Every time Anandgaon village witnesses a wedding, Pardhis turn both hopeful and distressed. Their mere presence anywhere near the venue is enough to make people throw a fit. But once the guests recede, the real acts of desperation begin.
"We wait until the wedding is over. Before stray dogs could claim their share, we pounce on the dustbins hoping to grab some leftovers," says Sunita Govind Kare, portraying the sense of deprivation that chokes the members of the nomadic tribe, considered the descendants of Maharana Pratap.
Sunita belongs to a 200-member-strong Pardhi settlement on the fringes of Anandgaon, around 60 km from Kaij town in Beed district of Maharashtra. It has been over three decades since they occupied the 25-acre-plot, but they still bear the tag of dacoits, thieves, hunters and 'a disease' by the dominant Marathas.
"The villagers want us to leave. False allegations are made against us. But where will we go from here," asks Bhagwat Motiram Kare, a resident of the settlement.
Pardhis are hired neither for harvesting sugarcane, a major crop in the region, nor for menial tasks. They grow soybean for personal consumption and try to sell the surplus. "But nobody buys from us. So we have to resort to begging, even for water. Stone-pelting, hurling of fireballs at night, abuse and sexual harassment of our women and children make matters worse," Bhagwat bemoans.
All these are exactly the reasons why Pardhis in Dhakephal, located 180 km from Kaij, settled on a remote patch. Trudging through a winding dirt road crossing agricultural fields and barren stretches will take one to the government land they had 'encroached' upon (atikraman, as they say) some 25 years ago in a bid to make a home for themselves.
"Back then, this place was a forest. We decided to settle here, as hunting is our preoccupation. It also kept us aloof from other village communities. As years passed by, green cover declined and demarcations blurred. We were slowly exposed to the villagers, who wanted to drive us out. They torture us to no end, but we will not leave," shares Rajjubai Vilas Kare, who begs door-to-door for sustenance.
On days she is lucky, she gets leftover rotis, and sometimes curry. "When we do not get anything, we chew on leaves!"
Stamp of disapproval
As per the 2011 Census, Pardhi population in Beed district stands at 5,556, while it is 2,23,527 in the whole of Maharashtra. Other major tribes in the state are Koli Mahadev, Dongar Koli, Gond, Raj Gond, Arakh and Advichincher.
According to Bhavna Menon, programme manager, Last Wilderness Foundation, the organisation tries to better the lives of Pardhis through education, livelihood and measures to improve social status, the tribe worked for the ruling kings, and later the British, before taking to hunting. "In 1871, the British outlawed them under the Criminal Tribes Act, along with 150 other communities, and stamped them as hereditary criminals. Although this Act was repealed in 1952 to bring Pardhis under the classification of nomadic denotified tribes, the stigma still continues," explains Menon.
Even social workers like Kaushalya Chandrakant Thorat had to face brickbats for trying to reach out to them a decade ago. Neither the dominant Marathas approved of her action, nor did the Pardhis welcome her when she finally made it to her destination.
"I did not stop visiting, despite incessant stone-pelting. After four months, they finally allowed me to teach their children. Slowly, the families entrusted me with their troubles," recounts Thorat, a field coordinator for Navchetana Sarvangin Vikas Kendra, Kaij. She is now associated with Pardhi bastis of Anandgaon, Dhakephal and Sonijawala.
With the NGO's intervention, Thorat was able to help Pardhis dig their own borewell. "But it dries up every summer, and the sarpanch does not care. Also, there is no sign of the permanent houses we were promised two years ago," says Sushila Sanjay Kare.
The power supply is not getting anywhere either. During the local polls last year, they were promised electricity, but little did they know it would mean a "string of wire with a small bulb, generating an exorbitant bill of Rs 10,000," Sushila says the panchayat disconnected the supply when they refused to pay. In fact, the sarpanch had got them connections only after some among them received their ID cards with Thorat's assistance.
Thorat has so far helped 70 Pardhis obtain their voter IDs, and another 12 their ration cards. "It is an exhausting process. They do not have birth certificates and have no idea about their age. I had to accompany them to the government offices and panchayat regularly to sort out such issues," she sighs.
The IDs did make a difference. In the last two years, the sarpanch has been visiting the 'outcasts' with an eye on the vote bank. On the ground, however, changes are far and few. Kamal Arjun Pawar has to walk 6 km back and forth, thrice a week, to enquire about his ration. "We are told to step out of the queue and return after everybody leaves. When our turn comes, the kotedar often says our ration has not arrived."
While refusing to comment about social stigma, the sarpanch, who wished to remain anonymous, acknowledges the fact that government schemes remain inaccessible to Pardhis. "These people are nomads, not all are included in the census. In such a scenario, can we expect any government scheme exclusively for Pardhis? I am not aware of any such welfare scheme," she says.
A few dominant caste members endorsed the sarpanch's views. "We do not want to be anywhere near Pardhis. They hunt during the day and steal at night. How can our women and children be safe around them? They are also very dirty, and by inviting them near our village, we will only invite ailments," say people of Maratha community.
Victims of distrust
Twelve years ago, Rajjubai lived through the worst days of her life when her husband Vilas Motiram Kare lost a leg and his ability to speak in a road accident. Panicked, Rajjubai rushed to Kaij government hospital, where the medical staff made her wait in the compound.
"When he lost consciousness due to pain and bleeding, I screamed for help. Only then did a medical practitioner attend to him. The doctor just bandaged the bleeding leg, handed over some pills and instructed me to take him home."
Rajjubai had to drag a subconscious Vilas all the way home, as walking was the only mode of transport available for her. "We are not allowed to board a bus, train or even a rickshaw," says Anjana Chagan Kare, another Pardhi woman.
In short, social stigma keeps them away from even health institutions. They neither receive immunisations nor are visited by ASHA workers. Approximately two weeks before childbirth, Pardhi women are isolated in makeshift huts and barred from making social and physical contacts. They have to handle all the chores on their own, besides dealing with the pain and process of birthing.
"We cut the umbilical cord and remove placenta," says Shildey, who has had four successful deliveries and two stillbirths.
Once, when traditional remedies failed, Shildey walked seven km to the nearest primary health centre (PHC) carrying her child suffering from severe fever. She waited for hours outside the gate, only to be met with sheer disgust. The healthcare workers refused to touch the patient, calling both "a walking disease". "The doctor did not examine my child, but threw a medicine strip at me from a distance," she adds.
Thorat is least surprised by such reactions. "The PHC staff once told me they are worried about contracting diseases from Pardhis in case they visit the settlements for immunisation drives," she shares. Their worries mainly stem from the fact that Pardhis dwell in areas that stink of drainage waste, and their children mostly suffer from skin disease and breathing problems.
Thorat has made consistent efforts to educate Pardhi children, too. She bagged seats for five children, after persuading the zila parishad high school for six years. However, the children were not allowed to enter the premises; a further push gave them access into the school compound; eventually, they were allowed to enter classrooms, but with a condition to stay put in a corner till evening.
"Hey Pardhi, go beg! What are you doing in school, you thief!" Anjana shares how her children were frequently bullied.
As per a report from the Tribal Development Department of Maharashtra, development plans, housing facility, road access and subsidised vocational training among others, for Pardhis have been in place since 2011. It claims the community has benefited, but the reality is different.
"Under the three-year-old Pardhi Vikas Yojana, development plans are applicable to only those who own land. In areas with tribal concentration, we have provided roads, water, housing and electricity. Unfortunately, this scheme is not active at the moment and we do not know the reasons," says Shripad Mehetre, Assistant Project Officer, Aurangabad Tribal Development Department, while acknowledging the scheme's lapse.
Mehetre could not provide beneficiary data for the livelihood enhancement programmes for Pardhis. Another source from the same department says on condition of anonymity that "there is neither any budget consistency from the state government nor anyone available to conduct ground surveys on the tribe."