The Sahariyas, living in and around the forests bordering Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, are among the poorest and most oppressed people in India.

Bundelkhand Sewa Sansthan (BSS), a PACS programme-supported CSO, and the lead organisation Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan (ABSSS), conducted a survey among 2,000 poor, mostly sahariya, families of Madawara bloock of Lalitpur district of Uttar Pradesh in June 2003. The study found that:

  • Though 80% of the families owned some land, very few could grow enough foodgrain to feed themselves throughout the year. Three-fourths of the land was rocky and yielded only one rainfed crop which fed a family for three to four months. For the rest of the year, families including the aged and children worked as wage labourers for big farmers, or migrated in search of work.
  • Around 10% of the families could afford to have only one meal a day throughout the year.
  • Around 90% of the families could afford to buy clothes only once a year.
  • Around 70% of the families lived in ramshackle (kuchcha) houses.
  • Around 90% of the families were not aware of any government schemes for the benefit of the poor, and were unable to avail of government health services.
  • Less than 1% of the surveyed population had studied beyond secondary school.

The Sahariyas who work as wage labourers for big farmers usually get less than minimum wages. For a few months a year they get daily wages from the state government’s forest corporation for the collection of tendu leaves and bel fruit. The payment is a pittance. While dried bel sells for Rs 60 a kg in the retail market, the corporation pays Rs 4 per kg of fruit after it has been dried.

Many Sahariya women collect firewood from protected forestlands and trudge miles every day to sell the wood. This makes them easy prey for corrupt forest department officials who threaten to send them to jail and demand bribes.

Many landless Sahariya families have been allotted plots of land under land distribution programmes, but either the land is rocky and useless, or it has not been demarcated and handed over. Nominal ownership of land can be worse than owning no land at all. There are cases of powerful persons taking loans in the name of Sahariyas, mortgaging their lands, and then defaulting on payments, leaving the victims to deal with the creditors.

In years of scanty rainfall, when income from working for big farmers diminishes, starvation is common. In 2001, reports of a starvation death in Sakra village of Madawara block made news headlines nationally.

When no other food is available the Sahariyas crush the seeds of a wild grass and use the powder to make rotis. Thus they survive.

Reports about this practice only surfaced in the regional press after the BSS and its parent organisation, the Akhil Bhartiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan (ABSSS), organised media visits to the interior regions of Madawara block in December 2003 and February 2004. Following this, the Sahariyas were front-page news in the regional press.

The then district magistrate (DM), Umesh Kumar Mittal, and his colleagues were moved to action. They decided to visit a few villages and the BSS organised a public hearing. Sheelrani, a woman from Badwar village, showed the DM rotis made from the flour of grass-seeds. “The officials then entered our houses and saw the gunny bags in which we store the seeds,” she reveals. “Only then were they convinced that we make rotis out of it.”

The DM immediately ordered the distribution of Antyodaya ration cards, which enables families living below the poverty line to buy 20 kg of wheat and 10 kg of rice a month at Rs 2 and Rs 3 per kg respectively.

The BSS has also successfully taken up several cases of land allotments, and ensured that over 200 Sahariya and other poor families in Madawara block actually got possession of their land. This has made some difference to some families. Says Mala Bhure of Badwar: “We have many mahua trees in our plot. We make around Rs 2,000 a year by selling the flowers.” Sukhlal, the former pradhan of Soldah village says, “We cultivate grain which feeds us for two to three months.”

But in the absence of irrigation facilities and money to invest in tubewells, land-ownership has not made a big difference to many Sahariyas. The availability of subsidised foodgrain has not changed their nutritional status much either.

There are just too many mouths to feed.

The prevalence of child marriage, ignorance about family planning methods, and the desire to increase the workforce of the family mean that women undergo the rigours of childbirth 10 to 15 times. Many children die at birth or shortly after. But families with eight children are common.

Says Sheelrani, “Earlier we used to eat chappatis made only from grass seeds. Now we mix the flour of wheat with the powder of grass seeds in equal proportion.”

There is a glimmer of a better future for some Sahariyas due to the efforts of the BSS and other CSOs like the Ekta Parishad. The BSS initiated the construction of a pond through voluntary effort and has been able to get sanctions for two checkdams in Madawara block. For the first time, some Sahariya families may be able to grow crops around the year.