Nariman Point, a business and banking hub in South Mumbai, is one of the city’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. On the evening of November 9, the footpaths were dimly lit by yellow streetlights. Office workers strode briskly over these pavements, strewn with freshly fallen lavender-blue flowers of the Bengal clock vine, making their way toward Churchgate station to travel back to homes in the suburbs.

To others, however, the pavements themselves are home. Among them are 35-year-old Nagesh Chauhan and his extended family, who live opposite the towering Life Insurance Corporation headquarters, just a few steps away from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s state office, and around half a kilometre from the Maharashtra government headquarters.

The family stores its sparse possessions in bundles around them. They have a stove on which they cook occasionally, but they usually eat from a nearby canteen, next to a Janata Dal party office. They use a public toilet to relieve and wash themselves. “Our grandmother used to say that we shifted here during the drought of 1972,” said Chauhan. “They worked as construction labourers for these buildings surrounding us.”

The Chauhans are Mahadev Pardhis, a sub-group of the Pardhi community, which is a Vimukta Jati or a Denotified Tribe, often abbreviated to DNT. Many Pardhis also identify as Adivasi. In administrative categorisation, DNTs are clubbed together with Nomadic Tribes and Semi-Nomadic Tribes in the abbreviation NT/DNT. The Chauhans explained that between 50 and 60 Pardhi families live on either side of the road.

Members of the community are also found in several other locations across the city. “You’ll find Pardhis in Churchgate, Charni Road, Santacruz, Juhu, Bandra, Andheri all over the city,” said Bhanudas Kale, who is a social worker and a member of the Gaon Pardhi community. Disha Wadekar, a Supreme Court lawyer, who also belongs to the Gaon Pardhi community, remarked, “Every signal you go to in cities, most of the homeless people you find on the streets will be Pardhi.”

The term “denotified” refers to nomadic communities who were first notified as “born criminals” under a colonial era law, the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. In 1952, independent India repealed the act and denotified these communities. But as Wadekar noted, this was a “paper promise”, because the law was replaced by the Habitual Offenders’ Act, which laid out policing and punishment guidelines for those who were deemed habitual criminals – this classification was used by law enforcement authorities to continue stigmatising and targeting the same communities.

Amongst these communities, the Pardhis are one of the most heavily criminalised. A 2012 study on Pardhis in Mumbai city by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences found that “Pardhis are routinely picked up by the police on account of suspicion and without preliminary investigation that is otherwise required to arrive at reasonable satisfaction to make an arrest.”

Apart from denotified tribes, other nomadic tribes, such as the Nath Panthi Davari Gosavi community, have also been systematically discriminated against by the state over the years. “Many NTs have been treated the same as DNTs, and their lived experiences of criminalisation have a lot in common,” said Dr Kalidas Shinde, a sociologist from the Davari Gosavi community. He added that this was not a recent phenomenon, and that the criminalisation of the Davari Gosavi community could be traced back to the early 19th century.

The criminalisation and targeting of nomadic and denotified tribes is deeply entangled with India’s caste system. In an article on caste and criminalisation for The Leaflet, Wadekar explained that the majority of prison inmates belong communities placed either at the lower rungs of the caste system, or outside it. She wrote, “Crime came to be seen as an inter-generational occupation of many marginalised castes, tribes and nomadic communities.”

Nagesh Chauhan and his family belong to the Mahadev Pardhi community, a denotified tribe. They reside on a pavement in south Mumbai’s Nariman Point, a business and banking hub. Photo: Nolina Minj

In Bhanudas Kale’s case, such treatment effectively derailed his entire education. Kale grew up in the village of Pimpri Budruk in Parbhani district of Maharashtra. He was an ardent student, who walked around 7 km daily through farmlands and swamp to get to school. But soon after Kale received the hall ticket for his Class 10 board exams, he was arrested along with his father and brother, in connection with a fight that had broken out in the neighbourhood. He spent a year and a half in jail, before he was finally tried, acquitted, and released. “This was the way things were earlier in the villages,” he said. “If the police saw us anywhere, they would pick us up and put us in jail.”

Such discrimination and harassment are exacerbated by nomadic and denotified tribal communities’ ambiguous location within the framework of the Indian state. Despite forming about 10% of the country’s population, NT/DNTs are not defined in the Indian constitution and do not have specific constitutional or legal safeguards, of the kind that Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes do. In sociological terms too, as the historian Bhangya Bhukya and sociologist Sujatha Surepally have noted, NT/DNTs do not strictly fall into the binary of caste or tribal groups, as they contain features of both these social categories. They wrote, “many groups from caste and tribal communities have joined the nomadic communities. So the nomadic community in India was making and unmaking throughout history.”

In different states, several communities have been inserted into different administrative categories, classified as either Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes or Other Backward Classes.

But these classifications are not consistent across states. For instance, the Banjaras are recognised as a Scheduled Tribe in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha; as a Scheduled Caste in Punjab, Delhi and Karnataka; and as an Other Backward Class in Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Some communities are classified under a constitutional category in certain states but are treated as a general group in others. For example, the Bharwads are recognised as OBC and ST in certain districts of Gujarat, but do not have any recognition in Maharashtra.

There also instances in which a community is identified differently in different districts of the same state. For example, Pardhis in Madhya Pradesh are identified as a Scheduled Caste in some districts, including Bhind, Dhar, Gwalior and Indore. In other districts such as Chhindwara, Mandla, Dindori and Seoni, they are identified as a Scheduled Tribe. In the remaining districts, they are classified under the general category.

Only a few states have created specific classifications for these communities. Maharashtra, for instance, classifies many under the “Vimukta Jati and Nomadic Tribes” category. The state has implemented specific policies for these groups, focused on areas such as employment and education.

As a result of these inconsistencies with administrative classification, the specific problems of these communities, such as their landlessness and their systemic criminalisation, remain largely unaddressed.

In 2008, the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes, then chaired by Balkrishna Sidram Renke, submitted a report to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, which brought these problems to light. Known as the Renke report, it read, “With the passage of time, these communities have become almost invisible, and the ‘mainstream’ communities, governments virtually lost sight of them. It is apparent that there is a lot of apathy among the policy makers and planners about these communities. For many of them these communities are inconsequential. Many are not even aware of their existence.”

Bhanudas Kale, who is from the Gaon Pardhi community, was arrested soon after receiving a hall ticket for his Class 10 exams. He spent a year and a half in jail, then was acquitted and released. Photo: Nolina Minj

A 2017 report by the commission found that there were 269 NT/DNT communities in the country that had not been listed under any special categories in certain states and so received no benefits of reservations or other government programmes and policies. Further, it noted, “Though many of these communities are included in SC or ST Category, they fail to get any benefit of these categorization vis-à-vis other communities. These communities face social stigma, atrocity and exclusion.”

This invisibilisation is particularly stark because of the communities’ traditionally nomadic nature. Conventional structuring of Indian society is so deeply linked to settled patterns of land ownership and usage, that communities with different systems of organisation, such as nomadic and denotified tribes, are almost entirely excluded from it. Advocate Nihalsing Rathod, who belongs to the Banjara community, explained that as the country’s population grew, other communities often captured land that had traditionally been used by NT/DNTs. “For mainstream society, most resources flow from land,” Rathod said. “Then you have a population which does not have land, they don’t have fixity of residence. That itself puts them out of the mainstream.”

A 2015 report by the Human Rights Law Network, which cited the Renke report, stated that “Historically Nomadic peoples have not been regarded as having any rights to land because their Nomadic lifestyle was not considered to fulfill the criterion of ‘effective occupation’ of the land.” As a result, the report notes, DNT communities were “legally denied land ownership rights and confined to designated settlements”.

The 2008 Renke report stated that this had caused them to build houses on peripheral spaces such as “government land, space near garbage dumps, along the roadways/railways, rivers/streams, slums, etc.”, which are often contested spaces, as evinced by the experiences of many members of NT/DNT communities spoke with.

Many see the problem of land as the key reason for the continued oppression of those belonging to nomadic tribes and denotified tribes. “If there is any core issue that concerns NT/DNTs, it is landlessness,” Wadekar said. “And I wouldn’t say not having land, but rather not having the sort of claim over land that the system demands.” She explained that those who are criminalised become landless, and live on the streets, forced to choose certain livelihoods, which in turn are criminalised – in essence a “vicious cycle of criminalisation”.

For many NT/DNT communities, conflicts with the law are an inescapable part of life.

This is evident in the case of Jai Ambe Nagar, an informal Pardhi settlement in east Chembur. The settlement houses about 200 Pardhi families, who live in houses made of tents and corrugated metal sheets. Bhanudas Kale, who lives in the settlement, and is its informal leader, noted that most residents don’t own land in the different parts of Maharashtra from which they had migrated. “People migrate in search of a livelihood and settle wherever they can earn a living,” he said.

Kale explained that the first families who settled there arrived in 1995. Work is irregular and residents take up various kinds of jobs to sustain themselves, such as cleaning drains, digging trenches, selling goods at traffic signals, construction, and domestic work.

In 2007, though the community was already settled on the land, the state government leased it out to the Mathadi Kamgar Gruha Nirman Sanstha, a government entity for manual labourers. Since then, the threat of demolition and eviction has loomed over the community. Their houses were demolished by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in 2009 by bulldozers, and again manually by workers in 2012. Though the families rebuilt their homes, five months ago residents received another notice for eviction. Currently a case is underway in the Mumbai High Court over the ownership of the land.

Kale argued that his community has lived on the land for more than two decades, and that there is proof of their presence in various documents and records, such as voter lists and ration cards. “The basti has always been present here, they just came there and put their names on the documents,” he said.

Deepa Pawar, who belongs to the Gadiya Lohar, or Ghisadi, community and grew up in a settlement of the community in Sewri, Mumbai, recounted that her childhood home was taken over forcibly. “Often it happens that people are staying somewhere for twenty-thirty years but someone else comes and makes a document for their land, usually with more power and influence,” Pawar said.

Over the years, Kale has strived to improve the living conditions of those in his community. He was driven to do so by his experience of being jailed. “I have been angry since then,” he said. “I didn’t want what happened to me, to also happen to others from my community.” So, a few years after his release, he left his village and shifted to Mumbai, where he received training in law and policy.

Since then, he has assisted members of nomadic and denotified tribal communities in the city in numerous ways, such as by helping them procure ration cards, voter ID cards, Aadhaar cards and other documents.

But many battles remain. Jai Ambe Nagar, for instance, has an official water connection but obtaining electricity has been difficult. The community also lacks functional toilets. “I’m ashamed to say that most people use the bushes behind their houses to relieve themselves,” Kale said. “What is the point of schemes like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan? These are just words spoken out loud and written on paper.” He added that in 2012, the BMC surveyed the area and promised to build 30 toilets. “But until now it hasn’t been done,” Kale said.

He added, “In a big city like Mumbai, government officials should feel ashamed about people in their ward having to relieve themselves in the open.”

Kale has been a member of India Against Corruption group, which included figures such as Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal, and has wide networks across the country. Over the years he has approached BMC authorities, the collector’s office, and several government officials for support for his community and their struggle for land, but nothing has come of his efforts.

In Nariman Point, the Chauhans, too, frequently find themselves at odds with the law because of their landlessness. Local police from the Marine Drive thana frequently drive them out of their homes. “The law and the legal system do not apply to us,” Nagesh Chauhan said. “The police come almost every other day and tell us to leave.” The police also destroys their possessions and products they store for selling. The families’ suffering is far worse in monsoons, Chauhan explained, as they have to immediately seek shelter from the city’s relentless rain under bus stops or inside buildings.

The Chauhan family perseveres despite these formidable odds. They buy variosu products in bulk from Bora Bazaar or Byculla market and sell them on traffic junctions around Marine Drive. “Every season has a different business,” Chauhan said. “During Ganesh Chaturthi, we sell flowers, during Diwali it’s lamps and so on.” Some 15 years ago, Chauhan learnt driving from the parking valet of a nearby hotel, who taught him using the customers’ cars. He eventually obtained a driving license and, for the past 12 years, has been working as a driver. He is currently employed by a government official in the railways at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. But even though this has meant a slight rise in income and some proximity to state power, it has not helped him secure proper homes for the community.

The Chauhan family perseveres against formidable odds, selling various products on traffic junctions around Marine Drive, which they buy in bulk from Bora Bazaar or Byculla market. Photo: Courtesy Nagesh Chauhan

But they have made some progress in their tussles with the state. Several members of the family have had crucial identity documents made, such as Aadhaar cards, PAN cards and voter identification cards. In them, the residential address reads: “Nehru ka putla, Mantralaya”, referring to a nearby statue and the Maharashtra government headquarters. They are determined to stay put in the city and create a life for themselves. “All we want is a roof over our heads and work,” Chauhan said. “If we leave, then where do we even go?”

Further away from the heart of Mumbai, too, nomadic and denotified tribal communities face similar battles.

In an informal settlement on a circus ground close to the train station in Ambernath west, 60 km from South Mumbai, live a mix of around twenty different NT/DNT communities, including the Mariaaiwale, Vadar and Nath Panthi Davari Gosavi communities. The families have been living on the ground for more than 25 years – at first, they were spread out across the ground, but in 2019 their houses were mowed down by the Ambernath Municipal Council, despite protests, and they were shifted to its edge to make way for a cinema complex.

The families explained that their very location often results in blatant discrimination against them. “If you go to the police and ask to register a case, they will ask you where you live,” said Ashok Bhosale, a resident of the colony. “Once you say circus ground, they will tell you to get out.”

Pawar added, “They feel that the area you come from is full of criminals, so how do we take your cases?”

In early November, I visited a community centre at the settlement – the centre doubles up as a meeting room for the NGO Anubhuti Trust, which is headed by Pawar, and which helps NT/DNT communities develop youth leaders, and inculcates awareness of caste and gender issues, as well as of constitutional values.

When I walked into the centre, Pawar was wrapping up a meeting with the area’s youth. The discussion had veered to the question of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens issue and how it would impact NT/DNTs, since these communities rarely have proper proofs of residence, even if they have been living at one place for decades. “I’m a human being, I have proof of that, but I don’t have proof of whether I have a house or not,” said Ashok, who was interning with Anubhuti, referring to the fact that the community has not received title deeds for their houses.

“This is basically a small village, and they haven’t given them residential proof for 25 years,” said Pawar. “This amounts to a human rights violation, which has had severe impact on their education, health, livelihood, development.”

After their previous houses were destroyed, residents explained that the municipality made tin sheds out of low-quality metal sheets for the community, for which each family was charged Rs 10,000. “They had said that they will give us everything with our homes – drainage system, roads, electricity, taps etc,” said Shivaji Bhosale, a resident who belongs to the Nath Panthi Davari Gosavi community. “They did give us houses, but they’re hardly inhabitable. I’ve seen stables in Mumbai which have fans and air conditioning. Here, we don’t have fans, and some of our houses don’t even have lights.”

Residents also suffer because of a nearby factory that burns its garbage, expelling noxious gases, and a veterinary hospital whose stench often fills up the neighbourhood. “I feel now they are pondering, how do we get rid of these people?” Ashok said. “Dump waste near them. Then maybe they’ll leave.”

There is one tap in the settlement for every three or four families, located outside their houses. But according to Ashok, the water from these taps is unclean and has caused many to fall sick. “It’s difficult to drink this water,” he said.

The settlement also lacks a drainage system, as a result of which residents can’t have toilets in their houses. Instead, they are forced to pay for a public toilet nearby. “I had done calculations: a family of five people would pay around Rs 6,000 per month,” said Ashok. “That’s about Rs 70,000 in a year.”

In the monsoons, Ashok and Shivaji said, filthy water, carrying worms, routinely fills up inside their houses. Pawar added that it was extremely difficult to keep documents and valuables safe in such circumstances. “This is a common problem for NT/DNTs,” she said, recalling how the 2005 monsoon floods swept away her family’s documents. “This is linked to landlessness. Where are people supposed to keep their documents if their homes get flooded?”

Suman Ingole, Bhimrao Ingole (in striped shirt), Ashok Bhosale (in light blue shirt) and other members of the Nath Panthi Davari Gosavi community in Ambernath, 60 km from south Mumbai. Photo: Nolina Minj

Community leader Bhimrao Ingole, Shivaji’s uncle, said that they had been fighting since 2005 for their rights, and that they had approached the municipality and various politicians, but that nothing had come of it. “We were told – vacate this land, we will give you better homes under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana,” he said. “Until then we’ll give you tin sheds. Everyone gives assurances, but nobody does anything. We’re not asking for tall buildings, we want basic facilities and a house to our names.”

The prime location of their neighbourhood, which is close to the station and the upcoming cinema complex, has left the residents apprehensive that they will soon be evicted permanently. “The multiplex will come up in a year or two,” Ashok said. “Who would like to look at slums next to it?”

Despite receiving verbal promises that they will be rehabilitated, the community said they routinely receive eviction notices every three or four months. “They tell us: go back where you came from,” said Ashok. Then, alluding to the community’s nomadic lifestyle, he added, laughing, “But we ourselves don’t know where we come from!”

Apart from their landlessness, nomadic and denotified tribal communities’ traditional occupations have also long been a point of contention between them and the state.

Pawar recounted that her entire family was involved in the ironsmith trade, and that her father forged various implements from iron, including knives. “In childhood, if there was a fight in the naka, police would often come to our home to ask questions,” she said. She recounted that her father would say, “How can I tell if someone bought a knife that I made to cut vegetables and later used it to harm someone?”

Asking for alms, too, was a traditional occupation for some communities, but became criminalised in states such as Maharashtra, which passed the Bombay Prevention of Beggary Act in 1959. “We’ve been doing this work for hundreds of years,” said 50-year-old Suman Ingole from the Nath Panthi Davari Gosavi community. “We don’t have an option besides asking for bhiksha.” Suman also emphasised that their need to seek alms was a result of their lack of access to other avenues of employment. “Who’s saying we won’t work?” she said. “We will do any work that comes to us. We are ready.”

Over decades, other traditional professions were also affected by the passage of laws. For instance, the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 outlawed the traditional occupation of hunting communities like the Pardhis. Similarly, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, restricted the exhibition and training of performing animals, thereby impacting communities like the Makadwale, who traditionally trained and exhibited monkeys.

Rathod emphasised that there was often blatant bias in these laws. “If you look at the matrix of the various laws that have been passed, all of them are connected to this,” he said. “From 1871, you can trace the documented harassment of these people.” As an example of bias, he cited the manner in which the laws dictate which animals can be domesticated and which cannot. “We know of communities dependent on camels and elephants,” he said. “But when it comes to bears, snakes and monkeys, forest officers will come and pick them away.”

Some members of the communities see education as a path to new streams of work; others, however, pointed out that their children often struggle to attain an education. Bhimrao Ingole explained that children from the neighbourhood used to attend classes at the Ambernath municipal school, but that classmates would harass some of them. In response, the community started its own school and pre-school. “We want the government to recognise our balwadi and school that we’ve made for the community,” he said. “The school has been running from 2005, but the government neglects us. We haven’t received anything from them.”

Meanwhile, some argued that even those who receive an education struggle to find regular employment. “We don’t have social capital,” said Pawar. “Contacts, behaviour, lifestyle.”

Suman echoed this sentiment. “Some fifty years ago, we were told we should put our kids in school,” she said. “But even today there’s hardly anyone from the community who has a proper job. How will bhiksha stop?” Apart from a few people from the Nath Panthi Davari Gosavi community who had joined the police force in the district of Osmanabad, she knew of nobody from the wider community who had been able to access steady employment. “People who are rich, their children get jobs, but our children don’t get jobs even after studying,” she said.

Deepa Pawar, who is from the Ghisadi community, recounted that her family was involved in the ironsmith trade, and would often be targeted by police if any weapons were used in crimes.

Even when youth from these communities get jobs, they rarely enjoy an improved financial or social position. “For instance, many are finding work in shopping malls as labour and housekeeping staff,” Pawar said. “Their income and standard of living should rise after education, but sadly it isn’t.”

She added, however, that some members of NT/DNT communities had found ways to adapt their traditional occupations to modern demands. For instance, some youth from her Gadia Lohar community had expanded their work from forging implements to also taking up metal fabrication jobs, which involved making a range of items such as gates, shutters and window grills.

Pawar entered the job market at the age of 14 and worked with several NGOs over the years before starting her own. She was driven to found Anubhuti Trust because she realised that none of the NGOs she worked with engaged with NT/DNTs. “Perhaps people don’t understand, they go to informal settlements and see everyone there as a slum dweller,” she said. “They don’t realise there are hierarchies within them too. Using terms such as poverty and homelessness, you merge everyone under one umbrella. Yes, poverty is a part of the problem. But in our country, it is always merged with caste and religion.”

Despite the crushing disadvantages that members of nomadic and denotified tribes face as a result of their nomadism, the way of life remains central to many from these communities. “Migration occurs in different ways for everyone,” Pawar said. “In some cases, only half the family migrates, others practice seasonal migration. People keep on coming and going.”

In Ambernath, Ashok and Shivaji’s eyes lit up as they spoke of the places their families had travelled – earlier on bullock carts, and now in tempos. Their families would carry images of gods, he explained, and make a living by asking for alms. “I feel there probably isn’t a state in this country where our people haven’t been to, they have traveled as far as Kashmir and Nepal,” said Ashok. “My father told me that before Partition, my grandfather would travel as far as Afghanistan!”

Due to their families’ nomadic lifestyles, as children, both Ashok and Shivaji studied in ashram schools – state-run residential schools for tribal children. Shivaji recalled traveling from Maharashtra, up to Punjab and Haryana during long summer vacations. They used to own around fifty cows, who would accompany them when they travelled. But eventually they had to give most away, since open spaces for grazing reduced over the years. “I still have their photos with me,” he recalled fondly. “Earlier, every family had at least five to ten cows, but now they’ve reduced. That culture is slowly dying out.”

Pawar added that during the pandemic, several NT/DNT families lost their animals because they did not have the money to feed them. When she went to distribute rations, she recounted, some families said that not only did they themselves not have enough food to eat, “our monkeys, our cows have died of starvation.”

While some view the communities’ historic nomadism as a key factor in their current lack of material privilege, Pawar offered a different reading of the situation. “This talent is not viewed from the lens of dignity,” she said. “The person who can travel across India on a cart has so much knowledge, shouldn’t we respect that? Today we see news talk about rich people traveling across the country on cycles. Haven’t the Nath Panti Davari Gosavis done the same thing? Can they not be considered as explorers?”

She added, “In our country policies are made for stable people, not for nomadic ones.”

She also noted that while many members of NT/DNT communities that she had spoken to had expressed a desire for a home, their idea of home was not necessarily identical to the common modern one. “The interpretation of settling down can differ,” she said. For some people, she explained, settling down could entail staying at a particular place, commuting for work, and then returning home again that very evening. But for someone from a nomadic community, it could just mean having a home to return to after a more prolonged period of travel. “Maybe the duration of staying away from home is eight hours for you, for others it could be a few months,” she said.

She added, “We need to develop our own gaze, otherwise we will be disgusted by ourselves. There is no rule which says that we need to be like you to progress.”