Government schemes have failed to uplift the socio-economic status of Kotwalias, a primitive tribal community of South Gujarat

Kotwalias make-shift  households during their work in sugarcane plantations
Kotwalias’ make-shift houses near sugarcane plantations

Gujarat has one of the highest concentrations of tribal population among Indian states. Its total tribal population is approximately 15%. One of the most backward of all tribal communities is Kotwalias, a primitive landless tribal community in South Gujarat. For generations they are settled on the edge of forests and on the river banks of Tapi, Narmada, Purna and Ambika. The community is mainly known for its traditional occupation of bamboo craft for livelihood. In all 5,226 Kotwalia families have been identified in 19 talukas of six districts of Gujarat. Almost all the Kotwalia families living in this area belong to below the poverty line (BPL). Excerpts from a baseline survey conducted by Ekalavya Foundation:

A sample of 450 families spread across 22 villages in Vyara, Songadh, Valod and Utchhal blocks of the Tapi district and one village of Mandavi block of Surat district was chosen for random sampling-based data collection. The baseline status survey indicates that average family size in this community is four members and average income per family is Rs.1500 per month. The basic education among the community is very low, with little access to higher education. A typical settlement of Kotwalias consists of 50-60 household in a concentrated area outside the main village. About 95% of the families surveyed live in a house owned by them, only 28.2% houses are constructed on their own land.

Only 44% have received housing support from Indira Awas Yojna (IAY) or other tribal welfare schemes. Nearly 55% families have electricity connection, while only 12.3% have toilet facility. 81.6% household use hand-pump located very close by (10-200 meters) from their house to fetch water for daily needs, while about 13% use village well, tank, canal or river water for their daily needs. For 76.1% respondents, the quantity of water available is sufficient while for 23.9% it is insufficient. Almost 20% families have television set and or mobile phone connectivity. On an average 34% families possess rudimentary furniture items such as cupboard, table or chairs.

Health Status: Extreme poverty, lack of settled life conditions, very poor shelters while on migration based work in sugar cane fields, lack of access to clean drinking water, hygienic food, sanitation, primary health care and basic education are the major issues being faced by the community. An almost sub-human life style forces them into deeply entrenched cycles of ill health, high rate of morbidity and mortality, neglect of personal health care and hygiene needs with children suffering the most in the situation as this.

Unoccupied Indira Awas Yojna houses built for the Kotwalias
Unoccupied Indira Awas Yojna houses built for the Kotwalias

A high 75.8% of the population have had some or the other illness in last one year. The most common problems were identified as common cold, body ache, fever, stomach pain. Malaria was the single most cause of very high morbidity. Suffering from diarrhea, vomiting, typhoid, jaundice and stomach related water borne or food borne ailments was very frequent. Tuberculoses and malnutrition related problems were also identified in substantial proportion. A high proportion of ulcers in stomach, stress related pain, respiratory disease and chest pain were also commonly reported.

Nearly 68 of the respondents use public hospital, PHC and local dispensary on sugar factories for obtaining treatment, while 50% respondents also use conventional, religious and/or black magic recourse as only a few can afford private treatment. 93% responded that the health worker regularly visits their village, but felt that very inadequate services available when they are away from the village. About 25% population has public health centre (PHC) within two km while for 30% it is within five km. For the rest 55% it is more than five km and becomes very difficult to avail any emergency treatment.  Nearly 12% have to borrow money to meet their health needs. Most households borrow from relatives and employers/contractors while a few borrow from self-help groups (SHGs)/cooperative as a temporary loan to pay for medical bills.

Economic Assets of the Families: Almost 27% families have at least one ortwo2 mulch animals such as cow or buffalo, and 15.6% have two to five goats. On the hand, 73% have no cattle at all. Almost 55% households have some poultry such as local fouls and hens. All the households having milking animals supply their milk to the local milk cooperative. Average daily milk sold to the dairy is four litres. Nealry 75% household use poultry for their own dietary consumption, 25% seldom sell their birds or eggs for supplementary income. Hardly 4% families have agriculture land varying between 0.5 acre and one acre of plot size.

A Kotwalia village
A Kotwalia village

Family income status and debt: The survey was most revealing as far as the income status of the Kotwalia community is concerned. As many as 29.3 per cent (151) of the families surveyed had their incomes less than Rs 1,000 per month, and just one per cent household had incomes more than Rs 5,000 per month.  Some 80% of the respondents feel that their average monthly income is insufficient to run their households. About 61% feel that they need minimum Rs 3000 to run their lives while the rest feel that they need more than Rs 3000 for survival. They need money for meeting their basic needs of survival during the lean season of three months in summer and during the sugar cutting season. Labour contractors who are their immediate employers, engaging them to work in sugarcane fields, are the only source of credit available to these workers’ families.

As a result, this community has ended up in perennial debt trap in the hands of labour contractors. The survey results show that 39% families are indebted, 69.4% families have debt less than Rs 1500, while 80% families have debt within the limit of Rs 5000. As many as 67% families are indebted to private money lenders, while 33 per cent families have taken institutional loan from the Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation (BIAF) towards the cattle.

Livelihood status and occupational options: Historically, this community does not have any productive assets. Its means for livelihood are unskilled labor work in agriculture, especially sugarcane fields. This is a seasonal work and many families migrate from village to village for cutting sugar cane. They also work as bamboo workers, rear cattle, and do fishing. Only 13.4% families depend upon just one source of income from various options available to them. Families solely dependent on bamboo based livelihood are just 6.7%

Only 0.4% families have one family member in government service. As many as 47% families have minimum two sources of livelihood which can be any combination from above mentioned list of means of livelihood. Out of these families nearly 88% families have bamboo as second option as the major source of livelihood. Remaining 39% families depend upon three or more means of livelihood to support their families and bamboo work being one of the means of livelihood. This suggests that Kotwalias, a community evolved from a bamboo based livelihood, cannot sustain themselves on their traditional occupation as the main source of income.

Bamboo making, Kotwalias' chief occupationThe community is in transition, and can only survive by multiple occupations of other low skilled work. Though, bamboo-based work is still a major secondary and supplementary occupation for livelihood, nearly 92.7% Kotwalia community is dependent partially or fully on bamboo as the major source of livelihood and the means of meager survival under dire poverty stricken situation with average income ranging from Rs. 1000-3000 per month. Average income earned from the bamboo basketry for a family per person per day very rarely exceeds.

Status National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS): Only 12% families have received job cards. Nearly 50% paid money for photographs, a compulsory requisite for getting the Job card. Nobody interviewed has received any work in the village under NREGS provision though 94% prefer to work in their own village.

Access to natural resources: The Kotwalais generally cut green bamboos from the nearby forests and river banks and weave baskets from this raw material. Over the years the forest cover has dwindled and receded farther away from the places of habitation of the Kotwalia community. Further, the forest policy and attitude of the Forest Department has denied free and fair excess to forest to this community dependent solely on forest for their livelihood.

As a result Kotwalia artisans have to travel a long distance in search of bamboo into the forest and face several problems with forest officials. As ,amy as  32% of the bamboo workers have to walk up to 40 km  to bring head load of bamboo from the forest, and 55% artisans travel up to 70 kms on foot to get 10-15 bamboos. The main species of bamboo available in local forests and used by Kotwalias for production of various traditional basketry, fish traps, winnowing trays and grain storage containers are Manvel and Katis (69%).

All the bamboo workers complained of harassment, physical abuse, bribe, penalty, taking away bamboo implements, molestation, an open violation of their customary rights and in total disregard for basic civil, political and human rights from the forest department officials. The Gujarat government has made a special provision to give 800 bamboos per Kotwalia family per year at a subsidized rate (Re 1/per bamboo as against Rs. 400/tonne of bamboo offered to the JK Industries managed the Central Paper and Pulp Mill, Songadh).

However, due to ignorance and lack of organizational capacity, the community has hardly compelled the state officials to respect their own provisions for the benefits of this most deprived community. The most complicated procedural requirements to be followed in order to obtain bamboo from allotted quota for the community prohibits most organized institutional structures also to venture into helping them to avail their rights.

The socio-economic welfare schemes: Though there are many schemes for the social and economic development of the community, lack of political voice, awareness and unsettled life conditions, apathy of executive machinery, they remain outside the prevue and actual benefit of these programs. IAY is the only exception that has covered maximum families. However, due to poor quality and typography of construction these houses are totally unsuitable to live. Most of the IAY houses constructed for the families of Kotwalia community were found to have remained vacant.

The Kotwalia families continue to live in make shift homes of few twigs and plastic sheet while working on sugarcane farms in the most inhuman conditions where no facility for drinking water, electricity, primary health, food grain shop, anganwadi or any such basic infrastructure is available.

Kotwalias are almost outcaste (considered nearly untouchables) in the larger tribal society dominated by Gamit, Chaudhary and Vasava who possess land as against total landlessness of this community. They are generally small in number in most of the villages, and hence have very little political voice in the village panchayat. However 69% of the families have expressed satisfaction over support received by them from local panchayat members and the local government functionaries.

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