An Initiative to Engage and Empower the De-notified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Civilizations in India


“Over thousands of years nomads have inhabited vast expanses of the world. Nomadic societies have devised forms of culture, which have been particularly suited to their environment and conditions of mobility as well as to the demands and possibilities of their way of life. They have made an undeniable contribution to the development of different techniques and ways of using land and sea, which have created original and sometimes unique civilizations. Today, in numerous regions of the world, nomadic populations are faced with crucial challenges to their current existence, future viability, and especially to their cultural identity. Many are suffering from the decline of their traditional social structures and poverty from marginalization.” – Observed by UNESCO while instituting the International Institute for the Study of Nomadic Civilizations, 1998. 

Nomads of India

With an estimated 1.5 crore people, India has one of the world’s largest nomadic and semi-nomadic populations. 666 different communities, with divers sociocultural practices, these communities are unique and egalitarian. Today facing marginalisation, neglect, and disenfranchisement, these communities were once integral to India’s socioeconomic fabric – as traders, merchants, craftspersons, artistes, and providers of other crucial services.

Intimidated by their extensive knowledge of trade routes, their influential position as economic movers, and their dexterity in developing indigenous tools and instruments, the British classified these communities as “criminal tribes” under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. This attack on their freedom to move across lands ended several of their traditional livelihoods and crippled these versatile communities.

Close to 70 years since the Government of India repealed the Criminal Tribes Act, and de-notified these communities, and not much as changed. Still highly stigmatised and oppressed these communities are left with no options to pursue a life of dignity. A majority of the de-notified communities are not categorised under the constitutional schedules; Schedule Caste (SC) or Schedule Tribe (ST) except for some who have been included in the respective state lists. Although having been victims of oppression for centuries, they have not been provided due constitutional safeguards.

According to a national rapid survey done by the National Commission for de-notified, nomadic and semi nomadic tribes, the socioeconomic status of these communities remain abysmal. Despite 98% of nomads being landless and 57% living in rag tents, 72% have not been issued ration cards and a staggering 94% have not been included to the below poverty line (BPL) list. This disenfranchisement goes as far as non-issuances of birth or death certificates, leaving a majority of nomads without an ID or any proof of citizenship.

Today, these communities that are migratory in nature, and engaged in activities other than agriculture, can broadly be classified into four different categories:

  • Pastoralists and hunter-gatherers
  • Service providers for transportation of goods
  • Artistes, artisans and entertainers
  • Practitioners and performers of religious rituals

Nomads of Rajasthan

Rajasthan has the unique distinction of being the land of origin for some of the most culturally rich de-notified, nomadic and semi-nomadic communities, not just in India but across the world. The Romani people, also referred to as Gypsis, spread across from Iran to Hungary and even America, can trace back their roots to the Banjara community, a salt trading nomadic population from Rajasthan. They are identified by names like Baladiya, Bamania, Maru, Labana, Lambadi and several such in different parts of India. Their rich cultural practices and trading routes form an integral part of Indian cultural history. Having been deprived of their traditional occupation of salt trade several decades ago, they took to the trade of cattle for agricultural use. And today, with the ban on cattle trade by non-agricultural-land-holding-members has crushed this landless nomadic community’s last hope for dignified survival.

Much like the Banjaras, Rajasthan’s 32 de-notified communities have made seminal contributions to our sociocultural growth. From pastoralists with abundant knowledge of animal rearing, to artistes and artisans with extraordinary skills to create, these communities are custodians of divers cultural identities. Having been exploited and oppressed over the years, they today are the most marginalised even in the margins.

Why a project like Khanabadosh?

The de-notified, nomadic and semi-nomadic communities in independent India have received very little help or support from the government. The nomadic nature of most of these communities, and the remote existence of the small settled population has made even civil society interventions sparse and irregular.

It was not until early 2000s that the first national commission was initiated to study the developmental aspects relating to these communities. The National Commission for De-notified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNSNT) headed by Shri. Balkrishna Sidram Renke finally presented its recommendations to the government of India on 2 July 2008.

Without ground swelling and public persuasion, most of the recommendations made by the NCDNSNT are yet to be implemented. With severe lack of access and literacy, most members of these communities are completely uninformed of this commission’s recommendations or any other benefits provided to them through government programmes. There exists an acute need for awareness amongst these communities about even the most basic constitutional rights and entitlements.

Focused and rigorous efforts need to be made to study these neglected communities – identify imminent issues, build awareness, and facilitate access to rightful entitlements.

The proposed project will undertake detailed ground research in Rajasthan building a body of primary resources content. This research will then help create a platform of knowledge from which awareness, advocacy, and preservation efforts can be initiated.

What will Khanabadosh cover?

  1. Demographic survey: The project will undertake a statewide survey to locate and identify clusters of de-notified, nomadic and semi-nomadic communities across Rajasthan.
  2. Nature and living practices: To understand social structures of these communities and their lifestyle habits.
  3. Migratory patterns and livelihoods: To study the historic and current socioeconomic conditions of these communities and understand possible support systems and alternatives that can be provided.
  4. Present day society and development models: To study the ability of these communities to adapt to current and modern social structures, and consequences of ending nomadic lifestyles.
  5. Cultural practices and their sociological importance: Several rich sociocultural practices that are unique to these communities are in the verge of extinction. These practices, arts, crafts, and techniques will not survive even a few years without immediate intervention to both document as well as facilitate transfer of knowledge.
  6. Gaps in constitutional rights and entitlements: The current constitutional schedules, policies and yojanas have mostly failed to provide safeguards to these inimitable communities as there has not been focused studies to understand their specific needs and requirements. This sort of a study will help targeted policy building.

Khanabadosh – Action:

  1. Recruiting a group of efficient researchers and surveyors the project will undertake elaborate, statewide research and ground surveys on the above-mentioned areas.
  2. The project will organise meetings and workshops to create constitutional and democratic awareness – voting rights, citizenship, entitlements, etc.
  3. The project will conduct camps at different levels – village, block, district and state – to facilitate access to existing entitlements and grievance redress.
  4. Based on the research undertaken the project will create robust advocacy platform and make policy suggestions for meaningful intervention.
  5. The project will engage with policymakers, local administrations and governments to push for implementation of existing recommendations made by the NCDNSNT (Renke Commission) as well as development of new and targeted policies.
  6. The project will organise sensitisation and awareness programmes about de-notified, nomadic and semi-nomadic communities for various government and administrative agencies, media houses and persons, writers, filmmakers, students and other opinion makers.
  7. The project will undertake extensive documentation of the various cultural practices of these 32 communities and create an online archive of written, and audio + visual material.
  8. The project will organise workshops and other activities for community members to facilitate transfer of traditional skills and knowledge to future generations.
  9. The project will mobilise and organise community members in Rajasthan into self-representing, active civil society networks.