Among the 18 million street children in India are the children of many marginalized nomadic tribes. In 1871, the British enacted the Criminal Tribes Act, which notified certain tribes as “criminals”, regardless of the activities of individual members. The Waghri (or Vaghri) and Sikligar Sikh tribes, with whom we work, were two such groups of adivasis. As notified tribes, they were obligated to give ‘Hajeri’ (attendance) at the police station during a certain time of day. Their mobility was stunted, as residence changes and any form of long-distance travel required advance permission. Penalties were severe, and the police regularly gathered members of these tribes upon mere suspicion.
It was not until 1952 that these tribes were ‘denotified,’ rescinding their criminal label. However, many of these tribes were not included as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes or Other Backward Classes, and thus not recognized by the government to receive reservations (a form of affirmative action) in universities and government enterprises, as well as material government support such as food rations.1
The Vaghri, who in Maharashtra have taken the surname Waghri, originate from northeast Gujarat and southern Rajasthan. Most Waghri in Pune claim to have migrated within the past generation in search of employment, but because the last city-wide census of nomadic and denotified tribes was in 1931, no accurate estimate has been established.2
The Waghri families of Pune earn their livelihoods in informal labor activities such as garment sales, restaurant service, and occasionally brewing “toddy beer” in-home from fermented toddy juice.3 They are a non-vegetarian people, but because of the high cost of meat, they commonly eat two meals per day of moong dal, urd, chavali and wheat products such as chapati.
While the Waghri are no longer considered a criminal tribe, the vast majority is still not receiving support from the government. Besides the state of Gujarat, the Waghri find themselves unlisted on every state list of Scheduled Tribes4 and Other Backward Classes,5 while completely absent nationwide from every state list of Scheduled Castes.6 Thus, without birth or caste certificates, or any form of identification, they are an invisible population that receives little to no government support.
Compounding the difficulties posed by an unsupportive government system is the social stigma that still enshrouds the Waghri community years after the criminal tribe label has been removed. The Waghri caste is characterized as dangerous and untrustworthy, and allowing a Waghri into one’s home is considered unthinkable – the women who go door-to-door buying and selling clothes are believed to be merely ‘casing the joint’ for a return visit by their husbands, who are assumed to be formidable criminals. The materiality of their trade further degrades their social standing, as unwanted, disintegrating old clothing can be understood as jutha, or polluted leftovers, and dealing in waste is considered a poor reflection of one’s moral character.
The Sikligar Sikhs
Like the Waghri, the Sikligar have been pushed to the fringes of society in the wake of India’s modernization. The Sikligar name is a derivation of “Saiqal-gar”, a term of Persian origin used to describe one who burnishes metal. Once master blacksmiths and armor manufacturers, new technology has rendered their trade obsolete.
Originating from Punjab and neighboring states, the Sikligar live simple, yet difficult lives. Daily meals generally include some form of wheat, roti made from corn and bajra, and pulses such as masur, moong, moth and gram.7 Living day-to-day, the Sikligar families subsist on less than USD 1 per day. In the slum areas in which we work, Sikligar fathers and older sons, if they are not unemployed, sell scrap wood by the roadside, as laborers at the nearby golf course, metal-related jobs or a variety of other low-skilled jobs.
Currently in Maharashtra, the Sikligar Sikh are not listed as a Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe or Other Backward Class. Problems similar to those of the Waghri surround the Sikligar, who, without proper identification and a poor reputation, have found it extremely difficult to prosper in modern society.
There are various unaddressed needs specific to the Waghri and Sikligar communities, as the label “Criminal Tribe,” though recently revoked,child in Waghri slum continues to circumscribe the lives of the individuals with whom we work. AIC views the children as the key to the future of these perpetually impoverished communities and invests its resources accordingly to ensure that the next generation has all the tools it needs to transform and empower the Waghri and Sikligar communities.
3. Kharwa, Toti and Pawar, Subhadra. Interview. 30 October 2009.
5. K.S. Singh. People of India: Punjab, Volume XXXVII. 2003. Page 411.
6. http://censusindia.gov.in/Tables_Published/SCST/SC%20Lists.pdf; Note: They are listed as a notified Scheduled Caste in five states: Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Chandigarh, Delhi and Haryana.
7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Scheduled_Tribes_in_India; Note: They are not listed in any state as a Scheduled Tribe.
8. http://ncbc.nic.in/backward-classes/rajasthan.html; They are currently listed as an Other Backward Class in Andhra Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.