‘Only we can change our story’: the development of a marginalised tribal community

Earlier this year, work began on the implementation of the Pardhi Development Plan drawn up by grassroots leaders on our Quest Fellowship Programme. A coalition of community-based organisations and local authority partners spearheaded by these fellows are now taking the first steps towards improving the lives of a community that has suffered centuries of prejudicial treatment – all deriving from a single piece of legislation passed in 1871.

The Pardhis are a tribal community based in rural Maharashtra. They live primarily in forested areas and hunting is their main source of livelihood. Their exact numbers are disputed, due to differences between official figures and data collected by local campaigners, but they are thought to number approximately 300,000.

In 1871, the Pardhis were declared to be a criminal tribe, meaning they were collectively deprived of their basic legal rights. This status was revoked after independence in the late 1940s, but still today, many Pardhi communities have difficulty accessing basic amenities and the wide range of government schemes put in place over the last few decades due to the absence of correct legal documents.

Dwarka Pawar is a member of the Pardhi tribe and in 2010-11 she was a Leaders’ Quest Fellow. She chose to use her fellowship year to work on the development of the Pardhi community and has since remained active in this cause. She is a key member of a community-based organisation called Gramin Vikas Kendra, and she plays an important role in mobilising Pardhi women and young girls to campaign for their rights.

Over the last three years, Dwarka has teamed up with a number of other Leaders’ Quest Fellows and grassroots organisations to lead a regional campaign advocating for the civil rights of the marginalised Pardhi community. The fellows are mobilising communities and influencing government policy from the ground up.

When they set out back in 2011, the fellows articulated the following objectives for their campaign to:

  • Create and build a development plan focused on 23 villages
  • Build the leadership of the Pardhi tribe
  • Address the issue of caste certification and access to education and health services
  • Bridge the gap between the Pardhi and other local community members
  • Document the entire process

As part of the first phase, Dwarka led a detailed socio-economic survey of 1,258 Pardhi families (reaching out to almost 8,000 individuals from 207 villages). The data collection process was verified and compiled into a report by the renowned academic institution, Centre for Social Research and Development.

Based on the findings of this survey, the Pardhi Development Plan was completed in March 2014. The plan outlines actions that will significantly improve the lives of the 300,000-strong Pardhi community across a range of different areas:

1. Identity– the government is undertaking a special census to identify the actual number of the Pardhi population. This is because of discrepancies between government figures and the data submitted by the regional campaign team. The plan also calls for a special drive of issuing important identity documents such as caste certificates, voter ID cards and ration cards.

2. Education– new measures to facilitate 100% school enrolment across 23 villages are now being put in place.

3. Health– the National Rural Health Mission scheme is now being implemented in the region, with a particular focus on improving the wellbeing of women and children.

4. Livelihoods– the plan contains a blueprint for getting Pardhi men and women enrolled in the government’s Employment Guaranty Scheme. It also calls for public land to be distributed to landless Pardhi families.

After receiving rave reviews and appreciation, the district administration has confirmed the plan will be piloted in five villages.

Excited by this success, Dwarka believes that “only we can change our story.” Keeping this in mind, she is working hard with her regional team to get the pilot off the ground in the nominated villages.

Dwarka and her colleagues are aware that there remain many obstacles ahead. Despite support , there is still political opposition from some quarters (particularly from members of other castes and tribes). But the sense of breakthrough is palpable and after more than a century of oppression and struggle, a wave of optimism is rippling through the Pardhi community.

Like Dwarka, many Pardhis are confident, for the first time in generations, that they can change their story.