A common refrain we hear from our world around us in urban India – “I want lesser pollution & dust in the air I breathe”; “I wish the traffic would disappear”; “I want the water supply to be 24/7”; “I must go on a holiday abroad this year”…blah. All of us have been guilty of griping about our lives sometime or the other, if not on a daily basis.
Meet the ‘Maldharis‘ (owners of livestock) of Barda, Gujarat. They live without basic necessities like accessible medical care; safe, drinking water (as we know it); roads; schools or electricity.
On a recent visit to a CRY-supported project, GJJS’s operational area, my colleagues and I were given a reality check of sorts.
Around 15 kms from the coastal town of Porbandar is the Barda sanctuary covering areas popularly known as ‘Rana Barda’ and ‘Jam Barda’. Living in habitations called a ‘Ness‘ within the forests areas, the Maldharis earn their livelihood from selling milk & milk products (like ‘mava’). Within the sanctuary are situated around 100+ hamlets or ness-es of around 6000 people who have lived in these forests for many years now, coexisting with the wildlife.
As Barda is a designated wildlife sanctuary, the government does not allow building of roads, provide electricity or clean, drinking water to the people. The state government has instead been trying to resettle the Maldharis outside the forest areas for a long time now. But as they are not given ownership of any land or allowed access to the forests once they settle outside, the community is reluctant to move out.
Laxmiben, who has lived all her life in the forest says, “At least in the forest we can graze our animals, if we go outside what will we do? We don’t even get land to start afresh or any area for keeping our livestock. At least here we are content with whatever we have.” But many of her community have already left the sanctuary, eking out a living outside the forest as daily wage labourers or migrating as unskilled workers to the nearby towns of Rajkot, Porbandar or working in the numerous SEZs that have sprung up in the state.
Access to the nearest motorable road is anywhere between 4km to over 20kms depending on how deep inside the forest, the ness is situated. There are no roads and the people move about over narrow, dirt tracks to reach the road. The terrain is hilly, rocky with scrubland vegetation which adds to the difficulty of walking on those tracks. But the people from the ness-es walk the distance at least every alternate day, if not every day, to sell their produce and to buy food for themselves and their families. A distance they are used to and think little of. But this very distance makes healthcare and educational facilities inaccessible to the people. And how? A 20 km trek along those tracks under a relentless sun gave us a fairly good idea of what they have to face…almost on a daily basis.
According to Kara bhai, “If it is a small ailment we walk or go on camel-back to the road and then take a rickshaw to the PHC in Bileshwar. If it is serious, the patient is carried on a cot by 4 people all the way. Pregnant women are also taken this way to the hospital for their deliveries.”
Schools were non-existent with generations illiterate and not feeling the need to even be educated. Only when they have had to venture into the towns to conduct business they have felt it necessary – to know the prevailing prices, to know what they are being charged for, to read the labels on medicines/ products.
The region has rainfall in plenty and is surrounded by major & minor dams making water scarcity a non-issue. But the lack of piped water means that the people, mostly women, have to walk anywhere between 1 – 3 km to fetch water which in hilly terrain is not an easy prospect. Compounding it is a lack of awareness about safe drinking water. Both adults and children alike drink water in its rawest form straight from the source.
CRY and its partner GJJS have been working with 64 such ness-es within the Barda sanctuary to empower the community to demand for their most basic rights. In the last one year:
- A database of all the children between 0-6 years created to track birth registration and immunisation processes
- There has been 100% registration of the birth of all the newborn children
- 4 non-formal educational centres were started and 41 children enrolled
- Worked towards getting ration cards which also serve as identity proofs apart from giving them access to the Public Distribution System. So far 7 families have got these while 48 are being processed
- 15 of the ness’ have a Ancillary Nursing Matron visiting them once a month
- Caste certificates for all the people have been sought. RTI applications have been put in for 1425 of the certificates to seek clarifications on the discrepancies
A transformation that is surely and steadily taking place to ensure all children in the Barda sanctuary area enjoy their basic rights to live with dignity and an identity, quality education and healthcare and a future they can look forward to.
Maybe the next time you find the words “I want…” forming on your lips, maybe you will give the Maldharis of Barda a second thought. I know I will.
(pics courtesy: CRY photobank of the GJJS programme area in Barda sanctuary, Gujarat)