New Delhi: Mittal Patel, a young gold medallist in journalism from Gujarat University, has been trying to give a voice to nomadic tribes for the last six years.
Running an NGO, Vicharata Samuday Samarthan Manch, Patel has aided thousands with fading livelihoods, whose existence was hardly recognised or acknowledged by the state or the central government.
Nomads earlier provided services such as sharpening knives and weapons, repairing tools and supplied a variety of goods including ornaments, perfumes and medicinal herbs. During the days of princely states, they accompanied a king's convoy to help them repair their carts. But due to industrialisation, traditional occupations became non-existent for them.
Mittal has been striving to find alternative employment for men and women and is working towards providing educational facilities for the children. She has been instrumental in helping them claim land rights, getting voter ID cards and fighting with bureaucrats to extend welfare schemes for them.
She speaks exclusively to Gulf News.
GULF NEWS: What was the reason that instead of working as a journalist you preferred to become a social activist?
MITTAL PATEL: After obtaining a degree in journalism in 2005, I worked with the mainstream media, but was not satisfied with the outcome. Moreover, I seldom got a positive response for the work I wished to do. Since as a student of journalism I had been associated with Janpath, an NGO, I considered joining it to have a better foothold in the arena of social work.
How did you manage to locate the nomadic and de-notified tribes, which the government has not bothered to do?
While working with Janpath, I came across them and went out of my way to bring their existence to the notice of the government and civil society groups.
Nomads are those who traditionally roam about to find odd jobs. The British, under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 branded them as ‘habitual criminals’. However, despite the Act being repealed in 1949, nomadic and de-notified tribes were not made a part of the village panchayat. This is because they reside outside the village boundaries.
Being on the move all the year round for decades, they neither had any citizen’s rights nor any voter ID cards. Because of this they missed out on welfare facilities provided by the government. Since development schemes are in context with village panchayat areas, even the basic minimum services like water supply, shelter, electricity, hospitals and schools were out of bounds for people of these communities.
Did it surprise you to find that thousands of nomads did not exist in government records?
More than four million nomads reside in Gujarat and approximately 60 million exist in the country. It was shocking to find there was no data or information available on them even in the government departments. Though the government is aware of certain communities, to avail of the benefits, people are supposed to submit a number of documents. These, unfortunately, they did not possess. The benefits, therefore, reached them in a very limited way. We are now working for 40 nomadic and de-notified tribes in eight districts of Gujarat.
In that case, did it mean starting from scratch?
When I started working, I realised their problems. It was indeed shocking that the government agencies had not bothered about their needs. This was mainly because they were not voters and politicians saw no benefit in their welfare. In 2007, during the assembly polls, I made a presentation about these nomads to the chief electoral officer. He was very understanding and promptly ordered their registration as voters and provided them voter ID cards.
How did it feel to make a difference?
It felt good to see them become a part of society. Over 20,000 persons from various settlements got the right to vote. Ever since, we have been enrolling more than 3,000 people annually.
With the kind of work you were involved in, did you face difficulties on the home front before or after marriage?
As a journalist, I had worked on stories connected with the street dwellers. I stayed with them to understand their problems. My parents were shocked when one day I told them that I wanted to leave journalism and take up social causes. I realised that no one in the society generally wished to help the less fortunate and would say it was their fate. I would travel to meet these people and stay out until late. After I got married, I think it was but natural for my in-laws to be unhappy about my work schedules. But I managed to convince them and also my husband by taking them along and showing the pitiable conditions of the dwellers. They understood my feelings and I got their support.
Who travelled with you to inaccessible areas to find the settlements of nomadic communities?
For two years I worked alone and then another woman joined me. Presently, we are a team of 27 working for their welfare.
Were the nomads convinced about your good intentions and how was their attitude towards you when you first approached them?
It was very difficult convincing them. Nomads are a close-knit community and do not welcome outsiders. Not only are they suspicious, they dislike disclosing or providing information about their community. Many times I had to sit for hours because the head of the community and other leaders would be away. Others would simply refuse to speak to me for fear of divulging any details, fearing I was from the police department.
Several visits later, I took application forms for them. I would fill them and then take them along to the village panchayats to submit those forms for registration. Gradually, they began trusting me. It was a year and numerous obstacles later that people from other neighbouring settlements also began approaching me. That is how work expanded and they began getting voter ID cards.
How do men treat the women of these communities?
We are focusing a great deal on the women from one of the nomadic tribes, the Saraniya community. Women belonging to this community were traditionally supposed to ‘entertain’ the feuding warlords in Gujarat and Rajasthan. They danced, sang and provided sexual pleasure for their employers.
For the last 70 years, young girls have been put in flesh trade and due to acute poverty even parents force their daughters into prostitution. We are trying to bring an end to this humiliating practice and are working towards creating alternative employments such as teaching embroidery and animal husbandry to the women.
Recently, with the help of government authorities and some NGOs, a mass wedding was organised in Banaskantha district of Gujarat. There is huge water crisis in the region and we are getting irrigation facilities and roads constructed. My mission is to see that the tribes join the mainstream.