Caste certificates and government benefits elude Odisha’s neglected Kela tribe

By Rakhi Ghosh

Puri/Bhubaneshwar, January 28 (IANS/101Reporters): “Amara jati pramana nathibaru ame sarakari sahayataru banchita heuchu (We are deprived of government rights because we don’t have caste certificates),” Meena Das (34) told a gathering of academics, researchers and of journalists in the capital of Odishas, ​​Bhubaneswar, at the end of September.

Das belongs to Sabakhia Kela, one of 13 Kela communities listed in Pipili, Brahmagiri and Sadar blocks of Puri district of Odisha. They lived for generations as a nomadic tribe. Some members of the community are still snake charmers, while others perform stunts for money and food. Many of them play instruments like the Tingi Khadu as they go door to door collecting alms.

Murali Shikari (41) from the Mundapota Kela community said: “The male members of the community bury their heads under the ground and hold their breath while the women beat the drums to attract the public so that they can collect the ‘alms. performing a typical dance form – the ghoda nacha. It was our livelihood.

The Kela tribes have been subject to continued neglect and social stigma. All because the community has never been entitled to the all-important caste certificates that can open doors to various types of government support, Meena Das said.

A district official, on condition of anonymity, told 101Reporters that it is difficult to issue certificates to the Kela community as they have no background or any information about their origins in Odisha.

“One of the main problems in placing these communities on India’s development map is the unavailability of authentic and relevant data. They are not available because no caste census was undertaken between 1931 and 2011” said Sandip Patnaik, a researcher studying the socio-economic conditions of Kela communities.

Patnaik added that most of these communities are nomadic and their numbers are unlikely to be counted in census data.

“A number of states have not prepared the list of denotified or nomadic communities,” he said, adding that “the lack of official records has rendered them invisible in the development process. Many of them they are still struggling to get a caste certificate so that they can enjoy government benefits.”

Looking for a home

The study revealed that Kela communities have limited access to land, housing and sanitation, forcing them to live in neglect.

Murali Shikari said the government has been unable to provide adequate housing for his family either through the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana or the Biju Pucca Ghar Yojana for the poor. “We live in a swampy place and are vulnerable to disease,” he said.

Lata Shikari (65), a widow living in Pipili block, has been waiting for 40 years to be able to build a house thanks to government support. She has attended most of the rallies organized by the ruling party in Bhubaneswar in the hope that her demand will be met. She hasn’t succeeded so far.

In the past, Meena Das said, members of the Kela community would eat anything they could find, from dead birds to snakes. But now things have changed as many look forward to a dignified life.

“Now we work either as seasonal laborers or as farm laborers and sharecroppers,” she said, adding that people in her community could live a better life if they had a house.

No work, no school

The lack of caste certificates, for example, has prevented the Kela community from accessing labor cards which are issued under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

This was particularly difficult when employment prospects were further dented by the coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide lockdown imposed by the government in March 2020. “The meager earnings we used to get as workers have stopped. obtained from the public distribution system. It was insufficient,” said Meena Das.

Lakhia Shikari (44) from the Beherasahi in Pipili block, which belongs to the Mundapota Kela community, said the pandemic had forced them to return to their traditional profession.

“The sudden announcement of the lockdown wiped out our livelihoods. We were living hand to mouth. When there were no work opportunities due to the pandemic, we retreated to our traditional occupation – begging alms,” she said.

Muna Das (21), from Ghusuria Kela community, had to quit university during the pandemic and work on a farm to support her family. He couldn’t get a stipend when he graduated because he didn’t have a caste certificate. He had to pay regular fees like his general class counterparts, which ultimately made it difficult for him to continue his education.

“I approached government officials and even the district tax collector to ask for a caste certificate but to no avail,” he said.

Muna Das’ dreams of becoming a teacher were shattered due to lack of caste certificates. “We are so invisible in the eyes of the government that even after so many years of independence, we are deprived of a caste certificate. Now the pandemic has shattered all our hopes,” he lamented.

The children of Murali Shikari studied for free up to class 8 in a public school. However, to get them through high school, he will now have to pay a fee. “Due to lack of caste certificates, our children cannot get allowance to continue their education. Many children drop out of school because their parents do not pay school fees,” he said.

The stigma that follows them everywhere

The stigma attached to Kela communities has followed them even in extreme situations, highlighting endemic discriminatory practices. They were not spared even during natural calamities.

When Cyclone Fani killed 74 people in Odisha in April 2019 and caused damage worth Rs 1,200 crore, several shelters were built to temporarily rehabilitate displaced people. Here, members of Kela communities are said to have been subjected to caste behavior by people of the upper caste.

“In the multi-purpose cyclone shelter, the upper castes had already occupied the space and they did not allow us to enter,” Meena Das said. “So we came back and took refuge in the veranda of a school. Here, the upper caste people would not allow us to use the toilet. it was raining a lot,” she said.

Even in their day-to-day lives, women in the Kela community have faced discriminatory remarks, such as when searching for date leaves that they use to sew mats or make brooms.

Rupa Shikari from the Mundapota Kela community said, “People refuse or ask for money for the leaves. How will we pay the amount? Also, the availability of mats and plastic brooms has made it difficult to sell our traditional skills,” she said. adding that they were now working as construction workers to make ends meet.

(The author is a freelance journalist based in Bhubaneswar and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of local journalists)

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