Nomadic tribals who used performing sloth bears to earn a living are now being rehabilitated in other trades

The desire in their eyes is apparent. It’s the desire to reclaim their lives, to do something that will give them the ability to do something they would never have dared to otherwise. They are the Kalandar gypsies who have lived oppressed, indigent lives for centuries.

An orthodox nomadic community in north India, the traditional occupation of the Kalandars was to travel door to door with their sloth bears that ‘danced’ in public and earned a living for the community. The gypsy’s themselves too lived in pitiable conditions, with no access to health facilities, clean drinking water, land titles or even basic education. But things started changing when the strict enforcement of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, rendered their trade of bear dancing illegal.

It was at the behest of Wildlife SOS, an animal welfare organization, that the ban was enforced. Ironically, this move not only proved a blessing for the animal but for gypsy women and girls too. Before putting the ban into effect, Wildlife SOS knew that to uproot the bear ‘dancing’ trade they would need to rehabilitate the Kalandars. Says Geeta Seshamani, co-founder of Wildlife SOS, “It is very easy to demonise the Kalandar community, blaming them for the brutality on the sloth bears. But one has to keep in mind that they come from a very disadvantaged background. So in order to stop the trade, we had to think of rehabilitating the community.”

While a rehabilitation programme was initiated, wherein a sum of Rs 50,000 was given to the owner of the bear upon voluntary surrender, it was increasingly becoming evident that in order to throw a lifeline to the community, it was important to empower its women.

So, along with setting up, in 2002, the first bear rescue centre – the Agra Bear Rescue Facility (ABRF) – a Women Empowerment Programme was started as well. According to Baiju Raju MV, manager of the ABRF who also works with this programme, “The Kalandar community is very conservative and does not allow their women to voice their opinion or venture out. Education for the girls is not countenanced, and they are married off by the age 12 or 13, so that families can rid themselves of this ‘liability’.” All these taboos made the implementation of the women’s programme a tough task. “We had to break several barriers…” adds Raju.

It’s been a decade now, and their efforts have indeed proved to be life-changing. Take Aashiya. All of 15, it was a landmark moment for her when her parents allowed her to go to school to study a few years back. Delighted, she even started dreaming of becoming a banker some day. But then one day when she came back from school she was in for a rude shock. “My father told me that I had studied enough, and that I was to join my mother in the kitchen, while a groom was being sought for me. I was stunned! I was 14, and while I have seen many girls in my community get married at this age, I thought mine will be a different story,” recalls Aashiya.

She had been working really hard at school and her results had just started improving, when she was told to give it all up. “I cried and pleaded, but no one listened to me,” she adds. That’s when the Wildlife SOS team, which finances the education of Kalandar children, decided to intervene. A programme coordinator paid a visit to her home: “It was very difficult convincing the parents. Their arguments were: When will she learn household work; if she gets ‘too educated’ where would they find a suitable match; and the clincher, what use will her education be if her husband does not allow her to work after marriage.”

The programme coordinator took a long time to convince Aashiya’s parents, even arguing that education would only enable the teenager to run her family better. When they finally relented, Aashiya went back to her studies with a fiery vigour. “I have been given this second chance and I will not let it go waste. My grades have become better and I have taken up commerce. Now I am confident that I will fulfill my dream one day,” she says.

Unlike Aashiya, Asma’s dreams are not so much for herself but for her children. Says the 30-year-old, “When my husband used to dance the bear, he used to get about Rs 500-600 a day – enough to feed a family of six. However, a greater part of the income used to go into his alcohol and ganja (marijuana) addiction. Moreover, we had to share the bear with his brothers, so the money was not even regular.”

Vocational training offered by Wildlife SOS came to her rescue. While Asma wasn’t sure whether learning to stitch could solve her monetary problems she went ahead with it. Asma feels it was the best decision she ever made, “I earn about Rs 50 every day. It may not seem much, but it means the world to me. I am no longer dependent on my husband for everything, and buy whatever I want for my children. Both my son and daughter go to school and I am also saving some money for my daughter’s wedding.” Asma’s husband, too, has found alternate employment as an autorickshaw driver in the city.

According to Kartick Satyanarayan, founder of Wildlife SOS, over 400 Kalandar women have benefited under the programme. Efforts are on to start a training centre in every such settlement across the country, since the community does not encourage its women to go out.

Meanwhile, Kalandar boys too are changing their ways. A number of them now work as informers for Wildlife SOS, keeping it posted on any bear poaching activity or cub selling in their settlement.

Women’s Feature Service

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