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'Liberated' 70 yrs ago, former 'criminal tribes' continue to endure stigma, discrimination

By Noor Mohammad, Sion Kongari* 

During British colonial rule in India, around 200 tribal communities across India were notified as “criminal tribes” under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Members of these “notified tribes” were said to be "addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences". 
The men were required to report regularly to police stations, and police restricted the movement of the communities. “Criminal Tribes” were held responsible for any crime in the vicinity where they were. This stigma and the attendant discrimination and oppression they faced exacerbated the social and economic marginalisation that they experienced.
Independent India repealed the law in 1949. But it was only on 31st August 1952 that the “criminal tribes” were “de-notified”. In recent years this day has been celebrated as “Vimukti Diwas” or Liberation Day. This year it will be 71 years from liberation, but nomadic tribes and de-notified tribes (NTDNT) continue to face marginalisation and stigma.
In 1959 the Government of India passed the Habitual Offenders Act, which many law enforcement officers have consistently used against these tribes. The bias against NTDNTs exists in the minds of law enforcement personnel and continues in many police manuals, which remained unchanged from colonial times. Members of the NTDNT communities continue to face ill-treatment and arbitrary detention by police for various offences committed near their settlements.
Modern technology and commercialising social interactions have led to the fading significance and value of their age-old traditional skills, livelihoods and way of life. Marginalisation and bias have denied NTDNT communities access to education, other rights, and entitlements that could have enabled them to pick up skills and build assets to transition to new occupations.
Today many NTDNT communities are forced to lead a nomadic lifestyle because the alternative is impossible. When they do settle down, their settlements are not authorised and lack basic facilities and infrastructure like sanitation, clean drinking water, drainage, or electricity. 
 Without having access to a “permanent” home, these communities are denied access to ration under the public distribution system (PDS), jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), employment cards, Integrated Child Development Services facilities, schooling and healthcare.
Furthermore, with no electoral rights, they also lack political representation, even at the lowest rung of the political system in the Gram Panchayats, to address the issues they face.
While numerous State Governments have implemented welfare programmes for NTDNT communities, the implementation has been found much wanting. The narrow scope of the schemes, poorly drafted mission agenda and inconsistent implementation have made them ineffective in alleviating the situation of NTDNTs.
Development planners and Government officials always have little information or data about them, and they make plans without knowledge of the specific realities facing NTDNTs.
With ongoing marginalisation and socio-political underrepresentation, several popular movements and associations have emerged from these communities across India to struggle for their rights, empowerment, and development.
ActionAid Association (AAA) collaborates with multiple such NTDNT associations in several states across the country to develop and strengthen their movements, build the capacity of tribal leaders, collectivise their efforts, network with civil society groups and government officials, and spread awareness to assist them in asserting their rights.
In Rajasthan, while keeping in mind their distinctive vulnerabilities, AAA works with Ghumantu Sajha Manch (GSM), an alliance of NTDNT movements with over 800 members, and focuses their efforts on four primary areas: mobilisation of communities; facilitation of social security links; land and housing rights; and removal of stigma and harassment.
In 2012, GSM mobilised around 20,000 NT-DNT members in Rajasthan to assert their rights. As a result, the Government of Rajasthan established the Denotified Tribes, Nomadic and Semi-nomadic Welfare Board. The State Government also set up 50 crore rupees as separate budgetary provisions for uplifting these communities for that year. 
The Government of Rajasthan has also initiated the policy-making process for NTDNT communities in the State. In the Tonk district, GSM collaborated with the local administration todevelop a specific action plan to address the vulnerabilities of NTDNTs, identify them, and connect them with social security schemes. 
As a result, the local administration has, over the years, issued 11,311 birth certificates, 5,858 Aadhar Cards, 6,827 job cards under MNREGA and 3,531 ration cards to NTDNT households. Over 13,000 families have accessed various social security systems, and hundreds have secured land ownership rights and benefits from different housing schemes.
GSM has conducted orientation programmes in different districts in collaboration with local administration for police subordinate staff to prevent harassment of members of NTDNT communities and counter bias and stigma.
Modern technology and commercialised social interactions have led to fading of age-old traditional skills and way of life
However, the efforts of community leaders and civil society members in any state are insufficient to improve the overall situation of these communities. To achieve broader socioeconomic transformations in these communities, the Central and State Governments must prioritise and act on their upliftment.
As a first step, Governments should undertake a systematic enumeration process, constitute expert committees to revise existing lists of NTDNT communities and ensure the inclusion of communities that have been left out. 
 There is a need to establish NT-DNT State Commissions and Welfare Boards with adequate funding across all States to implement schemes on education, healthcare, and housing designed to suit the livelihood and cultural needs of the community. 
 Currently, many families belonging to the DNT/NT communities are without permanent shelters. Considering the shortage of houses for DNTs, there is a need to earmark a separate outlay for the housing scheme to support the specific need to provide homes for DNTs living in rural and urban areas.
Many DNT families have been practising agriculture for several decades - as sharecroppers, wage labourers in agriculture and small farmers. Land reform efforts have largely overlooked the DNTs in the past decades. The Government has to issue land titles of DNTs, and regularise and ensure possession on a priority basis. 
 There is a need to establish primary, mobile, and residential schools as per specific requirements of the NTDNT communities in areas with significant concentrations. There is a need to conduct a registration process through facilitation centres at the district level for social security schemes. 
 Local administrations should undertake special drives to provide NTDNT with Voter Identity Cards, BPL Cards, Ration Cards and MGNREGS Job cards on a campaign mode. During this process, officials should ensure the inclusion of pastoral and ex-hunter forest communities due to their geographical isolation.
Government should ensure strict vigilance across all the States to prevent women and girls from falling prey to trafficking, bonded labour, and child labour. Governments must prioritise the mapping and inclusion of the traditional arts and crafts that these tribal communities hold in their skill-building and credit-related schemes.
Lastly, the Government must repeal discriminatory laws such as the Habitual Offenders Act and Anti-Vagrancy (Beggary) Laws, which overwhelmingly continue to target and criminalise members of marginalised communities, including NT-DNTs.
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*Leads ActionAid Association’s work in Rajasthan

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