Prejudiced past and forsaken future: the DNTs’ battle for dignity

Denotified and Nomadic Tribes, a group of marginalised communities across Andhra Pradesh, have been silently suffering neglect and caste-based discrimination for centuries. They continue to battle impoverished conditions and social stigma. Political representation is elusive and their daily woes unheard even as welfare schemes remain far from their reach, reports Nellore Sravani 

Updated - May 24, 2024 07:56 am IST

Published - May 24, 2024 07:50 am IST

Living on the margins:Members of the Yanadi community outside their hut, made of mud and plastic sheets, at the top of the hill in Chitti Nagar of Vijayawada; (below) the community people setting off on their daily routine of selling beads.

Living on the margins:Members of the Yanadi community outside their hut, made of mud and plastic sheets, at the top of the hill in Chitti Nagar of Vijayawada; (below) the community people setting off on their daily routine of selling beads. | Photo Credit: G.N. Rao

“It is another world,” says P. Gangadhar Rao, gesturing towards the roughly 50 huts perched on a hill in Chitti Nagar of the Vijayawada West constituency in Andhra Pradesh. Seated on a small rock near one of the huts constructed by stacking bricks and covering them with a tarpaulin sheet, he gazes at the sprawling cityscape. Vijayawada, with its towering malls and modern apartments, is a picture of urbanisation and opportunity, in stark contrast to the world that he lives in.

In Gangadhar’s world, getting access to quality education, jobs or even basic amenities such as water and electricity is a constant struggle, with the primary focus often being on securing enough food for survival. This is the reality for the Yanadis and 58 other Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs) of the State. Until 1952, when these communities were denotified, they were branded criminals under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. They were later designated as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Backward Classes (BCs), and Minorities groups, with reservations and other measures to ensure equity.

The reason their situation continues to remain dire is because of the negligible political representation, both within the State and in the country, says M. Subba Rao, national president of DNT Political Front, a national-level organisation founded in 2004 striving for the political representation of the community. Though they were not enumerated in the Census 2011, Subba Rao guesstimates that 20 crore people across the country belong to DNT communities. In the State, there are around 60 lakh people in this category, he adds.

According to a report published by the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes in 2008, there are 59 Denotified communities and 60 nomadic tribes in Andhra Pradesh.

The hill in Chitti Nagar has been home to around 350 Yanadis for over four decades. Around 3 lakh of the estimated 15 lakh population of the city lives on the hills. Those with more money occupy the lower part of the hills, while the socially and economically deprived communities move to the top. The houses can be reached by steps laid by the corporation. The Yanadis, who are looked down upon even by other downtrodden sections, occupy the top-most part of the hill. There are no pathways or steps to reach their dwellings.

“However, it is peaceful for us up here. We do not have to bother about what people say about us, our lifestyle, or our food choices,” says Gangadhar. He hesitates for a moment before adding: “We consume meat and alcohol every day.”

A struggle to survive

A strongly-built man, Gangadhar is president of the Yanadi Kulasthula Samkshema Sangham. He worked as a construction worker in Hyderabad for five years and moved here nearly six years ago. His worldly-wise tenor sets him apart from the other members of his community. His clothes look clean, unlike those of his neighbours that look unwashed and torn.

For the Yanadis, the day starts as early as 4 a.m. They go out on their rickshaws to pick up plastic and other waste material from the streets and sell them. If they do not go early, they fear municipal workers may take the items away. “They return in the evening, when their children get back from school. Every day, they manage to bring home food for their children. Many go fishing too,” says Gangadhar, who helped some of his fellow community members secure Aadhaar and ration cards. Many are yet to get them.

Because the women give birth at home, none of the children have birth certificates, creating obstacles in obtaining other necessary documents. The community is largely populated by children and people in 20s, as the concept of family planning is still relatively new here. Only a few people have fewer than four children.

Until 2021, these 50 families did not even have access to electricity. “While all others on this hill had it, our children used to study under lamp light,” he says. He adds that they also lacked water connections and a proper pathway to go down the hill. There is a single tap outside, which the entire community uses for both drinking and other purposes.

Yanadi families were provided accommodation in apartments by the Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy government, in New Rajarajeswari Peta area of the city. “We requested the district authorities for accommodation for all of us in the same apartment block, but they declined our request,” he shares, recalling an instance when the community was treated like outcasts by neighbours. “We do not want to cause any disturbance to others and expect the same in return.”

Every time it rains, the huts collapse. “We have to build them from scratch,” Gangadhar says, adding that despite that they find the secluded hill area more comfortable than living in apartments.

“The Chenchus, Yerukulas, Yanadis, Nakkalas, and other DNTs have been stigmatised for years. People are scared of being in their presence. Imagine how that makes them feel,” says Umamaheswara Rao, who works as a researcher at the Dalit Bahujan Resource Centre (DBRC) in Guntur district. “People from these communities are scared of being labelled thieves. They were never looked at as human beings. That is why they prefer living on the fringes. They stick to the work they have been doing for years, be it begging or catching fish because they do not find other work,” he explains. “Fear keeps them away from society and legal systems.”

Barriers to education, social mobility

The Nakkala community, categorised as ST, on the other hand, is slightly better in airing their grievances. Most of them now live in government apartments. Their caste profession is selling mirrors, beads, combs, and other small items, which they buy in bulk from the One Town market in the city. Every person in this community is skilled at weaving beads. They sell Ayyappa and Bhavani ‘maala’ on Besant Road in the city.

“Our daily income does not cross ₹250, but it is enough for our survival,” says Heero Sankar, president of the Nakkala Sangham. These days, the corporation officials are asking them to remove their stalls from the pavements because he says they are encroaching on to the footpaths.

Members of Yanadi and Nakkala communities have been seeking financial aid from the government to get by. “If we can get loans, we can buy more and sell more. We also want a community hall and a school for our children near our settlement so that our children can find better jobs,” Sankar says, reasonably. The same demand was put forth by the Yanadi community president too. “We want a market for ourselves to sell fish,” Gangadhar says.

The emphasis on separate schools stems from their fear of exclusion. Umamaheswara Rao recalls an incident last year when he tried to enrol a Yanadi girl in a government school in Prakasam district. The teachers expressed hesitation, fearing ‘foul smell’ from the girl would ‘disturb’ others.

The community presidents say most of the Yanadis and Nakkalas send their children to school or for tuitions. Some of them drop out after Class 5. Only one youth from the 50 Nakkala families residing in Rajarajeswari Peta has gone to college.

Realising that their voices would be heard, and change would come only through education, Gangadhar persuaded Yanadi parents to send their children to school and tuition. The community members pooled ₹3 lakh to construct a small community hall, built in the same manner as their huts, on an open space near their hilltop dwellings. This hall served as a tuition centre for around 100 children. However, last year, the corporation authorities allegedly demolished the structure to make way for a water tank.

“If only we had a leader from our community, we could have taken our issues to officials,” Gangadhar says.

Political ill-representation

Subba Rao explains why political representation from DNT communities is negligible: “Most of them do not even know that they are DNT. We do not find mention of DNTs in the Constitution. How will your voice be recognised when you do not even exist as per the Constitution in the first place?”

In 2008, Tupakula Munnema became the first Yanadi woman, and also one of the 294 candidates, to get an MLA ticket from actor Chiranjeevi’s Praja Rajyam Party for the Kovur Assembly constituency in Nellore district.

Munnema, who polled 22,624 votes in the 2009 Andhra Pradesh Assembly elections, lost to N. Prasannakumar Reddy of Telugu Desam Party. Later, she moved back to her place in Vakadu mandal of Tirupati district, after which she gradually slipped from the memory of the public and political circles.

Today, almost 16 years later, she spends her day taking her goat out to graze and working on issues being brought to her notice by her fellow community members. “No one has cared to ask what happened to this woman, who, coming from one of the most marginalised communities, once contested the elections,” she says, over a phone call.

“Our community has not been adequately represented in the State Assembly or the Council. Though we see more of Yanadis getting educated today, most of us still do menial jobs such as cleaning septic tanks and underground drainage, or looking for gold residue in drains, which are extracted and sold,” says Vijay Babu Nakka, State Secretary for the Yanadi Sangham.

Social exclusion

Of DNT communities, Lambadas (STs) are the most vocal and visible, followed by Vadderas (BCs) in government sector and political spheres. The other communities, including Yanadis, Yerukulas, Nakkalas, Pamulollu and those falling in the SC group, rarely get their voices heard.

Subba Rao explains, “Though there are welfare schemes aimed at a particular section, those do not reach the DNTs, who constitute the lowest layer of every category.”

Munemma says no one in her colony has received the benefits of any government welfare schemes. “If at all we muster enough courage to demand our rights, we are immediately dismissed with casteist slurs. They say we should remain where we belong, which is the forest,” she adds. Munemma says she strove hard to educate her three daughters and two sons to make them wiser and better prepared for the world. “We have been cheated many times. I don’t want the same to happen to my children,” she says.

According to her, the community has been cultivating Porambaku (government-owned) land for generations, but the upper castes and the dominant communities have ensured that the lands are titled in their names. Such issues, among many others, would have been brought to light if there was a leader or a person representing them in the State Assembly.

“The three major parties in the State are dominated by three major castes. If you are not from one of those castes or lack money or power, your entry becomes difficult,” Subba Rao says, adding, “We have around 40 lakh voters among the 60 lakh DNT population in the State. Until they receive the respect they deserve and have their voices heard, their plight will continue to remain the same, like it has been for centuries.”

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