COVID-19: Chhattisgarh’s marginalised nomadic communities starved, begged to stay alive

Nomadic communities already on the brink in Chhattisgarh faced harrowing times during COVID-19 lockdown

By Ravleen Kaur
Published: Wednesday 20 July 2022
On the development map, nomadic tribal communities get lost Photo: Ravleen Kaur

Nomadic communities in Chhattisgarh's Balodabazar-Bhatapara district, who live in the shadow of non-inclusive policies, were dealt a cruel blow during the COVID-19 pandemic. A majority of them have to move around to earn a living and the sudden, prolonged lockdowns made it impossible. 

Bijma Rajgod, 60, hadn’t eaten for two days when I met her in December last year. Prolonged sickness and the COVID-19 lockdown meant she could not go out to beg — her only livelihood. 

A resident of Biladi village in Chhattisgarh, an hour’s drive from the capital Raipur, Bijma belongs to the Rajgod nomadic community. She gets rice under the government’s public distribution system. Why does she go hungry then? Because she is forced to sell a part of it to pay her medical bills. 

Flushed with exhaustion as she carried a baby in her lap while pregnant with another, 20-year-old Rajkumari, Bijma’s neighbour, requested me to get her a ration card, mistaking me for a government representative. The destitution in the Rajgod Para (locality) of Biladi hits us in the face. 

“Had it not been for the aid by non-profits, there would have been many starvation deaths here during the lockdown,” said Rohit Patil, a local activist, as we sat down in his office after a visit to the village. That is when Feroz Porte, the community leader of the Rajgods in Biladi, told us the history of his tribe. 

Feroz Porte, mukhiya of Rajgods in Biladi village. Photo: Ravleen Kaur

Originally from Bastar, the Rajgods were known for their traditional healing skills. Porte said:

Being a Gond sub-caste, we are the king of the forest and recognise each and every herb and root. When our ancestors migrated during a famine, that was the only skill they owned.

They would camp for 15-20 days in a village and people would flock to them for herbal medicines, he added. “Though we were always poor, there was respect in the profession.” 

The situation changed with a shift to allopathy, and now Porte is asked for a certificate to prove his healing skills.

“Earlier, we begged for food only when the men spent long periods in the forest. But now, begging is our mainstay,” said 52-year-old Nagina Rajgod, adding: 

During lockdown, the police would beat us even if we crossed the village boundary. There was no question of begging. 

She fell sick after receiving the first jab of the COVID-19 vaccine. “I could not go out for two months. There were days when my young grandchildren had nothing to eat,” she recalled.

Nagina’s son remarried and left the house after her daughter-in-law died, leaving the grandchildren in her custody.

The nomadic tribes of Chhattisgarh — Lohar, Saura, Devar and Rajgod — have been at the receiving end since March 2020, when the government announced the lockdown.

Already leading a hand-to-mouth existence, it got worse when they could not practice their traditional professions of tattoo art, nature-based healing, performing arts and acrobatics, blacksmithing and snake charming but most common of all, begging.

“To earn Rs 50, one has to walk up to 50 houses, which takes the whole day. Only a few times you find big-hearted people who would give a tenner,” said 36-year-old Anoopa Bai. People mortgaged whatever little they owned — mobile phone, utensils, television, set-top box and cycles—to survive. 

The government was conspicuous by its absence in Biladi, Patil said. “The administration neither let people go out to earn nor provided them rations to survive.” 

Patil has been working with nomadic tribes for 20 years now and runs a non-profit Janhit Chhattisgarh Vikas Samiti. With the help of non-profits like Oxfam India, a child and women welfare non-profit, and Goonj, he organised distribution of rations in the community thrice. 

Oxfam India, through their Mission Sanjeevani, also gave direct cash of Rs 5,000 to 148 families of Rajgods, Lohars and Devars to help them kickstart life after the lockdown.

Like the other 97 families in Biladi, Bijma utilised the money to retrieve her precious stash of two brass vessels that she had mortgaged and paid off the loans incurred for medicines. The rest, using the surplus to travel, left the village in search of a livelihood.

The lockdowns didn’t spare the Devar community living some 20 kilometres away in Kirwai village, Baloda Bazaar district. 

With trash strewn around and pigs rolling in the mud, the Devar settlement of 25 families in Kirwai may look unhygienic to an outsider but thanks to the pigs and trash, the community is better placed than other nomadic tribes in Chhattisgarh. 

The famous tellers of Chhattisgarh’s folk tales, the Devars were traditionally into performing arts and godna or tattoo art. Some from the community, like Fida Devar, got international fame as the main lead in Habib Tanveer’s popular play ‘Charandas Chor’. 

But with digital forms of entertainment coming in, nobody had the time for live shows by the travelling Devars. Sunny Devar from Kirwai said: 

It is said that a Devar’s Chikara (a stringed musical instrument unique to the community) has to be buried along with his dead body. The old who played it have died and younger people don’t play it as nobody wants a wandering life anymore. 

“But all that travelling on foot and even begging sometimes, it was a difficult life,” said Agro Bai, the 54-year-old mukhiya of the Kirwai settlement. Her son started the business of scrap dealing that was soon picked up by the entire community. 

But things changed during the pandemic. “We could no longer go to villages to collect scrap or to the market to sell it. We survived on one meal a day. The thought that we might have to go back to begging was scary,” said Sunny. 

Mekri Devar (60), however, did have to revert to begging. With a handicapped son, a pregnant daughter-in-law and three grandchildren, Mekri is the sole bread-earner. 

She is one of the 16 people in Kirwai who received the Oxfam India cash transfer of Rs 5,000. She and most other Devar families bought knick-knacks like porcelain cups and plastic vessels to give to villagers in exchange for scrap. 

People who rear pigs earn reasonably from pork that is sold at Rs 220 for a kilogram. Hoping to start her own business, Basanti Devar spent Rs 2,000 to buy a piglet. But the animal was attacked by dogs and died within a week. 

Lata Dewar, on the other hand, has left Rs 2,000 in the bank to take care of her daughter Puja’s educational needs; she is one of the few children who attend school in Kirwai’s Devar settlement.

No social, livelihood security

Despite their cultural wealth and skills, the nomadic communities of India have been facing discrimination beginning 1871, when the British first passed the Criminal Tribes Act. 

In 1952, the Indian government repealed these Acts and called these communities Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNT-NT). But even after 70 years, the stigma refuses to leave them. Since they are distinguished from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC-ST), the community cannot access the schemes meant for their welfare. 

A 2008 report of the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes by Balkrishna Renake observed: 

The DNT-NT are hounded or chased out not only by the ‘mainstream communities’, but also by the revenue, police and local self-government and Municipal administration. They neither belong to the rural nor the urban areas. 

These communities are made out to be ‘nowhere people’ by all sections of the people and also by the government machinery, the authors of the report added. “As a result, they do not possess ration cards, voting rights, caste as well as identity certificates and residential addresses.” 

Starvation deaths, malnutrition, maternal and infant mortality, illiteracy, lack of medical treatment due to poverty and alcoholism were problems common in both Rajgod and Devar communities. Of the 100 families in Biladi, only 50 had ration cards, 15 had job cards under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and 25 families got a house under the Indira Awas Yojana (the government’s housing scheme for the rural poor). 

But all of them have voter IDs that get used in every election because people get Rs 100-200 from the local candidates to go vote. None of the children in Biladi attend school. It is a spiral of illiteracy, poverty and migration, explained Porte.

“Only when we settle down, our children will be able to go to school and get better jobs but since there is no land or livelihood in the village, we are forced to migrate with families and thus no school.”

Ekta Parishad, a non-profit, has been working with the Devars since 1999. With their support, the community put up a persistent fight for land rights and some of them now own a piece of land but many are still waiting for a house under the Indira Awas Yojana. 

“These people have always been wandering, so they don’t have an ancestral place where they can go and claim land. And the villages where they go do not want to give them land because they see them as criminal tribes and as competitors for their resources,” said Ramesh Sharma, national coordinator of Ekta Parishad.

“We have examples of communities who were thrown out of the village when they tried to settle down,” he added. Unless the government gives them land and housing guarantee, their circumstances are unlikely to improve, the official said.

Lack of awareness about family planning and no access to hospitals to avail state-sponsored services for the same has added to the population load, straining the resources further.

“When they go to a government hospital, they are asked for their caste certificate. Because they don’t stay in the village permanently, even ASHA and Anganwadi workers don’t have them in their target population,” said Patil, who is mobilising the Rajgods to press the government to give them such certificates. 

“The administration asks for land records and proof of genealogy to give the caste certificate, which most people in the wandering tribes don’t possess. Around 4,000 people of the nomadic community live in my constituency and so, we raised this issue in the Vidhan Sabha last year but nothing much has been done about it,” said Promod Sharma, MLA of the Balodabazar-Bhatapara constituency where Biladi and Kirwai are located.

These communities are largely politically ‘quiet’ and so, they do not place their demands in a concerted manner before the government, according to the Renake Commission report. “They lack endogenous vocal leadership and are also devoid of the patronage of a national leader who can help bring them to the centre stage of political discourse.”

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.