Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Sahariyas battle official prejudice, apathy

PARUL CHANDRA

MAMONI, Baran: A little less than an hour before you reach this village in the heart of Shahbad taluk of the drought-stricken Baran district, the taxi driver announces that we have entered an area where the adivasis live. Getting descriptive, he says it is the people who use the "dhanush" (bow) who inhabit the region lying in the south-eastern part of Rajasthan.

For the Sahariyas, described as the only 'primitive tribe' living here in Rajasthan, the bow and arrow may be a thing of the past. But grinding poverty coupled with continued neglect and exploitation have ensured that they remain largely bereft of the benefits of health care, education, even roads.

The Sahariyas' deprivation has come into sharp focus as they now battle chronic hunger and starvation, apart from the prejudices the babudom here seems to harbour against them.

An indication of which a district official gave when he remarked that they have too many children and that they drink a lot. "They don't want to live in villages, they want to live away," he continued little realising that this is a way of life for the Sahariyas. He said of them, "They have no sense of personal hygiene. They don't bathe for 15 days."

In fact, among the bureaucracy in Rajasthan, a posting to the Baran region is largely seen as a punishment posting with a transfer here being described as having been sent to "kala pani."

Just as the remoteness of their villages, the Sahariyas seem to exist on the periphery of society. The name Sahariya is variously supposed to have originated from the word sher (lion) or jungle or from the Arabian word sehara (wilderness) all indicating the tribes intrinsic links with the forest. And even though the Sahariyas exist in sufficiently large numbers in this region, approximately one-third of the population in the Shahbad and Kishanganj blocks is said to comprise them, its people remain marginalised.

The strength in terms of numbers hasn't reaped the Sahariyas any benefits. And when a drought like the one this year comes along, the tribe which is so heavily dependent on minor forest produce and work as agricultural labour for subsistence, suffers even more. There are, however, some Sahariyas who own agricultural land.

Says Charu Mitra of the NGO Sankalp Sansthan who has been working among the Sahariyas for over a decade: "They have been treated in a feudal manner. So they suffer from low self-esteem and if you tell them that `You are good for nothing,' they will say `Yes.'" It is a general feeling of nirasha (lack of hope) that surrounds the Sahariyas, remarks Mitra.

According to Mitra, it was in the early 1960's that their tragedy began when they were given land, whether forest land or revenue land. Ignorant about the difference, they seemed to fall victim to the ensuing tussle between the two departments over land demarcation.

Also, she says people would take loans in their name and not repay them. Result? Many a person belonging to the tribe would say that he had become awaddoo (overdue) a way of saying that the banks were chasing them to recover loans they had never taken.

Over the years, the state government has initiated programmes like the Sahariya Vikas Pariyojana. A district officials here reels off what is being done for the Sahariyas under this, "schools, hostel for boys, hostel for girls, scholarships, uniforms, subsidised diesel pump sets...." However, it is evident that most schemes meant to benefit them have remained quite ineffective so far.

Source: The Times of India, December 10, 2002

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