What is that one thing we can give someone without causing us any discomfort or reaching far into our pockets ? “Dignity” !! which lies in the basic right to identity, in belonging to the land and living life respectfully. We take this for granted until we look around and find that it is not true for many unfortunate souls. They wave the same national flag, they sing the same national anthem like us but they are not recorded in any national register as a lawful citizen of the country and are far removed from any benefits that come along with it. I am referring to the nomadic and de-notified tribes of India who have been marginalized over decades. Almost 66 years of independence, several lofty plans and talks of progress later, this is sad and shameful. While for several of us, it is nothing but a statistic, a few waves of sympathy and getting back to our own grind, a young 20 something student of journalism Mittal Patel made it her cause to give identity to these people, enabling them and integrating them into the myriad social fabric of India. During the last 6 years she has reached out to thousands of people in 9 districts of Gujarat through her organization, VSSM and has taken definitive steps towards the cause. The You Tube video has details of her work presented in “TEDxGateway Mumbai 2012” partnered by Franklin Templeton Investments which she explains in Hindi but there is an English voice over and a presentation towards the end presenting hard facts
By nature these nomadic and de-notified tribes are wanderers, earning their livelihood through rustic arts of snake charming, sword games, rope tricks, folk plays, street entertainment, knife sharpening etc. Over the years with the Wildlife Protection Act and other legislation, the nature of their existence changed. Their livelihoods were threatened and marginalized by the advent of modernity and little or nothing was done for their rehabilitation by vote bank politicians and administration. Ignored by national population registers and local villages due to their nomadic nature, they were left without an identity, livelihood, a roof on their head or piece of land to call their own. While their names figure in police registers, the lack of identity cost them dear, often convicted for crimes that they did not commit, languishing in jail in the hope of a social organization to take up their case and bring them to light. In short, daily life sans basics became a challenge. Mittal and her team stepped in, met the affected, working tirelessly to take their collective voice to the right departments and obtained identity cards and land deeds for some while the rest are in the works. They have also set up 26 alternate schools catering to more than 1000 children in different areas, instilling dreams of a bright future in the eyes of the young ones. I remain most impressed with the community weddings and engagements for the young girls of Sarania who would have otherwise been lost into prostitution like the generations of women from their tribe.
While Mittal has taken this brave step in her home state Gujarat, this is a common place issue in many other Indian states who have sizeable tribal population. Some need empathy, information and opportunity, others need food and shelter and yet others require basic identity. The hunt for “Pehchan”, “Roti, Kapda aur Makaan” continues to hold true more than 40 years after it was raised as a slogan in a young Independent India. The Indian Constitution provides for reservation in education, electoral representation, livelihood for different tribes but unfortunately mis-interpretation and faulty implementation has led to lop sided development. The real people in need have remained marginalized and ignored over the years while the beneficiaries of the state largesse have often been generations of families who have far outgrown the need. Though it is a point of contention, but in my opinion it has to some extent fuelled the Maoist movement across tribal belts in the country threatening internal peace and security. The lofty Aadhar Card (National Identity Card) aimed at giving identity to every Indian also requires some proof of residence or identity to issue the card. So what next !! What can we do?
We can read about it, talk about it, praise the doer for a few moments and forget about it. Taking a step further maybe we can keep our eyes open during our travels, encourage indigenous art and craft through purchases, donate a few thousands of rupees but that would be only be a drop in the ocean. If only we could take a moment to think and associate ourselves with a cause that touches our heart. All of us are bestowed with some skill or the other be it administration, technology, financials, teaching, vocational training, spreading information, field work, negotiation skills etc that can be utilized to support Mittal and several other crusaders like her in different parts of India. Easier said than done, somewhere it has to begin. This should not be driven for that certificate to flaunt or that photo opportunity for a social media profile or to make great conversation to draw attention. We may not need to travel afar, nor need to invest all our time for the cause yet there is hesitation in the minds of many for the fear of retaining the day job that sustains us. In the last few years business houses have been very forthcoming on their social responsibility through funds, sponsorship et al. But, giving back to the worlds from where we receive is much beyond money. I would request organizations to adopt causes and outline a 3 month leadership program for their interested employees to volunteer in such initiatives with complete honour (without any effect on remuneration, career progression). An organization needs quick thinkers, innovators, decision makers, risk takers, marketers, loads of empathy and immense patience to stay on course and consolidate its position. What can be better than hands on experience of the able workforce in the field, away from the plush air-conditioned confines to get a practical experience of all of these skills?
The next big question is to identify the right cause and group to associate with. Applause worthy work is being done in pockets by individuals and groups under the shade of anonymity for the lack of a platform to share, learn, seek from one another and educate people about their work. I would think of a cause “Right to be an Indian” to integrate all organizations across the country who work in similar capacity and bring them to the forefront. It will help people to choose the cause and the organization that they would like to associate with and the capacity in which they would like to contribute. This would also ensure cross integration of different causes eg, low cost housing models and cause for providing housing. Simultaneous integration of awarding national identity with national level education and skill development programs will assist in enabling and rehabilitation. With all the dormant talent, skill and strength harnessed we will definitely be the next force to reckon with as fortune is indeed at the bottom of the pyramid. I am sure all this has been thought of before but was waylaid due to unforeseen obstacles and vested interests, but there is no harm in trying for we may just succeed.
Mittal is living the Indian Pledge that all of us have recited at some point in our lives to love and respect India’s rich and varied heritage and work for the well being and prosperity of every Indian. Are we? Now, every time I enter my home or flash an identity document (Passport, Electoral ID card) that endorses I am an Indian, it’s a reminder that someone somewhere in some corner of India does not have any of these and I need to take a step forward to award them that identity since in identity lies our dignity. Thank You Mittal, Bless You !!
This post is also submitted to “Idea Caravan” a joint initiative of Indiblogger and Franklin Templeton India