With about 4 million members in more than 300 different communities, the nomadic population of the state of Gujarat in India is quite substantial and diverse. In the past, each nomadic community used to provide a specific service to the society at large. Some groups specialized in performance — they were musicians, fire eaters, snake charmers, acrobats — whereas other tribes would carry out manual work (e.g., iron smiths, knife sharpeners, bamboo artisans). Technology and industrialization have contributed to the collapse of the demand for such services, leaving these people out of work, threatening the survival of their culture and traditions, and — what’s worse — eroding their livelihood.
The level of literacy among these communities is insignificant, and therefore it’s been hard for nomads to move on to other jobs and pursue alternative sources of income. With poverty come prejudice and discrimination, which make their lives even harder. As if that weren’t enough, there’s no record of their existence as individuals in the civil registry, which ultimately means they have no IDs, they can’t vote, and they’re also unable to apply for government benefits.
A number of NGOs, including the Ahmedabad-based VSSM (Vicharta Samuday Samarthan Manch), managed by former journalist Mittal Patel, are fighting for the uplift of the nomadic communities of Gujarat. Interventions that’ve been carried out include establishing informal schools in settlements; helping children access public schools; assisting adults in getting IDs, voter cards, and welfare access; providing professional skills training; and putting pressure on the state government to include the empowerment of nomadic tribes in the political agenda.
In April, 2013, I traveled to Gujarat, and thanks to VSSM and its regional coordinators I was able to access some settlements, meet and photograph members of the nomadic tribes, and witness some of the work volunteers are doing within these communities.