Friday, February 16, 2018

A leading newspaper Hindustan Times recognizes VSSM and its humanitarian efforts for NT-DNTs..

Hindu, Muslim and homeless: Gujarat’s nomadic tribe Mirs stuck in no man’s land

The Mirs are a nomadic tribe in Gujarat who are both Hindu and Muslim. Caught between pressures of religious hardliners, they make a case for a third religion, like a third gender.

Vagabhai Lalabhai Mir writes his name with his fingertip in the soft brown sand on the outskirts of Deesa, Gujarat. The patriarch of the Mir tribe is a turbaned, beedi-smoking septuagenarian with a sense of humour. Despite never having been to school, he can read and write Hindi, Gujarati, Arabic and Kathiawadi, a Devnagiri script in which he maintains records. The Mirs are illiterate on record, and sign all government documents with a thumb imprint. Ask him how he reads if he was never taught and Vagabhai taps his head. He trained his mind to. Where did he learn to write? He points to the ground, finger in the sand. Vagabhai asks his son to bring the book.

The Book of the Mirs is a carefully wrapped, leather-bound sheaf of pages that has been updated for centuries by the tribe. Passed down from father to son, it maintains hand-written records of the tribe’s births and deaths, and important incidents in their lives. The book is wrapped in plastic, to protect it from the rain, and again in embroidered cloth, to protect it from the dust. It records what the government fails to: that the Mirs belong to the nomadic de-notified tribes, or vicharti jati as they are known in Gujarat, with a rich 700-year-old tradition of being both Hindu and Muslim. The Renke Commission of 2008 updated the Gujarat state list of nomadic tribes with the Faqirs as only the Muslim tribe.

The Mirs are classified instead as an economically and socially backward class, and tagged as Muslims, along with the Mirasis and Dholis. This does not only fail to record their true religious and social identity, leaving them open to pressure groups, it also takes from them the benefits of the nomadic status. Since they don’t have a permanent address, this would enable them to claim rations, reservations and loans.

A Rabari shepherd dressed in white shows up at the bramble-encircled Mir settlement. He will not sit down with these, his closest cousins, because he is above them clan-wise, since they embraced another religion. The Mirs exist like a third gender, neither here nor there, says Mittal Patel, of Vicharta Samuday Samartan Manch, an organisation that has worked to get the Gujarat election commission to include those without address proofs on the electoral rolls.

Gujarat was the first state to implement this process of inclusion for homeless people and nomads in 2005, making way for national policy changes to election lists. All the subsequent identity, ration and Aadhaar cards for these tribes were made possible because of this.

The lack of a nomadic tribe certificate leaves the Mirs unable to settle. They must prove their address to gain even the basics, such as the registration of births and deaths, and state aid during natural disasters. They can be evicted from the plot of land they live on near Deesa, as they often are from other places to make room for rapidly expanding cities. Their settlements, on once-vacant plots, are increasingly seen as encroachments. Their last spot was taken up by a builder who rented out the open-air space for weddings and parties.

The Mirs are also susceptible to pressures from religious ideologues —both Hindu and Muslim. Most Mirs have two names, a Hindu one and a Muslim one. The Book of the Mirs, on which each page begins with the word ‘Kaaba’ written in Devnagiri script, traces their history back several hundreds of years. It dates back to a time when their births were registered under the Rabari tribe during the rule of the Solanki or Chalukya king Jayasimha Siddharaj. By historical estimation, that would date the records back to the 11th century. The book gets a physical upgrade with every generation as the pages fall apart.

According to SR Khan and Radhey Shyam in the Encycopaediac Ethnography of the Indian Muslim, the tribe’s conversion dates back 700 years. Nomadic tribes do not have a concept of dates and years and function by noting the passage of Uttarayan and Dakshinayan, the winter and summer solstices.

Other versions claim the Mirs are descendants of Kashmir’s Butt tribe, which migrated into Gujarat. The Vishwa Hindu Parisad (VHP) has in the past claimed that they were originally Gandharvas, or Hindu temple musicians. “They are noted for playing the shehenai, a practice that continues in the Vaishnavite Bet Dwaraka temple where Mirs are crucial to the morning and evening aratis, according to anthropologist Professor JJ Roy Burman, at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. “The confluence of multiple influences makes theirs a ‘liminal religion’ representing the unique syncretic cusp of both Hinduism and Islam.” In other regions, they were known as the breeders of Kathi horses. And with mastery over Arabic, Urdu, Gujarati and Hindi, they became major influencers of poetry in the region.

The Rabaris, who clashed with filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali over his alleged misportrayal in the film Ram Leela, are a nomadic clan predominant in the Kutch region of Gujarat. Legend has it that they were appointed guardians of the goddess Parvati’s camels, and remain a fiercely orthodox tribe.

The Gulf of Khambat was one of the first regions to receive Islamic influence via trade. Mir legend has it that a Muslim leader or tradesman wanted to marry a beautiful Rabari women. Raja Siddhiraj refused to allow it. By some confusion or trickery, as Vagabhai’s group tells it, some members of the clan ate the food and drank the water at a feast thrown by the Muslim suitor. In those days of forbidden intermingling, this was taken to mean that the part of the tribe that participated in the feast had been converted. The Rabari tribe refused to accept them back into the fold and Raja Siddhiraj banished them from the temples. The Mirs then began wandering, and became scribes and bards in the courts of the kings and sultans.

They became the keepers of Rabari genealogy, writing in books with wooden styluses dipped in ink. The Mirs survived on the patronage of their clients, and as kingdoms broke up, the Mirs became attached to various Hindu or Muslim families and clans.

A battle over the Mirs has been underway in Gujarat for two decades now. In the 1990s, the VHP convinced several thousand in the Kutch region to “come back to the fold” and embrace Hinduism. Sometimes, local mullahs who stop by to read the Quran with the Mirs try to convince them to discard their overtly Hindu ways and embrace the Islamic pyjama-kurta and other modes of life. But for many humble Mirs like Vagabhai’s family, they are comfortable being both.

The Mirs bury their dead, are circumcised and marry by nikaah the Islamic way, but they do not practise polygamy. Some eat meat and beef, but not of the cow. Most men and women both smoke profusely. They celebrate Moharram and Bakr-Eid, but “we do not sacrifice the goat, we milk it” they say. They read the Namaz every Friday but also perform godhbharai ceremonies and celebrate Janmashtami and Navratri the Hindu way. Holi is a major festival for them. “When we die, we are all the same, so why can’t they let us be both?” Vagabhai asks, as he gestures to show that if you cut his hand the blood would be the same.

Others seem more concerned about what religion they belong to. Some upper-caste Hindu communities don’t like them to settle on open grounds near them. Some Muslim communities are overeager that they join the fold. The incessant wandering means the Mirs are left vulnerable to whosoever’s kindness they may need at the time. They take up manual labour where they can find it.

An endless cycle of being thrown out from one clan to another over a choice of religion has shadowed the Mirs through the centuries. As long as they must choose, they remain in No Man’s Land. Perhaps ‘third religion’ needs to be a valid policy option for them.

For full article CLICK HERE.

A leading newspaper Hindustan Times recognizes VSSM and its humanitarian efforts for NT-DNTs..

A cooperative bank that gives loans to Gujarat’s nomadic tribes based on trust

Most financial institutions don’t want to lend to denotified tribes as they have no ID proofs. That’s where this Gujarat co-operative bank comes in to help .

At the Kalupur Co-operative Bank in Ahmedabad, an estimated 600 of the 4,500 accounts dedicated to microfinance belong to members of the vimukta jatis, or the nomadic tribes, of Gujarat. It is the only independent bank in the country that issues loans to these tribals, many of whom do not have address proofs or stable permanent addresses let alone bank accounts or a steady income. Since 2006, the bank has issued loans of Rs 50,000 to 100 nomadic tribals to purchase houses under a government scheme, and disbursed loans of a maximum of Rs 25,000 to others to expand their small businesses at a 10% rate of interest.

The bank is able to issue loans on trust alone, based on the long-term relationships that the Vicharata Samuday Samarthan Manch (VSSM), an Ahmedabad-based organisation run by Mittal Patel that devotes itself to nomadic denotified tribes, has established over 15 years.

Ambubhai Patel, the 76-year-old chairman of the bank, says he sends representatives to accompany the social workers from VSSM into the tribal bastis. The tribals are so far removed from the banking system that they do not know what a bank is, and would not enter one for fear of being arrested or evicted from the premises. They also do not have a strong concept of months and dates, so to get them to pay Equated Monthly Instalments (EMIs) for the loans that they take is a task in itself.

Ambubhai Patel encourages them to open savings accounts and shows them how to accumulate money in their accounts.

The VSSM workers collect instalments from the tribals who take loans outside Ahmedabad, where the bank has no branches, and make deposits on their behalf towards their monthly payments. Within Ahmedabad, the bank officials make the rounds to remind the tribals about payments. The bank also has a mobile van unit that travels into the rural areas, encouraging tribals to deposit whatever savings they may have accumulated into their bank accounts.

It’s a project that Mittal Patel has single-handedly taken up since 2004, when she began a movement to get tribals voting rights and identity cards, which are vital for their participation in public distribution schemes and reservation and welfare programmes. Apart from inducting them into the banking system, VSSM runs a corpus fund of Rs 2.5 crore raised from donations, out of which they give interest-free loans to nomadic tribals.

While several government schemes across states have similar loan schemes on paper — such as the 1984-launched Vasantrao Naik Vimukta Jati & Nomadic Tribes Development Corporation in Maharashtra, and the two-decade-old National Backward Classes Finance and Development Corporation New Delhi — they require nomadic tribals to provide proof of address, be familiar with the banking system, and have a minimum monthly income ranging from Rs 25,000 to Rs 50,000. These schemes also involve filling forms, making visits to government offices, and verification procedures.

The Kalupur Co-operative model is more practical and more in sync with the needs of the tribals. As more private institutions are taking it upon themselves to educate and include tribals who are indigenously efficient at creating and selling goods, some nomadic tribes are taking to entrepreneurship by turning traditional practices into small businesses.

Vijaylakshmi Das, founder of the Friends of Women World Banking, an Ahmedabad-based institution for inclusive financial growth, calls tribal microfinance “the ultimate mystery of microfinance no one has been able to crack”. She says: “Barely one or two organisations across the country are providing microfinance for nomadic tribals. VSSM is one of the few.”

Other models attempted in undivided Andhra Pradesh failed. It’s a sector that has major potential for financial inclusion, but will need private players who will invest in building networks and long-term relationships with this floating population of about 110 million people.

Dr Saibal Paul of the Association of Community Development Financial Institutions, New Delhi, points out that VSSM today occupies a space that government and other private players have not been able to. “Firstly, nomads cannot opt for government schemes because they have no KYCs. Secondly, banks do not take such low-ticket customers seriously. Thirdly, the government rule keeps changing — sometimes it is voter card, pan card, now they seem fixed on Aadhar. And fourthly, there is apathy from financial institutions on seeing that they belong to the de-notified tribes.”

Mittal’s involvement in this context goes beyond that of lender. She noticed that the nomads, with no sense of permanence, purchased food, groceries and raw material for one day at a time. This increased their travel and procurement costs, and lost them valuable discounts that they would get if they bought in bulk. One condition that the VSSM lays for the disbursement of loans is that the nomadic tribal taking a loan must purchase grocery items in bulk for a month and stock them.

This ensures that they are eating nutritious food and have a place where they stock their grain, inadvertently giving them a base. Second, the VSSM insists that they buy business supplies such as raw materials in bulk, which saves them multiple procurement trips, allowing them to focus on creating and earning through sales. The third condition is that they must put aside some savings. The tribals know that loans will only be issued to those who repay the previous loan, and this provides the incentive to repay.

With experience, the VSSM has learnt that tribals do not usually turn defaulters because they are dishonest, but because they don’t understand the system. So they step in with phone calls and site visits to remind them of last dates, with spot collection, and with tracking the wandering nomads’ locations. “What the government is doing is very little and banking systems are not tuned to the needs of these people. It’s not easy to teach them the ins and outs of banking,” says Ambubhai Patel.

Bhiku Ramji Idate, chairman of the Nation Commission for the Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes, has attempted to address this problem in the final report submitted by the National Commission for Denotified Tribes, Nomadic Tribes and Semi Nomadic Tribes this January. “The tribes were not able to take up schemes that were introduced, due to the lack of identity proofs. There has also been exploitation of tribes by those who take away funds allocated to them. There is a need to change what is accessible on the ground,” Idate says.

One government that has been attempting to break the deadlock is Telangana, through its finance minister Etala Rajender.

This January 5, Rajender announced that the state budget would allocate loans of Rs 1 lakh each for nomadic tribesmen. “We were unable to take many schemes proposed in undivided Andhra Pradesh forward due to a lack of follow up from bankers, so we are now working on ways to overcome these obstacles the nomads face,” he says. Their schemes will bypass banks and offer direct transfers to the tribals.

There is clearly a need for governments to work with the banking system and private players to understand the challenges unique to the nomadic tribals of India, experts say, to provide them financial literacy and inclusion at least at a basic level.

For full article CLICK HERE.

A leading newspaper Hindustan Times recognizes VSSM and its humanitarian efforts for NT-DNTs..

Electoral inclusion: The tide is turning for these tribes in Gujarat

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.

For full article CLICK HERE.