MITTAL PATEL

India,

India’s large populations of former ‘criminal tribes’ continue to remain economically, socially, and politically disenfranchised. Over the last seven years, Mittal Patel has worked in over 1,000 different denotified tribal (DNT) settlements to legitimize them—not just as active citizens accessing land, education and livelihoods—but also as leaders. 

This profile below was prepared when Mittal Patel was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.

INTRODUCTION

India’s large populations of former ‘criminal tribes’ continue to remain economically, socially, and politically disenfranchised. Over the last seven years, Mittal Patel has worked in over 1,000 different denotified tribal (DNT) settlements to legitimize them—not just as active citizens accessing land, education and livelihoods—but also as leaders. 




THE NEW IDEA

By extending political franchise to a critical mass of tribes, Mittal draws the attention of the public authorities to their needs and creates a negotiating platform to advocate for their social, economic and political rights. Building on this, she facilitates access to land and funds for housing to bring permanency to their nomadic lifestyle. Mittal also facilitates their entry into educational systems and opens opportunities for livelihoods that leverage their skills. In each instance, she embeds them within existing public or private systems to ensure civic participation. Mittal also employs an array of creative strategies using religious leaders, among others, as mavens to ensure their social integration. A strong belief in the need to create political leadership among communities to ensure that they can advocate for their own rights, she does capacity building with them in order to participate in local elections as Panchayat members, ward councilors, and so on.

Mittal’s work has allowed 40 tribes, living in a 1,000 different settlements in Gujarat, to access their rights and entitlements from the government, to integrate their children into the public school system, to find economically viable professions, and to be elected to local government. Mittal is advocating for legislations and policy changes for DNTs to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, to nationally scale her model of empowerment.




THE PROBLEM

Historically, before the British colonized India, tribes now known as denotified tribes, largely served as the armies to the princely states of India. The rulers of these states never paid the armies. Instead the communities were both asked and permitted to rob from the states that they defeated in battle. When the British colonized India, the princely states were lost and so were the livelihoods of these armies. They formed nomadic tribes living on the fringes of the society and subsisted on rudimentary resources, often wandering in order to survive as petty traders, pastoralists, gypsies, hill and forest dwelling tribes, which did not conform to the British colonial idea of “civilized living.” The British considered these communities criminals, under the Criminal Tribes Act (1871), wherein criminality or professional criminal behavior was taken to be hereditary rather than habitual. Members of these tribes, including women and children, were asked to show their presence at the local police station twice a day, and could be indiscriminately arrested for any crime in the area without supporting evidence. Five years after India’s independence, each state began to de-criminalize, or denotify these tribes, the last of them were denotified in 1965. However, the strong social stigma of having a ‘criminal history’ continues to ostracize them. 

The 1,000 DNTs, spread throughout India, are forced into a nomadic life, as no village allows them to settle within village boundaries. Under the British Act they were forbidden to own property, and to this day none own land due to poor financial conditions. They move from settlement to settlement on the fringes, living under tents of tarpaulin sheets, and are reduced to begging. Some tribes have been forced to continue their criminal professions, such as highway robberies and extortion, with no other means of income available to them. Even 50 years after denotification, the police still arrest them without proof of a crime, forcing them to relocate in a matter of seconds, in the middle of the night; whenever they hear police van sirens. Since they are nomadic, the government does not recognize them in the census. As a result, they cannot access basic government services, such as water, housing, education, guaranteed work, and income.

The few initiatives by citizen organizations (COs) to improve their living conditions have failed because their nomadic lifestyle meant interventions were discontinued. Due to their discrimination over the years, they distrust non-tribe members and are not cooperative with COs. 




THE STRATEGY

Rather than creating parallel structures, Mittal strongly believes in tapping into existing policies and structures to aid their integration and empowerment. For sustainable change, she believes in empowering communities to negotiate for their own rights. 

With no definite information about the location and numbers of DNTs, Mittal began by scanning and mapping the region. Field workers visited the temporary settlements of the tribes, and one tribe gave information leads about the settlement of another. The consistent and frequent visits to the settlements helped in scrutinizing and understanding the problems they faced and the general society’s attitude toward DNTs. 

After concluding the process of assessing and understanding the demography of DNTs, Mittal’s took members of DNT communities to the offices of local government administrative officers to directly voice their issues. Through this, Mittal created a platform for DNT to dialogue with the government and assert their presence as citizens. Mittal began working to get the members of DNT government authorized identification documents; the first step to citizenship. She trained leaders from the community about the process and guided them on the ID card application process. Voter ID cards or ration cards enabled these communities to establish their existence and exercise their rights. Vicharata Samuday Samarthan Manch’s (Denotified Tribes Collective Platform-VSSM) support has enabled 3,365 families access to various rights and entitlements, and another 1,842 families have applications in the pipeline. 

Mittal believes that it is essential for DNTs to settle in an area with permanent housing to ensure that interventions are effective and have long-term impact. Based on the ID cards the tribe members acquired, she helps them apply to the Village Panchayat and Chitnis department (local government land holding authority) for the allotment of plots of land for their permanent settlement, making use of the policy that the village is mandated to allot land to those residing there for eight months or more. Next, Mittal helps them apply for funds for housing construction under the government’s Pandit Dindayal Awas Yojana, which alots them Rs. 45,000 (US$732) per family. So far, VSSM has enabled around 1,350 families to claim land and housing, out of which 450 families have already obtained land and completed construction of their homes.

Mittal has faced unique challenges while trying to enroll the children of DNTs (approximately 1.5 million), all first generation learners, into the public school system—Ashram Shalas. The discrimination and victimization of the students from the school administration because of their unique language, clothing, and behavior results in children dropping out of the Ashram Shalas. To help the children feel more comfortable in the school system, Mittal started a bridge program within DNT settlements. Within Bal Dost (Children’s Friend), a young adult from the community plays the role of a teacher. The aim of these bridge schools is to prepare children from DNT communities for mainstream school by acclimating the children to the norms of the school, and getting them into the habit of going to and spending five hours in school. VSSM runs 35 bridge schools, catering to 969 students. The children from the bridge schools enrolled in government schools as they became ready to settle in to the public school environment. Because of the advantage gained from preparatory bridge schools, they did well in the government schools. 

With the success of the bridge schools, Mittal realized the need to start education at an even earlier age, and started 31 Balghar (Children’s Home), for children aged 0-6, where along with pre-school education, the children received nutritional supplements. Currently, VSSM runs many support programs for children from DNTs who are continuing their education in the public school system, in the form of student hostels, scholarships, and supplementary tuitions.

Mittal’s next step in empowering members of DNTs is to help them achieve financial stability. She helps them find alternate professions linked to their historical professions so that their inherent skills can give them a competitive advantage in the job market. For example, Mittal assisted in securing jobs at a knife making factory for the Sarhaniya community that made sharpened weapons. Similarly, she secured jobs with the Forest Department for snake and bear charming communities as anti-poaching field workers. Those tribes engaged in traditional performance arts are trained to make their folk arts appealing to the current generation, and large troops are traveling the country performing before audiences in auditoriums, not on the streets as they had done. Their profession is again dignified, and they have a reliable income. 

Mittal’s greater vision for her program is realized in the Empowerment Ladder (EL). The EL builds political leadership among members of DNTs. Mittal educates the tribes on the structures and processes of political institutions, hones natural leaders, and works with them to campaign to become elected local government officials. Once elected, she consults with them on how to use their position to not only bring about developments for their own tribes, but for all the villages in their jurisdiction, so that the greater community respects their work and accepts them. For example, a leader from the Raval community, Dilip, was elected as the Sarpanch (head village Ombudsman), another, Ishwor, as the District Cell leader. Initially, the villagers petitioned the Panchayat against a Sarpanch from the DNT community but Dilip worked to get a water connection for the village, which benefited not just his community, but the whole village, and he quickly gained the entire village’s respect and was re-elected.

After four years of working as a collective, Mittal founded VSSM in 2010. She is also lobbying to start a national dialogue on empowerment of the DNT communities. Mittal uses her experiences and outcomes of VSSM’s grassroots level work to influence policy level changes and to achieve multiplied impact. Mittal consults the National Advisory Committee formed for the economic, social and educational upliftment of DNTs, where she advises the government on legislation and policy level issues related to DNTs.




THE PERSON

Mittal was born in rural Gujarat to an agricultural family. She remembers her father being very generous; he donated grains to poorer villagers during harvests, gave money to families in need for their daughter’s wedding, and repaired their huts. Mittal’s mother would often complain that her father saw the needs of others before those of his own family, but Mittal respected her father’s actions and absorbed the same values.

Coming from a patriarchal society, where going to school was a rebellion, Mittal focused her energy in school on sports; a domain entirely restricted to boys. In spite of resistance from the community, Mittal excelled in athletics, and when she was 12 years old, she received a scholarship from the Sports Authority of India, to study and train in the National Sports Academy. Mittal left her home for the first time to live alone in the hostel of the academy, eight hours away from her village, and was one of the very few girls on campus. She remembers the next few years of her life at the academy as some of the hardest in her life; she woke up at 5 a.m. for practice, endured a full day of school, followed by cross training, and ended her day with homework and studying. It was her six years at the academy that prepared her for a life of early mornings, late nights and hard work. 

After she finished school, Mittal moved further from home for college. During her first year, she lived with her maternal grandparents and had to take care of them; cooking and cleaning, along with managing her difficult college academics. She says these years with her grandparents taught her the value of time, and that every skill is important, both at home and outside.

Mittal went to a large city for the first time for her master’s degree in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat. At the time she wanted to take the civil service exams and become an Indian Administrative Officer. In 2004, during her degree, she earned a fellowship from Jesuits in Social Action (then involved in donating to tribal projects) based on studying “Migration and Migrant Workers”, guided by Ashoka Fellow Fr. Stanislaus Jebamalai, SJ., Mittal travelled to the settlements of migrant sugarcane cutters with a few clothes and books. Her experience the very first day shook her. The wife of a man in the settlement was kidnapped and raped. Mittal’s first reaction was to file a report with the police, but she was told it was of no use, because the man and his wife were from a DNT, and if they went to the police, the police would arrest them, not look for the person who wronged them. This was the first time Mittal was exposed to the existence of DNTs. Instead of leaving in fear, she did her fellowship to learn more about this community and their problems. 

Over the next six months, Mittal learned about the stigma against DNT, how the villagers wouldn’t give them water; they were paid by landlords for daily labor in very poor quality grain, not even suitable for cattle; and they were beaten and violated without reason and the police would not help. Mittal saw how government services and the public administration system failed this community miserably because they were not recognized as citizens. For four years after finishing her fellowship, Mittal travelled from one DNT settlement to another. Sharing their hardships (i.e. lack of food, money, and health problems), she gained their trust and gained deeper insight into their lives. 

Mittal initially approached COs to urge them to address issues of DNTs. However, to her disappointment, after months of trying to bring COs and members of DNTs together for meetings to kick start the work, the COs withdrew saying they couldn’t work with DNTs because of their nomadic lifestyle and there would be no continuity in their work. However, Mittal observed that word spread rapidly among members of the tribes, bringing members from tribes with whom Mittal had not met. 

Mittal’s work started from these meetings, training the members of DNTs to apply for ID cards, and ration cards. Mittal did not see herself as someone running an organization, but as a facilitator for DNTs to fight for their own rights, which is why her organization is called a Collective Platform for DNTs.