Though the marginalised Sahariya community were allotted houses built by the government, the poor materials used have made them unliveable in the monsoon.
A wide road separated Kanhaiya Sahariya’s two-room house from identical houses dotting the Iklera Sagar hamlet. “Sahariya Bangla”, a community centre for the Sahariya Adivasis, stood at one end of the road. At the other end, the road abruptly disappeared into nothing.
“Four years back, the government contractor built this and then told us the fund was exhausted,” said Kanhaiya, in his late 30s, pointing to the short 100-metre road stretch running through the hamlet. While a road now runs through the hamlet, it does not connect Iklera Sagar hamlet even to the nearest village, two km away. “If it rains heavily even once in the monsoon, we get cut off entirely from other villages,” he explained.
The partial road and concrete houses in Iklera Sagar in Rajasthan’s Baran district were built from special funds under the Sahariya Development Project implemented for the benefit of Sahariya Adivasis, a ‘particularly vulnerable tribal group’ living in two blocks of Rajasthan, in Kishanganj and Shahabad.
Besides the road, the Baran district administration had hired contractors in 2012 to build pucca houses to replace the tapri (huts) the Sahariya families were living in. Each Sahariya family was to get a two-room structure, called a Sahariya Awas, to be built with a budget of over Rs 87,000.
But as dark clouds filled the afternoon sky, in the fifth monsoon since the new accommodation was built, several families were trying to rebuild temporary huts for themselves.
Kamlabai Sahariya, Kanhaiya’s neighbour, said the construction was so poor, water dripped and collected all over the concrete floor of the new houses, making it a hassle to live in them. “The roof started dripping in the first monsoon rains,” she said. “The huts we built with the sal leaves have slanting roofs, which we reinforce with tarpaulin sheets to protect against the rains. But it is impossible to do the same on the flat roofs of these Sahariya Awas.”
A few of the 40-odd Sahariya families in Iklera Sagar have resumed cooking and sleeping in the tapri they had built afresh next to the concrete houses. Others said they saw little choice but to build new huts again in the coming weeks.
A marginalised people
The Sahariyas, characterised by a dependence on pre-agricultural technologies and a stagnant population, were categorised by the government as a primitive tribal group. This term was later amended to particularly vulnerable tribal groups.
According to recent research published by the Anthropological Survey of India, the Sahariyas are the most numerous among all particularly vulnerable tribal communities, with a population of around four lakh concentrated in the area along the border of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
In Rajasthan, around 30,000 Sahariya families live in Kishanganj and Shahabad blocks in Baran.
Baran is one of Rajasthan’s poorest districts. Its health indicators are worse than the state average. In 2015-16, the National Family Health Survey-4 recorded 43% of children here below five years age were underweight, compared with Rajasthan’s average of 36%.
Sahariya Adivasis are the poorest people in Baran and are particularly vulnerable. The death of 47 Sahariyas from starvation during the 2001 drought triggered a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court on the right to food, which led to the National Food Security Act being enacted in 2013. The death of three Sahariya children from malnutrition was recorded in October 2011.
The Sahariyas traditionally depended on forest produce, selling mahua, tendu and weaving baskets. But they can no longer sustain themselves on this, as the sal forests in the area have degraded.
Over the years, Sahariya families also lost their access to land resources to dominant castes, and to Sikh farmers who migrated to this region from Punjab and acquired legal titles to large tracts of land.
In 2010, several families were even recorded as working in conditions of forced labour as “hali”, one of 31 forms of bonded debt banned under law. Sikh landowners and other landowners from more dominant castes like Gujjar, Dhakads, offered them cash advances at 24% to 36% interest to work as farm labourers, without monthly wages and, in some cases, forced generations of Sahariyas to work on their farms in lieu of family debt.
Baran’s Sahariyas have since been focus of several schemes through the administration’s Sahariya Development Project for “backward groups” and “particularly vulnerable tribal groups”.
Pilferage in “development” schemes
It is not because of shortage of funds that the community continues to grapple with problems of poor livelihood and access to resources. In 2016-17, Rs 25 crore were allotted for the development of the Adivasi community under Janjati Kalyan Nidhi, besides Rs 9.04 crore under the conservation-cum-development plans.
But on the ground, in Iklera in Kishanganj block, on a rainy day, just like the Sahariya houses, the roof of the anganwadi built for supplementary nutrition for children was dripping as well. Afsana Begum, the staff at the anganwadi, said the building roof has been dripping since five years, making it difficult for the 15 children from nearby hamlets who attended pre-school there to eat or study inside the building.
Mahesh Mehta, a social activist with the non profit organisation Doosra Dashak, said that it was a similar pattern in other Sahariya habitations as well. It was not just the poor quality of construction, but that construction in many places was done only on paper.“On paper, these houses are supposed to have tiled floors, when there are no tiles in any of them,” said Mehta. “In Badipura, local officials colluded with the contractors and signed off that a Sahariya Bangla, community centre, had been constructed, when there was none. I reported this three times to the district collector’s office before the district administration acted on my complaint and sent someone on an inspection.”
“In Geegcha, Badipura, 40 km from here, like in Iklera Sagar, all the Sahariya Awas built by contractors drip, no one can live in them,” Mehta added.
District collector of Baran S.C. Singh said the administration would look into the complaints.
R.S. Meena, the sub-divisional magistrate managing the Sahariya Development Project, denied any public funds were siphoned. “It is not an unusual phenomenon if the Sahariya rebuild huts and shift into them,” he said. “For the houses that are still in the guarantee period as agreed by the contractors, we will get the buildings inspected again.”
‘Give us land’
In Iklera Sagar in Kishanganj, the Sahariya said the residents were shifting out of the houses as they did not seem “saabut”(fully solid/concrete). “Why else would the rain drip through them?” said Ghanshyam Sahariya, who had already shifted his belongings from the Sahariya Awas back to his tapri.
Mamtabai Sahariya, who is an activist with the Jagrut Mahila Sangathan, a local NGO, criticised the corruption that is the routine in development schemes run in the name of the community. “Everyone says the Sahariyas are thieves if the forest officials spot us gathering produce in the forests, but it is the government that is the biggest thief.”
Kanhaiya, who had worked as a “hali”, a bonded labourer, without any wages on a landlord’s farm for over ten years, said that instead of piecemeal “development” schemes, it would be much better if the government had delivered on its promise of redistributing land to the Sahariyas and assured them access to basic resources like land and the forests. Instead, the government had offered the new concrete houses and built a partial road as part of the “development” measures to “rehabilitate” them in 2011-12, he said.
“When the government started rehabilitating those who were working as bonded labourers on farms, the then chief minister Ashok Gehlot announced that every Sahariya family will get five bigha land,” said Kanhaiya, who had fled from a Meena landlord’s farm in Alampura after he faced violence as a hali and now works as a daily-wage worker in sandstone quarries in Bundi, earning Rs 80 a day. “They even redistributed 400 bigha of land illegally held by the ‘upper’ caste landlords in one place in Sunda after Gehlot’s visit, but nothing since then.”
“If the government gave us land – farm and or even a forest patta (title) – we would manage from then on,” he continued. “Only the first year of farming may perhaps be costly, but we will manage after that pooling labour.”
District collector Singh said the administration had not received any requests for individual and community forest titles through the Sahariya Development Agency under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act in the last two years.
“If we get reports of any land illegally held by landowners, only then we can act to do any further land redistribution,” said Singh.
Anumeha Yadav is an independent journalist and a consulting researcher with Azim Premji University.