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Kaustubh Pandharipand is creating trade networks and a legal framework that will enable India’s nomadic communities to overcome their severely marginalized status and assume their rightful place as respected citizens valued as much for their economic contribution as for their distinctive cultural identity.

This profile below was prepared when Kaustubh Pandharipande was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.


Kaustubh Pandharipand is creating trade networks and a legal framework that will enable India’s nomadic communities to overcome their severely marginalized status and assume their rightful place as respected citizens valued as much for their economic contribution as for their distinctive cultural identity.


The millions of nomadic people in India today live desperate lives on the fringes of society, struggling with deplorable conditions, lack of basic services, hostile public opinion, and the constant threat of harassment by the authorities. While government programs seek to solve these problems by settling nomadic people into mainstream society, Kustubh recognizes the unique skills, rich culture and economic importance of their traditional mobile lifestyle. Through his organization, Samvedana (Empathy), he is forging a trade network to connect these different nomadic groups to each other as well as working at the local, national and international level to raise the visibility of nomadic people and fight for their legal rights.

Kaustubh has recognized that the trading nomads, with their far-flung routes, high mobility, and facility with languages, make excellent salespeople. They are also well—placed to do market research, bringing back crucial feedback on existing products and suggestions for new product lines. They could be a great service to more stable tribes of skilled craftspeople, who need a way to get their unique handcrafted products to their customers in the cities. Kaustubh’s trading network helps these groups work collaboratively instead of competitively, providing a tremendous economic advantage for everyone, including the end customer—mostly middle and lower income households that continue to place a premium on doorstep vending because of its convenience, personalized nature, and the variety of available goods.

Kaustubh has also begun rolling out a step-by-step plan to secure the legal rights necessary for the nomads to successfully carry out their profession and lead lives of dignity.


For generations, nomadic tribes in India would travel most of the year along ancient routes to cities and towns, selling their wares and plying their trades, then returning to their remote forest hamlets for the monsoon months. Many were skilled hunters, craftspeople, and tradespeople. They were part of an efficient trade network, each group with its own, well-defined route, market, and schedule, avoiding wasteful competition, and providing an important service to their customers.

During the colonial era, these nomadic groups were marginalized and labeled as “criminal tribes” by the British rulers, who were threatened by their mobility. Although this criminal status was officially removed after independence, the stigma has remained. In the minds of the police and government officials these nomadic people are seen as criminals with their guilt hardwired at birth.

The 35 million nomadic people in India today live in deplorable conditions on the edge of mainstream society. In their forest homes, they have little access to state health and education facilities, scarce food and water, and only the most basic shelters and clothing. Their conditions as they travel from town to town are even worse. They set up temporary settlements at the edge of city limits on municipal wasteland. Their hastily constructed shelters made from government-issued rickety poles and tattered plastic tarps offer little protection, and access to basic amenities like water is non-existent. These challenging living conditions only reinforce the negative stereotypes many people have toward the nomads. Townspeople see these temporary camps as unwanted eyesores and, assuming that their inhabitants choose to live this way, view the nomads with distaste and distrust. Even their wares have changed. Many of the skilled crafts and trades of yore have been replaced by cheap plastic goods and electronic gadgets that provide little profit for the nomadic traders and little value for their customers.

Physically and conceptually, these people exist precariously on the margins of society, an invisible population systematically violated on a daily basis. In towns, they are immediately suspected of any criminal activity that coincides with their visit and routinely rounded up by the police. On the trains, they are harassed by railway staff demanding bribes for allowing them to board with their wares. And in the forests, they are often arrested by forest officials for encroachment as they continue their tradition of living off the land.

The Constitution guarantees these people rights to their profession and mobility. Since independence in 1947, the State has developed programs offering land provision and assistance with land-based occupations to marginalized groups, but instead of recognizing and working with the traditional mobile lifestyle of these people, the programs seek to settle them and assimilate them into the mainstream. For nomadic groups whose culture is based on mobility, they have been a complete failure. Most nomadic people have refused these handouts or, if they did accept, quickly returned to their mobile lifestyle. In addition, many government services like the public food distribution system, state-run health care, education, and basic amenities like water are all tied to a permanent residence, making it difficult or impossible for nomads to gain access to these vital services while they are traveling.


Kaustubh has designed a multi-point strategy to accomplish his goal of enabling nomads to attain full economic citizenship in contemporary India without relinquishing their cultural identity and lifestyle. Kaustubh is based in Maharashtra, where nomads constitute seven percent of the population. At the local level Kaustubh is working with nomadic communities, citizen sector organizations active in tribal development programs, and other key players to create the linkages that form the matrix of the trade model. On regional, state, and national levels he is hooking up with organizations and networks concerned with the rights of marginalized peoples and creating space and visibility for the issues of nomads at these fora. Simultaneously he has begun rolling out a step-by-step plan to secure the legal rights necessary for the nomads to successfully carry out their profession and lead lives of dignity.

The key to Kaustubh’s approach is an efficient trading system that builds on the nomads’ comparative advantages, creating or reinforcing mutually beneficial links among different communities. Traditionally, there has been no meaningful contact between settled tribal and nomadic groups. For example, there are several settled tribal groups in his area of operations that, with the assistance of local citizen sector organizations, produce various eco-friendly cottage industry products, but the marketing of these products has always been a problem. At the same time, nomadic traders had access to customers, but no unique products to sell. Kaustubh has identified the marketing opportunity that lies in linking these groups. Now nomads are the marketing and sales teams for these small-scale producers, taking their goods all across the country and ensuring a reach that would have been previously unimaginable. Quality control is ensured by the citizen sector organizations; Kaustubh’s organization Samvedana provides storage facilities for products at two strategically located warehouses; and the urban consumer can buy eco-friendly, handcrafted quality-audited products at her doorstep.

Kaustubh and his partner citizen sector organizations are working to help both the producers and the traders to improve economically. For example, through the collaboration with local entrepreneurship development groups, Kaustubh is training groups of skilled craftspeople like the Pardhis, who are excellent woodworkers, to produce marketable handicrafts that nomad traders like the Belldars will then take to urban homes. He is also collaborating with Bee Techno services to train some gatherer nomad groups in the extraction of honey that others groups will sell to urban markets. To improve the nomad’s role as salesperson, Kaustubh conducts programs focusing on basic etiquette and grooming skills. He’s also started self help groups for men and women to manage the profits and plans to form women-only self-help groups in the future. Kaustubh has initiated the work of linking interested citizen sector organizations and nomadic groups on a regional basis in Maharashtra, where nomads constitute seven percent of the population.

Kaustubh realizes that this trading model alone cannot sustain the nomads if the state system consistently and comprehensively fails them. He therefore plans to bring a class action lawsuit on behalf of the nomads, forcing the government to protect their constitutional rights to profession and mobility with actions like issuing mobile voter’s ID and ration cards, ensuring proper facilities at the temporary settlements and making concessions for subsidized travel. To build a strong case, he plans to conduct a census—the first ever—of the nomads, first regionally and then statewide. The data from this census would provide crucial quantitative and qualitative visibility to the groups, forcing the system to acknowledge their existence. Additionally, it would provide important insights to guide future policies regarding nomads. Kaustubh has already started connecting with citizen sector organizations in the region that will partner with Samvedana in carrying out this massive, vitally important, project. Eventually, he envisions a national alliance of nomadic peoples and their partners emerging from the process that can function as a non-partisan political pressure group as well as carry his successful trade network to other regions. Kaustubh prefers this decentralized model to replicate his strategy, where he and Samvedana remain a facilitator working closely with regional citizen sector organizations and nomad groups.

Kaustubh has also been aggressively networking with national and international bodies. He is a member of “Muktidhara”, a national network of citizen sector organizations working with nomadic communities in states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, and Maharashtra, through which he is spreading his work at the national level. He is the India contact for the World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous Peoples (WAMIP)—an alliance dedicated to empowering mobile indigenous peoples throughout the world to maintain their lifestyles. He has attended national-level workshops such as a Law for All workshop and a Microfinance summit where he has presented the nomad issue and his approach to persons working with nomads and other marginalized groups. What he has learned from these workshops has directly impacted his work: the microfinance meet has given impetus to his plans for women-only SHGs, and the Law for All workshop provided crucial inputs in designing his census plan.

This year Kaustubh is organizing the Paryavaran Parishad, an annual event in Maharashtra that provides a platform for information sharing among researchers, activists, and citizen sector organizations. The theme is “Nomadic people and environment” and he is designing the event to engage a wide audience with nomad-connected issues. In-depth discussions are scheduled to explore the social, legal and economic problems plaguing the nomads.

Back at Samvedana, Kaustubh is working to develop his Dream team: a small group of persons covering a large age span who constitute the think tank of the organization. Members travel with the nomads to experience and understand practically their issues, and are also involved in thinking and research work. Kaustubh plans to expand this group gradually, especially by bringing in educated nomadic youth who may have migrated to cities but are looking for an opportunity to return and work with their communities. The Dream team then will become key to spreading the idea as consultants to advise those who want to learn from Samvedana.

In the pipeline are plans for a Samvedana-published manual for groups wanting to replicate its work, and, in the long run, an institution of nomadic studies, offering theoretical and practical know-how.


Growing up in Nagpur, Kaustubh assumed responsibility for the care of his family, including his father, an older brother and sister. He also began developing an interest in birdwatching, spending all his meager pocket money on this hobby. At 13 he was recognized as the local bird identification expert. He volunteered for a wildlife census of migratory birds by the International Wetland Bureau collecting crucial data, broadening and deepening his own knowledge on the subject and learning the methodology of census taking.

During Kaustubh’s college years his father’s job as a technical teacher transferred him to a village bordering a national park. Kaustubh juggled taking care of his ailing father and the household, college, and his abiding interest in birdwatching. Everyday he would spend time in the park interacting with the local hunter-gatherer nomad group. His understanding of tribal culture and lifestyle deepened when he volunteered to do a study along with the locals on bird watching and bird eating. By 19, Kaustubh was spending all his spare time with the nomads on issues like seasonal trapping, medicinal shrubs, and larger ecological issues. At this time he participated in a number of action-research projects on behalf of citizen sector organizations that honed his research and survey skills, and strengthened his bond with the nomads by engaging him further with their concerns.

He realized that here were a unique people with valuable skills who were being slowly extinguished because no one cared enough to take up their cause. But he did; and from 1999 he dedicated himself full time to the nomads, living in their hamlets and traveling with them on ancient trading routes across India. During this time he supported himself as a silk-screen artist while continuously involving himself in research work connected with nomads and biodiversity and writing and speaking on these subjects for various media outlets. He successfully applied for a number of fellowships to carry out in-depth research on the nomads.

In 2001 he settled in Karanja, a small town in Maharashtra, that allowed him to be close to the nomads, and set up Samvedana. Today, at 28, he spends half the month with his family—father, wife, and daughter; and the rest with the nomads in their homes and on their travels. The nomads have a rich musical heritage: their songs are a joyful celebration of life. For too long now there has been silence where once there was song. For Kaustubh his mission will be accomplished when once again the world can hear the music of the nomads.