Getting citizenship rights for a ‘stateless’ community is Mittal’s calling
Meet Mittal Patel, a 31-year-old former journalist, who has become a catalyst of change for the ‘stateless’ nomadic community of Gujarat. By sheer perseverance and continued liaison with the government, this journalist turned social activist has obtained voter ID cards for about 40000 nomads so far – which means these people have not just obtained the right to vote, but will also be able to apply for other government benefits.
Mittal first witnessed the deplorable condition of the nomadic tribes of Gujarat in 2005 during her journalism internship. “Why isn’t the mainstream media not writing about them?” she had wondered then.
Their situation was so pathetic that they did not have even ration cards or voter ID cards. In other words, they had no valid document to substantiate their status as Indian citizens. As a result, they could not enjoy any of the government welfare schemes for the poor.
Mittal, who worked as a journalist for a short period, decided to commit her life to working for the betterment of this ‘stateless’ community. “There are about 4 million nomads in Gujarat alone,” she says.
Through her NGO Vicharata Samuday Samarthan Manch (nomadic community support forum), Mittal works among 28 nomadic and 12 de-notified communities in 8 districts of Gujarat.
“We take up all issues concerning their identity, education, social uplift, health and sanitation, housing, and jobs,” says Mittal. The tribes they work with are into different occupations. They are snake charmers, rope walkers, knife sharpeners, blacksmiths, folk artistes and entertainers such as bards, acrobats, fire-eaters, and so on.
Rapid progress in the field of science and technology and strict implementation of the wildlife protection act, are some of the factors that have robbed these communities of their traditional livelihood. Their nomadic lifestyle has denied them access to education.
“It was an uphill task to bring this community to government notice when even the media shied away from highlighting their issues,” says Mittal.
She is happy that recently the Principal Secretary of Gujarat has started issuing ration cards to the community thus ensuring food security for them. A few hundred nomads have even been assigned their own land in villages.
Mittal is now focusing on providing education to the community and has opened 25 tent schools in various nomadic settlements. About 1000 kids are studying in these schools. Another 1000 children have already been enrolled in mainstream schools through her NGO’s intervention.
A couple outside their 'mobile' home showing their voter ID cards
The nomadic communities do not easily mix with outsiders. Mittal gained their confidence with great difficulty. “They have strict customs and outdated practices that keep them backward. Children get engaged when they are 9 or 10. They wear ‘lungis’ and are reluctant to wear school uniforms. They find it difficult to adjust in mainstream schools. So, either they resort to indiscipline or stop going to school,” she says.
Before starting her NGO, she had worked among the nomads as a volunteer for another NGO. She used to tag along with them, attending their marriage functions and funerals to build up a relationship.
“Initially I just wanted to bring their problem before the government, people and NGOs. I thought they would work towards a solution,” says Mittal.
She conducted district level meetings with the nomadic tribes and NGOs, but soon the latter stopped attending the meetings, while response from the nomads began to grow day by day.
The turning point in Mittal’s life came during an interaction with members of the ‘Dafer’ community – who are branded as criminals. “When I asked a woman to feed her wailing infant she replied she couldn’t do so, as she herself was starving for days,” says Mittal, who was moved to tears on hearing those words.
“What am I doing for them who are living a life we can never imagine?” Mittal asked herself and she found her mission in life.
A family in a nomadic settlement
The nomadic tribes never let an outsider to meddle in their way of existence but Mittal’s genuine concern for them earned her their respect.
She has not let them down. Her NGO has rescued many nomadic girls who had been forced into prostitution at Wadiya village in Banaskantha district. The Saraniya community to which these girls belonged traditionally pushes its daughters into prostitution.
After their intervention, twelve girls from the community have got engaged and 8 others have got married. “Thirty five families have assured that their girls will not enter prostitution,” says Mittal.
With a supportive husband to egg her on and a little daughter to give her joy at home, Mittal is continuing her mission with great optimism.