Penury is just one of the problems faced by the Pardhi community in Maharashtra. The British termed them criminals under the Criminal Tribes Act 1871, which was repealed in 1952. Now, 58 years later, the Indian society and more significantly its administration continues to criminalise the Pardhi people. The community remains shackled by the stigma of being a thieving tribe.

“If one person commits a crime, everyone is picked up, everyone is thrashed. I ask, if someone commits a crime in some lane, do the police beat up all the residents of that area?” Shivababu Kale hailing from a local Pardhi settlement asked at a public hearing at the St. Xavier’s College here on Saturday.

The hearing was presided by Balkrishna Renke, ex-chairperson, National Commission on Status of Denotified Tribes (DNTs), Government of India, and S. S. Suradkar, ex-Inspector General of Police, Maharashtra. National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) leader Medha Patkar was also present.

Another plaintiff, Prabhu Kale said the community was spread over 43 locations in Mumbai. Many had migrated from the rural hinterland to escape police brutality. Steeped in poverty, with no education or social support, they are part of the large underbelly of Mumbai.

In the city, the community lives in squalid quarters and are mostly at the receiving end of the Municipal Corporation’s demolition drives. “They throw away the plates when we eat, take away our clothes and the school stationery of the children,” Mr. Kale said.

Nowhere to go

“The municipality says, you can’t stay here, go back to your village. But we don’t have a village,” said Arunatai Kale.

Basic facilities like water, food and hygiene are beyond their means. One can of water costs Rs. 20. For an average family size of five, this comes up to Rs. 100. This is just the expense on water, when most of the Pardhis work as construction labourers earning around Rs. 50 a day. Those who put forth their grievances on Saturday said they had to wash clothes and often bathe with drain water.

As per information gathered under a Right to Information (RTI) application filed by the NAPM’s Simpreet Singh, the government does not have data on the population of the Pardhis. Despite a September 9, 2008, Government Resolution (GR) sanctioning temporary ration cards for the community, RTI replies arriving at the end of last year, from three different parts of the city, clearly state that the cards have not been issued, said Mr. Singh.

The Pardhis are familiar with false assurances of rehabilitation and uplift from politicians hungry for their votes. Complaining of an “unheeding” government, Gowri Rathod demanded, “Don’t the poor have any rights?”