Nomadic and semi-nomadic communities are among the worst sufferers during the lockdown in India. Although estimates differ, the number of people belonging to these communities, including the so-called de-notified tribes, is around 120 million, a very large number who already mostly lived on the margins of a society.
These communities are associated with a wide range of traditional livelihood activities including animal husbandry, artisanal and craft work, gathering medicinal herbs, entertainment and music. They are repositories of skills and knowledge in their traditional occupations as well as on water conservation and soil management. They are also engaged in highly-beneficial ties with settled communities. For example, farming communities often shelter pastoral nomads and get organic manure in exchange.
A nomad’s search for new water sources has honed in them an understanding of how critical it is to protect water as a resource. Some nomadic communities have adapted their traditional skills to modern needs. For instance the Od nomadic community, known for exceptional skills in working the soil, has adapted to become experts in laying underground cables and wires.
On the other hand, a few nomadic communities are known as entertainers; the Bahurupiyas for instance are adept at role-play, the Nats’ traditional occupation is as acrobats and the Bhats are known to be skilled in puppetry and story-telling.
In recent years nomadic groups have been facing increasing difficulties due unsympathetic attitudes of governments and other threats to their traditional livelihoods. Space-sharing as a way of life is more precarious in these times. Yet, nomadic groups have tried to protect their sources of income and contribute to society through their skills.
But the Covid-inspired lockdown announced on 24 March, has made survival very difficult for nomads. They are struggling to protect their fragile livelihoods and many communities have been driven towards hunger and destitution.
Anita Soni is a social activists who works with nomadic communities such as the Kalbelias, Gudaliya Lohars and Bagris, in the Barmer district of Rajasthan. She says, “The communities with whom we work faced hunger even in the early stages of the lockdown as their fall-back resources are very meagre. When we visited villages, for example Madri, people told us that shortage of food is certainly a problem but an even more serious issue is the shortage of water.”
Many villagers in this region have to walk long distances in search of work, but the lockdown made it virtually impossible to do so. Desperate efforts to arrange a tanker to supply water to the village did not succeed either. “So, somehow, they had to arrange cash so as to purchase some water every day for their most basic needs,” says Soni.
Imagine the reaction when these citizens were told that they have to repeatedly wash their hands with soap several times a day [the most-prescribed solution to avoid getting infected by the Novel Coronavirus, which causes the Covid-19 disease]. “They said, we do not have water even for drinking so how will we get water for washing hands,” Soni says.
A significant number of members of the nomadic communities do not have ration cards and most do not have job cards. Naturally, the government’s efforts to provide relief and employment cannot reached them. In addition, Soni says, people were anguished by not being able to get treated for [non-Covid] health problems; not even being able to access institutional child-birth centres. “The stories you hear among the nomads will bring tears to your eyes,” Soni sighs.
Noor Mohammad is a social activist from the Kalandar community in Tonk, a district and town in Rajasthan. This community’s traditional livelihood was of a madari, or entertainer who once would tame bears or monkeys and train them to perform in public. Their shows were great fun to watch, and the kalandars had deep emotional bonds with their animals. However, their work was arbitrarily brought to an end some years ago and they were forced to turn to alternative sources of income. Many became travelling salesmen of tooth-powders and herbal medicines. Their new occupation, like their traditional livelihood, involves gathering people on crowded footpaths. Of course, their work has totally collapsed thanks to Covid-19 and the lockdown.
In addition, Mohammed says, there is the added problem that several travelling members of the community were stranded at various places when the lockdown was announced and could not return to their base settlement at Tonk for a long time. Such members had no means of earning an income where they were stranded. Some had children with them, which made survival even more difficult.
The tragedy is that a significant number of such nomadic families have been forced to beg just to secure a meal or two in a day. Their drift towards begging became very pronounced during the lockdown. It is too soon to tell if this will turn out to be a permanent shift for some of them, but there is a risk that it will.
The nomadic communities of India still have not been provided basic access to education. As a result, they struggle to access any assistance, even if it is announced by governments. The nomads may often be extremely poor, but families are not always classified as below poverty line and hence lose out on food and other entitlements. One of their big challenges is filling the multitudes of applications and forms that the government demands before they can access any form of help.
The Muslim nomads within the Kalandar community face growing discrimination, even threats to their safety. There is a great uncertainty among them about their livelihood during the lockdown, although for them even “normal” times were precarious.
Shantilal Banjara is an activist working with the Banjara and other nomadic communities in Chittorgarh district of Rajasthan. Here, the nomadic communities are either engaged in traditional occupations (including trade in select products such as mineral salt) or have joined India’s vast army of migrant workers and go to work in brick kilns. According to Shantilal, brick kilns mostly provide work and income between February and June—exactly coinciding with the lockdown, when no work was done in the building or construction sector.
As a result, the Banjaras and other nomads confront an acute hunger crisis. Shantilal has been trying to arrange food for the communities he works with; and finds that many of them do not have ration cards. If their below poverty line status is not recognised by the state, they do not get job cards either, and hence face great difficulties in getting government assistance of any kind, Shantilal says. Their nomadic lifestyle is something that the bureaucracy has simply not tried to keep pace with; and because they are forever on the move, they have little opportunity to get cards and documents made through the traditional methods of verification—thus their path to succour is blocked.
If the poor suffer most during any crisis, the nomadic people have it worse than all others. Their livelihood is by definition linked to travelling and hence they faced the most disruption during the lockdown. Marginalised by any definition, they were largely living ignored by the political class and the administrative machinery. Now their precarious condition needs special attention, which only a campaign to draw attention of the state can do.
The author is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements. The views are personal.