Addressing the Exclusion of Nomadic and Denotified Tribes in Urban India

Deepa Pawar ( is with the Anubhuti Charitable Trust. The article has been translated by Amrita De.
30 August 2021

When urban development is carried out  from a human rights perspective and in the spirit of constitutional morality, it leads to social and economic development. Unfortunately, this is not so in the experience of highly deprived communities like the nomadic and denotified tribes, who contribute significantly in terms of intellectual and physical labour to this development but are kept away from not only its benefits, but from the city itself.

Nomadic tribes (NT) and denotified tribal communities have contributed significantly to India’s social and economic development. They form a major part of the labourers, such as construction workers, domestic workers, sanitation workers, factory workers, entertainers and so on, who build and maintain cities. Some examples include the Gadiya Lohar (ironsmiths), Vadar (work with stones and soil), Makadwale (perform with monkeys), Potraj (roadside entertainers), Vaghya Murali and Jogti (perform in religious and social functions), Banjara (folk performers), Dhangar (work with cattle), and Mendhpal (shepherds). There are many others with unique inventions and skills such as of housing, design, art, entertainment, fashion, tools, weapons and machinery making. I belong to the Gadiya Lohar Ghisadi NT-denotified tribe (DNT) community, and contend that the significance and monetary value of these skills were lost over a period, as the communities were subjected to social and administrative violence. Their histories were appropriated and manipulated, due to over 150 years of criminalisation, and they themselves lost memories of their pasts.

This article aims to highlight that the industrialisation and economic activities that drive urbanisation exclude the needs of the people who live in and build the cities. My insights are based on qualitative research with over 8,000 families in 2020 and 2021 while leading my organisation, Anubhuti’s, COVID-19 relief work. First, I will focus on urbanisation and labour value more broadly and locate the role of NT-DNT communities. Second, I will examine the dangers of “beautifying” cities. Third, I will focus on essential concerns of NT-DNT communities including housing, landlessness and sanitation. Fourth, I will look at the impact of disasters, such as floods and epidemics. I will conclude with recommendations on how to deconstruct the systematic exclusions in place for NT-DNT communities.

Labour and Its Benefits

The workers, builders, labourers, cleaners and repairers, that is, all the informal labour force needed to build and maintain a city, come from marginalised communities. About 55% of the Indian workforce is employed informally. Brahmins and other upper castes are more likely to be salaried workers or professionals, and Dalits and Muslims are more likely to be non-agricultural labourers or artisans (Shonchoy and Junankar 2014). Such disaggregated data is unfortunately not available for the NT-DNTs. Urban areas, especially big cities, attract numerous migrants, many of whom work these informal occupations (Shonchoy and Junankar 2014). A recent study (Coffey et al 2020) reported that the richest 10% of India’s population hold almost 75% of the country’s wealth. On the other hand, about 80% of informal or casually employed workers, do not have access to essential security nets like health insurance and provident funds which are majorly being used to provide relief to workers during the current pandemic (Dhingra 2020).

In any city, the regular customers of urban facilities like highways, malls, metro trains, swimming pools, theaters, parking lots and shopping complexes, are certainly not Potraj (roadside entertainers), Banjara (folk performers), Makadwale (perform with monkeys), or Gadiya Lohar (ironsmiths). While there is no data to support this, this is a fact that can be safely assumed, based on my experience working with NT-DNT communities for over 20 years, as well as my family and my personal use of these spaces. These attractions serve only as that—as attractions—to NT-DNT communities, to be perhaps visited a few times in a year if they happen to live close to such facilities.      

A 2013 report by the Indian government’s auditor general showed that only 62% of land for Special Economic Zones—land reserved in urban areas for economic development, which are exempted from various tax and labour laws—was used for its intended purpose of boosting manufacturing, exports and jobs, generating less than 8% of jobs forecast (Mohanty and Chandran 2017). On the other hand, “slums” or  working class  settlements in Mumbai city, occupy only 8% of the city’s land but are home to 48% of the population (Business Today 2016), and provide jobs to as many. Thus, it is the local economies that develop outside the “master plan” areas, which have diverse and organically developed land tenure forms that provide accommodation and livelihoods to the majority of the population in a city, including almost all the poor (Benjamin 2000). This is not to say that urban planners should not develop economic development zones, but they should be inclusive of the existence and work opportunities of the poorest inhabitants such as NT and DNT communities.  

‘Beautification’ for Whom?

Cities are being developed with an aesthetic that is artificial, and often, devoid of any real benefit to the vast majority of its populace. A reference point for how beautification of cities was detrimental to its inhabitants can be found in Jagmohan’s urban renewal schemes in Delhi during the Emergency in India, marked by evictions and clearance drives. His actions have been copied in many other major cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai and Bengaluru (Benjamin 2010). Even for such a well-planned city like Chandigarh, “beautification” has not facilitated economic growth and affordable housing access in an inclusive manner  (Sarin 1982).

For example, during my work with NT-DNT communities in Thane district, I have closely engaged with 530 families living in tents for over 25 years in a piece of land in the suburb called Ambernath. They live in tents because they are not yet recognised as residents on the land who deserve basic facilities. They have settled down organically, when their families began to respond to modernisation, and slowly stopped their archaic nomadic lifestyle and livelihoods. They hope to enter the mainstream, put their children through school, and pursue common jobs. However, even though they are aspiring to live a respectable life, they are not being helped, and are instead being penalised. They have been served notices countless times over the years to vacate the plot because it has been earmarked for a theater. Bulldozers wait near their tents almost throughout the year, as their leaders run from pillar to post to stay the demolition. Many tents are felled, to be put back up when a politician temporarily stays the demolition drive. The leaders are spending all their time fighting for their right to exist in this town, instead of turning their attention towards education, health, and getting government documents made for their people. The prevailing argument for evicting these families is that the land needs to be used for commercial purposes like a theatre, and not for the homes of these people.

Like gender norms, which artificially deem only a certain set of characteristics to be acceptable and “beautiful,” cities too are burdened by such definitions. “Beautification” is meant to be a certain set of looks that take the urban infrastructure further away from the natural and the organic, such as in the example given above, and more towards artificial beauty to be consumed by a few and privileged. For example, high rise buildings are deemed to be beautiful while actual settlements made by people organically for shelter and work are called slums and are seen to be ugly. Tattoo-making, dances, songs, etc, whose organic versions were invented and are still carried out by NT-DNT populations as safe, affordable and highly accessible forms of entertainment on roads and in public places, do not find any place in malls and shopping complexes.

Data about NT-DNTs among the urban poor is scarce, but few reports (Shantha 2013) show anecdotal evidence of how shanties occupied by NT-DNT families are unwanted by more privileged communities around them. Similarly, few NT-DNT activists have pointed out how the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 has ensured that animals are not handled inhumanly, but have taken away the livelihood of various NT communities like the Makadwale—who perform on roads and public places with their monkeys. The spectacle of such performances are seen  by mainstream communities to be exploitative of the animals, without having any clear evidence of animal abuse by the NT-DNT communities who in fact live and work closely with their animals, who form part of their communities.  

Are Urban Housing and Livelihood Facilities Inclusive?

NT and DNT communities are constantly migrating. Historically, they were forced into such migratory living and nomadic occupations as a result of the violent persecution following the passing of the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 by British colonial rulers. The act labelled them “criminals” in retribution for their struggles for Independence. The present condition of the NT-DNTs is a direct result of colonial exploitation.  

Today, as times change, and with rising understanding within the nomadic communities of the need to settle in one place to ensure their development, they are beginning to give up their nomadic lives. This is however, very difficult, since they have no land to call their own. Some are settling down on the fringes of towns and cities, or setting up their tents under bridges and flyovers—when the land they were living on for many years, goes into “development,” that is, some kind of infrastructure is built there without planning for where the NT-DNT people living there will go.  The city planners do not acknowledge that these communities have as much right to live in our cities as do anyone else; perhaps more so because of the historic penalty they have paid for having been one of the first to fight in our country’s freedom struggle, that is, their unjust criminalisation by the British for rising up for independence, and subsequent violent persecution.      

But today, these once powerful communities have been reduced to living under bridges and flyovers in cities, in makeshift tents. These people have serviced cities for many years—the Vadari are construction workers, the Gadiya Lohar are ironsmiths, there are others who go door-to-door selling and repairing various things such as tools, machines, hair of bear and so on, the Chindhiwale sell utensils in exchange for old clothes, the Vaghya Murali sing and dance and entertain.

Urban development needs to consider that there are many such communities who cannot move as fast as the rest of society, because they have not been able to access the resources that they need to do so due to their unjust criminalisation. Even after India’s independence, though they were legally denotified, that is, their criminal status was revoked, the local administration, police and mainstream society continue to view and treat them with discrimination and suspicion (Praxis 2017), leading to high social and economic deprivation and vulnerability (Agrawal and Sinha 2012). This is repeated in the way that urban planning ignores the needs and even existence of these communities. This treatment can be extremely harmful for the mental dignity, pride and self-respect of people who deal with this reality every day. This is especially unjust when these diverse communities are so rich in talents and skills, who, among other things, make and repair tools and machinery, build houses, make clothing, grow food, create music and other arts by their own hands and intellect as described in the previous sections. The NT-DNT communities have survived by their own skills and resilience despite generations of violence and neglect; the same cannot be said for privileged communities who depend on workers for their basic needs.

The Model Tenancy Act, 2021 is being debated by housing rights activists in Mumbai because it could bring in sweeping changes to the affordability of housing. Currently, the Maharashtra Rent Control Act, 1999 allows a large part of the city’s population to live in rented rooms in chawls and small buildings at affordable rates in the heart of the city where they have worked and lived over generations. The 1999 act also protects tenants against eviction if they are unable to pay the rent. If the new act is implemented in the state, the earlier law will be repealed, rendering almost 25% of Mumbai’s residents homeless (Tare 2021). Given that about 93% of NTs do not own any land (Government of India 2008), such sweeping changes will impact these communities severely since they depend on rented accommodations.

The lack of accessible and safe public sanitation is a worrying example of how urban development excludes the poorest communities. I have been a part of the Right to Pee campaign for affordable, clean, accessible and safe public sanitation for women since 2012. A study undertaken by the campaign in 2012, found that while there were more than 2,466 urinals built for men, no urinals were built for women in Mumbai (Yardley 2012). This reveals the patriarchal mindset of planners which assumes women do not occupy public spaces as part of the workforce who will need to use publicly funded urinals. Invariably, the women who completely depend on such public sanitation facilities, belong to the class of vendors, construction workers, labourers, domestic workers, rag pickers, sanitation workers—many of whom are NT-DNT women and men, and also street performers, wedding and religious events performers, beggars, ironsmiths, sellers of wares door-to-door, repairers of tools like knives, sellers of wares on local trains, herders of cattle and sheep, transporters of farm produce, etc (which are occupations almost entirely carried out by NT-DNTs). “Workers” are thought to belong to a certain section of society—taking into account only white collar and then blue collar workers—but not this vast section of the population who provide essential and affordable services. Our toilets, roads, public transport, resting places, leisure facilities or other urban facilities are not planned to be used by these vulnerable groups.

Disasters and Urban Development

During the ongoing pandemic and intermittent lockdown since 2020, the author along with her organisation Anubhuti, have reached over 8,000 NT-DNT families with relief work across 15 districts of Maharashtra state. It was observed that these people remain the last to be reached by any disaster response measure. Almost 72% of nomadic tribes do not own Ration Cards according to the Renke Commission Report (GoI 2008). Even if they do, their cards are not recognised most of the year when they are travelling from place to place for their work—like in the lockdown when they were stuck wherever they were when the lockdown was announced last year. The same goes for other documents which are needed to avail of government benefits. Therefore, most of the families that this author worked with, informed her that they had not accessed any disaster benefits.

NT-DNT communities do not have the wherewithal to live out a lockdown. They do not have a culture nor the resources to save or store. These are highly skilled people who sell their skills by going door-to-door, on roads, in public places, in trains. They work closely with animals that they take care of as part of their community. They live on the outskirts of towns and cities, in the outermost houses or in hand-made tents outside even the bastis or slum communities that other poor communities inhabit. The latter at least have some facilities like community toilets, built houses, and most importantly, political representatives from their communities who can take up their issues in governance. NT-DNTs hardly have any political leaders from their communities, they are not even in gram panchayats.
The NT-DNTs fear the police, because of being treated as criminals—be it in the way police arbitrarily pick up NT-DNT young men or force them to appear before them periodically (Dhaka 2017). During the lockdown, community leaders shared with this author, even if some ventured outside to try and earn something or find some food, they were beaten up by the police. If they tried to enter the towns or settlements, the residents abused them. They were living completely shelterless and with no resources in the raging pandemic. Urban planning has to take into account that there are such people who are very different from the mainstream, requiring specific disaster planning.

For example, during the recent floods in July in Maharashtra (Waghmode 2021), many homes were destroyed or damaged. To avail of government benefits or relief packages, panchnama is required to prove the existence of the homes. However, the concept of a house with four walls is far removed from the reality of NT-DNT homes. Their homes are tents, or simply two plastic sheets held together by a bamboo pole. The process of panchnama cannot possibly respond to NT-DNT realities, which is why these poorest of the poor are not eligible for disaster relief. One woman, of Gadiya Lohar (ironsmith) community, who is single, and works eight months a year as an ironsmith and begs the rest of the year, saved for years to put together a house costing around Rs 30,000. Within a few months, the flood struck and her home was destroyed. She does not possess any documents, which is true for many NT-DNTs because of their nomadic lifestyle. So she could not prove her residence and is not eligible for government assistance.

Urban Planning and More Vulnerable Intersectionalities within NT-DNTs

Among these communities, it was the women who bore the brunt of the pandemic and lockdown. This was seen during the author’s relief work with over 8,000 families, that the responsibility of raising food for their families fell on the women. Women shared with the author that they simply stayed hungry. Social security of NT-DNTs is anyway precarious; the pandemic and lockdown worsened the situation. Gender-based violence was a major concern (Chandra 2020). Child and forced marriage cases went up steeply. This author witnessed and handled numerous cases of child marriage accelerated by the deep financial crisis, where in face of no other social or administrative security or support, families opted to marry off their girls. Domestic violence increased, whose roots, during our work with NT-DNT families, was seen to be increased mental distress due to financial insecurity, starvation and several emergencies at once. Women and girls bore the brunt of starvation, and the debilitating mental burden of where to find food for their families. Gender roles and norms meant that women dealt with such stress differently, and many men dealt with it by committing violence on their partners and children. The fault for such violence cannot be put solely on the individual men; it is also true that cities and urban planning including disaster planning have not made themselves safe enough that during difficult times, these communities feel secure about their women and girls, and are not made to feel that they need to find regressive solutions like marrying off their daughters early to ward off sexual attacks and other exploitation. For example, the availability and accessibility of safe shelters for women and children even in a city like Mumbai, are woefully inadequate. National Crime Records Bureau data reveals that the second most unsafe shelter homes for women in 2017 were in Mumbai in 2017 (Namboodiri 2019).

This author travelled to flood stricken parts of western Maharashtra for relief work in August 2021. She could meet only 20 of the more than 200 NT-DNT families who had lost everything in the floods. This is because, the rest had left to work as labour—to clean the muck and dirt in homes of other flood affected persons. These latter are also poor, but NT-DNTs are so severely poor, that starvation is driving them to take up these and other degrading jobs. Many women shared how they had provided for their families during the lockdown by sweeping up the waste food grains off the floor of grocery shops, or picking wild edible plants in fields after dark. One can imagine the indignity, fear of sexual harassment, utter despondency that NT-DNT persons are facing on a prolonged basis, and what kind of impact this must be having on their mental health. However, when this author was providing counselling, not a single person other than a few community leaders had even heard of “mental health,” much less concepts like counselling and where to find such services.    

Way Forward

In such a powerless, resource-less and vulnerable situation, the only avenue for communities to fight for their survival and dignity, is through the social security and support provided by a democratic country’s administration. A significant proportion of the workers, who build and maintain a city, belong to NT-DNT communities. However, urban planners as well as local administration have very little data about them, and urban planning is not carried out keeping in mind their unique realities. These realities are caused by their history of colonial criminalisation, leading to current homelessness, landlessness and resulting in severe deprivation in not only development indicators such as education, health and safety, but even in the most basic needs of food, shelter and sanitation. These issues are exacerbated manifold during disasters, such as the current pandemic and lockdown. However, disaster response too is not aware and responsive to the needs of NT-DNTs. Lastly, when seen in conjunction with other intersectionalities within the communities such as of gender, disability, mental illness and so on, the vulnerability is that much higher.  The author wishes to submit that urban planning can certainly take into account these needs, if its planners approach the matter democratically and constitutionally.

Till date, it has been NT-DNT and other activists and civil society organisations that have been pressurising the administration to pay attention; however, the author asserts that the government on its own needs to prioritise and take action for the rights of communities like the NT-DNTs. The following are few recommendations for the same that have emerged from the author’s work. First, create budgetary provisions for NT-DNT populations in urban development planning and in municipal corporation action plans. Political will is vital to make this a reality. Second, increase budgetary provisions for NT-DNT women in the form of scholarships for higher education and schools. These schools should be in close proximity to NT-DNT communities. Third, increase the representation of NT-DNT members during civil society engagement in urban planning processes. Fourth, development plans and municipal corporation budgets should think of concrete ways to meet the housing needs of NT-DNT communities. Fifth, implement the the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, keeping in mind the occupations of NT-DNT women that are carried out in highly informal spaces such as on roads, in local trains, and so on. Sixth, ensure that central and state level policies such as the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Yojana for vulnerable persons within NT-DNTs are accessible to people who do not possess the necessary documents for accessing such benefits due to their nomadic status. Seventh, implement provisions of the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 which are related to urbanisation such as availability of mental health services in every district, free mental health treatment for the destitute, homeless or poor. Relatedly, ensure the inclusion of mental health services in insurance policies such as Maharashtra’s Mahatma Jotiba Phule Jan Arogya Yojana.


Deepa Pawar ( is with the Anubhuti Charitable Trust. The article has been translated by Amrita De.
30 August 2021