Feature story

Out of the woods

Vilified and marginalised from British colonial times, West Bengal's Kheria Sabar tribe needs help — and has found some

B atasi Sabar, a 40-year-old from the Kheria Sabar tribal community of West Bengal, lost her farm-labour job during the lockdown. To survive, she went back to some of the hunter-gatherer ways of her people. “I started collecting food and wood from the forest,” says Ms Sabar, a single mother of three from Balakdi village in Purulia district. “The wood brooms I make and sell are my only source of income now.”

The forest has been the traditional habitat and provider of resources for the Kheria Sabars for centuries, but that is changing, the effects of the pandemic notwithstanding. Lending a hand in making such change possible is a Tata Trusts-funded field action project called TANDA (or Towards Advocacy, Networking and Developmental Action).

Denotified and nomadic tribes (DNT-NTs), the Kheria Sabars among them, are the target beneficiary group of the project, which comes under the umbrella of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Launched in 2017, the initiative is focused on addressing the injustices perpetrated against DNT-NTs, right from the British colonial era down to the present day.

Reaching the fruits of participative governance to these historically oppressed communities is a pivotal tenet of TANDA. The Covid-19 crisis highlights the most recent example of how this is done. Thanks to the project, some 2,500 Kheria Sabar families have received rations through the government's public distribution network.

As with most DNT-NTs, the Kheria Sabars lead a stigmatised existence. Painted in unfair light and largely forgotten by policymakers, they live on the fringes of a system that, until recently, branded them as a community of dacoits and robbers.

“Traditionally, we have been hunters,” explains Kharu Sabar, a 60-year-old from Kuda village in Purulia. “We began settling down after our forefathers were kicked out of the forest. That’s why most Sabars have no land papers. We were given barren, stony land where it is difficult to grow crops. That, and the ‘criminal’ tag, have forced many of us to migrate for daily-wage work.”

The Sabars’ lack of awareness about caste certificates, Aadhar cards, etc has denied them access to government schemes designed specifically for them. That explains one of TANDA’s key goals: ‘governance activation’, which is all about getting the community their rightful entitlements. Livelihood assistance and legal counselling, essential, given the administrative prejudices they suffer, are also part of the project’s goals.

Poverty and marginalisation

The deprivation the Sabars suffer is plainly evident. Malnutrition is rampant, school dropout rates are high and alcoholism is widespread, especially among the community’s youth. “The last is due to a lack of jobs,” says Mayank Sinha, TANDA’s project coordinator and a member of the National Alliance Group for Denotified and Nomadic Tribes, an advocacy group.

An understanding of these ground realities has defined TANDA's interventions, one of the most important of which is implementing the government-funded Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme in the district.

The TANDA team laboured to get anganwadi workers on their side. “We trained the teachers to identify the causes and effects of malnutrition,” says Mr Sinha. “To soften any resistance, we helped the staff by supplying vegetables from specially set up kitchen gardens. We also got locals to clean up the premises.”

To involve the community, the team formed and trained groups of mothers (called ‘mata sanghas’). Saraswati Sabar, 27, is one of those mothers. “We traditionally eat rice and water, sometimes with vegetables foraged from the forest,” she says. “We knew nothing about child malnourishment till we were trained and told about the food we could get at the anganwadis.”

TANDA’s efforts and the pressure exerted by the mothers have improved both the functioning of the anganwadis and the quality and quantity of food provided there. “Within two-and-a-half months of the intervention, many children improved from being ‘severely malnourished’ to ‘moderately malnourished’,” says Prasanta Rakshit, a member of the Paschim Banga Kheria Sabar Kalyan Samiti, TANDA’s local partner.

Meanwhile, to get older children into the formal schooling system, TANDA launched 30 community learning centres in 10 villages. Nearly 700 children, all of them first-generation learners, have thus far studied at the centres, which teach them language and maths. The intent is to get these children into age-appropriate standards in school.

The project has, additionally, delivered alternative livelihood options to Kheria Sabar families. This was crucial for two reasons: to reduce the need for seasonal migration towards brick-making and agricultural work elsewhere — a direct consequence of the low levels of land ownership among Sabars — and to enable them to find gainful employment without facing discrimination and the stigma of criminality.

Goat and fish farming and handicrafts have been the go-to livelihood options created for the community.

Kuda village was where the goat farming pilot project was launched. TANDA delivered training and financial assistance to procure Black Bengal goats (a hardy local breed), build sheds, and for medicines and veterinarian fees. In all, the pilot project saw 40 families across Purulia start goat farms. “The goats are handy when we need immediate cash; they fetch 6,000-7,000 in the market,” says 55-year-old Seba Rani Sabar.

TANDA's livelihood options for Kheria Sabar families reduce the need to migrate for work

Shadow people

D enotified (DNT), nomadic (NT) and semi-nomadic tribes (SNTs) collectively comprise just under 10% of India's population. Despite that, these communities — among them pastoralists, hunter-gatherers, nomads, entertainers and religious performers — remain largely invisible and mostly unheard in mainstream discourse.

Denotified tribes have been classified as such since 1952, when a racist British-era law that condemned them as 'criminal tribes' was dumped. The sad reality, though, is that nearly 70 years on DNT-NT-SNTs are still among India's most marginalised groups of citizens, struggling on human development indices and frequently targeted under the stringent Habitual Offenders Act.

The bigotry these tribes encounter runs deep and there are multiple factors adding to their distress: rapid urbanisation, tighter wildlife regulations, beggary and forestry laws, and lack of enumeration and policymaking by successive governments. Many DNT-NT-SNTs are forced to take up illegal livelihoods merely to survive.

Police action against DNT-NT-SNTs often tends to be presumptive and harsh. The Kheria Sabars, for instance, are rounded up in dacoity and robbery cases, as are the Pardhis of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The Chharas of Gujarat, even educated ones, are harassed on suspicion of bootlegging. The Nat and Bedia tribeswomen of northern India are regularly jailed for prostitution.

In 2019, the central government set up a Development and Welfare Board for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Communities. Also in the same year, a committee under NITI Aayog, the Indian government think tank, was set up to identify such communities. But it's going to take more than committees and boards to lift these communities out of obscurity and deprivation.

Similarly, structured tilapia and rohu fish farming pilot projects are now underway in Purulia. Here, too, training and the input capital have been facilitated by TANDA. In parallel, the initiative has given birth to a handicraft association that enables Sabar handicrafts to be sold at exhibitions across India. About 250 artisans are currently registered with the association.

Change gathers pace

Governmental backing has been critical in putting TANDA’s endeavours, particularly in the livelihoods space, on the road to sustainability. “Our livelihood interventions have helped prevent unsafe migration and the exploitation of Sabars, reduced their socioeconomic vulnerability, and prevented crimes,” says Mangala Honawar, a programme manager with the Tata Trusts.

The project also works with the local police and judiciary to close cases where Kheria Sabars are falsely accused (at last count, around 200 documented cases are pending against community members). Meanwhile, the team's legal counsellors pitch in to settle, out of court, land and payment disputes involving Sabars.

TANDA's biggest victory has been in enlisting the Sabars to participate actively in improving their collective well-being. It's a blueprint with plenty of lessons on how to rehabilitate India's most marginalised DNT-NT communities.

Kheria Sabar boys participate in a workshop to learn the traditional dance form of Chhau in Rajnowagarh village