In 2004, Mittal Patel hopped off a state transport bus at Necknaam, a nondescript intersection an hour away from Rajkot, where her parents believed she was working with a local NGO. It was the site of a large basti of nomadic tribes. Then a 20-year-old journalist and aspiring civil servant who thought the only difference between urban living and nomadic living would be the use of tents, she had brought just two changes of clothes.
As she stepped into the settlement, two bloodied men ran in. They were father and son. They had been beaten by two men on a motorcycle, who had abducted the man’s wife.
There was chaos and uncertainty in the settlement. Mittal says she kept waiting for the police to be called, an FIR to be registered, and the culprits to be found. But the tribe was too afraid to go to the police, and having no identity cards to prove who they were, believed they would be locked up instead. So everyone returned to their homes to wait helplessly. The woman came back the next morning, raped and assaulted. And that’s where the matter ended.
Horrified, Mittal who had initially thought of going home the next day, made giving tribals identity cards and making them a vote bank that mattered her life’s mission. She stayed in the settlement for the next two months, in one of the tents, eating what food was available, bathing in the dirty gutter water they used. Today ‘Mittalben’ – Ashoka Fellow and multiple award-winner — is a major influence on the denotified tribes of Gujarat. For the first time, in December 2017 prior to the Gujarat assembly elections, the leaderships of both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress held meetings with the denotified tribes to seek their votes. “For the first time, there were enough of them registered as voters to swing an election,” Mittal Patel said. The denotified tribes had finally started to count.
It was not been easy getting here. Patel’s first step was to insist that the then chief electoral officer Vinod Kumar Babbar accompany her to the bastis. On seeing how many people lived undocumented, with no access to rations and not part of any Census, Babbar was moved enough to suggest relaxing stringent address-proof norms for the tribals. However, for cards to be issued, they still needed to show a place of residence, a constituency in which to cast votes. As nomads, they had none and were prone to repeated evictions.
Babbar agreed to start the process on the basis of a letter issued by a gram panchayat that stated these tribals camped in the vicinity of their villages or were known to the villagers. Most panchayats refused out of fear that the land would be usurped and temporary bastis would become permanent ones. Patel went back to Babbar, who modified the norms to say that anyone who knew the tribals could vouch for them through a letter saying they knew they lived in a certain area.
Patel personally signed over 20,000 letters over the next decade, she says. Even so, she quickly realised that when submitted at the gram level, office bearers from the local panchayats held the paperwork up. When she moved to get the tribals Below Poverty Line (BPL) ration cards, on the basis of whatever voter cards had come through, getting approvals from panchayats proved to be an obstacle as well.
In 2009, the state government empowered district collectors to assign plots for tribal settlements. Babbar had resigned in 2008, but Anita Karwal, who replaced him, continued to support the cause. By then, officials such as the district collector of Mehsana, Ajay Bahadur, had stepped in to ensure all the tribals in his district were found and documented. Within the government, IAS officers such as Raj Kumar began to move to issue permanent residential plots to the nomads. There was slow but systemic change.
Ten years after the fight began, however, the process was still painstaking. You could force paperwork on villages but, Patel found, you could not enforce acceptance. The tribals, allocated plots and voter cards, were often shunned by panchayats and banned from using anything from water to shops to transport. When a nine-year-old boy died because none of the village auto-rickshaws would take him to the hospital, Mittal realised the fight needed to be a different one – for inclusion, not enforcement.
Though not particularly devout, she decided to use religion, and approached the famous Gujarati preacher Morari Bapu. She briefed him about the plight of the denotified tribes, and took him to various sites through the state. Moved by what he saw, he began to mentions the tribes in his discourses. In 2011, Morari Bapu did an entire series on the denotified tribes. Given his large TV audience, public empathy began to grow. What was a trickle became a flow.
The battle for the enfranchisement of the denotified tribes in Gujarat is considered a landmark in electoral inclusion. Former chief election commissioner SY Qureshi says that it reinforces the “dharma of inclusive democracy”. “Not one person should be left out is our effort. It’s not easy to locate denotified tribes but special efforts have been taken by the commission to mainstream them in the electoral process,” Qureshi said.
In his book, ‘An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election’, he writes how the state election commission coordinated with Gujarat’s social justice ministry to ensure that welfare officers accompanied district election officers to register denotified tribes where they could be found. “A system was devised under the directions of the commission for fulfilling the requirement of being an ‘ordinarily resident’ of a place to be enrolled as a voter. Grassroots-level officers were empowered to do panchnamas of such persons wherever located on the day this exercise was done,” he said. Just before the 2007 elections, says Qureshi, 3,393 members were registered as voters. In 2011, when about five thousand assembled for a Ram Katha, they were all registered too.
The process, however, is limited in the hands of the Election Commission of India (ECI), which does not record caste, community or tribe data. Since the last census of denotified tribes was done as far back as 1931, the government does not know how many denotified tribals there are in any given state, and the ECI cannot know how many have been excluded. With the 2018 Idate Commission Report estimating 15 crore denotified tribals in India, several of whom have never been enfranchised or counted in a census, it means an estimated 12 per cent of India’s population may deprived of basic rights.
What happened in Gujarat inspired others in different parts of the country. In Delhi in 2013, chief electoral officer Vijay Dev worked with local NGOs to ensure the homeless had a methodology that would allow them to get their names on the electoral lists -- election officers could identify their belongings in any public space. The rule was then extended to include the homeless across India.
Today Patel is using a quid-pro-quo system to give eight villages what they need in exchange for accepting denotified tribal bastis in the vicinity.
In Gujarat’s Banaskantha district, where the alleged misuse of the Narmada river has left lakes and ponds dry, Mittal’s organisation has invested Rs 1.5 crore in building water management reservoirs for villages in exchange for the paperwork and social inclusion that will allow the tribes settled on their outskirts to become an integral part of the village ecosystem.
The Supreme Court in 2017 asked the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) to explain how the homeless would get Aadhar cards. In Gujarat, an estimated 60 lakh tribals, are better prepared than most thanks to two decades of work done by the ECI. The voter cards have opened the doors to BPL ration cards, and nomadic ration cards that give them grain and aid, along with access to the public distribution system and other welfare schemes.
In most other parts of the country, the tribes remain at the mercy of local panchayats, tehsils and the police. Haryana has now announced ration cards unique to nomads, but unless the tribes have a system by which they can establish their identity, and become a valid vote bank, they will never quite count.
It may not be a bad idea to replicate the Gujarat model, at least in this instance, across the country.
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