“The doctors ask us to wash our hands regularly. But if we don’t have water, how do we do that?”

These tribes living in small hamlets not very far from Pune are at the mercy of the housing society nearby for drinking water. They often buy discarded vegetables – their only meal

Varsha Torgalkar
| Updated: Last updated on May 16th, 2020,


Vijay Bhosale (name changed), is a resident of Limone village in the Pune district of Maharashtra, and he lives with his wife, mother, and three children. Recently, on a Sunday, he went to catch fish at the lake in the village. But the villagers drove him away. He has a ration card, so he went to the local grocery shop, but the shopkeeper refused to give him any ration. A very disappointed Vijay then went to the nearby forest area and hunted two big rabbits – a skill passed onto him by his ancestors. His wife could thus cook a meal, and the family didn’t have to go hungry.

Nandibailwale Tribe people are worried as no fodder is available for bulls. Photo: Varsha Torgalkar

Vijay belongs to the Paradhi tribe, which is indigenous to Maharashtra but can also be found in parts of Madhya Pradesh. The Paradhi tribe (the hunters) is one of de-notified tribes (DNTs). The British termed them criminals under the Criminal Tribes Act 1871, which was repealed in 1952. But even now the society and the administration continue to criminalise the Paradhi tribe.

Not just the Paradhis, but many notified and de-notified tribes have been facing discrimination for years. Gaon Connection visited a few tribal hamlets in the vicinity of Pune to find out how these tribes are managing amid the nationwide lockdown that is in place from March 25 to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the country.

When Gaon Connection reporter reached Balewadi, a cluster of hamlets, adjoining the Pune-Bengaluru highway, she came across a herd of bulls eating discarded vegetables. There was a settlement nearby. The bulls – called Nandibails – belonged to the tribe that’s known as the Nandibailwale Tribe – one of the nomadic tribes (NTs). They earn a living by using their bulls to entertain people and survive on the money that people give to them.

Samadhan Vidhate shows dried vegetables he buys for his bulls. Photo: Varsha Torgalkar

Samadhan Vidhate, the owner of one of the bulls, said: “Over 40 families having more than 200 members of our tribe live here. The men earn Rs 200-300 per day by showing bull acrobatics. But we haven’t earned a penny since the lockdown was announced nearly two months back. We struggle to get food every day. We are more worried that our bulls are not getting enough fodder.”

He showed a heap of dried vegetables that he bought from vegetable vendors. These people stay in shacks covered with plastic or tarpaulin sheets lined along a lane that’s hardly 2-3 feet wide. Old furniture, a few pots of water, and some utensils – that’s the basic furniture that each family has. In the scorching heat of May, some women were cooking outside using firewood, and children were playing in the open.

There were no toilets. Basic facilities like water connection, electricity lines, and sewerage pipes were missing.

Shobha Vidhate tells they sometimes don’t get rice or wheat and have to eat only vegetables. Photo: Varsha Torgalkar

Shobha Vidhate, Samadhan’s wife, was cooking on a traditional stove outside her shack. Talking about the sub-standard quality of vegetables, she said: “We buy leftover vegetables that are discarded by the vegetable vendors and cook them. We struggle to get rice or wheat. Sometimes we have to eat only vegetables. We haven’t received any help from the government or voluntary organisations since the lockdown began. How do we survive?”

Shobha, like all the other women at the hamlet, sews blanket with patches of clothes and get Rs 100 per blanket. But she has not managed to sell a single blanket since the lockdown.

Raju Waikar, who lives close by, was carrying his grand-daughter in his arms. He said: “Many of us have ration cards, but the local PDS (Public Distribution System) shop owners tell us that we can use these cards only in our villages.”

Raju Waikar tells government should allow them to go back to their village in Baramati. Photo: Varsha Torgalkar

He added: “We want to return to our village in the Baramati taluka, but the villagers are not allowing us to return due to the fear of coronavirus. The cost of living is lower in our village than in Pune. We would like to go back, but the public transport facilities are unavailable due to the lockdown.”

As per the 2008 report of the National Commission for De-notified, Nomadic and Semi-nomadic Tribes, headed by Balkrishna Renke, India has over 1,500 NTs and SNTs, and 198 DNTs tribes and their population is around 10-12 crore. The report highlights the fact that these tribes have been marginalised, oppressed and neglected even after India gained independence.

As per the DNT commission report, 72% of the DNTs don’t have ration cards, 48% DNTs and 60% NTs don’t have birth certificates, 49% DNTs and 62% NTs don’t have caste certificates and 89% DNTs and 98% NTs don’t have lands.

Many activists have been underlining the importance of the implementation of the recommendations made by the Renke Commission. The major recommendations of the commission are an enumeration of the DNTs to understand the concentration of their population area-wise and to develop schemes for their welfare. The procedures to issue caste certificates, ration cards, and birth certificates to DNTs should be eased out. They should be given below the poverty line (BPL) cards and housing and education should be made available to all.

Kitchen at one section of the shack where these tribals live. Photo: Varsha Torgalkar

Sunita Bhosale, an activist from Paradhi tribe who works at the Shirur Taluka of Pune, said: “The PDS shopkeepers discriminate against us by giving us ration after distributing it to all others in the village. Sometimes they ask us to come later, but the ration gets over. Mostly, they yell at us and drive us away. People who have ration cards end up not getting any ration. Our people struggle to buy groceries from regular shops. They call us criminals.”

She added: “What options do the de-notified communities have but to go for hunting in order to survive? As hunting is illegal, I can’t talk much about it. But the government should understand how severe the problem is.”

Manisha Vidhate, who lives in the same hamlet, arrived balancing a huge can of water on her head. She had to walk in the scorching May heat to get water from a nearby housing society. She said: “Like all the other women in the basti, I have to get 5-6 cans of water from the nearby societies. They allow us, but when they don’t, we have to look for other options. The doctors tell us that we should wash our hands regularly to avoid getting infected with the coronavirus. But if water is not available, how do we do that? We are thankful that nobody has got infected at the basti.”

Changuna Ingole of Nath Panthi tribe at her hut. Photo: Varsha Torgalkar

Changuna Ingole, a visibly anaemic old lady, has four children and a few grandchildren. She belongs to the Nath Panthi Davari Gosavi community, one of the nomadic tribes. She said that since the lockdown, her family of twelve is struggling to get food. Her two grandsons, who are studying and staying in a government hostel, are back at home due to lockdown. They are among the few literate members among the over 25 families of the Nath Panthi community, having a population of 70-80, who stay at this hamlet at Balewadi.

It is said that the Nath Panthis arrived in India 500 years back. They wander from one village to the other and ask for alms in the name of God. They are spread across Maharashtra and few other states like Punjab. Many of them still live like nomadic tribes.

Vaishali Bhandwalkar, an activist who runs the Nirman Bahuddeshiya Vikas Sanstha for the welfare of the DNTs, said: “The government should avail ration to all regardless of who has the ration card and who does not. Besides, they need to be given allowances to buy vegetables and other groceries. Most importantly, the government should allow them to go back to their villages and make sure that the local villagers don’t discriminate against them.”

Nagina tells her son (sitting next to her) is disabled and need treatment but doctors refuse to see him fearing COVID. Photo: Varsha Torgalkar

Back at the Nandibailwale hamlet, Nagina Londha was segregating grass that she managed to get from an open plot a day before. Pointing at her son who was sitting next to her, Nagina said: “He is disabled. He can’t see or walk. I need to take him to a doctor every month. But these days, the doctor refuses to see us. There is no income and hence I take money from others to buy medicines for him.”

Bhandwalkar said: “The government should provide employment under schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Finding a job is going to be impossible for the DNTs once the lockdown ends. They should not be discriminated against and should get free treatment at the hospitals as well.”