A Touch-Me- Not Tribe

By her own reckoning, Makkobai is only in her late thirties. The lines on her forehead and wrinkled skin make her appear far older. But these are lines etched by suffering – at the start of the new millennium, she and her kinsmen were moved out of the Madhav National Park to a stony, non irrigated tract of land near the Highway.

It was by no means easy living in the forest, yet for the Sahariyas it was heaven compared to their present day existence. Now, every day is a struggle for survival. At least in the forest, water was easily available. Today, living as she does on the fringes of Balharpur village in Shivpuri, she and her fellow Sahariya tribespeople face hunger, acute water shortage and total social exclusion.,

Madhya Pradesh has 29 national parks and reserved forest areas, and each of them has meant displacement and deprivation for the tribal people in the state. Of this, the Sahariyas are perhaps the most affected, going by the number of starvation deaths, cases of bonded labour and terrible stories that NGOs like Action Aid and Sambhav are uncovering.

Take the case of Balwanti and her family. Migrating from the forests, and in search of food and employment, they reached the stone quarries of Gwalior district. Here, they ended up as bonded labour, the entire family being forced to work in the quarries and taking home less than Rs 500 a month. Along with it they incurred the added complication of tuberculosis.

Apart from the national parks and tiger sanctuaries, various development projects such as large dams, open cast coal mines, thermal power plants and mineral-based industries have displaced more than 50 million people in Madhya Pradesh since the 1950s.

As recently as in 2006, the Sahariyas of Amola village in Shivpuri district were displaced to make way for the Mandikheda Dam project. Displacement took place during the monsoons and the authorities gave the villagers plastic sheets for shelter. Barely two months after they were displaced, 11 people died due to malnutrition.

For Gaura Bai in village Murkhera in Madhya Pradesh’s Guna district, the daily hunt for water only serves to bring home the misfortunes of being born in the Sahariya tribe. In this village the higher caste Pandits disallow any of the Sahariyas to take water from the tubewells installed in their residence.

In nearby Rai, the story is the same – except this time it is the powerful Gurjars who control the handpumps of the village. If a Gurjar is in the vicinity of the handpump then the Sahariyas need to wait till the Gurjars fill in the water. The women are supposed to wash the feet of the Gurjars and slowly move out of the place.

If, on the one hand, the powerful castes mete out unjust treatment to the Sahariyas, then they fare no better at the hands of the infamous dacoits and robbers of the Chambal ravines. These groups move from place to place looking for hideouts from the police. The Sahariyas are forced to entertain these hooligans. Any attempt to refuse to do so brings heavy penalty on them in the form of physical beating, gang rape and rampage of their villages.

As one travels from Gwalior towards Sheopur, there is hardly any change in the standards of living of Sahariyas and their living pattern. The only change that one encounters is in terms of shyness and conservative nature. The Sahariyas inhabiting the district of Sheopur and the interior parts of Guna are still far beyond the effects of urbanization. By nature the Sahariyas are shy and they hardly have a voice to protest against any form of social injustice. According to Dr S.K.Singh, Sambhav Social Service Organization, the Sahariyas had always been a subject to exploitation through all sections of society. The exploitation has taken such a severe form that the tribe has forgotten how to resist any form of oppression.

Land alienation, abysmal illiteracy level, incidence of diseases, and social insecurity are other facets of their vulnerability.

Already identified as a deprived and backward community, the Sahariyas today face a double deprivation of sorts, denied the most basic amenity needed for survival - water. Due to social relations and power structure they are denied an opportunity to access the scarcely available resource. From, the perspective of Sahariyas, social exclusion is a vicious cycle under the clutch of which the community is not only losing access to natural resources and basic amenities, but it is also losing its dignity and the ability to fight any injustice meted out to them.

Crushed by hunger and poverty, the Sahariya tribe has derived no benefits from being included in the list of PTG. Forget reservation or affirmative action, basic human rights, food and water schemes of the government do not reach them. A bankrupt public distribution system (PDS), no roads, malnourishment is rampant, several women die when in labour, other women are treated with scant respect by other communities.

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