Source: Action Aid India
Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan together have more than 2.45 crore tribal population divided into 46 and 12 groups respectively. Seven tribal groups in Madhya Pradesh and one in Rajasthan what is termed as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal groups or PVTGs (earlier called Primitive Tribal Groups or PTGs). Sahariya is one among these PVTGs inhabits eight districts of Madhya Pradesh and few places in Rajasthan. According to Census 2011, Sahariya is the largest community in the list of 75 PTGs with a population of more than seven lakh. Around 85 per cent of Sahariyas live in Gwalior, Guna, Shipuri, Vidhisha, Datia, Bhind, Sagar and Tikamgarh districts of Madhya Pradesh. The government of India recognized the vulnerability of Sahariyas in 1975-76 by including them in PTGs but in the late end of the 20th Century, the enforcement of environmental laws, insensitive displacement, schemes for mainstreaming and ignorance of their vulnerabilities as PTG marginalized them further.
Livelihood of Sahariyas:
Traditionally Sahariyas are forest dwellers. They practiced shifting cultivation, hunting gathering, pastoralism, and a quiet nomadic life. Similar to many other PTGs, Sahariyas had also close link with forest and forest product for their livelihood. They practiced agriculture in mountains and during non-agricultural season, they collected forest products. According to a study conducted by Vikas Samvad, Bhopal in 2007, Sahariyas used to barter forest product like Gums and Chironji with that of cereals and also used to prepare baskets out of ‘Siari’ wood to store their half yearly requirement. Sahariya’s economy before the enforcing of environmental laws was self-sufficient and was in harmony with the local ecology.
After government took over the control of forest, Sahariyas lost their main source of livelihood. Vikas Samvad in its study of Madhya Pradesh argues that the government policy on forest wiped them from forest and forest products. According to the Census 2001 data, more than 70 per cent of Sahariyas are non-cultivators. Most of them are agricultural labourers. A study by the Centre for Tribal Development in 2002 reported that the annual per capita income among Sahariyas was Rs. 2,691, or about Rs 7 a day, less than one-third of the national poverty line figure of Rs. 26 a day in rural areas. Curtailing forest rights of Sahariyays, through environmental policies, what they were inheriting since ages destroyed their existence. On the other hands government’s un-planned, insensitive and shortsighted rehabilitation and development plan for Sahariyas pushed them to further deprivation.
Major Visible Vulnerabilities
Modern development initiatives in India in last few decades undermined socio-cultural diversities of PTGs such as Sahariya. Despite recognizing the vulnerabilities of PTGs in 1970s their voices remain unheard in developmental programs targeted to them. It seems that in last few decades their vulnerability increased instead of decreasing. Some of these vulnerabilities are discussed here in brief.
After losing control over production of grains and accessing food item through their traditional barter system in last few decades, Sahariyas are now facing starvation situation on every day basis. Due to scarcity of food, they rely on ‘tubers’ and ‘leaves’ collected from nearby forests. When drought hits and there is nothing to eat, Sahariyas depend on bread made of ‘Sama’ (a locally grown wild grass) and soup made from its seeds. Very often even this grass is not fit for consumption as it doesn’t ripen due to lack of water , which make them difficult to digest.
Insufficient food has led to wide spread malnutrition amongst every age group of Sahariays. Action Aid India reported that the malnutrition level among Sahariya children under three is as high as 66.3%, which is much higher the national average of 47%. Many such other studies of Sahariyas revealed high level of undernourishment and hunger deaths. According to a paper inquiring status of women and children of Sahariyas of Madhya Pradesh published in Indian Medical Journal in 2013 found that Chronic Energy Deficiency (CED) affected 42.4 percent women whereas 90.1 percent women were anemic. In their study, Kapoor et al (2009) noted that CED amongst males was about 48.8 percent. As per World Health Organization a CED of 40 percent exhibits a critical health problem.
Curative health care is not an option for most. In most cases, health centers are very far away from Sahariya villages. Moreover, many report being callously treated at the health centers by the staff. Many times Sahariyas are not aware about what they are being prescribed. Therefore, most times,’ quacks are preferred. Empirical studies have found that major causes of death include pneumonia, malaria, tuberculosis, gastric problems and diarrhea. Low standard of living, poor food habits, low socio-economic conditions, lack of portable water and unfavorable environment all contribute to poor health standards.
Low Education and Child Labour:
Sahariyas do not have access to education; Census data reveals that only 2 per cent of Sahariyas have studied until the secondary level. The literacy rate of Saharia both in Rajasthan and in Madhya Pradesh is the lowest amongst all the tribes in these states. In Rajasthan the tribal literacy rate is 52.8 whereas Sahariya literacy rate is 48 percent. Similarly, Madhya Pradesh has a tribal literacy rate of 50.6 whereas the Sahariya literacy is recorded at 42.1 percent. Women literacy amongst the Sahariyas is much less with Madhya Pradesh at 32 and Rajasthan at 33.7 percent respectively.
Hindustan Times recently reported that children, instead of being sent to school are working to sustain their families. Increasing debt due to crop failure and food insecurity forces families to send their children to work for wages ranging between INR 2000-6000. The children are employed to herd sheep and other animals in the jungles of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Even after being identified as a PTG group, policies dealing with Sahariyas have not kept in mind the features that make them an especially primitive group. However, continuous ignorance of their culture continuous to feature in the way government is formulating response to them. As mentioned earlier, they are frequently ill treated, which marginalizes them further. Moreover, when they access government services, the nourishment provided is not suited to their dietary practices. Children cannot digest or do not prefer panjeeri and soya buffs. The reason a special category of tribes was created was so that policies are customized to their lifestyle. Thus, the developmental approach of Saharaiyas must emphasize an effort to understand their social, cultural and economic conditions that make them a Primitive Tribal Group.
Jeet Singh and Shriyam Gupta