Sua Devi Kalbeliya and Khatu Kalbeliya are folk dancers who have travelled all over the world. They are not educated and almost illiterate. If you look at their passports with multiple copies, you will see they have been abroad more than 90 times to several countries to perform, teach and conduct workshops on folk dancing. YouTube is full of videos of their dance performances. They are in their thirties and have many grown-up children. Sua and Khatu belong to nomadic tribes, but unlike others, they have a home and permanent place to stay in Jodhpur. Knowing them for quite some time, they both even requested if we could set up a computer centre for their communities to get introduced to digital age. They often correspond with ease on email and SMS, and can speak fluently of their life, journey, culture, tradition, art, music and struggle to many audiences.
Anthropologists have identified about 500 nomadic groups in India, including 315 nomadic tribes and 198 denotified tribes. Five million of the nomads live in Maharashtra alone. “DNTs (denotified and nomadic tribes) are among the most underprivileged and destitute communities today,” according to a working group on denotified and nomadic tribes constituted by the National Advisory Council, which sets the government’s social agenda.
Recently, I was travelling in Gujarat and came across hundreds of denotified tribes, met them in their shelters, which is never at the land that they call their own. Next time, when I want to meet them, I may have to contact them on their mobile to meet them as they would have shifted to a new place. My link to such nomadic tribes in Gujarat was through Vicharata Samuday Samarthan Manch (VSSM), which is a collective platform of members from nomadic (Vicharata) and denotified (Vimukht) tribes (Samuday). Some of the tribes I met were living in their shelters for more than five years after having pushed and displaced from other places several times. They don’t have jobs and live each day minute by minute, as there is no demand in the society for their skills.
In earlier times, all established communities used to wait for nomadic tribes to get things done as per their skills ranging from construction to entertainment. There are 4,000,000 nomads in Gujarat and I was aghast to know that none of them have any identity and on the records of government, they do not exist. Since they do not have any identity card, they cannot even exercise the electoral rights, which automatically leads them to a situation where no political leadership approaches them for any votes. What is admirable is because of the constant advocacy of VSSM, the Gujarat state has provided about 70,000 of them with ration cards and has also provided land for them to build their shelters that they can call as their permanent homes. What is even more unique is that the state government has identified VSSM as a nodal agency. That, however, does not solve the problem of another hundreds of millions of nomadic tribes.
In the meanwhile, the mandate of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) is “to issue every resident a unique identification number linked to the resident’s demographic and biometric information, which they can use to identify themselves anywhere in India, and to access a host of benefits and services”. The meaning of resident is “one who resides in a particular place permanently or for an extended period”. Which means for all those residents of India, who do not have a permanent residence, are not the residents and, therefore, they may never be able to get any of the identity, or Aadhaar, card. I guess it is time now that UIDAI should take up the case of the country’s nomadic and denotified tribes and provide them with Aadhaar cards immediately.
There is, however, some good news on this front. Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, is trying to put together a national digital database of all the folk musicians of nomadic tribes so that they could connect to the world of opportunity to perform and eke out their livelihood. To start with, the first state being targeted is Rajasthan.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and curator of the mBillionth Awards. He is member of the working group for Internet proliferation and governance, ministry of communication and information technology.
Follow him on twitter @osamamanzar.