Leave No 'Sahariya' Behind
The Sahariya tribe is one of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), and is among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable population groups in the country. The six-lakh population is spread across Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and sprinkled in a few other states. Predominantly forest dwellers, they live in remote locations and make their living from forest produce, additionally cultivating small plots of land and work as landless labourers. Seasonal migration is also common. Being among the most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, they should have a priority call on state support and resources. However, the services do not adequately reach out to them and they lack the information and awareness to access essential entitlements.
The ‘100 Hotspots: Snapshot of socially excluded and vulnerable population groups and SDGs in India’  collaborated with NISHWARTH (Nishwarth Sarthak Prayas Avem Pariwar Kalyan Samiti), which has a 30 year history of working with the Sahariya community in Madhya Pradesh. In 2018, The 100 Hotspots gathered data from 100 households in the community through community volunteers to assess the status of SDGs in the community. Mr Brijendra Singh, the chief functionary of NISHWARTH has in-depth knowledge about the community.
The study revealed dire poverty indicators in the community. The annual average household income of the community is below Rs. 40,000 (544.81$), which makes them fall under the Poverty Line in India, as well as below the SDG Target of $1.25 a day. Around 30% reported ownership of land, and less than 20% of the community owned any vehicle. More than 80% of the community own the Antoydaya Anna Yojana (AAY) Ration Card which are for households with income less than Rs. 250 per person per month, also classified as the poorest of the poor. The literacy rate is around 60%. Although they are constitutionally eligible for educational scholarship from the government, only 60% of the students receive scholarships.
The study also found that their access to even popular programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is minimal, even though 20% of the population has job cards to access work. The nearest schools are about 7 kms away and the basic government health facility about 30 kms away. According to Mr Brijendra, the administrative systems at the local level are not built to support the Sahariya community and is a major reason for the underdevelopment and poverty of the community. Only 9.64% of Sahariyas in the community own mobile phones. In the growing technological world, they are left behind for both information and access to entitlements and provisions.
According to Mr. Brijendra, research needs to be done at the community level and done with community members.
“If you came here and did a general survey, maybe you would find that lack of electricity is the most common issue. However, when the survey is targeted at different social groups, you find how vastly different their issues are. For instance, child malnutrition is the most important issue for the Sahariya community. Additionally, maternal mortality and incidences of tuberculosis is high. We are working to stop child deaths and reduce hunger; electricity comes below these.’’
An important challenge, according to Mr. Brijendra, is the community’s lack of leverage in the political sphere. As the community is small in number, they are usually clubbed in with other tribes and ethnic communities without targeted policies and provisions. No political party, Member of Parliament or Member of the Legislative Assembly has taken any interest in the community’s welfare.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown has been an additional blow to the already vulnerable community. A majority of the Sahariya community migrate for seasonal work in agriculture. The lockdown, starting on 24th March 2020, was the Rabi (winter) harvesting season in the area. Many of the migrant workers had left their interior villages to take up agricultural work, but had to return owing to the lockdown, without work and an income that would supplement their local resources for the year. Even as the pandemic
spread, information and support from the government was negligible, and it was the NGOs and community organisations which provided immediate relief and awareness. According to Mr. Brijendra, in communities where instances of malnutrition and poverty are high, dying from hunger remains a more pressing and ever present fear than contracting COVID-19.
The 100 Hotspots project found that development indicators vary widely even across these communities even when they share many common characteristics or disadvantages. This becomes an issue as national policies, programmes and monitoring mechanisms are based on existing aggregate data. Disaggregated data at the community level is essential and should be the basis for making policies and provisions for vulnerable communities. According to Mr. Brijendra, the 100 Hotspots facilitated the community voices and issues to be brought to national and even global spaces.
India has acknowledged the relevance of SDGs in the national development framework and put in mechanisms to align the SDGs with the national plans and priorities from the union government to the district and even the local government levels. The study and engagement with the community and the civil society organisation highlighted their aspiration to access information and services and have a better future, particularly for their children. There was a keen concern to access education and technical skills, information and awareness. It is important for the government at all levels to recognise the specific needs and requirements of vulnerable communities and create mechanisms and measures to meet them; the SDGs and the LNOB principle provides an impetus to it.
The United Nations has given a call to make the 2020-2030 the ‘Decade of action to deliver the SDGs’. Even as the COVID 19 pandemic creates far-reaching challenges to governments to sustain development and progress, it is important to hold the bold vision of the SDGs to tide over even current challenges. We hope the data and voices of the most vulnerable sections in the population will have a central space in creating the alternatives for a more just and equal world.
 The 100 Hotspots is an initiative by Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNTA) to increase focus on the development of vulnerable communities and amplify their voice and narratives. It uses the Leave No One Behind (LNOB) principle in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to assess vulnerable communities and their progress in a holistic and intersectional manner. The project partners with local community organisations to gather disaggregated community driven data to build evidence and advocacy for greater inclusion of the communities. Initiated in 2018, the project has worked with 35 communities, the Sahariya tribe being one of them.
This blog is co-authored by Nishwarth Sarthak Prayas Avem Pariwar Kalyan Samiti (NISHWARTH) & Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNTA)
Photos of the community by NISHWARTH