The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Stereotype smothers Sahariyas

Shahabad (Rajasthan), Nov. 1: It is easy to intimidate Sahariya tribals into silence. It could be an upper caste village sarpanch, a politician or a government official.

The Sahariyas take a beating from everyone above their own lowly station in life. The story behind the recent starvation deaths in this tribal community touches the very core of their existence — their desperate isolation and a way of life stigmatised by most.

Social discrimination begins early in life when Sahariya children start going to school.

“They sit in complete isolation in the class. Upper caste children do not mix with them. The attitude of the teachers is not sympathetic,” says Charu from Sankalp, a non-governmental organisation working in this belt.

“The Sahariyas are lazy. They never take a bath. All they do is drink,” says a government employee. “They never even change their clothes,” says another. There is a myth about Sahariyas that they have more than one wife.

All of this has gone into creating a Sahariya stereotype — a mindset hurting them more than anything else, say NGO activists. There is no denying Sahariyas have become used to living in filth and utterly degrading conditions.

“They have no incentive to change this way of life. Their self-esteem is low,” says another activist.

Almost as a rule Sahariya villages are governed by upper caste sarpanchs. “They are really scared of them. Harassment continues at different levels,” stresses Charu.

As a result Sahariyas have given up asking for their rightful share. Unlike in the Hindi heartland where assertion by backward castes and Dalits has checkmated upper castes, here in the depths of Rajasthan, the lower castes have no voice.

Stories abound of how a section of affluent Sikhs usurped land from the Sahariyas.

“Later a district collector set the situation right by going to court, and winning the case in favour of Sahariyas,” say the locals. Sahariyas got back their land.

“It all depends on individuals and not on the system,” says Charu. The system both at political and bureaucratic levels has failed to deliver, at least for Sahariyas.

“The problem is they are not a political constituency — not a votebank for any political party,” says an official. There are 40,000-odd Sahariya voters. They have a single MLA who has won three consecutive terms. But that has not changed the overall condition of Sahariyas.

“Had he wanted he could have kept a steady pressure on the government to implement the Sahariya project,” says an observer. “He also seems to be overawed by his other colleagues,” he adds.

The media coverage of starvation deaths has suddenly dragged the bewildered community out of wilderness. Suddenly they are under a media glare.

“Once this story dies down people will forget about the general backwardness of the Sahariyas which lies at the root of their illness, malnourishment and deaths,” says Charu.

The depths of backwardness can be measured when Sahariyas say they have never travelled even as far as Kota, the nearest big town — some 160 km away. They have never seen a train and rarely boarded a bus.

The overall progress in literacy and primary education in Rajasthan has passed Sahariyas by. Activists, however, maintain it is still in this sector that Sahariyas have a toehold.

“The sharp drop-out rate may be checked if the attitude of people who deal with Sahariya children is more sympathetic,” adds Charu.

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