. Residing in the Gir Forest in Somnath district, the Siddis are believed to be the descendants of the Bantu people of East Africa. According to the 1931 census, the Siddis were brought to India by the Portuguese towards the end of the 17th century, possibly as slaves. Others believe they were brought here by the Arabs even earlier, in fact, as early as the 7th century.

NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India team travelled to the Somnath district to meet the tribe and understand the challenges they face. Siddis, who have a heritage going back almost 800 years and have been living in India for decades, are among the country’s forgotten and marginalised communities. The tribal community suffers from many challenges, from poverty, unemployment, to illiteracy. Above all this, there is an added layer of challenge: the colour of their skin.

They are referred to as the ‘lost tribe of Africa’ and due to this tag, they have faced a lot of discrimination.

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Speaking to the team, a tribal community member, Sameena Bajrani Vali, from Hadmatiya Village in the Gir Somnath District, described how her son was forced to drop out of school because of the discrimination he faced against his classmates.

My son Vijay has studied only till Class 8. He has always had a healthy, stout body type since birth and is taller than the average height of the students in his class. In school, he was teased multiple times for his height, by saying, ‘he is so big yet he is in a junior class’. Sitting on the school bench, all the other children would look much smaller to him. Due to all the teasing, he eventually left the school and couldn’t reach the level of achievement I had hoped for him, Ms Sameena detailed.

Another Siddi tribe member, Sohail Satarbhai Makva, a resident of Dhari Village, Amreli district, detailed how the community members are teased by other people

At times when we go out shopping, people say things like, Look, the dark-skinned people from the West Indies have come’. As far as I know, we migrated from East Africa, Zanzibar about 700–800 years ago. I believe that we have maintained good health by staying close to nature and consuming food that is locally available around us. We are not severely affected either by heat or cold weather conditions, he said.

Mr. Makva said that often people stop by and ask whether they are from the West Indies, as they are unaware of the existence of the community.

Makuba, another tribal member, said that his family has been residing in India for decades. “We are Indians, and we belong here,” he added.

Besides Gir in Gujarat, the Siddi tribe lives in small pockets of villages in Karnataka and Maharashtra as well and speaks the language of the region they live in. Gir being a purely agricultural community, the tribesmen coexist peacefully with their natural surroundings and wildlife.

Mehbub Chotariya, a Siddi tribal, talked about the similarities between the Siddi and the lions and how they feel safe in their coexistence.

Lions and Siddis—if they aren’t together, it takes the meaning out of life for us. It is said that lions and Siddis are mostly found together. The Nawabas had brought both together to India. We just live with the thought that if we are to live with the wildlife, then why be afraid of them? he said.

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Sasan Gir Safari, one of the most incredible wildlife experiences in India, is looked after by the members of the Siddi community. The members work as tour guides, drivers, etc., and help tourists become interested in wildlife.

Imran, Forest Guide, Gir National Park, talked about his journey as a guide.

I took up the job of being a guard because we live inside the Gir forest, and living inside the forest, we must also work for the forest. We know exactly how many rivers and animals are there in this jungle, we know everything closely.

The Siddis still live inside the forest and rely primarily on nature for sustenance. Living conditions have improved both inside and outside the forest with various schemes and grants provided by the Government under ethnic group rehabilitation programmes. However, education and opportunities are inadequate for this marginalised ethnic group. Sohail Satarbhai Makva discussed another challenge that the community faces: – lack of education.

We are not educated, but we know what a crucial role it plays in making and shaping the livelihood for the whole family. Our ancestors came years ago; things have changed, but education is still a challenge for the community. If we can ensure education for the upcoming generation, it will solve the challenges for the community as a whole, he said.

Sohil Majgul, President, Nagarchi Pir Dargah, and President, Siddi Samaj, Jambur, talked about the challenges of employment and education despite the government schemes. He said that the community faces financial constraints due to a lack of education.

Only if we are educated, will we get the jobs. Only then can we deal with our financial troubles. There are several scholarships available, but nothing is really coming to the rescue. Getting an education is still a challenge, and it is connected with other problems. All I want for the community is to have access to proper education.

Despite many challenges, the Siddi community excels in sports. So much so that in the late 1980s, under the government’s Special Area Games scheme, it was believed that the Siddis’ genetic advantage made them naturally gifted runners.

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Ravindra Khatale (IAS), District Development Officer, Jilla Panchayat, Gir Somnath (Gujarat), discussed how well the community members do in the field of sports.

Physically, the Siddis are very sturdy and strong and have a good immunity. Therefore, they do very well in athletics and other sports. But one aspect that we need to focus on is the exposure part. The Siddis are very peopled and do not interact much. So, when it comes to education and employability, they are also lagging behind other tribal communities. They live an isolated and reclusive lifestyle.

Sameena Bajrani Vali said that the community members need to step out of their comfort zone and interact and look for opportunities provided by the government and otherwise.

Currently, the younger generation of the community is in a position where they shouldn’t be – engaged in labour and menial tasks instead of receiving education and a job.”

Alfiza Majgul, a Siddi tribe member, has a gold medal. She is a national-level silver medalist in wrestling. A resident of Hadmatiya village, 36 km away from Somnath, the Class 8 student is studying in the Eklavya model residential school to pursue her dream of making her parents proud.

Talking about her experience at school, Ms Majgul said,

For the first few months, people teased me as if I were from Africa, but later they accepted me, and I shared a friend group. We study and practise together. In the future, I wish to become a doctor, do well in wrestling, and fulfil my parents dream.

While Ms. Majgul has gained a certain level of acceptance, many others from the community like Mahebub Chotiyara haven’t been fortunate enough to fulfil their dreams.

After pursuing sports for 18 years in Gandhinagar, Mr. Chotiyara is back to farming in his native home, Sirvan village, in the Gir forest. He talked about the reason for his return to his village from Gandhinagar.

I felt better in Gandhinagar, but if I had to stay there, things would have gone wrong at home as my father was all alone and he did not have any other help in farming. Now, it’s too late for me to go back and pursue sports as a career.

Mr. Chotiyara is now putting in all the effort for his son to fulfil his dream of being a judoka.

The sporting ability of the Siddi community is legendary. In spite of winning medals, Mr. Chotiyara had to leave everything and come back to the interiors of Gujarat to support his family, but he is hoping that their son Sahil will fulfil their dream.

The Special Area Games did not succeed as far as the Siddis were concerned. But it was the first attempt at empowering the community. And their performances during that time proved their potential. With that door opened, many athletes from the Siddi community have performed well, garnering state and national records. Mr. Chotiyara’s son, Sahil, is preparing for the national games but is also a judo trainer in the camp, which helps him earn a steady income.

I hope he wins the medal for his country, Mr. Chotiyara said.

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The NDTV team met Hirbai Ibrahim Lobi, the first woman from the Siddi community to have won a Padma Shri for transforming the lives of more than 700 women in the community and numerous children.

Ms. Lobi has spent a large part of her life working for the upliftment of Siddi tribal women and educating children.

22-year-old Jasmine Vali, who recently got married, believes that change is beginning to happen and wants to pursue a career in computers.  She is computer literate and is looking for an employment opportunity.

To make education accessible to all, the Anganwadis in the areas where the community resides have been upgraded to make preschool education playful, joyous, and engaging for impressionable young children. The Anganwadis are the focal point for the implementation of all the health, nutrition, and early learning initiatives under the Integrated Child Development Services programme.

Ravindra Khatale (IAS), said that the infrastructure has been upgraded with BALA (Building as Learning Aid), under which the infrastructure will be weatherproof, the buildings will be painted with all the animated creatures to grab children’s attention, and the faculty will be guided with all the learnings they need to provide to the children.

Along with a focus on education, Dettol’s Banega Swasth India campaign’s Reach Each Child Programme is working in the area to improve access to healthcare.

Hamida, who is a tribal member of Madhupur Jambur, Gir Somnath district, said her younger daughter is four years old and is severely malnourished, but Hamida was unaware of her condition .

I didn’t know that my daughter was stunted and underweight until a gulabi didi told me. Now I will do whatever it takes to improve my daughter’s health, including the kind of food she needs to feed and other medical attention she needs, she added.

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Gulabi Didis are on the forefront of driving Reckitt’s nutrition programme Reach Each Child, which prioritises adequate nutrition for children within the first 1,000 days of life (a period that begins with pregnancy and goes up to the second birthday of the child). Gulabi Didis are Community Nutrition Warriors who help ensure that no child dies due to malnutrition and every woman in their local community has a safe and healthy pregnancy.

21-year-old Bajarani Alfiza is from the Siddi community and is among the few who completed her education. She is a trained nurse who has joined the Reach Each Child programme as a Gulabi Didi. Detailing her work, Ms. Alfiza said,

My work is to go to the community, check for malnourished kids, and take care of pregnant women. I enjoy working as a nurse as I like to take care of people, but here I am taking care of my community and helping them.

Ravi Bhatnagar, Director, External Affairs & Partnerships, SOA, Reckitt, talked about the need to reach marginalised communities like Siddi and ensure health for all, starting with the mother child programme.

We did a careful review of the tribal communities of India in terms of the nutrition part, and we observed that there is a huge scope for working with the Siddi tribe – giving care to the newborn and new mothers in the first 1000 days. We conducted an ethnographic study on the tribe, which is the first of its kind. Let me tell you, the study shows the strength and resilience of the tribe and also puts us into focus to work and invest in the tribe more and take care of their health.

It is critical that people from a community that is both isolated and reclusive are not left behind. Today, the Siddis are open and waiting for change. Hirbai’s Padma Shri has no doubt brought attention, not just to her work in uplifting women, but to the Siddis as a whole. Inclusive healthcare and education for the Siddis must begin with accepting that skin colour and appearance have nothing to do with the community’s Indianness. And in taking pride that the Siddis’ very unique culture is also very uniquely Indian.

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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 – theLGBTQ 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 currentCOVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water,SanitationandHygiene) 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, fightmalnutrition, 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 likeair pollution,waste management,plastic ban,manual scavengingand sanitation workers andmenstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India wheretoiletsare used andopen defecation free (ODF)status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched byPrime Minister Narendra Modiin 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.

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