Saharia is name of an indigenous people inhabiting the Gwalior and Chambal regions of Madhya Pradesh. Their population spread extends beyond this region to Rajasthan and UP. Their anthropological characteristics are similar to Kol and Gonds. Their habitations are mostly outside main village. Over last few years, their migration has taken place towards urban places. Historically, they are collectors and gatherers of forest produce. Goat and poultry bird is also supplementary source of earning. They never bothered about the ownership of land that is formal ownership. To their understanding land is source of life and it was place of use for living, fun making and sustenance. Because they were there since ages, the ownership was automatic. In pre independence period, the Rajas and Moghuls did not take much note of them. Sahariyas were forest dwellers; hence, they were seen natural masters of forest. Annually, some meager revenue in form of gift for King, Sahariyas kept presenting to state treasury. The attitude of the ruler was of the patronage and non-interference. Their place of possession was indicated as forest in the official maps. The British also did not care about them. For all practical purpose, the Sindias continued to rule the state. Sahariyas never figured, apparently in any business discussions. They have been quiet and peace-loving people, hence their life went on as usual.
Post independence, in a desire to govern effectively, the Indian Government notified Sahariyas as a tribe. It meant certain welfare benefit and official protection were committed to their wellbeing. After amalgamation of states, the responsibility of administration was taken over by the National Government. The areas shown as green or forest were informally accepted to be the place of their habitation. The demarcation of the village based on abadi, agriculture and forestland was to take place sometime later. This sometime later is the key to problem. Forest department was more proactive in creating their maps and territorial details. All that was shown as forestland automatically went to their domain. So far so good. The Sahariyas falling in this belt did not receive fair deal. Barring some scattered cases, Saharia village land were not clearly indicated as land of the community. Simply it means that Sahariyas were classified as encroachers. It meant illegal possession of Forestland. Hence, Sahariyas had no official authority to stay and cultivate their ancestral land. The offices of Revenue and Forest failed to reach any agreement. It inflicted immeasurable pain and suffering on simple and innocent Sahariyas.
Another community called Gurjer, the cattle rearers also has been living in the same neighborhood. It is a most oppressive and friendly arrangement of co existence. Gurjer are a quarrel some group of people who do not have patience to listen to others. They keep women in four walls and avoid all contacts with outsiders. Gurjer kept grabbing land and other resources and harassed the tribal under all and none pretext. Gurjer are also good in making use of Government system wherever possible. Many of their possession were indicated in forest and revenue book. It was an advantage to them. Sahariyas totally missed the bus. No effort was made on their part for formalization of land ownership. The Patwaris and Tahsil Dars were the sole decider of land issues. Within few years, large population from neighboring and far off places settled down here. The Thakurs, Brahmins, Moslems and Sikhs used their advance social capital of bargain and money to take over large stretch of land. These were formal, because it was properly executed and legally done. The Sahariyas had no clue at all what was happening. They were being exiled formally. Sahariyas kept shifting from one location to another since invaders were settling down. The formal administrative structure was used uniformly. It became a story of pharos and Egyptians. One group has wherewithal’s to benefit from the recently created rules and regulations. The Land revenue act MP, has dealt the issues of land belonging to ST and SC, but there was none to read them. Many did not even take interest in learning about them. Time went by, new provisions were added to the governance, more pro democratic and pro poor acts were accepted. Special drives were undertaken, most for political reasons, less on peoples’ needs basis. Courts of all types were created, stringent acts were passed to protect the interest of the hapless people. Frankly, it all came very late firstly resources were already disappearing and taken over at horrendous speed. Secondly, our feudal remnants and caste prejudice acted as blinder on the eyes of field staff, senior bureaucrats and political forces. Let alone the commercial fore sights of the business communities. Sahariyas were in a state of no land and no house and no resources to live on. Everything belonged to the Government or the powerful.
By every day things kept worsening. Law could not protect them and the strong and clever will not relent. It resulted in most inhuman social and economic betrayal. Some thing that did not happen in thousand years, after independence it happened in a few years. Every step of the state was thwarted by the invested interest groups. The orders of courts were flouted. Political promises were shamelessly broken. The Bureaucracy explained that all was under control and every order is followed in true spirit. Is it easy to imagine that fate of almost five lakh Sahariyas is caught in this confusion and denial? In next few years, Sahariyas will be forced to go for begging and live city slums. It is not a romantic presentation. One will find village after village called be chiragh (with out some one to light the night lamp) in Ghatigaon, Gwalior. What happened? The neighboring people made their life hell. Money extortion, women being taken as regular sex supply. Any attempt to resist was treated with battering and public assault. The economic base was weak since their agriculture practices were primitive and land was full of stone and pebbles. Combined effect of torture and poverty, did the role of eviction and uprooting. Police and local administration and forest department were in know of these happening. Many reported cases to police but were ignored. Strong was getting stronger. Sahariyas were getting more and more alienated with land, the habitation. Most Sahariyas live under the fear of violence and barbaric mal treatment.
Sahariyas as such suffer from several self damaging situations. Literacy level continues to be abysmal. Heavy consumption of liquor all variety home made, made by some local joints, government contractors. The credit also goes to the Excise policy of the Government. Liquor in plastic pouches is available at every nook and corners-pan shop, vegetable venders, village level contact person. One day Dr BD Sharma , retired IAS and Commissioner ST & SC, Government of India, shared informally. The spending on liquor consumption at each village level exceeds by five times of the total annual aid given by the state under all the welfare schemes. That’s the extent of alcohol spending. Any sane or smart Government will declare new policy where a mid path between chaotic supply and total prohibition could adopted. It will not eliminate the use but can reduce the consumption. Alcohol with shortage of food, leads to collapse of body immunity. Here comes most opportunistic infection of Tuberculosis. Compounded with smoking, Gutkaha (beetle and tobacco, combined or single ingredient), substance use, the health is dangerously under threat. Sahariyas have taken to stone quarrying in the face of dwindling natural resources. Almost all Saharia habitations by default are sitting on mineral deposits , sand stone and precious herbs. These are in high demands in the foreign market. Stone quarry and crusher work is extremely hard work. They age very fast and average life span is around 50 years.
As if story of suffering is not over yet. All the government services, you name it, be it education or health or social security and safe drinking water are malfunctioning. In most cases these are eye wash. Please do not get me wrong. Schools are there, but hardly any education. Health sub centres are but no body to attend. Everything as per WHO standards is in place, but it does not benefit Sahariyas. If there are some showcases exist where things seem to be happening. Number will be insignificant. Jumping to quick conclusions will not help. Sahariyas are roughly living in olden days, mentally. Magic healing, spirits pacifying, occult practices continue prevail here over modern systems. All diseases, bad luck, death, fever are because of evil spirits, invoked by enemy or some disrespectful act or not fulfilling some commitment offering sacrifices. Each community will have a spirit healer. Some even use herbs and can set dislocated bones.
The line between freedom and slavery is very thin in Sahariyas. Almost all children girls and boys as per definition are child labour. Those work with parents at Quarry and stone crusher site are engaged in hazardous work. Almost more than half families have one member bonded against cash advance to some family of other caste. It is the rule of day in Sahariyas. It is not regarded as violation of law. He is to serve for one year against a loan of Rs 15000 or 20000. If he is sick, somebody must replace him in his place. Working hours could anything between 10-12 hours, if not staying at loaner’s house. One time meal or one pair of clothes may or may not be part of the deal. If he wishes to change master, then the balance money has to be paid. This practice goes on unabated.
Sahariyas live as cluster of 50 or 100 houses away from main population. Things are changing on road side settlements, otherwise a house could be anything from a primitive grass and leaves hut, some uncut boulders stones carefully put on each other as wall. Small stone pieces make roof and make room of 7feet and 8 feet. These will be supported by wooden log or a stone beam rarely. Black or white polythene is spread on roof in rains. Wall height varies from six to eight feet. Some villages have organized housing made of stone and mud. Decorated with color and tribal art. Generally old habitations have better housing that recently established. The house has no window. Food also cooked inside in many houses. The living conditions create conditions for spread of infections.
How will Saharia enjoy the fruits of freedom, if his survival is at stake. If they do not even understand the complexity of our administration, how will they ever raise their voices for rights? If Government will make buildings and appoint people to work and they refuse to work. Their land and forest are lost forever. Whatever land is in their possession is most unusable, un irrigated and located at strange places like downhill or steep climb, with little or no soil. Nothing short of strictest commitment on part of Government can restore their rights. All the good land is with the others who have resources to manipulate. Many families possess some land paper bestowed by the Political Bosses, but they were never given possession over land. These pieces were already in the control of rich. Poverty alleviation loans have been poured like torrential rain, but what a waste? Nobody have ever received the total amount sanctioned. Loan is shared among the layers and layers of people. By the time it reaches the Saharia, its peanut. It will not be used for any productive purpose. After several years, they will receive notices for nonpayment. Calculation of interest on such poverty elimination program is done on compound interest. Of course, subsidy is given, but that is primarily to serve the Government , Bank and Panchayat personals. Hundreds of evaluation and verification have been done. All with one finding, its sham and hoax. Public money is being wasted by a non serious and ineffective Government control. Process of stress migration is uprooting many families. Why would anybody like to return to its ancestral village, if violence, public humiliation and hunger await them? The entire population of Sahariyas resemble to a cheap labor settlement and women for the pleasure of contractor, quarry owners and others. Media has reached everywhere, why did it fly over the Sahariyas. Their plight is not taken seriously. But how long, the threshold is reached. News of communities standing up for their rights are also reaching them. Soon, they will too raise their voice against social and economic injustice.