Forgotten people Chambal's Bor Khedi villagers are still called the criminal tribe

Published: Monday 31 March 2008

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In January this year I visited the Rajasthan part of the Chambal valley to study a water resources management project implemented by the ngo Sadguru Foundation. Accompanied by my local guide Sathish Mishra, I hiked along a tributary of the Chambal river, the Kali Sindh. At Bor Khedi village in Jhalawar district, smoke billowing near the edge of the river aroused curiosity. But Mishra asked me to stay calm. "Kanjars are preparing illicit liquor," he whispered.

My guide then walked for a mile, spoke to people, and got permission for an interview. I found out later that people of Bor Khedi usually brew illicit liquor along river banks and ravines. I was shocked to see over a dozen children, including a few toddlers, burning firewood to prepare country liquor.

While photographing the smoke-filled liquor pots, I nearly stumbled on some open cables. Mishra cautioned me not to step forward.They were death traps, he said and added that the cables transport stolen electricity from the nearby power line to private motors.

The people pumping water close-by were giving us suspicious looks. But I managed to summon the resolve to ask them why their children were not at school. That broke the ice. Munni Bai, a mother of three gave a toothy grin and assured me that her community was no longer involved in robbery.

She was alluding to a stigma that has remained with the Kanjars since colonial times. The Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, classified the community as a criminal tribe. Of course, after independence, the term 'criminal tribe' was removed from the statute book. But local social workers argue that tribal communities such as the Kanjars, Sansis, and Pardhis continue to be discriminated socially and by local law enforcement authorities even today.

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But there was little bitterness in Munni Bai's voice when she said that governments had turned a blind eye to her community for nearly a century. The adults present there nodded in approval. Life was hard in the ravines, they said almost as a matter of fact. Arable lands was obviously precious and it was not difficult to see why there were several land disputes.

Munni Bai pointed to a reservoir and said it stored water pumped with the use of illicit electricity. Proceeds from illicit liquor sale supplemented the villagers' meagre farm income.

I asked the villagers about their illicit pursuits electricity theft and country liquor production. Munni Bai replied that if the government assisted them in establishing a lift irrigation system, the Kanjars could irrigate more land and would have no need to steal electricity or to produce illicit liquor.

I seem to have struck a rapport with the people of Bor Khedi. More people in the village came forward to talk. The village head said that the stolen electricity was available for only five hours every day and 15 households could irrigate about 5 hectares (ha).

It struck me later that stealing electricity was quite a risky business. The method involved an overhead power cable over which a metal hook was hung; a wire took the electricity from this hook to households. People of Bor Khedi told me that three people and five animals had been electrocuted in the past two years when they stepped on open cables.

The visit to Bor Khedi was quite disquieting. Was there no way to ease the village's problems? I wondered. Manoj Gupta, an irrigation engineer, later told me that it would not actually take much to set up a lift irrigation system in the village. It would cost about Rs 15 lakh and irrigate 20 ha, he said.

The prime minister had promised a Rs 25,000-crore package for rural agriculture during his independence day speech in 2007. "We will see a boost in food grain production in all parts of the country, particularly in regions untouched by the first green revolution," the prime minister promised.

I don't know if people of Bor Khedi are aware of the prime minister's announcement. Anyhow it seems that the village is still waiting for the independence day largesse. And what of the several hundreds of other Bor Khedis in the country?

Govindasamy Agoramoorthy is professor of environmental sciences at Tajen University, Taiwan. He can be contacted at

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