Thanks to her, nomads can now vote
Thirtytwo-year-old Mittal Patel, a former journalist-turned-activist, strives to provide an identity to five million people belonging to the 40 nomadic communities in Gujarat. About 50 per cent of them are still leading a nomadic life
Kavita Kanan Chandra

Mittal Patel
Mittal Patel

In India, eight to 10 per cent of our population comprises nomadic tribes that constitute a sizeable 10 crore people. Through her NGO, (VSSM) or Vicharata Samuday Samarthan Manch, a nomadic community support platform, Mittal Patel works for the uplift of 28 nomadic and 12 denotified tribes in nine districts of Gujarat. In 2006, her efforts bore fruit as five million nomads were included in the Census for the first time. In 2008, voter ID cards were given to 20,000 nomads for the first time. Till now, 60,000 nomads have got their voter ID cards and the process is ongoing.

This General Election, a number of nomads will vote for the first time. In the last panchayat elections, few even stood for elections and one Jayantibhai Rawal has been elected as the sarpanch from Sisarana village of Vadgam block in the Banaskantha district. Positive changes are visible in the community.

Earlier these nomads officially didnít even exist in government files. Traditionally they wandered from one place to another providing services and entertainment. They never had any permanent address. Even the villages, in the vicinity where they temporarily resided refused to acknowledge them. That is why they did not figure in the Census too. That meant no ration card, no voter ID card, not being entitled to any government welfare schemes, no education for children and, above all, they had no document to show they were Indian citizens.

It was Mittalís relentless advocacy with the government that she has enabled some policy changes and facilitated ration cards and Voter ID cards to these nomadic people. They were destined to remain uneducated, backward and homeless till Mittal intervened.

Relentless efforts by Mittal Patelís NGO has helped to bring these  nomadic and denotified tribes to mainstream

Relentless efforts by Mittal Patelís NGO has helped to bring these nomadic and denotified tribes to mainstream

The plight of the nomads like the snake-charmers was such that more than 2.5 lakh of them in Gujarat alone resort to begging due to strict implementation of the Wildlife Protection Act. Others belonging to communities like Sarania (who sharpen knives and tools), Natda (walking on ropes), Bhavaiya (enact folk plays), Nat (playing acrobat), Turi-barot (playing the dhol), Bahurupi (self-disguising), Gadalia (making iron tools), Kangasia (making wooden combs), Lawaria (selling iron stoves) and many others lost jobs with changing times. They neither have education nor any other skills. When entertainment is available at the press of the remote and chic factory-made products are available then who will turn to the nomads?

The plight of the de-notified tribes was even worse. In 1872, the British Government had notified about 200 communities in India as criminals. Though they were de-notified in 1952, police and society still harass them. One of the most misunderstood, backward and introverted is the Dafer tribe and when they got voter ID cards recently, Babubhai was elated as at 70 years he was finally officially an Indian citizen.

Mittal got first-hand experience of the deplorable condition of the nomadic tribes in 2005 when as a journalism intern she came into contact with them and was deeply moved by their plight. She was also saddened that the mainstream media completely ignored them and decided to help them. It was an uphill task strewn with red tape, apathy and media disinterest but she persevered as she saw a ray of hope as the nomads started supporting her. One thing lead to another and in 2008, 20,000 nomads got their ID cards with the help of then Chief Electoral Officer and identification given by her NGO.

Recently, the VSSM succeeded in advocating a separate board for the nomads to the Gujarat Government and the bill for this purpose has been tabled in the Vidhan Sabha. Continuous lobbying resulted in some policy amendments so that the nomads could now acquire Antyodaya and BPL (below poverty line) ration cards that means a lot for those living in abject poverty.

VSSM runs 26 alternate schools and tent schools, where 1,040 children are enrolled in different nomadic settlements and 1,000 children have been shifted to mainstream schools. They have brought social transformation in Vadia village in Banaskantha district where the women of Sarania community were traditionally engaged in prostitution. Traditionally, if they got engaged or married, they become free of this tradition. In 2012, Mittalís organisation enabled the marriages of eight girls and the engagement of 12 girls. Mittal was very happy that 65 families out of 200 pledged that they will not push their daughters into prostitution.

"We look all aspects of their development: be it their identity, rights, education, health, sanitation, social uplift, housing and government welfare schemes for them," said Mittal Patel. Through her NGO, she works for the rights of the nomadic communities and helps to bring these communities to mainstreamby by enabling them to fight for their rights. They have an outreach programme in nine districts, where 22,163 nomadic families are directly connected with her orgainsation.