A landscape white, dry and arid was all that greeted me on a visit to the banks of the Sambhar Salt Lake, Rajasthan. I was certain that human existence was impossible in this hostile environment. But assumptions about existence and habitation were shattered when I confronted reality. My colleagues from my host organisation Manthan, Kotri (Ajmer, Rajasthan) introduced me to a distinctive community called “Bhagrio” that has lived in the middle of the saltpans and on the periphery of the village Jabdi Nagar for around 30 years. This community is secluded from the main village and is locally referred to as “Bhagrio ki Dhani” (Dhani is a local Marwari word for hamlet). Bewildered, I walked through the rough roadway that led to small, isolated and widely scattered settlements of kachcha (crude houses made from raw materials) houses with no permanent water source or electricity connection. Watching the children skip and hop towards the open-air night school run by Manthan, I began to wonder why certain groups of people do not have access to the privileges of modern society and what are the factors and processes that hinder this access. Visions of the hostile landscape, this unique community and the smiling children occupied my thoughts for the next few days with numerous questions on the history of these people and their settlement process in such hostile and unproductive environments with little access to the basic necessities of life. Larger questions on what does this type of existence mean for “development” as a practical concept and an achievable reality if certain communities are neglected and excluded in the development process by modern mainstream society
Conversations over chai with my colleagues in the days that followed led to interesting insights about these communities. Locally these groups are called “Gumantu” (the wanderers) where each sub group has their own distinctive name like Bhagrio, Kalbaliya, Nat, Bhopa, Mal, Bhanjara, Gadia-Lohar etc. Historically, they were nomads that entirely depended on nature’s bounties and migrated from place to place in search of food, water and livelihoods. They used to be night watch-keepers for the khets (agricultural fields). However, as the processes of global and local environmental change (both natural and man-made) fastened, it forced these communities to adopt a settled lifestyle as forest resources for survival became scarce. But as soon as these groups decided to adopt a settled lifestyle they were excluded from the basic socialization process. Villagers never trusted these groups and considered them to be “wild folk” that thrived on robbery. The wandering groups also suspected the villagers and could never comprehend a settled way of life. Thus they preferred to remain isolated with minimal human interactions and settled on the periphery of large villages with no access to water sources, electricity, housing or productive land. Most of them eke out a living as labourers in the saltpans. However, during the non-salt production months (July-October) they rarely have any stable source of income for even basic survival. Interestingly, these communities never featured in government records and despite being nomadic tribes they do not have a Schedule Tribe status in India.
Most of them come under the General, Other Backward Castes (OBC) and Schedule Caste (SC) status. Due to this confusion on their official status they tend to be left out of important government schemes with a difficulty to determine the type of facilities they are entitled to. Local land politics has further complicated their access to a settled lifestyle and many times they are forced to shift base within the village itself.
Manthan, Kotri has been working with 20 such communities (350 families) in the districts of Ajmer and Nagaur, Rajasthan for over 15 years. The aim of the organization is to facilitate a smooth settling in process for these communities with access to basic needs while simultaneously initiating the process of socialization with mainstream society. One of the biggest initiatives is the setting-up of night schools and crèches, as Manthan believes that education, early childcare and nutrition are essential for development of any society and a platform for interaction with people from outside the community. The night schools and crèches are the only hope for the children to come on par with mainstream society as government schools and balwadis are out of accessible reach for them. The other programmes initiated by Manthan are the revival of old watersheds, health awareness progrmmes, formation of women’s groups; provision of winter clothing, water tanks, toilets, shelter material and solar lighting systems along with access to government schemes like Indira Awas Yojna, pension and labour cards.
As a result of these initiatives there has been a large impact on their living standards. In communities that Manthan has worked for over 15 years, there has been a remarkable change. Initially, children were not even sent to the Manthan night school for fear of rejection by society along with doubts on new forms cultural assimilation. But over the years, those children who went to the night schools have entered the mainstream educational system. Similarly, through Manthan’s efforts 90% families have constructed pucca (built out of processed building materials) houses by availing the Indira Awas Yojna. Water tankers refill the tanks built by Manthan fortnightly ensuring an easy access to clean water. The revival of watersheds has led to rearing of cattle and agricultural production becoming an alternative source of income. The solar home lighting systems has led to basic lighting services for domestic chores leading to a big impact on their economic status. The biggest impact is the way villagers view these groups today: from the “stealing wanderers” to “civilized clans”. Due to this change in attitude they are allowed to participate in social activities and government programmes. However, the process to change and acceptance is slow and especially in communities where Manthan has recently started working a lot more needs to be achieved for basic survival.
Development and change are two sides of the same coin but the process to achieve them is slow and culturally different. Uniform and top-down solutions to development might only hinder the process to change and thus it becomes necessary to understand history, culture and its relationship to development. A glimpse of these excluded communities has made me introspect deeper on the mirage of development. If “development” is a national agenda then it makes me wonder why has it taken so long for government schemes and facilities to reach these communities or why are they still inaccessible to many. Development is a mirage but with exclusions imbedded in the very structures of societal functioning it becomes a fissured mirage as many of these communities (especially indigenous and nomadic groups and dalits) do not even feature in the spectrum of development work. Indian society has viewed “development” through the prism of “differences” and not as “human life or existence”. Though “growth” as one of the features of development is essential, it is not enough for the welfare and progress of the excluded and marginalized in society. Development work in India has largely focused on quick fix solutions to poverty, unemployment, wealth inequality etc., but it has rarely questioned the premise of marginalization and structural disparities that prevents the access to resources and facilities. Structural inequalities and societal exclusions in India deeply impact existing levels of poverty and hinder the achievement of development goals. Exclusions define the ways we use, share and govern our resources or formulate and implement our policies. Thus it becomes essential to understand what the factors (environmental, social, economic and political) that leads to development or hampers change especially for excluded groups in Indian society. And until we as a society change the prism of viewing human life, development will only remain a fissured mirage with our ambitious and desired development goals only remaining a distant reality
For me the next nine months is going to be a journey of understanding, exploring and documenting change through the prism of exclusion and its implications for development especially sustainable development. And in order to embark on this journey, there is nothing better than adopting a grass-root approach and living with these interesting and intriguing communities to experience their culture and way of life, history, processes of change (environmental, social, political and economic) and the impact of Manthan’s initiatives on their lifestyle and initiation into the socialization process. Being a part of the Manthan team and understanding the relationship of trust that it has built with these communities over the years to provide for their basic wants and needs, has given me a chance to ponder on the larger role and impact of development organizations in Indian society. For Manthan the journey is long and challenging but the determination to bring in sustainable change for these excluded communities is what motivates its enthusiastic team to continue their good work each and every day.
So keep a look out for my experiences, adventurers and stories of these beautiful communities and the processes of change for sustainable development in the coming months. For now its Namaste and Ram Ram sa!!! from my little village of Kotri, Ajmer, Rajasthan.