Maharashtra’s Katkaris strive to overcome isolation and deprivation Meet Mahesh and Vasudev, two young members of the tribe who want to bring about positive change through education

17, Jul 2021 | Mamta Pared

The Katkari community, an indigenous tribe, has struggled for centuries to join the mainstream. But now it looks like the youth of the community are taking it upon themselves to use education as a means to achieve that goal.

My friend Mahesh Wagh (26), hails from the Dhasai village in Murbad. He has always been a bright student and cleared his class 12 from the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya. It was his father’s dream that Mahesh would become a doctor one day. Alas, his father was an alcoholic and died in a drunk driving accident. Mahesh’s education had a direct impact, as he had to help his mother Jaishree run the household.

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Even though he had secured an admission in a B.Sc course, Mahesh was forced to take a break from studies for two years, and later completed his graduation with a B.A degree. However, he is not a man who lives with regret. He worked hard and reached all his desired milestones. I got in touch with my old friend as I embarked on my research on the tribal Katakari community. Mahesh and his mother, who I also call ‘aai’ or mother, hosted me. He was my local guide as it was on my journey to meet members of the Katkari community which has often been presented as ‘primitive’ or backward.

Yet, very few commentaries on the tribe explore the factors that contribute to his condition, and they are interrelated. Why is this community stuck in a vicious cycle of deprivation all their lives? I found that in many places the tribals did not even get the basic entitlements and yet have never even thought about it. They are convinced that the way they are living today is all there is to it. As there is a great lack of education in this society, they are unaware of their rights as citizens. They do not ask how come the light of freedom and awareness has not reached their huts? Why don’t they have basic facilities yet? The gap between the mainstream society and this backward “primitive” society is only widening.

However, there is some hope that may bring answers soon. I met some people who are trying to change this situation. They are fighting for their existence, and also care about their future. These youngsters are trying their best to bring a new generation into the stream of education. They are now talking for their rights. These people are also an example of how a conducive environment changes a person’s life.

Who are the Katkaris?

In Maharashtra, the Kolam, Madiya-Gond and Katkari tribes have been declared as “primitive tribes” by the Central Government. Among them, Katkari is the most backward tribe. Their traditional occupation was to extract the astringent ‘katha’ or catechu from khaira tree barks. However, due to the many rules and restrictions imposed by the forest department to prevent deforestation, this trade has all but disappeared.

In some areas these tribals make a meagre living by selling the leaves of trees like Palas, Kadu-Neem and Bell that they collect from the forest. Some people rear goats and trade in its milk. The Katkari community also eats the meat of rats and ghus, a forest rodent, that they catch when the animal falls into the traps dug into the fields after the crops are harvested. A community member told me that the rats also store grain in their burrows, which they also collect. That there is intense poverty here would be an understatement. In Maharashtra this tribe mostly settled in Thane, Palghar, Raigad, Sindhudurg, Pune and Nashik districts. They live in community dwellings called ‘Wadi’.

Things are changing, slowly but surely

Now the community youth want to overcome the isolation and deprivation and join the mainstream society. They are hardworking and want to bring about a positive change for their community.

“If we get educated our community will surely move towards the mainstream. Education will lead to overall development of the community. I have tried and am also trying my best to encourage and motivate others to move ahead in life,” Vasudev Waghe (30) told me. He lives in Mhaskal village in Kalyan Taluka, and his story is inspirational. He says his family did not migrate and the ‘settlement’ benefitted them in some way.

“My parents undertook whatever work they could get around the village. Unlike other families, they did not migrate, because of which there was stability in our lives. I studied in Zilla Parishad School till class 7, I was good in studies and my teachers were supportive. I earned a scholarship in class 4 and it created a lot of confidence in me,” said Vasudev, adding that he knew early on that education will give him the ability to make a better life for himself and his family.

“I worked hard, even though my elder sister has completed her schooling till class 7. This is significant because in the past girls of our community didn’t get a chance to study at all. Since there was a school in the village till class 7, she was able to get as much education as possible. She was an eager learner. However, she got married after finishing class 7, in keeping with our tribe’s ways,” he added.

He is also aware that being a male has been a privilege and the reason he could stay focused on completing his education. “I still remember my teacher Dyaneshwar Golle who told me to study hard and achieve my dreams. He also said that I am capable of becoming an officer one day,” as Vasudev was narrating his story, his face lit up.

He faced financial hardships but didn’t want to stop and I took admission in a college that was three kilometers away from the village. Things were going well for the teenage college student. But then when he was in class 12, his father died. “It was like I had lost the roof over my head. After my father’s death all the responsibilities fell on my mother. Both my parents used to work as a daily wage labourer but now she was the only earning member,” he says. Vasudev recalls a family friend who he calls “kaka” or uncle saying, “I could drive his rickshaw after college and earn money for education as well as for home. This was a great opportunity for me. I immediately said yes. I used to drive a rickshaw in the Ganpati Mandir area at Titwala after college hours. That’s how I completed my degree in Geography. I wanted to be an officer, and was preparing for the MPSC exams. My teacher Dnyaneshwar sir informed me about a free MPSC guidance program. I attended the program and felt that my life was getting a direction.”

Vasudev also attended coaching classes even though the course fee was Rs. 38,000, “I started my coaching and used to drive the rickshaw too. I paid the first installment of Rs 12,000. After some time, it became difficult for me to take care of the house.” He recalls that he had to leave the classes as he could not afford the fees, and then started studying on his own, “In the first attempt I cleared the prelims exam but in the main exam I got low marks. Also gave a second attempt but did not succeed. As I was getting older, the responsibilities on my shoulder had increased as I got married too. So now I drive the rickshaw and also do social service.”

He works to raise awareness and gives motivational talks at community gatherings on how a better life is possible only with education, “So dream a dream, get educated and let’s take our community forward,” is his life mantra.

This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by Mamta Pared who hails from the Warli tribe and lives with her family in Nimbavali village in Palghar district. Here she showcases how life-long poverty and deprivation affect people’s approach to life and livelihood.

Meet Mamta Pared

Mamta Pared is a young Adivasi woman hailing from the Warli community. She lives with her family in Nimbavali village in Palghar district. Her mother is unlettered, while her father was educated up to the fourth standard. After they got married, her parents started working together at a brick kiln. Every year, their family used to migrate for employment and live near brick kilns, six out of twelve months. There are five siblings, the youngest was born when Mamta was five years old. As the eldest daughter in the family, she was responsible for caring for her siblings, and also helped with household chores. She had to skip school frequently and stay home to take care of her brothers. But she studied hard, passed scholarship exams, stayed in a government hostel, even borrowed money to pay college fees. Mamta eventually earned a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Media.


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