Children of the Sahariya tribe, India. Photo by Lys Arango for Action Against Hunger.
14 years ago, Reena was born on a riverbank in India, where her family was working in the sand business. What should have been a joyous occasion turned quickly into tragedy when Reena’s mother suffered a postpartum haemorrhage. There were no doctors nearby. Without medical attention, she died. That very moment signaled what was only the beginning of a destiny inextricably tied to the historical injustices suffered by the tribes of India. Reena would be fated to a nomadic life, always in search of work.
Today Reena, of the Sahariya tribe, moves with her brother to the rhythm of the seasons, following employment in the countryside or in urban areas. Last season, she worked on the sugar cane harvest. Now, she’s living on the Parwati River, where she collects sand for the construction market.
The reliance on precarious employment has resulted in extreme poverty and consequently, malnutrition is widespread. “My little nephew fell ill,” says Reena, “he was skinny like a worm, so we thought he would die like so many others, but we managed to take him to the health centre on time,” explains the young woman.
However, the child, who suffered from severe acute malnutrition, never finished the treatment because the family migrated again. “We have no choice but to move to survive,” she says.
Despite the fact that the Indian Constitution grants them special status to safeguard their rights and culture, the 104 million people of Indian tribes continue to suffer from poverty and malnutrition.
“Children are the most affected”, explains Sachin Sharma, project coordinator of Action Against Hunger in Baran, who has been working with migrant communities in the regions of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh since 2011.
The most alarming fact is that, according to data from the Indian government, the gap between the tribal communities and the rest of the population is widening. For 15 years, the number of tribal children with malnutrition problems has remained at 54%, compared to 20% for the rest of the population.
“Constant migration in search of livelihoods and adverse weather conditions aggravate their suffering,” says Sharma.
On the Parwati River, the day starts at six in the morning. First, Reena and her sister-in-law, Ameena, prepare breakfast a step away from the shelter, built with plastics. Roti (bread) and black tea is all they’ll eat for the rest of the day. At seven o’clock, the family sets off. With their tools on their shoulders, they walk towards the river. Avoiding puddles and rocks, they make it to where they will set up camp and begin to extract sand. The whole family works except the two small children of 2 and 3 years, who run around their sisters of 6 and 8 years. They, meanwhile, use their rake to remove the stones from the sand. The older children, Reena, her brother and her sister-in-law, do the back-breaking tasks: they extract the sand with the help of a pick and shovel, and then pile it aside until they get enough to fill a truck. They earn an average of 50 or 60 rupees (barely one Canadian dollar) per day.
“In about a month, we will migrate again to work on the wheat harvest,” Reena says, “after that, cotton, and then back to the river.” In this sense, it is true that there is a great diversification of seasonal employment between the harvest of wheat, rice, sugar cane and cotton, as well as forestry activities and the construction sector, mines and railway works. But this diversification is double-edged, as Sachin Sharma explains: “on the one hand, it is a survival mechanism that allows the tribal population to find income, while on the other hand it constitutes a new form of exploitation, since it is characterized by low wages, child labour, abuses by unscrupulous contractors and the seemingly unbreakable cycle of indebtedness.”
Babulal, Reena’s 25-year-old brother, blames the impoverishment of his community on the marginalization of his hometown, located in the state of Madhya Pradesh: “We do not get public services, nor can we get work subsidized by the government. Only 10% of the people in my village have a job, no one,” Babulal continues, “has a piece of land of their own. If we want to work there, we have no other choice but to rent the lands from people of the high castes.”
Thus, seasonal migrations between tribal communities illustrate one of India’s greatest contemporary challenges: the separation between the development paradigm and the struggle for poverty reduction for the most marginalized populations. “Health and medical care services in tribal areas have been neglected for a long time, and to close the gap it is necessary to recognize the problem, as well as build a roadmap for the future,” says Sachin Sharma. But until this happens, Reena and her family will continue to be victims of their time, trapped in a whirlpool of never-ending seasonal migration in hopes of finding financial respite that may never come.