We are also human beings! The economically deprived Katkari tribe of Maharashtra demands right to a dignified life

09, Aug 2021 | Mamta Pared

The Katkari tribe, which has often been presented as ‘primitive’ or backward, lives together in close-knit groups. The place where these people live is called a Wadi, or locality. Almost all Katkari Wadis are located on the outskirts of a village, and with the exception of a few pucca houses built under the Gharkul housing scheme, one can see that all others are just densely erected huts. However, I observed that these dwellings were deprived of basic amenities. I studied two Wadis: the Mhasa Katkari Wadi, at Mhasa village and Chikhalyachee Maan Wadi in the Chikhale village.

Mhasa village is 23 kilometers from Murbad, a place known for its natural beauty and one that has been an important tourist centre as it has many historical places. The Mhasa village jatra (fair) held in January each year is also a major draw for local tourists. This fair begins from the Mhasoba temple and extends to the entire village. Traders from faraway places come here to sell and buy bullocks for their carts, though earlier they were also bought for bull races. Bamboo-cane baskets as well as woolen blankets are also traded on a large scale here.

But as we go away from the taluka headquarters and move into the interior area, things change and the real picture of life in the Katkari wadi emerges. The wadis are a proof of how developmental change is yet to reach them. Their ongoing struggle to seek a dignified life is heartbreaking. I traveled to a few wadis, and tried to understand the reality, as experienced by the community.

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We are also human beings!

A call from a woman when we were on the way to Mhase Wadi altered us about the outbreak of wildfire there. We accelerated our speed and reached in time to see the entire Wadi’s residents working together as a team, trying to extinguish the fire. They managed to save two houses from being consumed by the fire. I realised that the firefighters were all the women of the village. Then men folk had not yet returned from their work as labourers. The whole area was engulfed in smoke long after the flames had died.

The village headwoman Vimal Tai told us how the fire spread to the village through the neighbouring fence, and how they worked intensely to extinguish it. She took us to where she says their land had been encroached by erecting a wire fence. It was right next to the hut. “Thorny Bori bushes had been scattered around the place barring us from going there” she said, adding, “Once we tried to remove the grass inside the compound. This caused a quarrel. They don’t let us remove the grass, nor do they themselves remove the grass. They don’t do the cleaning of that area. That’s why the fire reached upto here. None of them came to put out the fire.” The “they” she refers to are non-tribal farmers who she alleged have encroached upon the land of the Katkaris. “They were trying to save their fruit plants, and the people of the Wadi were struggling to save their houses,” she said.

Vimal Tai is the village headwoman and has been leading the struggle for Adivasi rights

Being landless, the Katkari people have to face many problems. These problems prove to be hurdles in their fundamental development. Mhasa Katkari Wadi is an example of this. This Katkari village was settled here 10 years ago, because the number of Katkari families grew in the Mhasa village where they lived earlier, the livable area was falling short. The land in the gaonthan or village plot allotted by the government came to use here. This 12-acre village site is towards the forest at the foot of a small hillock. But the vacant land is nowhere to be seen now. This land has been encroached by non-tribal people, say the Katkaris. “Some do farming here. Some are using the land for horticulture. Some have just occupied the land by having wired fences around the land,” say the Katkaris. On the other hand three Katkari families are forced to live in one small house. With the exception of a couple of pucca houses, the rest are only huts.

The Katkari people are now demanding that the gaonthan land should be surveyed, so that the encroachers go away and the Wadi gets its own land. However, all they have gotten so far are various excuses. No survey has been done yet. Vimal Tai is  very angry. She asks, “Are we human beings or animals?” She was so loud and angry that the village police officer came over and a heated exchange flared up between him and Vimal Tai. The community came together to pacify them. Police officer Patil was shouting twice as louder as Vimal Tai and said, “If you had built your hut away from the fence, your house would not have caught fire.” I saw how the village police officer, who himself was a non-tribal, was blaming the Katkari tribal families.

This encroachment has been there for many years. The tribals can’t be blamed for this. My friends and I intervened to calm things down. But it’s obvious that the calm is temporary. The divide is clear and increasing as on one side, a group is cultivating the land, or making money by selling the land, and on the other side, the tribal people have no land for living. They have to struggle for survival. We don’t know how long this inequality will prevail in society.

The Forest Department never helps

The forest dwelling people are served notices by the forest department, and their houses are demolished. The trouble is that they do not have the paperwork for the land their houses are built on, they don’t get benefits of housing schemes. At the Mhasa Katkari Wadi the narrow path leading to it is lined with thorny bushes. Most homes here do not have electricity supply. Until a few years ago, drinking water was also not available nearby. The Wadi residents used to quench their thirst by digging ditches near the mainstream. After repeated efforts, they got a borewell from the government. The borewell has water till March, thereafter comes muddy water. The people are forced to drink it anyway to survive. We were hosted at the home of Vimal Tai, and many told us how her leadership shaped them. “We can speak courageously because of her only,” said Manubai Wagh clad in a saree wrapped in the Adivasi style. Her face was creased with lines lit up when she narrated how Vimal Tai had been leading the struggle for their rights for some years.

Manubai Wagh

Manubai showed her cottage, which was surrounded by a wire fence. When we asked why, she asked a counter-question, “Are those who raise the fence human beings and we who live in huts are animals?”

When the tribals started residing there, they didn’t have basic facilities. Their plot was surrounded by jungles. Yet they tried their best to get electricity and even met the local MLA. However, many started saying that the Katkari people were “outsiders”. They were shamed for asking the government for their rights. It was Vimal Tai who protested. She led the whole Wadi. Soon the Wadi got electricity, meters were installed in four houses. This boosted the confidence of the people. Since then, Vimal Tai has become the real hero of all these people.

The Adivasis live in fear that their children will be beaten by “these bigshots”, perhaps even killed! They ask, “Why do the people from higher castes torture the poor Katkari people? If they get violent, where will we go then?” They say this fear also gives them strength to fight for their social security. With the forest on one side, an agricultural land, allegedly encroached by non-tribals, on the other side, the Katkari felt stuck. Most children here don’t go to school when it rains and the path is inundated.

Some images of Katkari homes in Mhase Wadi may be viewed here:

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Marooned at Chikhalyachee Maan

Chikhalyachee Maan, my next stop, is the Katkari Wadi in the village Chikhale. This Wadi is situated on a small island surrounded by a river. One has to walk through the jungle to reach the village. There are 22 who call this home, but now 16 of them have shifted out to work on brick kilns. Not a single adult has studied beyond class VII, and no child goes to school during the monsoon. They often lag behind in studies and as a result, they drop out from the school.

There was a bridge over the river, but it collapsed during a flood eight years ago. So now when the river is flooded in the monsoon, no one goes outside the village unless it is essential. Once they had a  boat to cross the river, however it is now useless as it has a hole in it. However, whenever an election is around the corner, the Katkaris are “promised” that a new bridge will be constructed. Every voter in the wadi casts their vote. The bridge to Chikhalyachee Maan remains a dream.

Some images of Chikhalyachee Maan may be viewed here:

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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. She wants to be a journalist, and later become a professor in a college. She is working on earning a Master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Abasaheb Garware College in Pune.

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