The forgotten Sahariya Community of the Bundelkhand
Community -`Sahra’ is being used as a synonym for the word `forest’. One of the scheduled tribe has been named as `Sahariyas’ only because it was totally dependent upon forests for its very existence in terms of its society, family, livelihood and everything else. The people of `Sahariyas’ tribe never used to bother about their future, because they were confident that forests, which they respect and protect, would never leave them hungry. However, the other groups of Society have exploited the forests to the tilt, for meeting their own self-interests. Consequently, the very source providing the food security to the families of `Sahariyas’ tribe has been irretrievably damaged. Left with no alternative, the people of `Sahariyas’ tribe had to look out for labour work in the local stone mines to earn their livelihood. Slowly and slowly, they were becoming a tool of exploitation in the wider perspective of our social system.
Livelihood issues - Caught within the web of constant shrinking of forests and strict provisions of various forestry laws, the people of `Sahariyas’ tribe were left to face an unending state of hunger. Not even the symptoms of guaranteed basic rights of human being i.e. Respectability, Equality and Education, as enshrined in our Constitution, are visible in this area and neither these people have any high expectations from the Society. However, the only thing they expect from the Society is a provision of respectable source of livelihood for them. Like earlier, when the forest area was available in plenty, there was no need for them to migrate to earn their livelihood, similarly, they do not want to migrate even now for this purpose. But unfortunately, they have not been freed from fear and exploitation.
Health & Nutrition - All combined, the very fiber of the life of this community has been weakened – their children faced malnutrition and women folks have been rendered weak and feeble. We cannot even properly assess the age of a person of this community standing in front of us. For example, Sewa Ram of Singhrai village, looks around 60 years old as against his actual age of only 40 years. Even otherwise, the average age of `Sahariyas’ people is much less than the average age of people belonging to general category and in such a scenario, when they are faced with calamities like draught or non-availability of water for irrigation, their lives are rendered totally miserable.
Right to work - Although the Government claims to undertake relief work, but the fact remains that in spite of resorting to hard labour work with empty stomach, they have not been paid their wages for about two years now. No body knows as to who is responsible for scuttling their rights. The situation is further aggravated by the sheer fact that their inner strength to stand for and demand their rights has been so badly shattered and weakened by the prevailing political and social system that they can not even stand together and fight against the injustice being meted out to them. Of course, in these circumstances, the provision of legal right to employment is of utmost importance to the people of `Sahariyas’ tribe. In this context, this right not only save them from resorting to migration but will also play an important role in tackling the problem of their under-nourishment and mal-nutrition.
The people of `Sahariyas’ tribe are possessed with fields of smaller sizes. Some of such fields are part of their ancestral property and some have been provided by the Government. As such, it is rightly expected by these people from this Employment Guarantee Act, that it will help them for putting their fields into proper/best use, making them irrigated ones and possibly to undertake community-based agriculture.
Factum of prevailing Poverty
Faced with social ignorance, anger, deprivation and inhuman treatment inherent in the system, the people of `Sahariyas’ tribe are once again in the miserable condition. In the absence of sources of livelihood, this tribal group is again forced to resort to migration. In most of the villages, only aged ones in the families are left back to look after the already weak cattles and to save the roofs of their respective Kuccha houses during the absence of their family members. There was a time when the colourful festival of Holi brings the message of joy and happiness amongst the people of `Sahariyas’ community, but now it indicates the time for migration to them. In the past, these tribals were totally dependent upon forest produce. They not only extracted their livelihood from these forests, but also protected them with full sincerity and dedication. However, the forest policies of the Government and continuous exploitation of forests have posed the problem of very existence before these tribes. The resultant situation today is that between end of February and beginning of June, not a single village will be found where the people have not migrated from their places leaving only deafening silence behind them.
Migration and its Arithmetic for Sahariyas
After the festival of Holi, the people of Sahariya tribe migrate for about 75 days between March 15 and June 30. During these 75 days neither they get full employment nor they earn sufficient enough to meet his livelihood requirement during coming monsoon season.
Upon reaching the place of work, the people of Sahariyas tribe had to make a temporary shelter for them by arranging `Besaram’ wood and some polythene etc. and the time spent for this purpose has been included in the above statistics of non-productive days. In other words, out of total 75 days of migration, they receive work only for about 48 days.
Problems of the Sahariya:
Poor community organizations
Poor Outreach to government schemes and welfare programs.
Poor and in some cases absent dialogue with the service providers
Bonded labor, child labor
Shrinking forest and natural resources.
Exploitation by multiple agencies and groups of people.
Complex and cumbersome government systems.
Abysmal performance of institutions of local governance.
Ineffective social protection and security.
Poor land quality
Control of power centers within the community on resources such as water, land and forest.
Livelihood options limited to other classes.
Large prevalence of money lenders.
Dependence on manual labor
Outdated skills of agriculture
Inadequate knowledge on natural resource management.
Land tenure and related conflicts have become a part of Sahariyas’ very existence. They were never known to own land but had a major contribution in converting forestland for agriculture.
It is this land or the ambiguity of their ownership of it, which has been a constant source of conflict with their more powerful neighbors as well as with the Government.
The conflicts range from oppression by the Gurjars and Sardars, who are constantly trying to drive the Sahariyas away from the land, to the local officials who perpetuate amazing forms of mal -governance and injustice. For instance: (i) Giving pattas without actual possession of land, or vice versa; (ii) Year after year realizing a fine from encroached forest lands but not maintaining records of the same thus, depriving the Sahariyas of proof of duration of occupancy
There is a constant conflict between the Forest Department and the Revenue Department on the issue of the demarcation of land.
Often it is found that jurisdiction of both the departments overlap and the Sahariyas who occupy such areas are caught between the two government departments, who never seem to be in a mood to resolve the issue.
Exploitation – Khadaans(Stone Quarries), bonded labour, dacoities(robbers) and liquor have become synonymous with the lot of the Sahariyas.
The mode of abuse is as varied as they are cruel. The Khadaans or the mines are a hotbed of exploitation.
The Sahariyas are encouraged by the mine or land owners to take petty loans hich, more often then not; they are unable to pay.
Workers are charged for absenteeism and also at times chained up in the mine premises so that they are unable to run away and instead forced to work.
Dacoities are a common feature in this area and they particularly target the Sahariyas.
The dacoities are more often perpetuated by the landed Gurjars or the mine owners themselves or supported by them with the intention of forcing the Sahariyas to penury as well as terrorizing them to abandon their land and run away, thus providing the former a chance to snatch away the land.
Liquor is another mode of well-planned exploitation. Liquor is often sold by the mine owners at the site of the mines and the payment deducted from the wages of the workers